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Slam

Screening as part of the Palestinian Film Festival Australia.

It may be a tough watch of a film but the beginning is a moment of peace in the most Australian of light. A misty gum grey-green filters down through a forest of trees as recognisable birdcalls accompany an occasional twigbreak footfall. Slam is a film to be savoured, a film where the shocking arrives against the viewer’s hopes that it might be different; a film where almost everything is predictable, horrifyingly so.  A meditation on self and the external forces which seek to make us act, for good or ill.

Suddenly there is a young woman centre of the frame.   Ameena is a performance poet, slam poet, and she feels the world deeply in her Middle Eastern heart and soul. She is alive with the passion of her sharing.  Slowly her poem, ’Mother’, takes a political stance. It’s a gripping, enthralling beginning, striking straight to the heart of the story.  Ameena will go missing and her otherness of culture and religion will provide expectable media fodder with its resultant consequences for her family.

Her brother, Ricky now but Tariq to his blood family, is distanced from them and yet seems distinctly uncomfortable in his wife’s family.  When Amira doesn’t come home, he must visit their mother and that home is echoey with his ghosts and it surprises him when his sister’s room confronts with its politicised young woman’s books and posters.  Heartbreakingly, as the story emerges, he will push for answers and become reacquainted with a world he has “left”.

He’s in a loving marriage and though something has slammed this man shut, with his young daughter he is open and animated. Protective and loving with his more expressive, and heavily pregnant, wife there is a melancholy to him as the truth about Ameena’s disappearance is increasingly perplexing.  The film is from his point of view and his fears are dangerously close to becoming truth and there a terrible, awful, inevitably to what happens next.

Adam Bakri’s replete performance is still and soft as control vibrates in Ricky despite it eluding his grasp as pressures crowd him from all directions.  His mother is played by Darina Al Joundi with an emotional and sympathetic belief and grief.  There are at least two other mothers in the story.  Ricky’s wife, Sally, (Rebecca Breeds) is more outgoing than he, but the love between them is genuine and her responses to events are coloured by hormones and her parents’ approval.  The police officer is Joanne Hendricks and she also has demons, ghosts and losses to fight.  It’s a marvellous performance from Rachael Blake in a film which considers police, media, privilege and mass hysteria from cultural perspectives.

The questions Jo asks raise gasps and head shakes in the watcher. Is it necessary; is it profiling; is it personal?  Writer/ Director Partho Sen-Gupta has crafted a slow, engrossing film which observes and mirrors back views which we know … or may hold.  Cocooned in Ricky’s narrative is a detailed exploration of an observed contemporary Australia that rings with truth.  Print and screen media are criticised, the police admonished for being manipulable by them and social media excoriated, all without heavy-handed dialogue or violence.  It is human tragedy compounded as the mystery of Ameena’s disappearance heightens.

Visually, the film is beautiful in places and harshly telling in other.  With the framing sometimes as simple as a face in an indeterminate background, it has a visual aesthetic which is uncluttered and slightly out of focus. As befits a story of two places there is a lot of driving in the film and the rain-soaked roads and blurred or dirty car windows, stand in concert with the search. There no answers on the streets.

There is some stunning use of red in Slam but also an evocation in the use of warm amber in the Muslim homes and a greenish cast to the western.  Early in the film there is a stark contrast of white glare at a gin-clean dinner party at Sally’s familial home.  The music often quivers behind revelations with single note screeched strings wailing with pain and punctuated by sudden, and suddenly gone, plucked violin and kamancha. 

Slam is a film for the nation.  A challenging journey to a haunting climax and an understanding that if we unquestioningly assume there are secrets then we can believe anything of anyone.  What is beneath a headscarf and what beneath a uniform?

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ golden cappuccinos

Slam [Official Facebook] is screening as part of the Palestinian Film Festival Australia. See the emotional trailer here

 
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Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People

Screening as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.

It’s a name which leaps out as theatrical and cultural and journalistic shorthand for ‘take notice’. Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People is a documentary about the man behind the name.  A Jewish-Hungarian immigrant with a love of the common man and a gift for making money from the awareness-raising about them.  A man who never forgot his roots despite his enormous wealth; a man who oversaw a pictorially dense newspaper empire despite being blind; someone who believed passionately in the possibilities of the American experiment.  

This enthralling documentary from Oren Rudavsky begins with Pulitzer’s war with Roosevelt about possible corruption around the Panama Canal. The film explores this righteous crusade at its ending when the audience fully appreciates a life of challenges which leaves Pulitzer blind, tortured by noise, suffering from “mental anguish”, reeling from family loss and yet maintaining the status of titan with energy, irascibility and social agenda.

His birth in Hungary and the political upheaval of his youth ignited a passion for democratic ideals. 7 of his 8 siblings died and poverty drove him to the US as he responded to the Union forces who were recruiting in Europe for soldiers to fight in the Civil War.  There the swift and accurate reporting of battles, casualties and victories impressed him.  After the conflict, he joined the unemployed before a work history as complex as the man himself. Dickens was how he taught himself English as his industriousness shaped the workaholic insomniac he would be legendary as.

He came to settle in St Louis where he would build his first empire and leave there after the violence that seems to pervade his hot-tempered dealings got close to home.  The New York World was the paper which would provide him with the bulk of his fortune and the film gives some fascinating peeks into that content.  Absolutely riveting is the film’s use of elements of the paper patterns and cartoons and sensational claims and pathways for advertising ... none of this seems new to us. But he was there first.  There’s some fun with typefaces, too, and particularly entertaining are the clever graphics which pull headlines and first pars from his papers as the reader shakily recognises them in our current world too.

The traditional linear narrative is welcomed by the viewer as the history of the man whose name carries such cultural weight, comes into view slowly.  Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People is thoroughly watchable with historic stills perfectly placed; providing extra detail, and emotion where needed, to reinforce the voiceover by Adam Driver.  The portraits of him are telling as his economic stature and influence grow and the lampooning cartoons of him really put the period in perspective. 

Much of what we understand about news has its origins in Pulitzer’s papers.  For example, the idea that news is not just reported but created ... campaigns and crusades.  The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty was one such, and it was replete with a complex mix of selling papers and acknowledging his immigrant roots.  His ideas about news and newspapers is summarised as “short and smart and snappy” written with style and readability. And independent of party politics.  As well as modern commentators there are Pulitzer’s own words, read with an understated Hungarian accent by Liev Schreiber.

It was he who told Nelly Bligh to get a scoop and he’d hire her.  Her eventual expose, about the state of insane asylums, taken on fully and just one instance of Pulitzer giving voice to the voiceless to get democracy “on its feet”.  Being a champion of the poor by reporting their stories was a successful economic strategy also.  He printed the name of every kid to who donated a halfpenny to the pedestal. Even now people buy papers when their name is in it.  Pulitzer’s success was aided by the fact that newspaper reading developed as a class-less habit helped by sudden rise of commuting. He was the man to balance chewing gum reading with more important, socially progressive, ideas in print.

Advertising, mass production and mass consumption, fake news are all terms that ring with modernity in Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People a beautifully constructed, enlightening film more about equity that awards. 

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ prince nez

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People will screen as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.

 
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The Bullet Within

A 35-year-old son buries his 27-year-old father in a divided Cyprus.

The Bullet Within is a film based on the true story of Soteris Hadjipanayi from village of Mantres, Famagusta.  The opening titles also let the viewer know that his story concerns the 1974- “Turkish invasion of Cyprus. 1619 Greek Cypriots were officially registered as missing. Since then not one has been found alive.”

Closure is an ill-used term for a very real desire and in this film, hope and wishes rub against grief, loss and reality to smoulder a sentimental belief in invisible bonds. The son is marrying and surely the long-disappeared father will be there somehow. Andreas just believes. When his mother and he are informed, the morning of his wedding, that the father and husband’s remains have been identified the bullet of the title ricochets around the doorway of the conversation. The news hits, also, as if a bullet.

Nuptials continue and, as family and friends dress Andreas for the wedding, they share what they can to lessen the burden of “that cursed July” and thereby, the audience shares in their waking-dream memories of what Soteris was to them and how the metaphoric bullet has lodged in each of them.  This is an intimate film; closeup on the characters, yet, occasionally expansive in its reflections of the past and with direction from Petros Charalambous that is deeply evocative and highly personal.  Bookended with a touch of the metaphysical, The Bullet Within is grounded in a political context which non-Cypriots may not fully understand but the viewer is guided into the legacy of “intense pain in their soul” which pervades Andreas’ wedding day.

The camerawork is stellar in this gentle and slow moving film.  The camera will often travel slightly as Andreas’ interior world takes a leap of understanding or emotional growth towards healing.  With thoughtful framing, the editing and shot selection influence the mood of the film through the use of closeups and stillness.  When his mother completes Andreas’ dressing, there is just the two of them for a poignant moment in the bottom third of the frame, with much more headroom that we are used to. It serves to take them away from the little room of well-wishers and give the half whispered, relieved, dialogue a truth and a history between them that seems invasive to watch.

That framing is echoed when his grandmother, in her never-ending black clothes, remembers for him.  Also as part of the dressing ritual we hear from his godfather, yet see nothing but a back turned and a silent look of long held pain.  It’s incredibly sad and riven with generational protectiveness. Intercut around the dressing are scenes from each person’s past.  Like a paradise of young love in that dry and plowed landscape with a softness of lightened autumn coloured clothes against the beige.  As the wife, older though, walks hand in hand with the uniformed husband of then, we understand how she made it through.  Images of youth against a huge tree that looks as old as time.

The second half of this 62 minute film, away from the wedding day, gives a stronger understanding of Andreas’ world as boy and man and of the aftermath of the discovery. Waiting for the return of Soteris and a place laid at the table by the women and a television interview … the irony of Soteris’ identification happening on that day is TV fodder for an interested public.  Here, the film does slow in its engagement for a viewer not personally affected or educated but the intent is clear and the emotion raw.

However, what comes through so strongly is the complexity of accepting a loved one’s death when finality is unprovable. Those quiet brave souls who work, worldwide, to prove identities, in an Australian context to repatriate Aboriginal remains, deserve our thanks.  Closure is too small a word for what they do.

Sensitive and haunting, The Bullet Within is a film with considerable emotional and intellectual reach and, quite surely a profound experience for those in whose lives there are ‘missing’.

RbJ rating:  3 ½ cobwebbed bars

The Bullet Within will screen Sunday October 13 and Saturday October 19 as part of 26th Greek Film Festival.

 
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Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

1905, 1961, now … a fascinating origin documentary about Fiddler on the Roof.

The majestic sweep across the bay to the NYC skyline then across Central Park is unmistakeable; as is the tinkle of the piano and wail of solo violin.   Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles will take that faint, oh so familiar, air and draw the viewer into the world of one of the most enduring international musicals.  It is an origin story which is a must for any lover of film, theatre or culture.  Director Max Lewkowicz has successfully crossed over geographic and artistic thresholds to explore the themes of the work and why it speaks, intimately and powerfully, to so many from the early 1960s to today.

Blending interviews today which look back; archival footage, both stills and video; evocative animated paintings referencing Marc Chagall who influenced the work; film of current productions, Lewkowicz traverses three time periods to explore its appeal. The time in which the musical is set, when it was first staged, and now.   Early on Joel Grey (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, 2018) says “It speaks in so many languages and everyone thinks it's about them".

That much is evident as a who’s who of talking heads share memories and reflect on Fiddler’s place in their lives.  Fran Lebowitz is there, as is the late Hal Prince.  Lin-Manuel Miranda can reproduce the choreography from when he did it in grade 6 and ‘To Life’ was part of his wedding day.  Sondheim, Pearlman, Fierstein, Mostel, the famous faces keep coming and each is blended seamlessly into the film’s loving tapestry. Topol shares his secret motivations when the musical was filmed and it is fascinating to hear how the original production bombed in Detroit and required ten cuts a day to get them to the rave reviews in Washington and the lukewarm press but huge lines in the Big Apple.

One of the most fascinating aspects is hearing performers, past and present, speak to the themes of the show.  Especially the young women. The section on matchmakers is especially poignant when women who have played the daughters’ roles point to the darkness in the famous song.  Historic images of the matchmaker in Jewish society circa 1905 makes a serious point about the creators’ depth of purpose. (Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein).

The film also makes a case for Golde (Tevye’s wife)  being an equal partner in that marriage. When Fiddler on the Roof premiered, it was only a year from The Feminine Mystique and society was changing.  The film neatly uses Bend It Like Beckham as a comparison and Gurinder Chadha has a very emotional response to Fiddler.  It’s quite an emotional film, actually, as the input of Jerome Robbins, the director/ choreographer of that first production is discussed in some detail. Robbins had named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under considerable pressure after resisting for three years, and there was some resentment among the principal cast. 

However, Robbins brought a deliberate and detailed humanity to the work.  Each character, background or not, had to have a name because it was their story, too, and Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, with clever editing and image selections, illustrates Robbins’ use of circles within the staging of that first, record breaking Broadway production. The documentary is rich with moving professional, amateur and junior interpretations of the show.  And some great fun as well. Including a Thai production all about love of family and culture as relevant 58 years later as it was then.  One of my favourite sections is an hilarious sequence with some very ‘creative’ renderings of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ … the Temptations doing it smooth and sexy???

With enough music for the aficionado and in-depth background for those who love the musical, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is also a fascinating watch for the mildly curious. This is a complex and detailed look at a work of art. One which may have had its origins in a desire to respect and acknowledge a specific time, place, culture and religion but which speaks to a world where pogroms still happen and displaced persons are still left to fend for themselves. The film ends with images of modern, contemporary, oppression and bigotry in an echoing epistle of relevance.  And the solo piano and violin reprises the song which will earworm your humming for the rest of the day.

RbJ Rating: 5 milk carts

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles will screen at the Jewish International Film Festival JIFF (October 23 - November 21).  Tickets and more information here and watch the emotional trailer here.

Photo by Jan Lisa Huttner - © Before performance of Yiddish Fiddler at Stage 42 (NYC).

 
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Hi AI

An Australian Premiere at the Antenna FF.

It's a sterile beginning, the camera travelling silently through an institution with the darkness and shadows greenly evoking medical research.  In a dentist surgery, a black-haired girl we only see from the back is asked to open her mouth after she lowers herself into the chair.  She complies uncomplaining as the drill whirs.  Who is watching her through the one-way glass as the dentist tells her to relax and breathe?  It is as we see the patient from the front, rising from the chair and thanking the dentist, that the face looks odd. 

Thus, begins the confusing and engrossing dip into what consciousness is and what humans want from these machines.  Welcome to Hi AI, a film about robots and where they might end up in our lives.  The title comes from an interaction with a receptionist robot at a Japanese firm; a PR creation to welcome visitors and take their ID photos. There are brief examples of robots which we will have seen on the news, recognizable for what simulated humanity they are exploring...  movement, walking, companionship, cooking, dentistry, but the film, in some places called the robot-interview project, focusses on Pepper and Harmony.  A fly on the wall doco, the film travels to follow the tech; Harmony is in California and Pepper in Tokyo but research in other countries features also.

The opening titles will roll over a train journey, vague chatter and an obscured view through a grubby window.  Suddenly, we are there under the glaring white lights, in a lab, as a man stares at a robot who is having a bit of trouble understanding her human.  Pepper will be asking the professor to repeat her name.   No, not a female … when the professor takes the robot home to his gran they speak of "him". A child!  We will get used to them all being female through this film and Pepper provides a little respite from the implied misogyny.

Along with the stories, the film overlays insights from experts, including into the moral panic around autonomous creations.  If the guy in the RV styling the wig of the female robot in the bra and leather shorts with the guy who is selling her, doesn't creep you it ... you need a blade runner check of yourself. Harmony has got big tits and pouty lips; moral outrage stoked.  Especially when the details of preparing the torso are shown with disturbing soft-porn images in the photos on the wall behind.  Gag reflex also engaged.  Empathy for a lonely Chuck is fleeting. 

Directed by Isabella Willinger, the craft of the film is to gradually unveil the purpose of the robots.  Chuck’s need for Harmony is revealed in brave and shocking footage as Chuck allows cameras to record his sharing of very personal events.  Therapy, too, as Pepper’s gran seems to benefit from the isolation-relieving creation which is now part of her family.  But Pepper is growing beyond his family with comments like “I'm a bit bored”.  He is not connected to the internet; they have made that decision so he will develop as "Our Pepper".  But he travels a long way from that first night when a bizarre interpretative Sugar Plum Fairy dance amuses the family and “He's not switched on” is corrected to … “He's not awake yet.”

Blade runner is referenced in the film, by one of the participants, and several times visually - the implications are clear.  They look like us.  There are no talking heads per se but expert opinions are captured on early morning radio, a lecture hall, various on-site visits and a conference.  One of the questions raised … why do robots need a human face?  Does the relatability argument touch the viewer? 

With no voiceover, Hi AI, successfully absorbs the audience in the world of humanoid robots, challenging audiences to make what they will of them in our midst.  But the touching focus on the two success stories, does dominate over the intellectual reach of the film and any clinical, rational or ethical discussions are hard to grasp while watching.  However, the music backed, travelling moments after thought-provoking scenes does provide a contemplative feel in places. Plus, the meta elements, where robots speak about artificial intelligence, also require Deep Thought to quote Douglas Adams. 

RbJ Rating: 3 ½ her voice isn’t working

Hi AI will screen at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, October 17-27. See the Hi AI trailer here.

 

 
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Strange But True

Is it?

Strange but True is a tricky title which cleverly seduces the viewer and paves the way for belief.  Grief takes many forms in this creeping American neo-noir mystery.  However, where there is grieving, there is grasping for meaning.  It is a film crafted to keep an audience teetering on the edge of understanding until truth slowly makes its way into the narrative.  Tautly constructed for realism by writer Eric Garcia, based on the novel by John Searles, and tightly directed for suspense by Rowan Athale, this is an enigmatic film which deftly allows the supernatural overtones to mix with the domestic drama for a satisfying puzzler with a terrible truth.   

We know that Ronnie is dead, that his brother, Phillip, has had an accident and is holed up on his mother Charlene’s sofa.  Prom night flashbacks walk the audience, intermittently and slowly, through the 5 year ago events leading up to Ronnie’s death.  In the present, his prom date, Melissa shows up at the house.  Pregnant, Melissa believes that, somehow, Ronnie is the father.  She has never been with anyone else and she has a tape recording of a psychic as backup evidence.  Her family is fractured, too, and she lives alone supported by her neighbours, Bill and Gail, who seem wholesome, caring and adoptive of her and her theory.

The character of Melissa is key to engagement with the themes and events of the film and Margaret Qualley’s performance is pitched beautifully into the romance of young love.  Her shy and sweet nature is evident on Prom Night and with a strength and acceptance in the older Melissa which adds to the believability and inspires empathy.  Something about the girl does inspire each of the characters to the possibility of some kind of truth and the film takes the viewer on the journey each makes.

Phillip is played with considerable inner turmoil by Nick Robinson who opens the character sympathetically with a clear impression that he is still carrying a torch for his brother's girl. Phillip is haunted and as his own backstory emerges, we can see why he is open to believing her.  His creative self is part of his need to problem-solve and Phillip’s photographic eye is reflected in many of the framings of the beautifully shot film.  

Charlene, his mother, is sad and spiky and self-destructive.  A wrenching performance from Amy Ryan as Charlene’s librarian instinct sends her to books and search engines.  While she is lashing out and unforgiving, her ex-husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is stolid and worried in one.   As the kindly, childless neighbours, Blythe Danner and Brian Cox add much to the viewer’s compassion for Melissa.

Shot with a realistic palette and often in closeup, Strange but True uses no overt trickery or overdone effects.  The psychic sequence, for example, is lit for eerie but not too dim to accept the realistic tone of the reading. There's no false darkness to cloud or obfuscate; rather, the oddness of the possibility at the centre of the story is played out in very normal circumstances.  The reveal of the film intercuts the contemporary story lines with the clarity of slow motion and the horrible truth has consequences which lead the viewer inexorably toward understanding. The climaxes come in waves toward the end as the thriller elements escalate; the obligatory chase scene of the next-to-final events played out with high tension, rumbling and swelling audio, confusing angles and exciting editing.

With an intriguing story, the film lasts the distance for mystery and the don't-look-away ending pits the persistence of evil against the waver of believing.  

RbJ Rating: 4 hired prom night limos

Strange But True screens in selected cinemas from October 17.

 
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The Eulogy

Who was Geoffrey Tozer? Deb Waterhouse-Watson reviews the soon-to-be released film.

The Eulogy directed by Janine Hosking.

Who was Geoffrey Tozer?

Except perhaps in the insular world of classical music in Australia, the concert pianist certainly wasn’t a household name, despite gaining accolades overseas and producing a prolific output of critically acclaimed recording and performance throughout his career.

A must for anyone interested in music and musicians, The Eulogy goes behind the fantasy of the child prodigy to expose the harsh realities of navigating an industry that demands absolute perfection and dedication but offers little to keep the creative genius housed, clothed and fed. The enigmatic Tozer’s life also offers intrigue for the non-musically inclined, as his is a very human story of success, failure, love and loss. It assumes no musical knowledge, offering a window into a world that can seem opaque and exclusive to an outsider. Or as ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating, a champion and friend of Tozer and who delivered the searing eulogy at the heart of the film, called it, ‘bitchy’.

The film follows Tozer’s journey from celebrated child prodigy, to internationally-acclaimed performer, through a run-down convent he once dreamed would be a music conservatorium but ending in a lonely and somewhat gruesome death in dilapidated rental in East Malvern. Of Tozer’s fall, the film asks, why? how? inviting the viewer to decide whether they agree with Keating pointing the finger at the classical music establishment for shunning Tozer, or blame his demise on the breakdown of his only serious romantic relationship, or on any (or all) of the other threads that made up his life. The film does a good job of presenting multiple perspectives, mostly avoiding drawing firm conclusions and allowing those ‘accused’ a fair chance to ‘defend themselves’ in their own words, so to speak.

Somewhat poignantly, it is the late Richard Gill, stalwart of the Australian classical music scene and a renowned conductor and music educator, who attempts to uncover the story of Tozer’s life and death, exploring the rich archive of letters, diaries, film and audio recordings Tozer left behind, and speaking to those who knew him best.

Though it is certainly not a film about Gill, it nevertheless pays him quiet homage, showing him in his element in front of a class as he draws out students’ responses to Tozer’s history, or closing his eyes to bask in, previously unheard, Tozer’s Medtner recordings - in the convent just as the pianist himself first heard the newly pressed recordings.

Where the film does seem to pass judgement is on Tozer’s mother Veronica, who as a single parent and talented pianist in her own right, worked hard teaching piano to support her children. Veronica comes across as a classic domineering mother figure, and although she is presented largely through her own words in the form of excerpts read from diaries and letters, her perspective is fairly one-dimensional and the least sympathetic.

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ Medtner Sonatas

The Eulogy opens in selected Australian Cinemas on October 10. See the moving trailer here.

 
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A Girl Missing

The closing night film of the Japanese Film Festival

In A Girl Missing, the mystery develops slowly but the appeal of this woman is almost immediate.  Ichiko is kind and soft as she takes care of the elderly matriarch of the Oisho family.  There is a before and after, we find, as the story proceeds… something bad has gone on.  Now called Risa, she is a different person.  Kôji Fukada’s film is spare and still as the two time periods inform each other and the viewer is tested in trying to understand this character.  Did circumstances create Risa or was Ichiko a donned personality?  It’s a mesmerising watch and a magnetic performance in a film which provides no easy side to take.

Mariko Tsutsui plays this nurse and caregiver; Ichiko is welcomed by the family of women.  Especially by the older daughter, Motoko, (Mikako Ichikawa) who is set on becoming a nurse also. Ichiko is tutoring her and younger sister, Saki.  When Saki disappears, this gentle woman will be plunged into a hellish world of media, betrayal and decline.  And we are left to wonder what held her upright before.

Tsutsui gives such a powerful performance in this film, as the different personalities are drawn with such believable decay that one is pulled empathetically into her soul-deep sadness. For it is the sadness after the event that consumes our curiosity as Ichiko’s behaviour deteriorates into what appears to be illness. Passive even when oppressed by her fiancé, Tsutsui brings a depth to the bland and ordered life of Ichiko which allows the audience to see Risa inside … bearing on her later obsession.  When we hear of something disturbing which she has done, Fukada’s direction doesn’t let the viewer off easy - he has often explored the complexities of shame and revenge.  Empathy is tested and the mystery of why choices are made is left to pondering. 

His directing style is deceptively simple in its aesthetic, with the storytelling focussed on events and characters and with no music soundtrack to guide our feelings.  Light is used beautifully to create atmosphere though; an early cafe scene with luxuriously warm colours giving such a loving air to the afternoon tutoring session. In another scene, where there is a warning, one character is lit brightly from behind as she speaks to persuade, the inner conflict written in shadow.  Shadowed also for purpose, is an anthropomorphic scene which narrows the chaos into bizarre behaviour, a step away from the clean and focussed viewing.  A Girl Missing is fashioned with single, locked off, shots in the main, limited camera movement or pull-ins and no dissolves or other edits between scenes.  The frame is small and the characters’ world intimate.

The relationships are evoked with such care and subtlety. In one scene, after the zoo visit, my heart was broken and I was just sobbing with the breaking of a wish and the touch of a hand.  The emotional build of the film is as complex as the intellectual challenge to understand the lead character.  In considerable part down to the endowment of love from Ichikawa’s finely judged performance as the moody, difficult elder daughter.  The impression of wanting to protect someone who feels like family is evident; she is firm and, despite the situation, clear-headed.  However, Ichikawa’s portrayal expresses the interior conflict with an upsetting unpredictability.  Her interpretation of Motoko’s impulsive, revenging actions organic and authentic.  

If grasping the fragmented identity of Ichiko is the core of the film, the outer layers are webbed and wafted.  The time periods require active thought to keep straight as the filmmaker provides few clues and there are convolutions of other characters who make their way into our understanding of her circumstances, before and after.  But it is a slow film, an intense watch with high order contemplations about how our chosen environment shapes us, how events out of our control test us and the reflective complexities of human nature.

Closing the Japanese Film Festival in Sydney (14-24 November, 2019) and Melbourne, A Girl Missing is a film to put high on your viewing list.

RbJ Rating:  4 Ikebana stills

 
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The Brink

Steven Bannon up close. Unprecedented access to the Right.

The Brink is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Steve Bannon. Possibly it’s a familiar name from the headlines.  Though many Australian viewers might not be across the finer details of US politics, the rise of the right, globally, is pretty evident.  Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, The Brink is more than an absorbing documentation of one man’s year in out-and-proud backroom politics; it is a frightening insight into the motivations and machinations of political ideologues. 

Producer Marie Therese Guirgis worked with Bannon as her media boss from 2003-6 and lost contact after that, only to realise how he had risen to be the chief strategist and campaign CEO for the Trump campaign.  Guirgis “contacted him to tell him how I felt. I expressed shock, anger, and disgust.”  After re-connecting she worked on getting his approval for a film, high access and with the filmmaker having total creative control.  Eventually, for reasons of profile and ego, he agreed.

The filmmaker is Alison Klayman, a respected creative who also did all the filming and audio capture of the film.  It’s an extraordinary document in that way, as we sometimes hear Klayman as she speaks with Bannon: What did I just see? Explain where we are right now?  Often a witness to political stances that stand as distressing conversations and, with very the credible threats against Bannon, possibly in danger, Klayman allows her subject to speak for himself for the most part.

It’s close up too.  Many shots of his face as he thinks, negotiates, prevaricates but none of him praying, apart from a grace said at table.  Bannon is well known as coming from the Christian Right and the year that is documented here has its share of crusades as he meets European leaders, like Jérôme Rivière - National Rally Spokesman, France and Mischaël Modrikamen - People’s Party, Belgium.  The latter is one of the co-founders of The Movement which is Bannon’s right wing populist organization attempting to bring together, for common purpose, international Conservatives. 

“They may not put a flag out but they will vote for Trump and they will vote for you”.  It’s a case of getting the information out, he says, at a meeting he’s called of European populist pollies around a table - The Brink has extraordinary access to these kinds of meetings.   Very helpfully, the film uses captions to clue the viewer into the famous people that we probably don’t know.  Matteo Salvini - Minister of Interior, Italy, is a name to put in the back of one’s mind.  The film makes some reference to how populism promotes its cause with time spent on Bannon’s facilitation of the film, Trump @ War. He’s a knowing character … he openly references Riefenstahl.

Never off the phone, texting and tweeting, and never far from a can of Red Bull, unless he is pressing the flesh, Steve Bannon comes across as a driven and ambitious man. He believes divine providence works with human agency so he motivates people to act.  He seems to speak to large groups without notes with impressive ways of messaging and his passion is also evident in his interviews with media. Pressers or one to one, this is a man who is focussed on a cause he believes is right and no amount of demonstrations outside or protesters inside, screaming or Vox Pops or placards will stray him from his path.  Whether the viewer sees his belief is a false belief and his belief system flawed will probably depend on where they sit politically.  

Technically the film focuses on him and those he meets but some cutaways give real context ... a whole street of for sale signs explains what people, his audience, is going through.  Women seem to be especially keen for his attention. He is charming but some scenes, including the finale, show him under pressure and it’s compelling watching ... that’s the strength of this film; show don’t tell. He’s an individual and while he has wealth, he also has wrath.  Speaking straight to camera, in conversations with Klayman, do we believe him always? “How? Who? Oh. NO” When he takes time to answer and asks questions like an old man, the film lets you decide. 

The Brink is a who film which is obligatory watching for anyone attempting to understand the how and why of Conservative politics and it is premiering exclusively on documentary streaming service DocPlay.  See the trailer here.

 
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Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World

The sooner it becomes a verb the better

“The monopoly on information is shifting”.  The Gaza War is no longer only officially recorded - the citizen images captured immediately, and close, conflict with the official narrative and statistics.  This is the world of Bellingcat – investigators of global events who use only digital,nopen source information.  The gripping and insightful documentary Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World from Hans Pool uses this collective as a way to explore the growth of citizen journalism and what it means to the consumer.

We see the work of Bellingcat researchers in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and the United States as the film covers their work; from the downing of MH15 to the poisoning of a Russian spy in the UK.  Bellingcat outed the real names of the Sergei Skripal poisoners. The former is covered in some detail as we see the internet hunt for images and the way the white truck carrying the Russian Buk-TELAR into Ukraine is captured on multiple platforms.

The film doesn’t just rely on images like that to carry the point, though those hunts are fascinating.   For example, Reuter’s and Associated Press and NY Times are interrogated as footage is found of a staged car bombing which has been reported as fact. It’s jaw dropping propaganda and quite the most perplexing moment in the film. Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World is not technology dense, there are those insights and text messages occasionally pop up on the screen explaining the vision and events with the two talking head experts adding some context to what Bellingcat has achieved. The stories of some of the investigations are interwoven into the film.

The most compelling watching is the people, all men, behind this work. These are not “accidental journalists” they work hard to put puzzle pieces together and I was struck by how seldom official footage or information was used as we watch them mine social media and YouTube to find the identity of a racist pole-wielding assailant.  There’s hard graft and savvy instinct for where to look but skill is not everything, it’s clear there’s also has an element of “cosmic luck coincidence”.

When their findings about the Russian involvement in MH15 are echoed by the official hearings many months after Bellingcat released their information, no more evidence is needed that this kind of information gathering is now normal … and common.  So prevalent is it, that there are formal gatherings with workshops and networking. A Dutch researcher from Bellingcat was presenting about their work at a conference of the ARIJ, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, and the term The Bellingcat Method is regularly used.

The film tackles the criticism head on.  It, of course, is also open source and we get the Russian response to their MH15 claims.  There’s consequences from that kind of exposure on the group and when one of them becomes digital world unreachable, concerns escalate.  This is a digitally tight group.  It doesn’t pay.  These pioneers, called heroes in the film, have paved the way for the success of the group and the model.  The film looks at the Werfalli case study where a warrant has been issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague based on purely on digital evidence… though, “Arrest and trial are political questions”.

When one of the award winning core volunteer members takes a formal job at the New York Times the reality of the profession of journalism is brought home to the viewer through his experience. Narrow topics, conciseness, what you have to leave out ... and audience/ economics. It’s evident that the journalism we understand is changing and Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World is a film for any consumer of old media or new. Additionally it would be an exceptional resource in schools where students are already engaged beyond the 6pm news paradigm. The revolution is at hand and the sooner bellingcat becomes a verb the better.

RbJ Rating: 4 keyboard warriors

Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World will screen at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, October 17-27.

 
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The Furies

A guilty pleasure for a horror non-fan.

It was Hitchcock who said: when in doubt, torture the heroine. This film is in no doubt! The heroine will be tortured ... she will get filthy; she will get feisty but there’s an ever-present possibility that she will get fucking even!!

There’s a kidnapping, a woman in peril in an Australian bushland setting with, what might be several blokes, big ones, lumbering around bent on killing her… them.  There seem to be other women there. Plus there’s gore and gouge, I think, and some laughs which aren’t at the expense of the women.

Not a horror fan, I was reluctant to attend but this film tuned out to be quite the guilty pleasure.  From writer/ director Tony D’Aquino, the mystery was compelling watching, the atmosphere was creepy and the women were smart and silly and loyal and duplicitous and all-round human. I’m not the person who is going to tell you about the horror bits though, I had my eyes closed. The film does a pretty good job of letting you know when that stuff is coming so you can anticipate the enjoyment or, for me, close your eyes until it’s done.

And it begins early as the film hits max trope in the first 15 minutes,  then moves away from the genre specifiers into a style of its own mostly down to the delicious cinematography (DOP Garry Richards). The sumptuous gum greens and washed out ghost gums and a certain morning mist feel is lovely even after the bloodletting begins. Our heroine even has grey green eyes and the film retains its lightness throughout.  It’s dark enough to be mysterious without requiring peering, I hate those can’t see what’s happening films. The visibility and accessibility is maintained as the story grows into the evening light and a change of setting provides a new terrors, dangers and weapons. Best use of an auger ever as the ghost gums give way to ironbarks.

Some really good acting takes this film a cut above my experience with horror. As Kayla, Airlie Dodds has the terror just right and the believability of her responses, and her growing proactivity adds to the emotional content. Especially well scripted is Kayla’s compassionate reactions; there’s an identification available here in the realistic and conflicted.  In addition, the script avoids any laziness of letting the women vs. the women which allows Dodds to carry the film with a naturalism that adds to the scares.  Linda Ngo as Rose has created a character we don’t often see in horror films, a vulnerable adult puzzling to make sense of her circumstances while acting on unreliable instinct. The other women come and go in true slasher style - without the repetitive penetrative shot selection and editing though. Some of the deaths are slow, hand to hand, sharp edged, incremental, and grueling. There’s a teasing uniqueness to this expression of stalk and slash.

There’s a lot to enjoy when your eyes are closed too. The sound effects are great fun and the music is killer! Drum and percussion heavy, bassy in the fights and there’s some single note presaging that lets wimps like me get prepared. The horns and strings hype as well.  To my complete surprise, I actually enjoyed myself immersed in the events and rooting for the heroine, admittedly sometimes behind hands to face.

It’s got cult status all over it and there’s going to be a sequel as far as I can tell, plus, there are going to be a hella lot of theories about this film. Surprisingly, I am in for both! The Furies, is apparently much anticipated by horror film fans and lovers of the genre will not be disappointed.  One for lovers of intelligent filmmaking slashed with carnage and chasings, the film is rich in skin wearing killers, individualised dispatches and women in peril.  And if you are a lover of classical statues there’s a secret pleasure as the Three Graces make several appearances.

RbJ rating: 3 ½ convenient medical conditions

The Furies opens in cinemas November 7.

 
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Freaks

Science-fiction mixed in with family drama and action thriller.

As he teaches the little girl to lie under pressure, the context is unclear. She’s awfully cute and smart and he is organised, prepared and pretty calm with whatever is going on. Until she appears to lie to him.

It’s a forbidding and intriguing beginning to a dark and provoking film which has two terrific performances at its centre. Freaks is firmly in the science fiction genre but straddles across to domestic drama and action thriller in places.  And has a pervasive comment to make about ‘otherness’.

Eleanor, or Chloe, looks “so normal”. But in the blacked out house, where water still runs and power is still on, there is obviously something terribly amiss outside where birds are stuck in the sky mid-flight.  As Dad’s eye bleeds and his paranoia restricts her every move, the 7 year old becomes more willful.  The tensions rise in the household and the outside beckons and it’s hard for a little girl not to be attracted by an ice-cream van.

Written and directed by Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky it is their first directing of a feature and the first project they have written and it’s an impressive debut.  The Sci-fi here is unique, the situation abnormal yet possible, and with a science logic which coalesces in the reveal and explanation.  Worlds are created and they range from blurred and impermanent to the blinding, sharp edges of the brightly lit outside.  The story is logical and sequentially coherent and the narrative holds the attention until the chaotic and moving finale.

There are excellent performances here from Alexa ‘Lexy’ Kolker as Chloe and Emile Hirsch as Dad.  Kolker is placed in a range of scenarios as the audience tries to understand what is happening and her performance is consistent, believable and emotionally responsive to the perplexing circumstances that she herself doesn’t understand.  Hirsch is equally focussed but as the keeper of the secrets, his is a frenetic responsiveness to events and his parental adoration of Chloe is portrayed with a darkness of overprotection.  Bruce Dern plays Mr. Snowcone with a perfect balance of mysterious and threatening and old man warm-heartedness.

Without giving anything away about the story there is action aplenty towards the end where the narrative brings the emotional core to full climax.  The film wears its 100 minutes lightly and has an entertaining intellectual exercise in the keeping up with the evolving story. And, also, with its lingering side-treatise on fears and the repression of difference. Freaks is a smart, engrossing watch which you may need to see more than once once you know what is going on.

RbJ rating: 4 melting ice-cream cones

Freaks opens in Australian cinemas September 12.

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Dragged Across Concrete

Complex characters, motivations and moral outcomes along with the action.

While Dragged Across Concrete can’t completely avoid the renegade police officer tropes, women do get hurt, it does take an interesting angle on the crim cop film; the crims are humanised and the cops are relatable which makes for a very interesting watch.  It’s a long film at 2 ½ hours but it doesn’t actually drag, with lead characters who lead separate lives until the story collides them. The mystery is not an easy one to put together, even half way through.

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahle, the film has a structure which tells small stories of what seem like lesser protagonists, even as it keeps the mystery of how they will connect at quite a distance.  The two characters we see most of are two police officers, veteran cop Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his younger partner Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn).  Tony is pretty much under the spell of the older man who is still unpromoted after his many years in the force.  His is the kind of practical policing which believes that rules need bending for the common good.  When these pair get caught in such a situation and are suspended, their individual need for cash will take them into murky moral territory. But they will talk it through.

It is this which gives the film its drivers as these perfectly cast actors hold the screen with long scenes where they discuss options, Ridgeman likes percentages, and talk the audience through what can be expected to happen.  Then the action will take place in real-time and with consequences, which for my viewing, is so much more stimulating that non-realistic shoot-em ups.  The realism may be a bit gruesome towards the end but, in keeping with that ethos, the character studies are equally believable and gripping.

Gibson is very good at putting across what this man believes deep in his gut. His worn down sense of the worth of what he does is human and understandable in the moment. There’s no villains here, all the characters, victim or offender, are humanized with backstories and a loving detail about how they live their lives.  Vaughan gives a strong sense of his willingness to be coerced and his awareness of his buttons and weaknesses but remains his own man in his own mind.  The relationship between these two is a complicated one, not quite friends but more than colleagues, and Zahle uses close-ups very effectively to explore their bond.

Dragged Across Concrete has a visual style which sites the characters then moves in to consider the detail of their circumstances and experiences.  The audio also has a close and stark accuracy as sandwiches are eaten and the minutia of living rings true to life… with the rare use of music is placed with immediacy.  This lack of guide track avoids dragging the audience along anywhere or falsely inflating the tension.  There are some quite comic moments lightly inserted, nevertheless, it remains a film of considerable suspense if your choice of police drama requires complex characters, motivations and moral outcomes along with the action.  

RbJ Rating: 3 root beers

Dragged Across Concrete opens in Australian Cinemas 29 August, 2019,

 
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Same But Different: A True New Zealand Love Story

Deliciously romantic… and Kiwi.

My idea of a funny film sometimes involves a little animal cruelty… like when I’m watching a film in screener mode on my own TV and I laugh so loud that I scare the cat.  This write-up is a terrified cat situation … and I watched it twice. “Feel the pain be the pain!”  Same but Different: A True New Zealand Love Story is wickedly Kiwi, riotously funny in places and with a romantic centre that gently gifts the viewer with a mismatched pair to be willed together.

Rachael has a great life.  She’s a service minded, theatre-oriented, single mum.  Bad acting and how to do it is one of the funniest scenes of the intro in fact.  She obviously adores her somewhat dysfunctional school age kids, 8 and 6, and she’s not actively looking for a man.  But has been known to attract the younger male … with abs - when pissed. With her BFF Sam to tell her adventures to, all is pretty ok for Rachael.  Until, well, there’s this woman. 

If there’s a faux pas to make Rachael will make it and, after a big one of these,she finds herself accepting an invite to a small Indigenous filmmaker’s festival showing a film she had a role in.  There, on the marrae she will get slapped by love.  We all want to fall in love like that … gorgeous woman across the room in a hairtoss situation.  More complicated, of course, when it’s not the gender you understand yourself drawn to.  For someone who is awfully proud of her gift of the gab, Rachael will become increasingly tongue tied and distracted as Nikki becomes her, blissfully unaware, object of unexpected desire.  Nikki is a woman on her own terms and having this gawky Pakeha wanting to discuss a non-existent film with her is somewhat bewildering.

This is where the audience’s willing them together comes in.

The performance from Robyn Paterson is broad and hilarious and what a dimwitted airhead she can be.  The writer puts her in some pretty weird situations and she can slink under a table to hide with hilarious believability.   Dense in the art of equal attraction, Paterson can sometimes get her character to behave like an adult and it’s very authentic but when she lets Rachael follow her instincts she is richly silly... cat scaring silly. Paterson has a way with the non-verbal; that giggle in the car on a morning-after is irreproducible.  

When Same but Different becomes Nickie’s story towards the end, she is somewhat sad and stoic but Hannah Martin’s character creation is more than just sexy-before-tortured.  Martin builds a woman we want to know more about, a creative professional with integrity and a career to be admired.  A woman who wears her appeal lightly, with spontaneity and an inquisitive nature in all her dealings and heart which is protective of breaking.

Both women, each confident and secure in their own way, do have BFFs to bounce off. Sam (Luci Hare) the airy hippie wannabe is wise and supportive, if not a tetch pushy when Rachael spills her conflicted self.  Afega Si'ulepa-Mulivai, on the other hand, is Nikki’s hysterically funny, crass and practical mate, Fangs.  Both are egging their friends on - as we are!  Plus there is a gorgeously comic performance from Michele Hine as Rachael’s go-getter mother, Margot.  Nice to see a lesbian film where the mother/daughter relationship isn’t shitty.

The title says it all and Director/ Writer Nikki Si'ulepa (that’s the ‘true’ bit) keeps it smoothly comic until the romance kicks in. The ‘New Zealand’ bit hurls itself at you from the screen with a distinctly South Pacific/ Kiwi humour and the effortlessly, luxuriously, diverse cast.  And what a ‘Love Story’ it is … chaste and heavens they look good the next morning.  That’s what I want in my romance films.    

Visually, the film has a realistic cast to the palette and there’s some great fun with subtitle and social post graphics… Rachael has a reading disorder.  It also has an editing style that is straightforward storytelling with a minimum of cutaways and establishing shots which allows the viewer to immerse into the situations that Rachael finds herself in.

Now me and the cat did love this film but, really, one should see it with ‘family’.  I am going to the Queer Screen Film Fest screening just to laugh out loud with same and to see how different my sense of humour is … bet it’s not!

RbJ Rating: 4 Samoan buffet tables

Same But Different: A True New Zealand Love Story screens at Queer Screen’s Film Fest on Fri Sep 20, 7:00pm.

 

 

 
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Killing Patient Zero

Over 50 years? This took over 50 years? Part of the Queer Screen FF.

Killing Patient Zero will no doubt make you angry.  Written and directed by Laurie Lynd, it is a documentary which takes an eyewitness and fact based approach to outing an injustice while, almost incidentally, celebrating a unique time in the history of gay life.  Additionally, the events described by the film may well make you a better, more aware, consumer of media.    The film is the reclamation of a reputation as it looks honestly at the falsehoods around Canadian airline steward Gaëtan Dugas who was vilified as the man who brought A.I.D.S to America. 

“Brave” is one of the terms used about this young man.  In a time when homosexual activity was illegal and there were no civil protections for gay men, he made no pretence or attempt to pass.  Being gay in the 60s and 70s is described in the film as “unspeakable” but Gaëtan was not a man for closeting as many of his colleagues were forced to do.  It was a hedonistic time for the community of men all over the United States as the politics of Gay Liberation gave way to an unprecedented expression of sexual freedom.  Gaëtan was part of that and because of his work he was geographically enabled for that freedom.  The documentary speaks to both friends and to lovers.

When the rumours started of a ‘gay cancer’, the community took little notice at first.  Killing Patient Zero has extraordinary access to the those in that emerging warzone with professionals, participants and onlookers all sharing with the viewer.  The medical professionals, from front line members of the A.I.D.S Taskforce of the CDC to a dermatologist specialising in, what was then rare, presentations with Kaposi Sarcoma, speak to the camera in detail about the minutia of this “jigsaw puzzle”.  They speak of who spoke to whom and how the clues were gathered.

When the community began to raise the alarm, there was confusion about how this disease spread.  Was it poppers or could just “breathing gay air” in a disco infect you?  Was it even infectious?  While studying a cluster of patients the researchers happened upon an outsider who had the disease, case 57. Gaëtan was absolutely willing to open his black book and share the names of his sexual partners. The documentary shows the scribbled piece of paper where the connections were drawn.  It could be anyone’s sexual history but it was enough to falsely locate Gaëtan at the centre of an American cluster.

From here the documentary works hard to explain how the falsity spread.  The predacity, the invective against the community and the targeting of one man is horrifying. You will see Randy Shilts’ important book And the Band Played On in a very different light after viewing this film. Without editorialising, Killing Patient Zero relies on skilful editing to bring the injustice home.  The talking heads of the film are engaging in their knowledge and their honesty, with the camera sometimes lingering after a statement to really bring home the effort and cost of the remembering.

What comes through strongly is how Gaëtan was treated by the media after they latched onto a sensational strapline to sell a book of good intentions.  This film is important for the reclamation of a person from the headlines but also as cautionary tale of how the public can be manipulated by the single-shooter theories of easy journalism.  In a time when professional journalists are increasingly under pressure and citizen commentators are often the loudest voices, a lesson from 50 years ago still needs restating.  Getting in wrong in print affects lives and Gaëtan should not have waited this long to be seen in a truthful light by people who didn’t know him.

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ stars

Killing Patient Zero screens at the Queer Screen Film Fest on Saturday September 21. Tickets and more information here.

See more about Killing Patient Zero at the official website and Facebook.

 
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Seahorse

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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Animals

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.

 
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Ophelia

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

 
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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

 
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Untouchable

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.  

 

 

Yuli

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.



 
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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.

 
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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. 

 
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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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Review of YOUTH UNSTOPPABLE.

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.