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Short Film of the Week: Campesinos

Matias Bolla’s documentary about Gauchos (Patagonian cowboys) is beautiful, affecting and shows us what cinema does best: transports us into an otherwise distant world, providing empathy and self-reflection.
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Top Ten 10BA Knock Offs

Introduced in 1981, 10BA allowed investors in Australian films to claim a 150% tax concession, and to pay tax on only half of any income earned from the investment. This resulted in a storied period of local cinema (Ozploitation, etc), including knock offs to rival the Italian cinema of the seventies, according to Stephen Vagg.
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Stateless: A Swing Set with no Swings

Last night, Stateless co-creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie, as well as some of the cast, took the mic at the Q&A following the Berlinale world premiere of the six-part series that airs on the ABC from Sunday.
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Aiyai: Wrathful Soul

Australian, Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Crematoriums are inherently creepy. It doesn’t get much more morbid than a joint that literally exists to burn corpses down to ash, and yet there are relatively few genre films that have capitalised on this. Aiyai: Wrathful Soul, the debut feature from director Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam, seeks to address this omission to mixed results.

Aiyai tells the tale of Kiran (Kabir Singh), an Indian student living in Australia. After losing his previous job in a kitchen in the opening minutes, Kiran takes a gig at a creepy crematorium, staffed solely, it seems, by weirdos. However, it soon becomes clear that there’s more than just eerie Aussies to be concerned about and Kiran begins to experience shenanigans of a supernatural nature, including, but not limited to, seemingly possessed ash, weird visitations, furniture that moves by itself and eventual spiritual takeover. It’s a lot, and one certainly can’t fault the look and ambition of the film, which boasts surprisingly slick visuals and impressive production values.

On the downside, the script is a bit of a mess, playing fast and loose with horror cliches and never quite settling into a groove. It’s fitfully entertaining, and a couple of sequences really look the business, but the rules and character motivations are frequently frustratingly opaque. Performances, too, are a bit rough around the edges, with Kabir Singh coming off a little too stiff to be an effective leading man. Tahlia Jade Holt fares a little better as girlfriend Sara, although her continued resistance to seeking help for her red-eyed, gurning, blood covered bae becomes a tad inexplicable as the film wears on.

Aiyai: Wrathful Soul is a gorgeous-looking film in search of a better script. It certainly has some effective moments, and some very silly ones, but doesn’t quite hang together. Still, fans of low budget Aussie horror will probably find something to love in this awkward, occasionally endearing, tale of ashy revenge from beyond the grave.

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Peter Renzullo: Seeing the Light

Being legally blind hasn’t stopped the Perth filmmaker from aiming for the stars, shooting a slick trailer for his upcoming feature film, Skylight – Caroline’s Tale.
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The Invisible Man

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

How do you make the Invisible Man scary in 2020? It’s a tough proposition, as is the case with most of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, the idea of a bloke sneaking around unseen probably scared the pantaloons off audiences in 1933, but it’s a bit more of an ask in an era of identity theft, rising fascism and the planet being on fire. If you’re talented Aussie writer/director, Leigh Whannell, you take the story in a different direction and change its point of view, making it more personal and much, much scarier.

The Invisible Man (2020) is really all about Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who in the film’s tense opening finally escapes from her abusive, domineering boyfriend, and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Cecilia tries to piece together the shattered fragments of her life with sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge) helping as best they can. Then the news comes that Adrian is dead, he’s killed himself, and though she can barely believe it, Cece starts to hope for some peace at last. And then shit starts getting weird.

The Invisible Man is essentially the story of an abusive relationship with a science-gone-amok twist and it works beautifully, making the film feel thematically relevant. However, even if you ignore the subtext, it’s an absolute pearler of a thriller in its own right. Whannell has eschewed the fun, trashy vibe of his previous flick – the woefully underrated Upgrade (2018) – and adopted a style more in line with the likes of DePalma or Hitchcock. Expect long, lingering takes that play with negative space, genuinely edge-of-your-seat sequences that skillfully ratchet up the tension and a score that channels the orchestral ghost of Bernard Herrmann.

Moss is superb as the PTSD-suffering Cecilia, showcasing an impressive range of emotion, and is backed up by a capable support cast, including Michael Dorman as Adrian’s slimy lawyer brother, Tom. Ironically the only cast member who fails to make an impact is Adrian himself, who never quite convinces when he’s on the visual spectrum. When he’s invisible, however? Whole other story.

Ultimately, The Invisible Man is a triumph. Rising from the ashes of Universal’s failed Dark Universe experiment, it offers a clever, engrossing and frequently genuinely scary genre flick made on a limited budget with a stellar cast and thematic resonance. Whether taken as an allegory for spousal abuse, or viewed simply as a deft cat and mouse thriller, The Invisible Man is a superb genre effort that absolutely deserves to be seen.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Anyone who has ever taken the time to glimpse at the more feminist side of art criticism, film in particular, will have likely come across the term ‘male gaze’. In essence, it is the specific mode in which men (whether behind the camera, as part of the captured image or even as part of the audience) observe women. This is most commonly understood as a framework in which, to quote critic John Berger, “men act and women appear”.

But even beyond the sexual connotations of such things, there is also the more general example of how, when you get down to brass tacks, there is a marked difference between men telling the stories of women and women telling their own. It’s the reason why sexual objectification on film prevails in its bleedingly obvious fashion, and it’s why this film, in particular, needs to exist as counterargument.

In Undertow, it’s almost bizarre just how refreshing the visuals are, as captured by writer/director Miranda Nation and DOP Bonnie Elliott. While there’s a definite sensuality to be found here, the blocking and framing of the female bodies on-screen feel more in-line with the works of Catherine Breillat than anything in the modern mainstream.

As the camera glides across the many bumps on Laura Gordon’s skin in Undertow, it presents the body as this almost divine living landscape, as bristling and chaotic as the waves that give the film, and its title, its main symbolic reference point.

But the emphasis on female agency is stitched throughout the film’s textual side as well, presenting Gordon’s Claire as a mother who lost her child in the womb and, after a chance encounter, develops an obsessive fascination with the teenaged Angie (Olivia DeJonge, whom audiences might feel a tinge of whiplash in seeing here, if their only other exposure to her work is with the similarly image-fixated The Visit by M. Night Shyamalan).

The way Nation details Claire’s trauma, grief and sexual frustrations reflect a certain Jennifer Kent-esque boldness in how uncompromising it is, from the more explicitly psychological moments to the poetic, like the images of the dead refracted through a haze of blood, wine and lipstick. And in the contrast between Claire and Angie, the film ends up depicting aspects of the male gaze in a remarkably subtle fashion, managing to get across the double standards placed on women by men, society and even other women without making it a noisy spectacle.

This is the kind of film that is in unfortunately rare supply, as an inherently feminine story told through primarily feminine hands, and the end result only highlights how much of a genuine shame that is. As erotically-tinged psycho-thriller, heartbreaking character study, and proud feminist confession, Undertow makes for resonant cinema, and one only hopes that Miranda Nation and company keep up with this level of quality in the future.

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Berlin: Taking the High Ground

The Berlinale is in full swing, with German language films, Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio, the Johnny Depp-starring Minamata and Australia’s High Ground impressing.
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Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Crypt of Tears opens with Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in colonial British Palestine freeing a young Bedouin woman (Izabella Yena) unjustly captive in a Jerusalem prison. A journey of exotic intrigue follows, slipping out sexy little pocket pistols in opportune moments (and there’s many) as she zigzags her way across Jerusalem, London, Melbourne and the deserts of Negev, uncovering a ten-year war mystery complete with a missing emerald, ancient curses, double murder and the suspicious disappearance of a Bedouin family tribe.

Essie Davis not so much reprises the role of Phryne Fisher but embodies it, and half the thrill of watching our stylish jazz age sleuth is her character’s natural inclinations to take death-defying risks. On the silver screen, it’s magnified ten-fold to the delight of audience members.

Nathan Page, from the original series, is Detective Inspector Robinson and now Phryne’s estranged love interest who reluctantly bands with her to solve the case and suspend the romantic tension throughout. Recurring cast members, Miriam Margolyes and Ashley Cummings return with Daniel Lapaine, Jacqueline McKenzie and Rupert Penry-Jones joining the cast as toffy-nosed British aristocrats entangling themselves in the thrill-a-minute crime caper. John Waters also makes an appearance as a cheeky professor.

As a classic whodunit with exotic locations, exquisite sets, comical camels and actors in lavish costumes working to an occasional slapstick script, Crypt of Tears is the perfect follow-up to a fun and much-loved series.