A treatise on selfhood playing at the Queer Screen Film Festival.

Seahorse doesn’t overdo the metaphor but the mystical seacreature is there in the lyrical and contemplative visuals which are a meaningful adjunct to, and respite from, the film’s immersive and powerful storytelling.  A documentary by esteemed filmmaker, Jeanie Finlay, Seahorse follows one man through a life changing journey as he becomes a father.  Freddy is a gay trans man and, as we meet him at the beginning of the film, he has made the decision to reverse his chemical transition in order to carry the child himself.  The film will travel with him through the low times and the joyous; the body changes and the emotional ; the robust strength and the delicate fragility of spirit.

Freddy has a way with the camera.  Sometimes with audible questioning from the filmmaker, he responds with an honesty and openness about his feelings early on that allows the audience to understand why such a decision is his way forward.  He may feel invincible at times and Mel Gibson meant masculinity and fragility to him before his transition but “emasculated” is his word as the reversal takes place.  It’s a fascinating and revelatory discussion of gender expression as Freddy speaks about ice thawing in him as the hardness of his gym toned body softens once more.  He also speaks with a rich self-awareness about former feelings surfacing in a “weirdly emotional mellow trip” as his testosterone lowers.  Just one of the many ideas that a viewer is required to take away and ponder from the film.

Painfully aware that he must speak truth to the watcher, Freddy’s willingness to share the difficult and demanding gives the film resonance beyond its subject. Finlay has, over three years, an unprecedented access to the nuances of this difficult journey.  The physical pain of insemination is hard to watch, his stoic and goal oriented nature not enough to overcome the invasion.  Later in the film, before the unflinching capture of the birthing, there are physical consequences to be borne.  As the pregnancy takes its physical toll, the complexities of coming out as pregnant and a considerable change in his support network, bear down on Freddy.

Responses to Freddy’s choice to do this are significantly influenced by earlier responses to his transition and some of his circle are unafraid to voice concerns.  These are treated honestly by the film but without excessive drama as a documentary should.  The people who appear on camera, in interview and incidentally, are respected with the editing and shot selection reflecting that this is Freddy’s individual story.  The use of images of the past is equally discreet and courteous to the subject of the film as Freddy looks to the future and we feel his excitement and concerns.

Freddy is not the first to say that the world would be different if men knew what pregnancy was really like but the distinction of this film’s particular insight is where Seahorse takes flight away from the intellectual.  In this clear-sighted film an unusual situation bears witness to a joint humanity.  Seahorse is a treatise on selfhood. Through the experience of someone courageous enough to share, we are left to consider…

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ stars

Seahorse will play at the Queer Screen Film Festival on Sunday September 22. Tickets and more information here.

See more about the film at the official site and watch the moving trailer here.

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Angel of Mine

A gripping and emotional psychological thriller.

She is very beautiful, very styled.  The elegant manicure, artfully applied lipstick and sad, very sad, eyes.  Noomi Rapace is Lizzy, a beauty consultant, in Angel of Mine.  She has a fractious relationship with her ex-husband due to an inability to maintain her attention on loving her son; she has shared custody every second week.  There is her parents’ support, they obviously care deeply for their grandson even as they disagree on how best to help Lizzie.  Angel of Mine is a character study of grief and not letting go and Rapace’s Lizzy is troubled and sympathetic as Director Kim Farrant takes us inside the complexities of her struggle to stay rational.

It’s difficult though, because Lizzy believes emphatically in a screaming maternal instinct that her baby daughter is not dead.  And watching the slow burn of her obvious delusion grips the heart in the wait for an inevitable flashpoint and ignition.  When it arrives, the film’s superbly penned dialogue and terrific performances explode with an unexpected and entirely satisfying climax.  The mystery is not what the circumstances are but why Lizzie responds as she does. This is no bunny-boiler film.  Despite a simmering unpredictability there’s no dark or shadowed scenes, all is visible.  Yet, there is much in the film which is just slightly obscured, obfuscated by mirrors or reflections in glass or the melting blur of light rain.   

The colour palette is also beautiful and allied lyrically with costuming and a mis-en-scene which tends into beige and pale, pale pink.  Realistic and recognizable, it evokes the grey clarity of an Australian autumn in the south with the leaf strewn road and slight steel of the weather contrasted warmly with the amber of wooden floors and muted light in her apartment.  And the peach of her skin.  Rapace is luminous in the role and absolutely believable as a nice woman, a house hunter, a play-date mum who is trying her best.  But her interior world is close to the surface in the close-ups that define the style of the film.

Her performance is well matched by the straightforwardness of Yvonne Strahovski as Clair, whose awareness of threat grows slowly and draws on the fire implicit in her loving and maternal spirit.  Also taking an excellent role is Richard Roxburgh as Clair’s husband, a quietly spoken easy going man whose leave-it-be approach is equally loving but much slower to respond.  Lizzie’s husband, Mike is played with so much empathy by Luke Evans and his performance grounds the film’s realistic portrayal of Lizzie’s long term issues and current slippage.  There is also skilled and truthful work from Annika Whiteley as the 7 year old Lola.

The audio track of Angel of Mine contributes in a major way to the emotional impact of the film with large tracts where it disappears completely leaving the characters alone with the reality of their surroundings and the words of each other.  When it does sneak in under scenes, the music is a subtle adjunct to the viewer’s engagement with a heartbeat stirring restlessly as she lies to her therapist and the low frequency thrum and increasing volume of the hair combing scene.

Angel of Mine is an enthralling mystery of a film which is also able to spark a conversation about why, and how much, we believe what we believe.  Is instinct truth or merely a road to obsession and failure to heal?

RbJ rating: 4 stars

Angel of Mine from Garlin Pictures and SixtyFourSixty with the assistance of Screen Australia opens in Australian cinemas September 5. Watch the gripping trailer here.

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The alley cat and the fox are on cobbled streets.

They are night-time urban animals, these two.  The cat stares out from the cobbled street and the fox sneaks warily toward the overflowing bins.  Laura and Tyler are like that too.  Party girls perilously close to not being in their early thirties, they have been hanging together for over a decade as Animals opens with Peaches blasting on the over the titles soundtrack.  Written by Emma Jane Unsworth from her highly successful novel of the same name and directed by Australian Sophie Hyde, the film is set in Dublin but for BFF’s everywhere, the themes are universal.  Not just for women, though, Animals has a specificity that is female, but friendship and growth attract and repel across genders.

Played by Holliday Grainger (Patrick Melrose, Anna Karenina) and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Transparent)  with a thoroughly realistic crazy love, Laura and Tyler’s friendship will begin to change as Laura enters more deeply into a relationship with Jim (Fra Fee).  Tyler has been her champion and her rescuer and cynical co-adventurer. “Whoa there Bambi!”  They live in a haze of intoxicants, casual sex and minimal funds and having fun without considering consequences is their happy place.  They meet each other’s needs but dependency, inevitably, has a breaking point.

Hyde takes no tropey route for change in the film.  Actual romance will unsettle a louche stability but the relationship must surely endure the growing and the re-aligning.  The revelatory moments aren’t expounded or prolonged as the narrative thoroughly engages the audience, we get them quickly and we understand the shorthand they have with each other. The acting is the content of nanometres and we know these pair so well that the nuance of sudden understanding is expressed with a deceptive slightness.  So immersed is the viewer in their relationship that empathy and rationality roil as we worry and wish for them.

The backstories emerge slowly and audience comprehension of the why of their present lives deepens as the emotional content becomes the driver of the story.  Then there’s the sex.  Animals has a visual perspective on female desire that is refreshingly honest and resoundingly truthful. There is so much to enjoy in this film.  The fun to be had before Hyde explores the more meaningful is just hilarious.  Even peeing is fun and there is a superbly crafted waking up sequence which makes one want more.  Plus it’s the best wilful entry to a bridal shop ever!

There’s a lot of falling into scenes, into the frame, and the cinematography adds a great deal to the riotousness of their lives.  Shot with a pervasive sense of night-time activity, the colours have a muted dive-bar palette except when the action moves to the more sunlit suburbs.  When the girls are out on the town, there’s a pulse of neon often and the framing and editing draws on the shadows to bring out the faces of the women. 

The film has some great work from other characters such as the, suddenly settled, sister and the loving parents; even a second love interest who is all brood and dark Irishness, but it is Laura and Tyler’s friendship which will stay with you.  This is a film to see with an old friend and a celebratory lager glass of Chablis. 

Funny, touching and empowering Animals is released in Australian cinemas September 12.  You can see the trailer here and read an interview I did with Director Sophie Hyde here.

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ nights in between

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The Australian Dream

Deb Waterhouse-Watson has been to see the film ahead of its Aug 22 release.

The Australian Dream is a film largely centred on Australian rules footballer and Adnyamathanha man Adam Goodes, who was ultimately hounded out of the sport in 2015 after taking a public stand against racism. But it is about much more than football. Not an easy film to watch or grapple with, The Australian Dream plunges the viewer into one of the more ‘visible’ controversies around race in modern Australia, juxtaposing news coverage of (mostly white) Australians celebrating Australia Day with Indigenous protests that ‘Invasion Day’ was the day white colonisers began their theft of land and destruction of Indigenous cultures, languages and ways of life. This is typical of the film’s approach, beginning with the present and delving into the past to show why and how race matters, and the impacts of ongoing trauma that stem from a history that has never been fully recognised or reconciled in wider Australia.

At the heart of this film is a request for the viewer to understand what racism feels like from an Indigenous point of view. It invites the audience  to look Indigenous Australians in the eye as Goodes, Stan Grant, former Olympian Nova Peris and others recount the racism they have confronted and the impact it had on them – from Grant recalling how as a small child he tried to scrub the brown from his skin, to the shocking ‘casual’ racism that Peris experienced as a young champion athlete, to Goodes’ heartbreak that a 13-year-old child was the one hurling a racist slur at him from the crowd at a football game.

Through it all runs Grant’s calm, articulate commentary that connects history with experience and explains the wider significance of events, speaking back to the opposing voices who attempt to diminish the racist attacks and recast Goodes as a ‘bully’ who needs to ‘grow a thicker skin’. As Grant says, when he was called an ‘ape’, what Goodes heard was ‘You’re subhuman, Adam. You’re not like the rest of us.’ Goodes’ compassion for the girl – which was marginalised in mainstream media – is highlighted.

The film lays bare the vicious social and mainstream media pile-on against Goodes, and while engaging with white opponents is an important part of its project, it perhaps gives more of a platform than is warranted to conservative Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt, who was convicted of racial vilification in 2011. It also draws a direct line from Nicky Winmar’s stand against horrific racial vilification in 1993 – today widely lauded as a pivotal moment in the sport’s history – to Goodes’ insistence on calling out racial abuse and celebrating his Indigenous heritage.

The way the film is structured is unsettling – deliberately so, it seems – but it sometimes feels like the viewer has been inserted into the middle of a conversation, and more context for why Grant and Goodes’ stories are entwined here would help its audience to better understand .

While the film does not ignore issues of violence and alcoholism in Indigenous communities, directly connecting these to Stolen Generations’ experiences and other trauma, there is a missed opportunity here to highlight the work of Goodes to combat men’s violence against women, which was as much part of his Australian of the Year work as his stance against racism.

Indeed, the film sidelines women to a large extent, with mostly male voices only occasionally interspersed with comment from senator Linda Burney, Peris, ABC sports journalist Tracey Holmes, and Nicola Goodes. The part establishing the significance of Australian Rules football for the nation fails to include a single image of a female footballer, though it includes both amateur and professional men. This is despite the professional women’s league, the AFLW, running its third season in 2019 and the amateur VFLW competition running since 1981. Adam Goodes has previously credited his mother, Lisa Sansbury, (whose artwork features in the film’s poster) as having a profound influence on his development as a person, and praised her strength and courage for leaving an abusive relationship to raise Adam and his brothers on her own. Yet in the film she barely speaks, and is effectively portrayed as a passive victim of the stolen generations rather than a strong, independent woman who took action to protect herself and her children from an abuser.

Nevertheless, The Australian Dream is an important film about national healing, that speaks to those with no interest in sport as much as to die hard football fans.

RbJ Rating: 4 stars

The Australian Dream from Madman Films is in cinemas from August 22. See the video trailer here and, thanks to Madman Films, we have a competition for double passes to an advance screening here.

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The Public

A drama to leave one wishing for a real-world sequel.

The Public refers to the Public Library.  In this film - the Cincinnati Public Library.  This is a drama, not a documentary, yet it reaches out with a humanist social agenda to demand empathy and change of any state, national or local facility which aims to serve its people.  The role is changing for these institutions and this labour of love from Emilio Estevez, writer, director and star, has a challenging premise and characters not always represented with truth to go hand in glove with its heart-on-its-sleeve story.

Gloves are required because there is an unusual Arctic blast about to hit the city.  The homeless are dying in the street after closing hours for the library where Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) and Myra (Jena Malone) work.  They have a tolerant attitude towards the people who clean-up in the washrooms, ask perversely obscure questions and who occasionally take themselves out of the reality around them.  Away from work, Stuart leads a quiet life and has formed a small bond with his apartment super, Angela (Taylor Schilling) but his taciturn nature will give accidental leadership qualities when the homeless decide to “Occupy”.

The Public has a stellar cast which also includes Christian Slater as a local politician facing a difficult election with a law-and-order agenda.  But he is not the only villain of the piece, Gabrielle Union is the television reporter with a national story on her hands so long as the political spin isn’t interrogated with any integrity.  Alec Baldwin, as the police negotiator with a very personal interest in the escalating events and lost people, is also a well-known name and there are too many fine actors to list who play the pivotal roles of the homeless at the centre of the story.

It is these roles which give the reality to the story and Estevez has directed them with hope and understanding.  A little too hopeful perhaps but with the flaws and behaviours wrought by circumstances not glossed over or sentimentalised.  The realism of their lives, why they choose this action and how the system disregards and disrespects them, gives the work its impact and the ensemble performances are superbly created. 

As are the lead roles.  Estevez is charismatically quiet and there is lovely contrast with Schilling who is vibrant and funny.  Baldwin brings a man with strength and sadness to the narrative, Malone is us, really, and her conflicts and reservations tumble as our knowledge of and empathy with the ancillary characters deepens.  The story takes constant surprising turns as the characters all come into view and the ending has wit and humour to lift the spirits.   

There are many dramatic moments as the police and politics and media close in on these squatters.  Estevez directs with an understated calmness in camera movement and shot selection and some of the music is fabulously uplifting.  He keeps the drama moving and the narrative without any heavy moralising.  However, the film makes its point clearly as the rain has gone and the bright, bright sunshiny day throws light on the themes.  And that’s a pretty impressive list: climate change, homelessness, addiction, racism and class issues, erosion of citizen rights and the place of public disobedience!

The Public is an inspiring and educative inner wrapped in a cover of interesting characters and story.  It will leave you wishing for a sequel in the real world!

The Public releases in Australian cinemas August 1. See the trailer here and you can find it in the following Sydney locations: Dendy Newtown, Event Bondi, Event Burwood, Event Campbelltown, Event Castle Hill, Event Chermside, Event George Street, Event Glendale, Event Hornsby, Event Liverpool, Event Macquarie, Event Miranda, Event Top Ryde, Event Tuggerah, GU Beverly Hills, GU Cronulla, GU Shellharbour, Palace Central Cinema and Palace Chauvel.


Almost every other name, apart from the subject of this documentary, is recognizable - Gaumont through Eisenstein to Gillian Armstrong.  It’s a galaxy of talking head filmmakers and experts which Pamela B. Green has brought together for Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.  This film, obviously a labour of love, eight years of research, brings into focus an extraordinary pioneer filmmaker.  By the end of this reclamation, we will understand why her name is so unfamiliar and will be left with a burning desire to see her films, to experience the early feminist themes, the thematic representation of social issues, the first all-black cast in a film … and on and on.

This engrossing and superbly made doco is narrated by Jodie Foster and it dynamically brings to the screen a literal untold story.  One of the pioneers of cinema, at first in France and later in the US,  Alice Guy-Blaché began as a stenographer when that was an emerging career for women in Paris near the turn of the 19th century. When she went for a job at the film studios of Léon Gaumont, he suggested she might be a bit young.  “This will pass” was her reply.  That is the woman who comes through vividly in this documentary.

At 23 having been around and absorbing all she could from Gaumont Studios, this young woman was inspired to make her own film. Called La Fée aux Choux, The Cabbage Fairy, the film was one of the first to … and a huge list keeps coming.  That’s the thing about her, there is an excruciatingly long list of innovation and longevity in the two decade career of a woman who disappeared from film history.  A career that would include The Passion which was 25 episodes and 300 plus extras, and it began with actual babies from actual cabbages.

Over the span of her career, she wrote, produced or directed 1,000 films, including 150 with synchronized sound during the ‘silent’ era.  The film has a very entertaining and relevant approach to the storytelling.  It uses a who’s who of famous names as talking heads, most of whom are introduced to Blaché’s work by Green; it tracks down footage of Madame Blaché, her preferred title, speaking to camera; there are map graphics of Green’s detective work; but above all there are the films.   The history is disappearing which makes this research, retrieval and documentation urgent and the Australian National Film and Sound Archives’ important preservation work is briefly mentioned.

The snippets of film are still disarming and funny and astonishingly modern in theme and vision with a flexibility of gender behaviour and costume which has a very modern sensibility.  With Alice’s Great Great Granddaughter they look at the locations and superimpose the films over the still standing streets and walls.  This engaging aspect of the documentary serves to enrich the audience’s knowledge of how the films were made and how they drove the art forward.

Time lines are delicious with images any cinephile wants to capture and keep.  This is simply not a film to listen to, the visuals are gentle but traveling and designed for ease of understanding how difficult the journey has been.  Maps and postcards and social history and weird tangential people in her story who lead to great discoveries and dead ends.  There’s a Légion d'honneur in a box!

A professional face recognition expert, Umatic tapes (All my early films are on that so my interest was well piqued.  I would love to get back that footage of my Nan doing the BlackBottom), how scary is it to put a tape in an oven, yes oven, to digitise it.  Such is the detail, that they find a first generation film camera to explain her processes and Green’s team resurrects a Kinora, that may be her image, which leads the documentary on a history of when cinema emerges from photography and when attractions became stories.   

Of Madame Blaché personally her granddaughter says “I wouldn’t say she was fearless but she was not fearful.’ Like many women there was a rocky romance with a younger man “Englishmen aren’t very nice!” but she will marry him and much of her work in New Jersey will be later credited solely to him when he was actually working in Europe.  How Madame Blaché was lost to history and her later fight to find her films and preserve her place in cinema are the absorbing final sections of the film.  Most poignantly, after the marriage breakdown, after her return to Nice and after film became commercial, she writes “People don’t want to hire white haired women.”  That hurt and that part of the story we could have guessed.  The gender of the writers of history, American Big Business Cinema – Edison! These are all in play.  But this documentary, beautifully realised, is part of the reclamation of Madame Blaché’s work. 

A legacy of the visual arts exemplified by the large sign she hung for her silent era actors: Be Natural.  “It’s all I asked of them,” she says. This is my documentary of the year!

Seek out Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché  which releases 1 August in Melbourne and Sydney exclusively at Cinema Nova and Ritz Randwick through The Backlot Films. Watch the trailer here.



Giving a much needed voice to a sinned against character.

Ophelia may begin with the striking young woman soused in a weedy ditch but this is a heroine to be seen through modern eyes. Set in the 14th century, the film is rich with Pre-Raphaelite visuals, poetically familiar in its dialogue and immersively beautiful - with the added attraction of a creative and intriguing twist on the male-centric story.

Adapted from the loved YA novel by Lisa Klein, the film sees the young Ophelia as a wild child, a motherless ragamuffin with an obsequious and absent father, running free in brook and great hall.  And peering in at the Library where her brother is getting an education.  Laertes will teach her to read late at night and when she comes to the attention of Queen Gertrude she is groomed for service as a lady-in-waiting.  Grown, she is stunning and clever and when Prince Hamlet returns from University he becomes smitten … she, however, is too shrewd to be taken in by his belief that he can subvert tradition and marry her.

Lurking in the arras, or trailing behind the dismissive female pack, Ophelia knows the practicalities of her station and, as portrayed by Daisy Ridley, there is a restless spirit only just contained.  Her Ophelia is desperate for knowledge and seems to often be in the right place to know the confidences of the castle.  Gorgeous and styled in sumptuous greens to clash with her luxuriant red hair, Ridley moves with the freedom of youth and the urchin still extant. Equally handsome is George MacKay’s Hamlet.  What a couple they make.  MacKay’s interpretation gives us the complexity and riven nature of the boy who must revenge like a man.

The other cast are also gloriously wrought.  Naomi Watts is vulnerable and powerless as an aging Gertrude with quite a secret in the woods and Clive Owen’s Claudius is big and leather-suited and designed for power. There is a lovely performance from Tom Feldon as Laertes, a loving ally for a smart sister.  Equally quiet in support is Devon Terrell as Horatio.  As Hamlet’s rein and conscience he stands as a young man of learning and integrity.

The language is lush and romantic and entirely acceptable for lovers of the play.  The storyline is definitely an ingenious variation from the original but the bending doesn’t break the bond with Shakespeare. Rather, it adds mystery and an entirely satisfying narrative. Director Claire McCarthy has fashioned the film with an efficiency of explanation.  As an example, the animosity between Claudius and the young Hamlet sudden and sword pricked.  The grand is tempered by the rustic and the look of the locations, banquets and magnificent wigs and costumes is splendid in its elegant storytelling. The soundtrack is an ethereal pleasure of fight and dance, soothing with period choral, drum and string; with the use of a first person voiceover in places giving this much sinned-against player a needed voice.

There is a bloody finale, as we would hope.  The Danish court implodes in recrimination and the twist is made even more turvy by the Romeo and Juliet overtones of these lovers.  The ending of Ophelia is a desired and appreciated re-imagining of hope in a young woman’s agency to be in love with a difficult man. 

Ophelia arrives in cinemas August 1 . See more at the official website or watch the  trailer.

Thanks to Madman Entertainment we have 10 in-season passes to give away here


The Keeper

A sports bio-pic in name only.

The Keeper is not a sports bio-pic.  Rather it is a deeply beautiful and quiet work of thought-provoking humanism.  As warm as the Lancashire accents, The Keeper, is a film to enjoy for its touching evocation of the practicalities of love and the romance of endurance.  You don’t need to be a sports lover to be inspired by these kinds of courage.   

It opens with the lively music of a small town dance. An air raid siren and sudden silence will take the music’s place before one’s hearing attunes to a rustle of uniforms and the clang of gunmetal.  The dancing girl and the unwilling soldier will meet and fall in love in the oddest and truest of romances.  This film is based on the life of Bert Trautmann who was a German POW with exceptional football skills as a Keeper.  It looks at his life and the trauma wrought by the war on him, the English people and those closest to him.  Trautmann will become the much loved keeper for Man City and play hundreds of games.

Trautmann is played by David Kross with a modest and quiet interiority.  He is a man apart and his own worst enemy in many ways.  Taciturn to the point of somnambulism early on, he is despised by the British guards and by the prisoners who run the barracks on Nazi principles.  He has a sense of self despite the trauma and regret that he carries with him and when talent-spotted by the local coach can stand up for himself against the understandable anger of the villagers.  The film has a very contextualised approach to the tensions in the small and the larger worlds and the director, Marcus H. Rosenmüller, brings little judgement to bear on hater or hated.

The coach’s daughter, Margaret, will become his wife and she knows how to make a point early on, it’s a fun scene which really shows her ‘balls’ and spirit.  This feisty force of nature is played by Freya Mavor with wisdom and a country girl rootedness.  And she is his equal in strength of character … a worthy heroine to his eventual heroic status.  Dancer or footballer, both are physical people and the seduction of the dance sequence is gloriously expressive.

There are several lovely small stories inside the larger… Traumann’s friendship and protectiveness for Margaret’s younger sister and the strain on the friendship between Margaret and her best friend. It’s surprisingly comic in places also even though the themes tend toward the dark and redemptive.  With such a beautiful relationship between the couple, the more difficult, and truthful, parts of the story have genuine emotional impact.  It’s a very moving piece which has little reliance on music but foregrounds the practical sounds around them.

The games are recreated in depth, faces and comments and long shots of the park, but without getting bogged down in plays and goals and manly things. Despite the austerity of the times, the mise en scène is detailed and a sheer delight for a history or nostalgia buff.  Especially the shop which is owned by Margaret’s family.   The colours though are the muted greens and blues of the period with rich, dark reds often picking up the light.  

There is reconciliation at the heart of The Keeper.  An appeasement of ghosts, taking painful steps to happiness and understanding the derivation of pain and predjuce drives a film about a man with a gift for stopping.

The Keeper opens in Australian cinemas July 25.   See the official trailer here.

The Falls

A don’t-miss immersive experience at SFF.

The Falls is high-tech catnip for filmlovers. All the elements are there: a quickly-evoked atmosphere; an interesting seldom-seen character; beauty and a couple of thrills; a story you have to work for!  Sounds like a film to be engaged by.  However, add into the mix that The Falls is a cinematic installation, screening as a continual loop, using a 360-degree, stereoscopic, panoramic projection system and I am all in!  Swear words and all … lucky I had the place to myself!

I had the opportunity for a sneak preview of The Falls and a chat with the filmmaker Dr Gregory Ferris.  The film is showing as part of the Sydney Film Festival at the Data Arena, UTS Building 11... that’s the big metal one on the corner of Broadway and Wattle.

The narrative concerns a stuntman, Dale, alone in a non-descript hotel room, old movie on the TV, an injury and a sense of hopelessness. “Mundane” was the word the filmmaker used when we were talking about the narrative. As Dale enters, the focus is only one area, just the room, then another section shows what he sees and the disconnect begins to take the brain on his journey. Eventually the experience will fill the space and, in places, cause the heart to stop as his despair heightens - that would be the swear words bit!  Then the place in which he finds himself has an extraordinary beauty as the string rich score floats nebulae and planet-like spheres before us. The audio also pulses and quietly conjures with the bathtub running and the rushing of blood in his ears.

It is 3D, yes you wear glasses but this film is unlike the more commercial experiences you may have had.  Greg tells me that the audience limit is 15 and it is a large space which inspires walking and watching as the projections encircle you. I had the luxury of being alone and was seldom still, often trying to see around things not actually there.  Greg says he has been known to amble over with the intention of sitting on the couch.

Dale is stuck in a “natural loop” Greg says and the audience too can be captivated in a moment of time.  It only runs 12 minutes but you can wait and watch as the film loops back again ... in such a visceral experience there must be details missed and, for me, some questions.  Why does that movement work? Why am I so drawn to following the TV screen as it pops up? Why does this disconcert and that soothe?  It’s a genuinely unique experience of cinema for any questioning spirit. 

The Falls is not to be missed, so, even though it is sold out, meander in and see if you can grab a no-show ticket and watch the website as new sessions may be possible. Sydney Film Festival tickets and full program here



The voice of women who have made allegations against Harvey Weinstein at SFF.

Guaranteed to make you angry, or upset, or frustrated, Untouchable is enthralling documentary filmmaking. It serves to give voice to women who have made allegations against Harvey Weinstein, to the people who were let down by him and to some who speak regretfully of their impotence against the machine which allowed him to get away with it for 30 years.  

The territory has been covered by several excellent television programs but this doco has something unique … there is a twenty foot high truthfulness in the eyes of the women and men who speak to the camera. Director Ursula Macfarlane and Editor Andy R. Worboys have cohered a film so raw when it comes to descriptions of Weinstein’s behaviour, that it will surely be used for academic and teaching purposes about the meaning and consequences of sexual assault.  When speakers break for composure we can see the courage it takes to speak again, however long it takes, and what is blindingly obvious is that a true lexicon for describing events is missing.  They fall back on words that in any other context may have diminished meaning.

The words have been said before: shock; freeze; survive, but rarely with such authority and honesty. Women know and the men in the audience are obviously there to understand the time immemorial story. The fear around the perpetrator’s power and influence doesn’t have to be this monumental, I heard a similar story whispered by my great-grandmother about a landowner in turn of the 20th century rural NSW.  In fact, these women range in age and their words in interview are skilfully cut to blend as one story giving an extra layer of credibility and coherence.  A serial offender, Weinstein “had the power to exploit women’s dreams” and this film is a searing, intimate look at how those dreams were extinguished by rape, sexual assault and greedy predation. 

Untouchable goes as far back as Weinstein’s school photo and playground behaviour and gives the viewer a timeline with which to understand how long this was going on.  It also clearly makes the case for the realities of the ultimate power that he held, how he and his brother were the day-to-day decision makers who made and broke careers and he was not to be stood up too. “He would say I was a whore” and be believed.  He considered himself “sheriff” but the film’s participants use a gangster analogy more often.

The interviewees are not just the individuals who were assaulted but significant men and women who worked closely with him and who are all damaged in some way by events … by their strength in standing up or their inability to do so.  Also included are the men and women who brought the rumours out into the open, inspiring a movement which gave us a common language by which to understand that we are not alone anymore.

The film doesn’t butt heads with traditional documentary making styles, the content is explosive enough for any audience.  Talking heads are filmed with blurred backgrounds and from several angles to provide variety in shot selection, there is no voiceover and interpolated scenes allow breathing space and non-interview content.  In one such, LA highway driving, palm trees and traffic accompany the news report on the car radio.  It’s a satisfying and comfortable format.

Untouchable is an inspiring documentary and, sadly, very probably a brave one.  Don’t miss it.  

You have one more opportunity to see Untouchable at the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here


The White Crow

The story we think we know is given detail and depth at SFF.

It’s the central performance that will make or break a film about a complex and talented legendary artist.  The White Crow is about Rudolf Nureyev, specifically about his defection to the West at a Paris airport in 1961. The story we think we know is given detail and depth in an absorbing collaboration between Director Ralph Fiennes and dancer Oleg Ivenko.  

It begins in the coal palette of greeny greys as Rudolf is born on a train to an impoverished peasant mother and a largely absent father. He will carry his early years with him, not just in an obsession with toy trains, but in an explosive, reactionary temper if he believes he is being judged for those beginnings. The White Crow is a name given for someone who doesn’t fit and that is Nureyev in this rendering.

In the early part of the film, Nureyev is never alone, there is always bustle and people framing him inside the film’s edges. However, when he steps away from the bus which has brought the esteemed Kirov Ballet Company to Paris, he is alone and still.  He will thrive in this city and look forward to the next tour stop, London, but his flouting of Soviet rules and his inability to deny himself or conform will cause the airport crisis which leads to his defection.

The film gives a strong background to how the dancers were expected to behave without being Cold War heavy handed and the realism of his situation is drawn with subtlety in small conversations and intimate events. The climatic sequence again surrounds Nureyev in the frame and adds undercurrent strings and quick cuts impelled by rapid dialogue to ensure that the menace he feels is also felt by the viewer.

Ivenko negotiates Nureyev’s intelligence, arrogance and intractability by endowing him with an instinctive and bedrocked self-belief that is innate yet preciously maintained.  He is shot with that familiar raised chin but Ivenko also brings out the ineffable charm that makes for a few quiet laughs at his behaviour and his use of broken English has a musicality and lilt that is very affecting.  Ivenko also has the grace and beauty and physicality that drew audiences to Nureyev’s performances.  Several of the famous ballet sequences are touched upon the film and Ivenko’s dancing survives comparison so well as to make the senses race.

However, there is no romanticising the sweat; we are made well aware of the formation of the dancer and his unrelenting search for perfection.  Several costumes and makeup are re-created for the aficionado to enjoy but this is a narrative of considerable tension for any audience.  From David Hare and Julie Kavanagh (inspired by her book: ‘Rudolf Nureyev: The Life’) it has fascinating insights into the events, especially the role that socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos) played in supporting his escape from his KGB watchers.

For much of the film the music is related to the dance but on occasion a sting, such as when he watches from a window as his mother hauls a sled through the snow, will strike to the heart.  And when an orchestra makes a point of mood or strain, the strings often have a fiddle, peasant rusticity on the ear.

The White Crow is an enthralling film with mesmerising central performance.  Highly recommended for dance fans and those who love a political drama with a thriller edge despite such a well-known conclusion.

The White Crow screened during the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here


The Third Wife

Disturbing yet designed with beauty in every breath at Sydney Film Festival.

The exquisite visuals of The Third Wife stand in stark contrast to the themes of the film.  The feature debut of Ash Mayfair, the film is based on a true story from her family and serves to authentically represent a period of time in her home country of Vietnam.  A time when the ancient patriarchy treated women as chattels to be bargained for wealth and farmed for sons.  It’s extremely disturbing yet designed with beauty in every breath.

May (Nguyễn Phương Trà My) is 14 and becomes the third wife of a landowner.  As she learns about how a wife should be, the duties and responsibilities and absence of any female autonomy, the audience is made aware of how the women care for each other.  Given some support and instruction in marital ways by the other wives, May hopes desperately for a boy when it is her turn to breed.  She understands a woman’s lot is not to be desired.

Nguyễn Phương Trà My is directed with a stillness of affect and is often the silent centre of the frame, particularly in the early part of the film when May is surrounded by noise and activity.  We never see her youth in movement and fun but rather in a watchful repression of emotion… a puzzled acceptance in places.  The actress has the ability to draw the absorbed viewer out of their own world and thoughts into the inner world of May’s watching, the micro expressions superbly rendered.  It really is a stunning performance from this actress. 

There are actually two love stories in the film and Mayfair ensures that the unbearable consequences of state patriarchy on a younger male family member is also explored. The elder men of the family are not evil or pencilled as vile, merely an unquestioning product of their society and yet their behaviour draws gasps from the audience in places.  The sensuousness of the sexual activity is confined to this story strand but it requires mentioning that the film has attracted attention around some scenes involving the 13 year old lead, with the film screened for only a short time in Vietnam.

The audio design of The Third Wife is gently pervasive.  The silkworms munch through the seasons of the film only to die and be spun and the noise of jungle is never far from the edge of the frame.  The music has a European aesthetic at root but the strings are qualified with drums and occasional choral interventions.  The audio is often lulling with a contrapuntal intent working effectively against the suspense of the tiny possibilities of May’s existence.  It’s genuinely moving in so many places.

There is a deliberacy of slowness, also, a calming, soporific yet thrilling travel within the frame of the shots as if the thickness of the tropical air is retarding the momentum.  The colour palette is especially superb in the early morning love scene where the dull, pallid, steamy blur of bamboo green is evocative and romantic.  The orange of the evening lamps just as mood setting.

Wet and dripping in places, the scenery is both lush and domestic with the muddy paths around the animal pens and vegetable gardens a danger to the beautiful period clothing of the women.  The joy with which the younger girls play around the house and gardens until they become of marriageable age is a delightful character-filled reprieve from enforced and entrapped circumstances.  Their inevitable growing up will lead The Third Wife to a haunting ending as the film’s beauty finally gives way under the weight of the unremitting oppression.

The Third Wife screened during the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here.


The Wedding Guest

Thumbscrew tension on screen at Sydney Film Festival

It’s all in the shop window with The Wedding Guest. The description, the advertising, the images will tell you that Jay (Dev Patel) will travel to Pakistan ostensibly as a wedding guest.  He has an engineered identity, a familiarity with weapons and he kidnaps the bride, Samira (Radhika Apte).  What you won’t know until you experience the film is the intimacy of its grandness and the tension of narrative that director Michael Winterbottom brings to this simplest of beginnings.

With thumbscrew tension, the story moves with an intimate pace over the landscape and through the topography of the relationship between Jay and Samira.  As the story unfolds they will spend much time together and the collection of sideways looks and outright explosion draws them into a tight space, in cars and hotel rooms.  The action, when it hits, is personal and sudden and the personalities respond with electrifying complexity.

He is cold, his backstory is seems out of our reach, and she may well be agendered but who can blame her after her entrapment in circumstances.  Apte gives a wonderful performance as a modern woman ensnared by long-standing laws and beliefs. She shows how Samira strives for agency and how she grabs it when it chances toward her in a textured, layered and contemporary expression of rebellion.  

Samira revels in food and Apte gives Samira an ease with Western clothing and hair that expresses an earthy sensuousness allied with the shining intelligence, and Western education, obviously influencing her decisions.  Jay, though, is chilly with Patel giving a believable, forgivable, practicality to his characters early on. Don’t expect traditional thaw here, this is not that film. Patel has a planned and meticulousness of speech and action which presages how lethal Jay can be. It is a quiet, interior and mesmerising performance.

In addition to the riveting relationships on the screen, Winterbottom has harnessed all the energy and uniqueness of the settings in Pakistan and India with superb use of overhead shots and tracking. The former of headlights through dusty night roads and the latter through the crowded unfamiliar urbanscapes of subcontinent streets straining with hole-in-the-wall sellers of phones and car rentals. The beauty of harshness also brought out by the loving cinematography of the desert locations.

As exciting visually as it is emotionally engaging, The Wedding Guest also has an evocative use of night, never too dim, in sandy browns and lightened shadows.  The fugitive feel is further educed with the distant, limited cacophony of their surroundings in the cities and the stillness of wind blowing their choices away in rural surrounds.  As does the music.  From the first ticking, metallic precision as Jay packs, to the lyricisms of full stringed orchestra deep and longing in romance, to the freedom of the open road on a ubiquitous scooter, the score engages the heart and the head.

The ending of The Wedding Guest will test both brain and emotion if the debates I could hear as we left the screening are indicators.  It’s a riveting film of ratcheting intensity with unforseen events that take it right away from what we think we know about it.

The Wedding Guest screens again tomorrow Friday June 7 during the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here.


Shooting the Mafia

The courage and work of photographer Letizia Battaglia.

Sydney Film Festival.

Early in the documentary centred around her life, photographer Letizia Battaglia explains what she loved about taking up a camera … “showing things and how I felt inside” – a quote to touch anyone who has a creative soul. Shooting the Mafia is an arresting title and this film from prizewinning UK filmmaker Kim Longinotto pulls zero punches as Battaglia’s life and her captured images of the Mafia violence in her hometown of Palermo fill the screen.

Later Battaglia will explain how she knew she wanted to be a photographer not a journalist.  With photos she could “feel it rather than understand it - I could express myself" but the film begins with the still creative 84 year old’s girlhood.  The film is her words, interviewed now with a bright crop of shiny pink hair, and she is very forthright about her upbringing.  With a wry smile for the way it was; a father determined to keep her home and out of sight of men, not even allowed on the balcony.  Then a disastrous teenage marriage. 

Later she would become the first female photographer to work for daily newspaper in Italy.  3 days after she started she saw her first murder which began a story that lasted 19 years.  She photographed fearlessly as carnage, shootings and bombings, left the citizenry constantly in fear. 

Later, she entered politics and the intent was to make society better but her frustration at the impotence of one politician is evident. But her life made her famous and much of the archival tape features the Battaglia at the centre of events. Her revered status is evident when young woman in grainy black and white TV footage says "Thank you for your life".

The images are of her work but also take classic film of the period as a reference - a delight for Italian film aficionados in places with some terrific vintage music also used.  The film has a linear structure and the footage exemplifies the societal mores and expectations of any given period.  There is b/w newsreel footage and the limited colours and washed out look of early TV interviews.  And her images.

Not just the dead but the grieving.  She is conflicted when she speaks of the "beauty" others find in the images.  There will be sequences intercut into the film that you will struggle to watch.... the illegal slaughterhouses, a man beating on a woman until he hurts his hand but the photographs, Battaglia’s photographs, are compelling.  Violent and bloody but humanist and revealing.

What begins as a retrospective of her work and life expands to include a history at which she was often centre.  The background information about the grip which the Mafia held on the country and is skilfully edited into the film.  The footage of her in the crowd at funerals and deaths are blended with newsreel footage to explain events before we hear what her perspective is now. By the time the Mafia trials begin in 1986 trials began, she couldn't go despite having had the indisputable bravery of the truth teller.

The horror left deep scars Battaglia says and seems to have impacted all her relationships … she states that she will not speak of her daughters.  Towards the end of Shooting the Mafia, Letizia Battaglia, still with a camera in her hand and open about her younger lover, acknowledges the people who her behaviour has not pleased.  Yet the men who loved her, the other voices which appear in the film, seem to hold deep affection and make much of her beauty even now. 

What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is honest about her weaknesses and passionate about her creative spirit.  It’s a fascinating documentary and very accessible even to those who know little of the times when Letizia Battaglia was at her most courageous … and threatened.  

Engrossing and illuminating Shooting the Mafia screens June 9 and June 16 during the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here.


Apollo 11

From director Todd Douglas Miller comes a cinematic event fifty years in the making. Crafted from a newly discovered trove of 65mm footage, and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings, Apollo 11 takes us straight to the heart of NASA's most celebrated mission-the one that first put men on the moon, and forever made Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into household names.

As NASA releases more information about Artemis, the plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, hopefully interest in what it took for Apollo 11 to achieve the world-watched feat will come back into public interest.  The new film from Todd Douglas Miller takes newly discovered archival audio and film footage to create a masterful document and a thrilling, meticulous revisiting. Apollo 11 is mesmeric watching whether your interest is new or nostalgic.

It begins in rumbling noise and the close up vision of the continuous track which propels the rocket launch tower to its designated pad.  It’s slow, loud and detailed as the choppers thwack in the background.  This will be a film that loves engineering.  Ancient engineering by our standards.  Innumerable consoles with on/off flick switches, banks of square, lit, push buttons, a hand held analogue stopwatch and glass radar screens that they were writing on.  Even re-entry has the pathway drawn on the module window as a grid. Who knew that, as the launch was being counted down, there were men inside the rocket tightening the bolts of the hydrogen tank … by hand! 

It is extraordinary the depth which this film brings to the event; from preparations for launch to the astronauts facing the press after their post-mission quarantine.  Using a newly discovered trove of 65mm footage, and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings the team behind the film have used no narration or talking heads.  These men tell their own story. 

Apollo 11, is edited for full immersion in their story.  Split screen is used in places, sequencing is used very effectively such as we get a breathsnatching sequence passing the row upon row of men in white shirts who make up the ground team … all at archaic computers. And we get an insight into the three men at the centre in the chats and goodnights and wakeup calls from their ground crew and the work of hundreds of support specialists.  The “suit technicians” for example.  There is luxurious footage of how long it takes to put on one of astronaut’s gloves.  If you are used to sci-fi when they just climb into a suit, this is astonishing to watch.  The footage has been restored to such a depth that one can see the tan line where his college ring might have been and there’s a micro moment of empathy when we see that he is, though, wearing his wedding ring. 

We hear the actual conversations of the mission and there are some guidelines for the audience’s understanding.  A furious speedmometer registers 23,000 mph upward and counting … more for re-entry … and how does a human being keep their heartrate at 88 when being flung into space?  My heart thumped in my ears as the launch and the separations are shown in superb colour and in never seen before angles and detail.  Same with Armstrong’s descent down the ladder.  The tension of the film is managed beautifully by the choice of footage and the editing and also the music which has a period feel of stick on skin.

Apollo 11 is an achievement of scale.  We are used to seeing dramas which focus in on the little stories but this is a big picture film where the achievement is measured in minutia and moments.  The few chose to go to the Moon because it was hard and Apollo 11 is a remarkable film which powerfully shows what is possible.  A universal film of pride in human accomplishment for young or old.  Don’t miss it.

Apollo 11 opens in Australian cinemas July 18, 2019

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Here Comes Hell

A blunderbuss of a helluva good film and a ripping fine nonsense for SFF.

It’s not like they don’t give you ‘ample warning’!  Before the titles there’s a pontificating, ponderous, host in front of a J Arthur Rankish curtain gonging on that the film is not for those of ‘weak disposition’.  Your heart will be tested, and if my experience is any measure, so will your pet’s.  I startled the cat many times by laughing loudly, and suddenly, when watching Here Comes Hell, a film slated for the Sydney Film Festival.

Set in a crumbling mansion in the English countryside just after the bright, young things have moved on, this is a funny, gory, romping film about summoning the dead and the hysterical comedy which is guaranteed to ensue.  With hilarious use of old filmmaking techniques, bootstrap budget restraints and characters bent dangerously beyond arch, the film hits all the low points one wants in a spoof … with an excess of spiff, old cock!

Directed by Jack McHenry and co-written with Alice Sidgwick Here Comes Hell begins Christie–style on a train, with a warning.  There’s something scary about Westwood Manor our Junior Texas Oil-man, George, is told by a neatly dressed stranger with whom he is sharing a First Class carriage.  The scary, screech of violins smoothly sneak in as the tale is begun. Dada. He will join his friend Victor, who has bought the creepy, abandoned estate on a whim as he determinedly spends his inheritance from his dead father.

A tennis pro on the slide, Freddie, will join them and then there’s the women. ‘When in doubt threaten the heroine’ - there has to be women because screaming is required. The music in this film is cracking detective fun; mournful cello and strings for the house shot from below and eternally rising, light plunking for our blonde haired heroine, Elizabeth, and jazz baby for the dark haired mysterious temptress sister to Victor, Christine.  Stay for a thoroughly enjoyable reprise of the upbeat score over the end titles. You will bounce out of the cinema on cello and bassoon.

Elizabeth is a secretary and girlfriend of Freddy and she kicks it while Christine is brought down to size.  Elizabeth gives the distinct impression that she can spell sub judice for any young policeman who might take her statement … if she survives!!!  They all die a couple of times but who stays dead is the mystery.  All the mayhem is caused by a séance that Victor has arranged as an after very-bad-dinner divertissement. American scepticism and English reserve meet when the dotty old eccentric arrives to conduct the affair.  Her honorific is Madame ... what else? And the horrifics arrive with her.

There are many manky moments and lots of black and white bloodletting in a film designed to show the makers’ marks and so much fun is to be had in enjoying the flaws inserted for our amusement. A pleaded for change of driving speed is done with sound effects only ... the backdrop drum travelling at exactly the same pace.  The audio is terrible in the big spaces and rich and clear in the studio shots.  The gowns look badly hand sewn and the suits don't fit even approximately and there’s no decent jewellery. 

 No light exudes from lighter or candles or fireplace as the wash stays resolutely uniform.  And when they discover how a circular track around the séance table works they, sure as shit, are going to inflict it on us ... interminably.  Only a bottle of Dom will alleviate the nausea.  And let's wave the camera around to save setups and editing suite time.  But they have been influenced by the out-of-time Hitchcockian quick cut and there’s delicious Dali and Brunel in the ghostly zombie body takeovers and maggots.  Mind you; the cheesecloth ghost was my particular highlight.  

Luckily the American is armed and loaded because the twist on the monster-never-dies trope is hilarious beyond badly designed and leads inexorably to terrible makeup and a worse stunt man (it looks like a man ... It's certainly not an old lady! ) Hi Jinks!

The final insult comes as the film’s chase and climax have a campy stillness exploded in a sudden excellence of framing, atmosphere and visual beauty. Damn if they actually do know what they are doing, you silly tit, but don’t look for that.  This is a blunderbuss of a helluva good film and a ripping fine nonsense.

Here Comes Hell screens June 8 and June 11 during the Sydney Film Festival.  Tickets and full program here.

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Dirty God

A remarkable performance from a brave new talent at the Sydney Festival.

The close up pink and red topography of scar tissue rises and falls behind the opening titles of Dirty God.  As the film comes out of this extreme closeup, the viewer can see a burned face being treated.  A still shot follows as a person with a plastic face covering stares silently out from the screen.

Dirty God is a film directed by Sacha Polak, written by the director and Susie Farrell, and with newcomer Vicky Knight in the lead role as Jade.  Jade is a young mum to a two year old daughter living with her own mum in the high rise housing of East London.  When we first meet Jade behind that plastic mask, she is about to leave hospital after a vicious acid attack by her boyfriend.  Badly scarred in so many ways, Jade will struggle to find her way in a world which treats her with curiosity or fear.

As the plastic healing mask comes off there is little protection for this young woman.  Her family seems supportive in their way; her mother not much older than her and obviously struggling with events and responsibilities.  There is however, time spent with her bestie as giggles and fun are shared, getting ready with makeup and clothes for a night out.  Her female friends are supportive and there's a young man glad to see her… her BFF’s boyfriend.

The film is infused with the pulse of young people, music, dancing, alcohol, dope and the lack of care for privacy or private things.  A belief in true love and gender relations make up the talk between the peers but Jade’s travel through the later stages of grief brings few answers and new psychological blows.  Any resilience seems far off.  This is a gritty and grounded film, but there is one red lit non-naturalistic sequence in which Jade interacts with a website chat.  The sequence engages the viewer’s empathy and understanding as the events serve to fracture Jade further even as she strives for wholeness.    

Dirty God is an intimate, deliberate, realistic film with limited exposition and intelligent design in the telling of a story treated without depressive wallow.  There’s great music but only in ambient choices, the emotional impact is in the writing, direction and an astonishing performance.   Polak and Knight give Jade a strength of purpose and a decisive, quiet resolve as she makes active choices despite the diminishing of her options.  She sets on a path to get the surgery not offered by the NHS, the moment of comprehension that there are no more changes in her appearance being considered by the doctors, hard to watch.

There are many such scenes in the film … when Jade returns home even her baby girl is scared of her appearance and the heartbreak of not being able to comfort your own child is raw. The performance is extraordinarily moving especially in silence. Such as, Jade trying a hijab in desperation to hide the scars and bursting into freedom to roam the grimy corridors of the building, uplifting and insightful. 

It’s such a truthful portrayal and Knight, who is a burn survivor and whose visible scars are part of the honesty of the film, is on record as saying that not all of her performance is acting.  But she is brilliant in the role.  Her work to give Jade the interiority that vibrates with confusion and anguish despite an external impassivity during the trial is stunningly good.  Even her crying is sobs condensed into a ball as tears sadly escape, seeping not flowing.  With a realistic representation of sex and nudity, her performance brings a new understanding of the uselessness of a word like ‘brave’.  Knight’s performance is replete with professional pride, talent and intent.

The audience is encouraged in a sense of hope for Jade, the possibility that her self-determination will be rewarded with self-acceptance.  In a nightclub the pulsing music transforms as the screen blues and we will her recovery to be forthcoming.

Dirty God is a film to reward every audience member with a renewal of belief in the individuation of beauty in the human spirit. A touching and universally empowering film.

Dirty God screens 12,13,15 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Full program here.


Up the Mountain

Slowfilm beauty at the Sydney Film Festival

Colourful images of flowers and vases open the film as a thumping of wood being moved on wood begins in the background. As figures move in a daybreak-dark, narrow strip of hallway, waking and having morning discussions, the framing of the images becomes a loving entree into the themes and form of this contemplative film, Up the Mountain.

In a gentle and embracing portrait of a disappearing way of life, filmmaker Zhang Yang has both captured an essence and gifted a meditation.  The film is ostensibly about Shen Jianhua, an artist originally from Shanghai.  Now he lives in a small, remote village in Yunnan Province and teaches art to the devotees who come up the mountain to his studio and family retreat.  The little art community swells as villagers come during the day, some returning home at night. Meals shared and kittens and the fire warm the commune of sorts but it is hard work which makes the fruit trees flower and creates the mud bricks which are left to bake in the sun.

Most of his students are elder women of the surrounding settlements who appear to thrive on the stimulus and camaraderie after a lifetime of childbearing and rearing.  Their work is a Naïve Art, culturally respected and technically intricate, drawn against the slow and peaceful pace of their year; births, marriages, celebrations all visually recorded.  Shen’s apprentice is Dinglong who is under pressure to marry and move to the city.  But one painting a year and little chance of selling do not a marriageable man make and his struggles and the beauty of his work are thoughtfully and carefully at the heart of the film.

 Shot with available light it might seem impossible for a painter to work in such dimness but the outdoor scenes give a muted but ultimately more readable understanding of their creations on canvas.  The interiors with shots where shadows, doors and corridors frame the subjects, peek into their process and lives - soothing the viewer with beauty, artistry and a softness of shape.

Clever filming brings home to the viewer the colours and shapes of the real life images represented in the paintings ... the orchard sequence especially emotionally affecting.  Distant mountains and sea background the life of the film and the contrast with the muddy, busy city is replete.  Modernity is as incidental as the mobile phones and red Doc Martins but one can see that this way of life may not survive. Yet village life is captured in all its excitement by events such as vertical bonfire.

Some of the subtitles are handicapped by their colour; one big and obviously important argument completely received by ear.  There are some fascinating audio choices in the film, including Madama Butterfly and a French Ave Maria.  The highlight, though, is the women singing a traditional tale of a netted fish while preparing fish pie.  The conversations are caught incidentally and are both universal and specific to their circumstances.  The fight is explained and the consequences make for a lively conversation among the grannies.

Most indulgent for a viewer are the moments of silent contemplation such as when the camera stays still for the time it takes to get the tiny red linefill of a large and detailed painting right.  The film’s armchair immersion and the luxury of slowfilm is blood pressure lowering, mediative and hypnotic.   This is time in a darkened cinema to refresh the spirit.

Up the Mountain screens at the Sydney Film Festival June 8 and June 10. Full SFF program here.  




Second in our series of films towards the 66th Sydney Film Festival.

It's an orchestral beginning to Yuli as ‘La Bayadere’ walks us through a recognisable Cuba – the architecture and iconic cars.  That is, until he enters the theatre, it could be anywhere.  As the warmups take place around him, and wait for him, the book in his hand brings forth the memories. This film directed by Icíar Bollaín gives an insight into life of Cuban artist Carlos Acosta, revered as both a dancer and the first black artist to dance Romeo in the Royal Ballet in London, where his legendary career saw him a principal dancer for 17 years.

As the free styling of a street scene happens behind him, Yuli is locked in a revere and the man becomes the boy, nicknamed Yuli by his father.

A boy who does not want to be a dancer.  Pele, he wants to be Pele.  But a stern, unforgiving father can make a boy do anything. Including find a way out of poverty despite the boy being an arrogant recalcitrant little shit.   There's 350 years of slavery in the Acostas and his father knows how to lift the boy onto his shoulders to aim towards the stars

This is shown in dance as the film intercuts the traditional storytelling of flashbacks to express Yuli's life through his art.  Having become a celebrated dancer and choreographer, he is working on an autobiographical work where he plays his father… the relationship gentle in places and vicious in others.  The father is determioned to make Yuli a dancer and will defy the school board and ride over his son’s wishes.

The youngest Yuli is played with phenomenal skill and brio by Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez.  His performance informs all we will learn about the dancer, who is also played as a young man by Keyvin Martínez and Acosta himself in the contemporary role.  His history is also tied in with a filmic response to the poverty and politics of his homeland.  The film doesn't shy away from the impacts, on the working poor, of Cuba’s geopolitical relationships and stance but it also ties Carlos into the art and architecture of the island nation.  By taking him to a particular place as boy, young man, and seasoned professional, the film grounds itself in that history.

In also showing some actual footage of Acosta dancing and smoothly reproducing some of his famous roles, Yuli is a feast for a lover of dance.  But the contemporary dancing is just as thrilling, dance aficionado or not.  The Houston sequence, for example, is electrifying in its use of height and conflict and the stomp and clap working at odds with the trumpets and rapid cymbals of Cuban music.   The music throughout this film is wonderful!

The lighting of Yuli sites the Cuban experience and avoids glare, yet has the brightness and warmth we associate with the setting.  And the evening scenes are velvety dark with spills of tropical night.  Beautifully captured, the performance scenes are elegant and vital in the athleticism and evoking of narrative.  There's a blue cast to many of them and the louvered followspot of the boarding school sequence is breathtaking with significance to the lonely child and the choreographer he is now.

A moving portrait of ego clashing with desire and a reluctance of ambition which refuses to be squashed, it avoids the romantic, focusing more importantly on the art and family relationships which form the artist. Sadnesses and triumphs will carry the story of a boy who was gifted with an ability he could not escape.

Yuli screens at the Sydney Film Festival June 8, June 9 and June 12.  Full SFF program here.  


School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia

The first in our series towards the Sydney Film Festival.

Early on, it is easy to think perhaps the saddest part is that the women who are at the centre of this documentary don’t respond with disgust to the man who manipulates and, to Western eyes, degrades them. School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia is an unmissable documentary which is screening during the Sydney Film Festival.

The documentary focuses in on three Russian women, Diana, Lida and Vika, over various lengths of time, up to seven years, as they take courses to improve their chances of finding a husband in a country statistically against them. Alina Rudnitskaya is an award winning Russian filmmaker who lives and works in St. Petersburg and her access to the women is close and upsetting.  As a fly on the wall we watch events ranging from some sort of counselling session, through crying into dessert as a potential partner equivocates, on to sloppy, messy and defeated by disappointment.

The School of Seduction is run by Psychologist Vladimir Rakovsky, a middle aged man, committed to tutoring the classes of women (who pay his very expensive fees) in archaic, western ideals of how to attract a rich husband.  Economically, these women have little road out of their circumstances and for them this a valid option.  Rakovsky will grind on them as he teaches them to dance ‘sexily’, present their ass and play dumb.  They will change clothes in front of him and encourage each other onto behaviour they perceive as betterment, like clapping a rape simulation.  He is breathtakingly abusive in places with a constant smirk … and there are a lot of women in his classes. 

Yet, the filmmaker avoids judgement and comment in her choice of material. These women are flawed in a flawed world. We don't hear from the men but the choices aired give them a humanity ... and weird comparison with Rakovsky and the assumptions about their gender which he preaches.  Potential and actual husbands and lovers allow themselves to be filmed intimately and one can see how often they, themselves, are poorly treated. 

Rudnitskaya has also included media footage and reports and the interpolation drives home the reality that the women have realistic pressures to conform; the reality of their behaviour and how they can treat the men and children, even a mother, in their lives is presented honestly. There is a sociological perspective explaining the high divorce rates, and socialisation about being complete only with a man in your life.  Putin on female advantage is head shaker!  In concert with her editor, Cathrine Ambus, the director also inserts some beautiful vistas of snow covered buildings and countryside … contrasting that with drone shots above the venerable architecture where the roofs are decaying and poorly maintained.

It is a revealing document which brings into sharp focus that all is not well for the social, political and economic standing of women in that world.

The horror of seduction school doesn't lessen the empathy we feel at times for these women. Whether they are behaving like a brat or under a Svengali spell, emotions are real and close up crying doesn't fail to touch the viewer.    Obviously competent and confident at work, a woman like Vika has a husband and a lingerie business and there is a drama throughline to her story.  Footage of she and her husband in silences, one of the most telling moments of the film, is underscored by music that plucks at the separateness.  The marriages do not make these women happy!  

School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia is gently confronting in its presentation of real events and the background to them.  It is equally provoking in the contemporaneousness of their situation … there … where the patriarchy is strident and pervasive.  The films stands as a detailed and personal warning against judgement.

School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia screens at the Sydney Film Festival Wednesday 12 and Friday 14th June.  Full SFF program here.  


The Realm

The political thriller you need right now.

It’s a nice suit and a lovely beach but the calm does not last long. Relaxing waves give way to frustration and a fast walk through the alleys between the buildings squatting behind him. As the throbbing music behind the brisk tracking shot impels this man, the intricacies of plot crowd in.  Next thing we know it’s an excitable, exuberant dinner as the politicos gather to eat, drink to excess and make fun of new anti-corruption appointee, Alvarado.  That is, until the only conversation worth having moves to a more powerful place, the urinal, where the real deal is discussed in hushed tones.

The Realm is a complete political thriller ... machinations and the machinery of malfeasance are the apparatus for a gripping, tight film which puts Party corruption and deception on screen.  An unnamed territory, a devoluted political system, the Party incumbent in Madrid and Manuel López-Vidal - the loyal Party man… current Regional Vice President and on the rise.

Manu is the focus of the story.  He is set to take over when the Regional President retires.  Soon, maybe, as there is a secret there.  All sorts of secrets about who knows what and who is on the take.  Manu’s close friend, Paco, may be in trouble … may BE the trouble.  There's possibly a rat in the ranks who has developed a conscience and the media, especially reporter Amaia Marín, is too close to the undertable transactions.  Added into the political maelstrom is the mysterious Persika deal. Manu spends his day putting out fires and talking, talking, talking … as if that helps! 

The direction from Rodrigo Sorogoyen and the writing from he and Isabel Peña puts Manu (Antonio de la Torre) in almost constant movement.  He seems to have only two speeds... rushing and asleep, sometimes both as his chauffeur driven car hurries him between meetings. De la Torre is brilliant in the role.  Hedonistic yet adoring of wife and daughter; calm yet capable of intimidatory behaviour and a Party man through and through, de la Torre brings all Manu’s conflicting pressures into alignment as his life unravels.

Increasingly dishevelled from that man we met on the beach, de la Torre propels his character, full force, at every situation.  At first showing the man in action and command; eventually to rely on instinct and reaction to stimuli.  Even when the superb cinematography traps him within a frame of alleys and corridors or threatens him with the jail shadows of vertical blinds, de la Torre gives his creation a wilful belief in his ability to squirm out of strife by pure brinksmanship.

Constant movement, also, in our closeup encounters with the other party members.  There’s a disorienting emphasis on the innocence of camaraderie which puts into stark relief the menace of their detachment.  This is a lean-in film, especially if you are experiencing it with subtitles, as little is clear for quite a while.  Keeping up with the story and sorting the characters keeps an audience in the hunt for answers.

The Realm is fast paced, obscure, convoluted and as hypnotic as the repetitive, minimalist, modified house music of the score.  The cinematography is brutal in places and lyrically environmental in others where the editing allows for a linger of landscape.  Using some inspired colour choices, such as a warm orange for an exterior night scene, the film eventually brings Manu out of a darkness of events into the full glare of his situation. 

This a film with drive, a frantic dénouement and an ending to inspire or confound - depending on affiliation.

RbJ Rating:  4 ½ timely reminders of Party agendas

The Realm from Rialto Distribution opens in selected Australian cinemas May 16, 2019.


The Chaperone

My idea of an indulgent relax at the cinema.

The Chaperone has had some lukewarm press but sit in a nice warm theatre with something salty and sweet and appreciate it for what it is and that’s my idea of a relax at the cinema.  It is a slight film in some ways but cries out to be enjoyed for what it is - a detailed period piece with engaging characters and a heart-warming uplift to take with you from the picture palace.

The production team does somewhat have their finger on the scale when it comes to attracting audiences of a certain kind. From the production team behind Downtown Abbey, Michael Engler, (Director) and Julian Fellowes (Writer) and with Elizabeth McGovern starring, the expectation of excellence is implicit.

McGovern is Mrs Norma Carlisle, the chaperone of the story and she undertakes the accompanying of Louise Brooks, the soon to be famous silent film star, played by Haley Lu Richardson.  Here she is 16, wilful and stifled by her Kansas small town. Just accepted into a prestigious Modern Dance school in NYC, her socially ambitious and musically aspirational mother cannot convince her strict father to let her go alone. Enter Norma who, though muchly awed by her young charge’s talent, desires to go on this adventure for her own purposes. There is a past to be revisited and sightseen.

The mise en scène is beautiful in the film with a faded straw palette as lovely as the summer hats or the rural Midwest fields. There is a little more grey when the pair experience New York and the flashbacks have a blue-metal blur of washed out memory to them. The detail is to immerse in as the editing and shot selection broadstroke the buildings and signage and vehicles. The Dakota towers over a recognisable Central Park. The costumes are glorious close up, as are the faces.

McGovern is luminous, with a face which expresses Norma’s wide eyed love of life and Richardson has the youthful beauty which is often marred slightly by Louise’s truculent and surly adolescent rebelliousness.  The story reaches beyond these two as one is unlimited in future possibilities and the other held back slightly by her obsession with the past.

The films deal neatly, gently, with the more complex issues of the time ... prohibition, the aftermath of WW1, race relations. Gender and sex also provide the more thought provoking aspects of the film. However, The Chaperone is not a social document, it is a film to be appreciated for its look and fine acting.   Delightful indulgence.

 RjB rating: 3 friendless girls

More about The Chaperone at the official website and view the trailer here.

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Sydney World Film Festival

Some great films on offer. Free and with a friendly atmosphere to chat and discuss after.

Image from The Velvet Underground Played at My High School.

Films that you would never normally see, that’s what’s on offer at the Sydney World Film Festival. For free! With a drink!

Running over 5 days, the festival aims to introduce quality, non-mainstream films from global filmmakers. The offerings tonight were certainly that and the discussions afterwards in a friendly chatty environment after brought together different points of view … where 1 star battled with 5.

The first film was 47 seconds. No, you haven’t misread. Breakfast (United Kingdom) by Peter Pahor has a piercing audio track as CU and XCU are intercut in sexualised eating and fantasising. Milk will never quite look the same after viewing this offering. “Is any body hurt?” calls out host for the evening and suggested that counselling was available. It’s a trip.

A full length documentary feature, Another’s Echo (USA) by Joseph Michael Hencoski was the main film of the evening and deeply divided the audience. I didn’t mind it, the woman next to me had a nap!

Kyle is a non-hoper and the documentary he’s participating in might just be his way out of the Florida town he lives in. His aspiration for decampment is closer as he inherits his grandmother’s car after she dies. Hencoski has done a clever thing with this film where he dares you to judge this young man. For someone exhibiting almost no adjectives other than fuck and its derivatives, and expressions like “up a girl” to describe sex, he sure has a lot to say, especially about sex. And none of it pleasant. Rants informed by TV documentaries brings an off kilter meta element and leaves you wondering … who doesn’t this 23 year old hate?

But every other person in the film is the same and then we get a bit of history and judgements are confronted.

The technical aspects of this film are an exercise in intelligent choices. There’s always traffic in the background … going somewhere better perhaps? The music avoids head banging tropes but has a metal infused heavy and repetitive urban racket feel, even in church as the Stations of the Cross flick by. The scratch and loop on the track behind the burned out trailer sequence is subtly supportive of the mood and relentless as a train.

The camera work is hand held with no apologies, including running after Karl in places. And colour is used well too with an amber cast from the available lighting and a brighter white later in the film. The subject is caught at odd places: like an extended time in an outdoor self-carwash and the use of cutaways is extremely telling. An out of order washing machine, dead things, cigs. In fact the editing is well chosen to exemplify the state of his ambitions and existence but the film is a bit too long. For me, not napping too long, but definitely would benefit from a truncating.

Karl might just escape but whether this is the fame to want, is his and the filmmaker’s business. And ours as we confront the judgements of early in the film and as empathy and sympathy is subsumed by a bewildering groan at his circumstances and lack of self-awareness. It’s a film which has considerable merit and a pretty hefty impact. And a lesson in pointlessness exemplified by the last few minutes of the film, but which still manage to imply something hopeful.

The film which was the highlight of tonight’s viewing, though, was The Velvet Underground Played at My High School (USA) by Robert Pietri and Tony Jannelli. An animatedocumentary this short film is absolutely charming. Narrated by Jannelli as a survivor and witness true story of the rockers hitting the stage as a warm up to a domestic 1965 traditional band.

The animation is stellar with a density in the blacks and a variety of whites and offs and a great sweeping pen scratch style. The choice of cells gives a thoroughly excitable feel, as does the Velvet Underground’s music of course. Wtf has not been invented yet but it’s there in the descriptions of “cat Killing music” and the narrator’s mesmeric understanding that he is seeing the future. In the drawing of the boy, there is so much of the man looking back and the longing nostalgia is palpable. It’s perfectly edited at 7 minutes to tell a personal anecdote of historical interest.

So … a great night of films. Free films. And still more to come on Thursday and Friday. I can’t recommend this never-know-what-you’ll-get festival highly enough.

Find out more about the Sydney World Film Festival at their website or Facebook. And find out more about The Velvet Underground Played at My High School at the official site and Facebook and Another’s Echo on Facebook.


Thunder Road

Quietly, headshakingly comic, this is a character we want to see again.

Thunder Road introduces us to a noble, misunderstood and absolutely likeable domestic hero that I really hope we see more of.  Jim Arnaud is a Texan police officer who has just lost his mother.  His own rebellious childhood and status as flawed, favoured son is playing on his mind as he struggles to bring up his own young daughter … on his custody days.  There’s a separation, a pending divorce, two siblings who don’t come to mum’s funeral and work colleagues who don’t get him. Jim, however, seems to have his priorities right, yet, he slowly implodes.

Pre-title, the film brings us one long shot of Jim making the eulogy.  And he is a basket case.  In a time when making a grieving goose of yourself is never just for the people in the room, Jim spectacularly works out his guilt at his former behaviour and the audience has a desperate need to help him despite a sneaky creep of dark comedy.  We don’t know him yet and as the camera pulls in, this ego-less, quietly poignant, well planned homage slowly destructs with a car crash certainty. 

As we do get to know Jim, the nuance of this character has a mesmeric effect.  As a decent man with a tightly controlled positivity and a jokey roteness about his interactions, things happen to him that seem blindingly unfair and laugh out loud ironic.  At work he has an aggro streak, is obviously brave and well trained and able to take charge but, apart from his partner, is an object of contempt.  His daughter is distant and dismissive of him and his ex-wife downright hostile.

It is the filmmaking that makes Jim such a likeable subject.  Shot with an engaging use of pull in and closeup, it’s an intimate style for an intimate story. With a focus on foreground, very few cutaways, a light colour palette and a narrative which follows Jim, those around him being merely background, the viewer’s immersion in his circumstances is headshakingly total.  Jim is strikingly misunderstood and as implode becomes explode, the film is entirely gripping with an ending which is perfectly placed to keep the character in memory. 

It’s hilarious, heartbreaking work from actor, writer, director, producer Jim Cummings in a film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival and has had wins from Milan to Montréal.  We want to know what happens to Officer Jim and I want more of Cummings quietly, reflectively hilarious darkly comic writing. 

Thunder Road is clueless comedy elevated to artful, empathetic and warm storytelling. Give me more!

RbJ Rating:  5 Springsteens

Thunder Road [Official Facebook] from Rialto Distribution is in select Sydney Cinemas from April 25.

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More Human Than Human

Part of the Transitions Film Festival - a visionary, environmental, sustainability and social impact film festival, running in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and beyond

If you are not creeped out by the final scene and credits of ‘More Human Than Human’ you aren’t …um… human! 

There’s a lot of that during this film which sets out to explore Artificial Intelligence in a great many contexts in the modern world.  With equal parts wtf and goosebumps, the film has a cohesive quest at its heart.  Can they create a robot which can interview the filmmaker, Tommy Pallotta as if he is one of the subjects in his own film?  Pallotta co-directed and co-wrote the film with Hemke Wolting but his is the voiceover and it is he who will sit in front of the shooting, questioning and editing machine they design.

The film begins with putting Neil Armstrong on the moon.  The story about the lack of computing power available to that mission is legend and chilling in this context as we move from Furbies to Sophia.  Sophia is a stuttery anthropomorphic creation that really does get one in, that’s her in the picture.  There is some very entertaining film footage early on, from Star Wars through Blade Runner to Terminator and a very interesting elaboration of the robot in the pop culture zeitgeist despite some dodgy logic about what actors like Brad Pitt actually do.  That put my theatrical hackles up big time.

‘More Human Than Human’ is a film to engage with.  New concepts flick past quickly and get filed away for later consideration.  How come the creator of Eliza, an early natural language processing computer program, spent a big chunk of his life repudiating his work? How can a world expert botmaker be fooled for months in a Russian honey trap?  And is reconstructing new conversations with dead people from their stored social media comforting or creepy?

It’s almost impossible to take in some of the concepts of the film as Pallotta and Wolting keep the science coming.  The ideas are extraordinary and the range of on-screen talent, their experiences and enthusiasms, never let the viewer rest.  From a sanguine Garry Kasparov asked about his defeat by Deep Blue to a mother whose compassionate explanation of how Siri improves the quality of life for she and her son who has ASD.

Then there’s the politics.  Choose a female voice because it “sounds nice”.  Make AI that is better than us because it has higher functioning wisdom and projected empathy?  Make a new breed of human from disability healed?  Not every idea will sits well and some are very uncomfortable to watch and that is the attraction of the film.

‘More Human Than Human’ is authoritative, provoking and shows how mundane the use of the machines and tech is in our lives.  One theorist says: We talk to our phones and no one cares.  

The film asks the question early and it sticks with you: “Are we witnessing the birth of a new species?”

 RbJ Rating:  5 HALs

More Human Than Human’ screens Wednesday, April @ 6:30 pm as part of the Transitions Film Festival. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram


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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

A film that is short on irrelevant quirk and long on logical aburdism. The story flows imperiously as the characters respond to each new outbreak of unusual with either craziness or aplomb.

Toby might have had filmic ambitions once but now he is a maker of adverts.  Disenchanted and spectacularly disengaged, he is currently attempting to avoid getting involved in his own direction of a Don Quixote inspired advertisement in Spain.  When he is reminded of his youth, that was 10 years ago, and a film he made on the same topic, his curiosity compels him back to the little town in which it was made. Not much has changed but, somehow, time seems to bend Toby into a dreamers’ romantic and righteous quest. Ah but! Are his personal and directorial skills, not to mention his attentiveness, up to the task?   

Terry Gilliam ( the director and co-writer with Tony Grisoni) has had three decades to consider this film.  It has struggled to get off the ground, eventually beginning its life in 2000 before being washed away in a literal flood and a flood of acrimony… including allegations about a starving Rocinante.  A doco about the failure to ride was made in 2002 from what was to be the ‘making of’ footage.  Since then it has be re-relaunch and launch again with some stellar names attached.  Until … here we are . 2018 and a 15 minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Adam Driver does a watchably mad job of confusion and bravado in the redemptively obscure mini-quests.  He is hilarious in places and frenetically hysterical in others. Yet, Driver maintains a guiding hand on our engagement with the characters around him.  Stellan Skarsgård is creepily surface pleasant and Jason Watkins, as the hands-on sycophant, massages the icky factor to max.  The two women in his life are Ms Right Now Jacqui (Olga Kurylenk) and Ms Forever Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) and both bring an agency and assertiveness to characters written into pretty nasty situations.  The screen is full of thoroughly entertaining creations which appear to have a life outside the immediate frame.  

But Jonathan Pryce as the knight errant is the beating heart of the film with crazy-wise and confused-clarity in every appearance. It’s a film with twisting ideas inside long sequences and Pryce has his Don pitched perfectly to every moment, even if the audience doesn’t get it until later. Gilliam and Grisoni have structured the film so that the clues are dropped and explained later.  Like the constant pop-ups of purple in the beige and bone bleached colour of the film.  I laughed out loud when that one hit.

As also took me by surprise, some of the obscurities of the Quixote legend that sneak in.  The basics are there and highly entertaining … horses and windmills and armour and giants but for the aficionado, this is a film for re-viewing.  The hippogriff … oh my.

Beautifully shot with a palette which bleeds Goya and Doré into the waves of cliffs and the taupe dirt, it is a digital film which uses anamorphic lenses to give cinematic scope.  With the interiors as gorgeously detailed as the exteriors are stripped and spare, the images provide the complexity of viewing that reflects the phantasmagorical goings on.  As does the costuming which gives subtle cues into the convolutions of time in which our questing director finds himself.   Look for the materials from which the costume is made for the Knight of the Mirrors and revel in the sumptuous elegance of the party sequence.  Allied with music to herald and uplift, the film is a sensory feast.

But ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ is also a story.  Or rather, a series of stories, each indicative of the small journeys a man must take to find his true self.  There is even a play within a play and the mummery of the next to final story is moving and emotional before a climax which strikes at the sanity of making films at all.  As Josh says “Who the fuck wrote this ending?”

RbJ rating:  4 Windmill Tilts

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ from Umbrella Entertainment opens in selected cinemas April 11. 


Review of ‘Metamorphosis’

Part of the Transitions Film Festival - a visionary, environmental, sustainability and social impact film festival, running in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and beyond

If ever one was in doubt about the power of beauty to effect change, ‘Metamorphosis’, screening as part of the Transitions Film Festival, is proof positive.  A transformative offering, this film speaks of our planet with wonder for the possibility of humans morphing from the current climate chaos into a respectful, natural and loving next evolution.   There is hope here in the raised awareness that the film brings through sublime images and gently passionate, authoritative voices.

Staking its claim for calm from the beginning, the film opens with the peace of sighing, shimmering music over a macro immersion in the caterpillar and chrysalis. The engrossing visual images allow a space to take in the message about The Monarch and its increasingly disturbed Spring.  The Monarch will be our guide.

The visuals of this superbly curated film are chosen for impact in places: dashcam footage of racing through fires to get to loved ones hits home to any Australian.  For joy in others: when the children watch the butterflies which migrate past.  And for swelling discontent elsewhere: use an underwater camera to capture the feet as a man wades through the streets of Venice.

The talking heads are in closeup and static … not actually speaking to camera but in voice-over only. And those shots contrast with UAV (Drone) and Jib footage which gives such majesty to the film.  There are very closeup shots which give a jigsaw box cover impression, and there’s a sweep of the camera over a pristine beach as an artist “moulds hope” to create eerie human sculptures designed for a boat sunk on the sea floor.  When the sweeping shot of the beach is reproduced over a newly created desert in southern California, the point requires no comment.

Nor does the evocation of symbiosis in the sequence about the garden pool industry, where unsustainable swimming pools are re-purposed into a self-sustaining ecosystem.  They can build one, we are told, in Haiti and have a harvest in 3 months.  We also hear that the Earth only has 60 years of topsoil left and that lawns are a missed opportunity to provide nectar and nurture.

This is a film crafted with purpose and skill to enrich the viewer and energise us in the struggle for action on climate change… big picture and small, home or global.  When you see the film as part of the Transitions Film Festival, stay for the end titles to see named for the first time this extraordinary cast of artists, engineers, seekers and activists .

‘Metamorphosis’ is “grief provoking” and like me you may shed a tear or two over broken butterflies and a sadness of  poetry by Homero Aridjis.

 Rating: 5 orange and black Monarch wings.

Metamorphosis’ screens Thursday, April 4 @ 8:30 pm as part of the Transitions Film Festival. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

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Part of the Transitions Film Festival - a visionary, environmental, sustainability and social impact film festival, running in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and beyond.

‘Youth Unstoppable’, which will screen as part of the Transitions Film Festival, begins with a traditional image behind the opening titles… our small blue planet.  Seems appropriate for a film about the climate crisis.  Next are images, such as we have seen before, of climate devastation but this film will be considerably more impactful that what we see on the news.

These images pulse with the passionate imploring of youth who remind us that they will "lose their future".   It's a powerful, big picture, political message but what follows is a personal film, a film of growth into power, of a youthful activist actuated into a citizen activist.  It's a time capsule of a film that everyone should see and take note of; should note the lack of progress, hark to the clarion call for change and be inspired.

Slater Jewell-Kemker takes the mic early as she relates her story.  She began at 15, already aware that climate change action was vital to her generation.   The film documents 10 years of involvement in the struggle and the very personal effects of national leaders’ inaction on Slater and her peers.   We follow her through her journey to become a filmmaker and recorder of youth attempts to influence and speak truth to power.

As a nascent filmmaker, she is no junior environmentalist, Slater is already cognizant, knowledgeable and driven to join with other young people she attends her first CoPs in Kyoto. The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the UN Convention on Climate Change.  Slater will then attend and document various conferences as youth delegate and participant.  These are filmed, edited and her voice over added to illustrate varying degrees of frustration and a pervasive lack of respect for youth opinion by the adult influencers. 

As her conference savvy and connections grow, Slater’s film has an absorbing and telling first hand relevance.  For much of the film she lives on a farm in Alberta, Canada, raising funds to travel to the conferences in places like Cancun and to visit other similarly engaged friends on the frontline of climate disaster.  The people she shares this bond with resonate globally and locally and her in-depth reporting from places like Nepal bring tears as the interactions of despair are captured.

Technically the film grows in skill.  The early editing has a youthful exuberance and a fun with peers energy that is completely charming.  The film celebrates these young people as genuinely motivated, aware and highly informed. The graphics are well used, the music is inclusive with local choices particularly effective and with the increased sophistication of gear, so does Slater’s focus and vision cohere.  The viewer grows with her and the time scale and lack of movement on climate change is brought home forcefully.

As the film draws towards its 10th year there is a reconnection with those grassroots youth representatives.  They are still in the movement, still passionate but the change is profound in a group of people who celebrated with Obama and despair of Trump.  Now with families and careers they are replaced by a new youth who will probably also swing from enthusiastic optimism and disillusion. 

"I felt" comes up often in ‘Youth Unstoppable’ and Slater’s voice over and careful creation of the film is moving, articulate and enlightening.  There are accomplished generational imperatives here also … one of her friends is the daughter of the founder of Greenpeace, another is now a dad passing his passion to his family.

"We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” they chant.  The young people of this film may just save us all. 

 Rating:  5 small blue planets.  

Youth Unstoppable’ plays Thursday, April 4 @ 6:30 pm as part of the Transitions Film Festival. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

What our ratings mean: 5- Definitely don’t miss this. 4 - You’ll be sorry if you miss this. 3 - If you are not interested in the topic, give it a miss. 2 - You can miss this unless you’re keen. 1 - Definitely on the miss list.