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Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.

Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.

By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.

Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.

Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.

The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.

There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.

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Warhammer: Chaosbane

Game, Gaming, Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In the world of ARPGs (Action Role Playing Games), the king of the hill is, arguably, Diablo III. Blizzard’s staggeringly popular demon-hunting jamboree has managed to conquer PCs and consoles since 2012-2013 respectively; although there have been plenty of contenders to the throne. The latest example is Warhammer: Chaosbane, and while it lacks Blizzard’s honed slickness, it’s not without its charms.

Warhammer: Chaosbane is set in the dizzyingly massive Warhammer universe – the fantasy branch, not the sci-fi ‘big men in armour go shooty-shooty’ one – and tells the tale of a group of adventurers and their quest to battle a great evil and save the world of men. Players can take on this daunting task as an Imperial Soldier, High-Elf Mage, Slayer or Wood-Elf Scout. Three of these classes are a lot of fun, with the Mage in particular pulling some funky moves, but the Imperial Soldier is a bit dull, to be honest. So either by yourself, or teamed up with friends or online randoms, you’ll battle through towns, dungeons, castles and swamps on a lengthy quest for victory and a new hat with better stats.

Chaosbane doesn’t exactly break new ground in the ARPG mode, in fact if you squint really hard it can look and feel like you’re playing Diablo III, but in terms of moment-to-moment gameplay it can be a lot of fun. The controls are snappy and responsive, the combat colourful and splattery and with a group of mates it can be a blast. Problems do occur when it comes to longer term involvement, however, as the enemy types and environments do a lot of recycling. You’ll lose count of the number of times you run through the same cobbled courtyard, the same dungeon hallway, and at the time of writing there’s not a huge end-game to keep you coming back for more.

The story, also, is a whiff, with occasionally hilariously bad voice acting and an overall journey that will have you shrugging with either boredom or bewilderment. Still, it’s early days for Chaosbane – and apparently big plans are afoot for further content – so these negatives may be irrelevant in future months.

Ultimately, Warhammer: Chaosbane is an above average ARPG with oodles of future potential. If some of the rough edges, and lack of variety, can be polished over time it could be truly grand, however right now it’s stuck firmly in the kingdom of “Pretty Good”.

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Gay Chorus Deep South

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In response to legal reforms that jeopardise the livelihoods of members of the LGBTQI+ community, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir embark on a tour of the American Bible Belt as documented in Gay Chorus Deep South.

The choir, comprising of people from differing backgrounds, use performance as a medium to instigate discussion amidst a heated political climate – a form of peaceful protest that bellows as powerfully as the choir songs.

Going as far as to label Gay Chorus Deep South as an angry film would misrepresent the sincere intentions of the choir using their voice to spread messages of unity. At the same time, Gay Chorus Deep South demonstrates discourse through anger laced rhetoric – a flat note that sees the film become blinded by the same misguided attitudes that it wishes to fight.

Gay Chorus Deep South acknowledges the choir can only appeal to those that are willing to listen. Whether or not the choir, or the film, recognises that their platform will reach those they are looking to persuade appears to have been overlooked and creates a misalignment between the choir’s objective with their execution.

A willingness to investigate the motives of the choir, to help or to intervene, creates a fascinating dissection on liberal values in America – particularly those belonging to Americans on the West Coast. Gay Chorus Deep South drills deeper into the complexity of the issue because of this, though, renders itself incapable of recovering from heavy blows against the choir’s involvement being counterintuitive, elitist and imposing.

It’d be remiss to discuss Gay Chorus Deep South without mentioning its release being timed with abortion reforms in the American South (or that its premise is not unlike Oscar winner Green Book); exemplifying how politics is riddled with religious foundations that disadvantage women and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

It is important however to recognise that religion is never presented as the villain, with Gay Chorus Deep South at the very least offering solidarity to marginalised communities whose political freedoms are compromised.

For others, Gay Chorus Deep South preaches to the already converted.

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The Nightingale

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With 2014’s The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent crafted a superbly realised allegorical horror movie that delivered genuine scares and quality drama. While typically underperforming at the Australian box office (a story all too familiar for homegrown content), it nonetheless did well in overseas territories and is frequently referenced in popular culture. Hell, it even spawned a queer-friendly meme that casts the titular baddie as a gay icon.

In terms of a follow up film, Kent could pretty much write her own ticket, and cinemagoers were curious as to where this superb director might go next. The Nightingale answers that question and while it’s a quality film, crikey, it’s unlikely to spawn any memes.

The Nightingale tells the grim tale of Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who lives in Tasmania in 1825. Clare wants nothing more than to be free with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and baby. However, British officer and manipulative sociopath, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) has other ideas, and one dark night he murders Aidan and the baby and rapes Clare and then leaves her for dead. Clare, injured but alive and incandescent with rage, enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and heads off into the bush to take her revenge.

As you can probably gather from the above description, The Nightingale is a dark and nasty film. However, as audiences at various film festivals have discovered, even with your loins girded you may not be prepared for just how disturbing things get. Put simply, The Nightingale is extreme cinema, every bit as horrifying and impactful as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave. The difference here is that Kent is attempting to portray a semi-realistic picture of one of Australia’s most shameful periods, the attempted genocide of the indigenous people, and expose the very real horrors of colonialism in a brutal, unflinching fashion.

The resulting film is a ferocious and unrelenting piece, and while the violence and rape are never gratuitous per se, it’s certainly going to test the nerves of cinemagoers. In terms of performances, the movie absolutely belongs to Franciosi and Ganambarr, the unlikely pair soon becoming friends as they each empathise with the suffering colonialism has brought the other. Slightly less successful is Sam Claflin, whose character is written so over-the-top evil he threatens to become a caricature at times. Kent’s direction is assured as always, this time shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio, with every frame dripping with atmosphere and darkness. Her script, however, is a little less deft, with the ultimate message feeling a tad contradictory in some of the final moments.

Ultimately, The Nightingale is a bold and savage film, dealing with issues that haven’t been explored in such an incendiary fashion since Fred Schepisi’s notorious The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). Boasting strong performances and superb direction, this is an important Australian movie that is very much not going to be for everyone. If, however, you can handle this dark trip back into Tasmania’s bloody history, it’s a journey very much worth taking.

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Standing Up for Sunny

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Films starring characters who have a disability can sometimes be maudlin or looking to play for the sympathy vote, despite themselves. Standing Up for Sunny at least refuses that tendency and manages to stay, somewhat relentlessly, upbeat. It is directed by ubiquitous TV actor Steve Vidler, and it is very much a local Sydney film in feel and location. Vidler hasn’t directed a feature since the rather effective Black Rock (1997). One wonders what has kept him from stepping behind the camera in between. This one he wrote as well as directed, so it is clearly something of a passion project.

The film centres on Travis (RJ Mitte, best known perhaps for Breaking Bad). Travis (like Mitte in real life) has cerebral palsy. He is supposed to have an anger problem but really – apart from the odd outburst – he seems remarkably even tempered. He can’t earn much money though, so when a pushy but charming blind Samoan called Gordo (a scene stealing turn from NZ actor Italia Hunt) offers to share the rent, Travis has to accept.

Travis is attracted to Sunny (Philippa Northeast). She is trying to break into the local stand-up comedy scene as a route to becoming a radio host/personality. Sunny has a poisonous boyfriend called Mikey (a thankless role for Sam Reid). She is also bulimic, partly because she had a traumatic childhood, and so she can empathise with Travis’s sense of being broken or rejected by society. When Travis becomes her sort of comedy coach, the arrogant Mikey resents their friendship and does his best to get Travis out of the picture.

The film is certainly amiable, and the low budget gives it a sense of immediacy and authenticity. The Inner West Sydney locations are clearly close to the director’s heart and he uses them effectively. There are some obvious problems though. When films feature people doing stand-up, the actual routines (and the audience’s wetting themselves) rarely convince. The other problem is the one that haunts many a rom-com. The arc of the narrative is so plainly in view from the very beginning that no amount of obligatory obstacles-to-love can persuade us from mentally jumping to the end.

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On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

Documentary, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The best reason to see On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship is its level of access. Documentarian Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, directing her second film, scores interviews across Myanmar’s political spectrum, from Aung San Suu Kyi to former president Thein Sein, military generals turned politicians as well as colourful characters from the governing National League for Democracy. Technically, the documentary is well constructed, assiduously assembling archival footage from both local and foreign newsreels. And there are some stunningly beautiful postcard shots – including, at the very end, the temple complex at Bagan, thrown in without any exploration of its historical context or place in contemporary Burmese society.

The pretty imagery is unhappily symbolic of this vaguely patronising and exasperating documentary, which adds very little to our understanding of either Aung San Suu Kyi or Myanmar’s tortuous democratic transition. Myanmar itself is painted in Orientalist terms as a superstitious hermit state; loaded words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘throne’ are bandied about in the narration, even though the country is a republic; the constitution is described as a ‘sacred book’, although the national religion is Buddhism. The film sticks subtitles under all its interview subjects: even Aung San Suu Kyi, with her crisp Oxford accent. The disembodied voice narrating events seems, at the beginning, to be Burmese, but is later revealed to belong to the (Danish) director.

On the Inside’s argument is that Aung San Suu Kyi has failed, and Daw Suu is herself subject to ‘gotcha’ techniques to nudge the argument along. The film frontloads an outtake of the interviewer asking her, ‘Can you look me in the eye?’, quick and dirty cinematic shorthand to imply lack of trustworthiness. No comment is included from her at all on developments since 2017, the point at which the most recent Rakhine crisis began, and her international reputation collapsed. In fairness to the filmmakers, it’s possible she refused to discuss those matters – but, if that was the case, it should have been acknowledged.

Of the other interview subjects, politician and Aung San Suu Kyi ally Win Htein is probably the MVP, supplying a freewheeling and irreverent survey of the Myanmar political landscape. From the other side, Soe Thane prosecutes a cogent case that the military has been underestimated. And the film does manage to land a few blows arguing that it was a severe error of judgment to open up the Rakhine crisis to international scrutiny. It also peels back some of the mystery surrounding the ‘court intrigue’ of Myanmar politics, such as the overthrow of parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, and the assassination of Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief legal advisor.

But there are baffling omissions. The film includes ample footage of Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s official capital since 2005, while barely touching on the weirdness of that city as a place, or reasons for the relocation from Yangon (it was allegedly due to fear of Western intervention and regime change). Coverage of the situation of Rakhine state amounts to a regurgitation of headlines and soundbites, with no examination of the issues at stake. Information is needlessly repeated: for example, the difficulty of changing the Constitution, or the fact that US sanctions are the ‘toughest in the world.’ Finally, there is a fundamental lack of voices from Myanmar, beyond the political elite and a few journalists.

Films about Myanmar are rare enough, and the opportunity to hear from all the country’s political heavyweights pulls this across the line to make it worth seeing. But only just.

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Claire Darling

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Grande dame of French Cinema, Catherine Deneuve stars opposite her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni in Claire Darling, based on Lynda Rutledge’s novel Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale.

Set over the course of a summer’s day in Verderonne, Deneuve plays the eponymous recluse who decides to empty her mansion of its precious belongings and sell them in an impromptu garage sale. Her reemergence catches the attention of the town’s residents, and also her estranged daughter, Marie (Mastroianni), who she has not seen for 20 years.

Filmed predominantly on her Grandmother’s actual estate, director Julie Bertuccelli’s (The Tree, Since Otar Left) film looks at the effects of age on the mind, alongside the intrinsic relationship between mother and daughter.

She builds the severity of Claire’s dementia and unreliable mind through fantastical scenes and visual intermittences, such as having the camera follow a group of ethereal children dressed in white through the house and garden.

Bertuccelli creatively switches between different timelines, during which the present-day character will appear to reminisce and observe their younger counterpart.

It is through these frequent Dickensian flashbacks that we come to predominantly follow the flamboyant middle-aged Claire (played by Alice Taglioni), and learn more of the Darling family’s tragic history. We also gain insights into her penchant for collecting antiques, with a family ring proving to be the catalyst that drove away her daughter. For the modern-day Claire, these trinkets and objets d’art are echoes of her (fading) memories, and also double as inanimate substitutes for her loved ones.

Although still smoking cigarettes in her signature style, Deneuve is convincing as the complex and senile heiress, often caught drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Considering their troubled relationship in real-life, her scenes with Mastroianni are fascinating to watch; with reality potentially converging with fiction.

Bertuccelli’s adapted script also presents intriguing plot points and motifs, but they are ultimately never fully explored, including a recurring “magical” elephant clock. There is also an arc involving a local priest, who despite his minor screen-time gets a flashback scene of his own.

With a (foreshadowed) climax that may leave its audience dissatisfied, Claire Darling remains a poignant study of mortality and memory, elevated by its ‘back and forth’ narrative and strong intertextual performances.

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Men In Black: International

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The original Men in Black (1997) was that rarest of blockbusters that managed to be entertaining, smart and visually spectacular. The superb comic timing of director Barry Sonnenfeld, the tight script from Ed Solomon and the eye-popping practical special effects from Rick Baker, combined with the on screen chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, created a deservedly beloved classic. A sequel followed in 2002, Men in Black II, and it was pretty bloody awful and then a third chapter, Men in Black 3, dropped in 2012 that managed to finish the trilogy on a surprisingly satisfying, emotional note. Because we live in the wretched End Times, a mere seven years passed before studios decided the property needed a soft reboot. And, look, to be honest, the idea of a fresh take on the MIB isn’t a bad one, it’s just that Men in Black: International is not the right film for the job. Or, in fact, any job.

Men in Black: International tells the tale of Molly aka Agent M (Tessa Thompson), a whip smart civilian who witnesses the MIB in action as a child and spends her life trying to find the secret organisation and join them. After swiftly accomplishing this goal, she is sent to the London division and paired up with hunky, glib Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and the duo swiftly find themselves on a hunt for a space MacGuffin while also uncovering a mole in the MIB. Oh, and they’ll need to save the world while they’re at it.

In terms of broad strokes this isn’t a terrible set up for an action comedy of this type, however Men in Black: International is saddled with one of the laziest, most threadbare scripts in recent memory. Scenes just sort of happen, without anything clever or interesting to watch, and the entire weight of the film depends utterly on the charisma of the actors. Don’t get us wrong, Tessa Thompson is a wonderful actress and Chris Hemsworth is usually a delight, but when neither are given anything meaty or funny to work with, we’re left watching extremely well-dressed, attractive people just sort of hanging about, improvising poorly in the cinematic equivalent of a bored shrug.

After the stellar, albeit wasted, cast (which includes Liam Neeson and Emma-fucking-Thompson, by the way) bugger off to their second or third international location, with plenty of product placement for booze and cars, it becomes clear what Men in Black: International truly is. This isn’t an actual movie, this is a commercial that’s infiltrated the world of movies, imitating the cadence but never understanding the substance; the soul. It’s a corporate machine that runs off gloss and market research, with not one glint of originality or imagination to liven its slick, empty machinations.

Men in Black: International is a cynical marketing exercise in a nice pair of pressed black trousers. An action comedy with precious little action and bugger all discernible comedy. It’s proof, if you still need it, that the best cast in the world cannot overcome a deficit of inspiration. This isn’t a film, it’s a product, it’s “content” and you deserve better.

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Hot Mess

Australian, Comedy, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Australia is busting at the seams with talented young filmmakers creating content for TV and the web, all off their own steam, and with seemingly little financial reward. Though high quality material is abundant, much of this work fails to break through into the mainstream, which is, to put it mildly, a damn shame. Hopefully, the utterly delightful comedy, Hot Mess, will buck the trend and capture hearts on the large scale that it truly deserves.

Written and directed by Lucy Coleman (whose web series, On The Fringe, is online now), this thoroughly contemporary tale of love, desperation, and misplaced priorities has the smarts and savvy to make its non-existent budget an instant non-problem, and even a strange kind of strength.

At the centre of this finely judged piece of comedic economy is 25-year-old Loz (Sarah Gaul is an absolute revelation here, expertly navigating a difficult but truly loveable character who bounces all over the emotional map), a burgeoning writer who seems intent on sabotaging her own success. Hotly touted to be awarded with a coveted writer-in-residence gig at a theatre run by the no-nonsense Greg (a nice turn from Sydney acting school godfather, Terry Serio), the talented Loz constantly jeopardises her chances by coming up with increasingly graphic and confronting feminist-minded material. Harangued by her concerned and disapproving mum (well played by Zoe Carides), the hopelessly adrift Loz sees an anchor in Dave (the gifted and charismatic Marshall Campbell), a nice guy who might just be the answer to her romantic dreams. Unless he’s not…

Cleanly but imaginatively shot by DOP, Jay Grant, and boasting a just-right musical score by Jack Hambling and Tom O’Dea, Hot Mess really sings when it comes to performance and script. Lucy Coleman’s dialogue is loopily of-the-moment, but it never feels cloying or contrived. Her characters speak like smart, thoughtful young people do in “real life”, and the creation of such pitch-perfect dialogue is no mean feat indeed. It’s helped to no end by the actors speaking it, all of whom ring and sing with wit and authenticity. Effortlessly current but undeniably timeless, Hot Mess is a warm and wonderful work from a very exciting new voice in Australian comedy.

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Defend, Conserve, Protect

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the most highly visible (we’ve all seen someone on the street wearing one of their promotional hoodies, right?) and instantly effective environmental protective organisations in the world. Founded by Paul Watson – who was ousted from Greenpeace because his approach was too confrontational for the appropriately titled environmental activist group – Sea Shepherd has used various seagoing vessels to obstruct the Japanese whale trade via direct and often aggressive methods. Unsurprisingly, they are a highly divisive player on the environmental protection scene.

This crowd-funded, Australian-produced documentary from director, Stephen Amis (whose diverse resume includes everything from the Shane Jacobson-led comedy, The BBQ, to the schlock-action of The 25th Reich), however, is unapologetically in Sea Shepherd’s corner. With a ragged sense of urgency, the film takes viewers on-board Sea Shepherd’s various vessels as they set out into the icy waters of Antarctica to way-lay a phalanx of Japanese whaling ships on their way to harpoon as many Minke whales as they can.

With different types of ships with catchy names (including the Brigitte Bardot and the Steve Irwin) and flashy paint jobs, the small Sea Shepherd flotilla is almost like an environmental version of The Thunderbirds, heroically crewed by its own version of the Tracy brothers. Committed and charismatic, the likeable likes of Captains Peter Hammarstedt and Luis Manuel De Pinho put their lives on the line as they bump their vessels up against the much larger (and utterly horrific) Japanese factory ships, which are basically blood-stained aquatic abattoirs equipped with high powered water cannons.

The footage is high-intensity and gripping, while on-screen interviews with iconic figurehead Paul Watson provide context about Sea Shepherd. Sequences featuring Dan Aykroyd as the collective voice of the Minke whales, however, are far less effective and largely superfluous. It’s in Sea Shepherd’s sense of commitment, passion and daring that the exciting and compelling Defend, Conserve, Protect finds its best footing, playing out more like a seafaring adventure tale than an environmental doco.

Previews of Defend, Conserve, Protect are being held in June – find out where it’s playing by clicking here. A general release will then follow from July 25, 2019.