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Moonless Dawn

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.

Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.

Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.

The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.

In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.

Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.

But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.

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Don’t Be Nice

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

Slam poetry’s aim to communicate the hardships experienced by the marginalised, comprising of one-part confronting lyricism and one-part performance, becomes defanged thanks to a competitive poetry circuit whose round-robin nature resembles The Masked Singer. With no Lindsay Lohan or obscure Australian pop-star hidden beneath a mask in sight, this competitive world of slam poetry is explored in the honest-yet-doughy documentary Don’t Be Nice.

The film follows the journey of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team – a team comprised entirely of people of colour – in the lead up to the 2016 National Poetry Slam. The National Poetry Slam offers entrants more than just a soapbox to discuss inequality. For the competitors, it provides the opportunity to perform in front of large crowds and an entry point into the entertainment business.

Vulnerability is part of the game, with each competitor digging deep into their traumatic past to convey a confronting look at the current climate. It is not enough for these participants to say how they feel; they must bleed for it.

From ideation to fruition, director Max Powers invites the viewer to witness the creative process for these artists. For these vanguard poets, it is a journey that is equal parts rewarding as it is frustrating, with the fruit of their labour put under constant scrutiny by their coach.

Their handling of critique, whether destructive or constructive, allows Don’t Be Nice to introduce a discussion on criticism culture. To the detriment of the film, this theme is not explored further with the documentary unable to draw a satisfying point-of-view on the matter.

Don’t Be Nice is unafraid to question the legitimacy of its practice, with members of The Bowery Slam Poetry Team questioning those who ‘write good poetry’ with those who ‘write to win competitions.’ This question of artistic integrity versus crowd-pleasing is explored with thorough concern and demonstrates deep thinking on behalf of the filmmakers who remain committed to upholding the sanctity of slam poetry.

This degree of complex thinking is most evident in the slam poets’ performances, with each participant using every opportunity on-screen to leave an impression. They are performers who use words and expressions to provoke strong emotions; their everyday fears coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement being some of the prevalent themes in their work.

Slam poetry is an art-form that draws its intense power through a frenzy of provocative right-hooks that speak to the human experience. It is when the filmmakers decide to incorporate visual elements, the output having the same quality as a YouTube video, where Don’t be Nice breaks its neck trying to enhance the medium. It becomes an indie effort wanting to turn mainstream that ultimately clashes with the underground nature of slam poetry.

All sizzle and little pop, Don’t Be Nice offers a fascinating yet unfocused glimpse into the world of competitive slam poetry.

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JK Rock

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The latest from director Shunji Muguruma (Shadow Kids, Oh! My! God! Kamisama kara no okuimono) is a tune made up of familiar notes. A trio of high school girls form a band and, when discovering that their favourite hot spot, Tero’s Rock Café is at risk of closing down, they enter a band competition to raise the money needed to keep it open. The trio are mentored by Jyo, a former musician who felt he missed his chance at stardom while his former bandmate raked in the glory, learning to rock again through the youthful energy of his proteges.

Of course, like the best music in the genre, cliché is part of what makes it work. The music itself, courtesy of Koji Endo strikes a heartful chord through its simplicity, allowing the infectiousness of both the tunes and the performance thereof to flow in and out of the frequently melodramatic narrative. It’s almost unfair how catchy the music is, making ‘humming the baseline’ into less of a suggestion and more of a foregone conclusion.

While Kaori Tanimoto’s scripting toys around with the tropes of the genre, which makes for an uneasy but ultimately successful blend of the expected and the unexpected, the real shining moments come from the framing. Between the teenaged band Drop Doll, Jyo and his experiences as part of JoKers, and café owner Tero’s own past history as a musician, the story essentially contains three generations of musos. The vigorousness of the teenagers just starting out, the brooding on what could have been from Jyo, and the nostalgic satisfaction of Tero that he ever got to play at all. Between these three is the blueprint through which all rock and roll resonates.

Rock and roll is a driving force in pop culture for a reason, and whether you’re from the land of the rising sun or the house of the rising sun, the shared experience remains.

JK Rock may be held back somewhat by its familiarity, but the delivery and frenzied glee makes for a very fun feature. Watching these musicians put their heart and soul into their playing, it’s hard not to get lost in the euphoria of it all, and if film is meant to make an audience feel more than anything else, you’re most certainly going to get that here.

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Daniel Isn’t Real

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

Imaginary friends and horror movies go together like beer and pizza, wine and cheese or pingers and threesomes, they’re just a great match. You can trace an arc through genre history, from The Exorcist (1973) to The Shining (1980) to more modern gear like The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014), and more examples that we simply don’t have the time and space to get into. Something about the notion of a child having a relationship with someone or something only they can see is inherently fascinating, and more than a little creepy. Daniel Isn’t Real, from the wonderfully named director Adam Egypt Mortimer, brings a fresh take to the idea, and delivers an effective, thrilling horror movie to boot.

Daniel Isn’t Real focuses on Luke (Miles Robbins), a pleasant but troubled young man, who is finding the stress of college and helping care for his mentally ill mum, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterton) is all a bit too much. Just when he reaches what appears to be his breaking point, his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) steps back into the picture, all grown up and ready to help Luke be all that he can be. But after a honeymoon period where Daniel helps Luke with relationships and standing up for himself, his suggestions become demands, and he begins to get possessive and violent.

The film succeeds on two levels. Firstly, the script is a cracker, digging into a rich vein exploring mental illness, masculine identity and the idea of artistic inspiration as a kind of madness. Secondly, the performances from everyone, but particularly Robbins and Schwarzenegger (and yes, that’s Arnie’s kid), are very good indeed. Luke’s dorky twitchiness pairs beautifully with Daniel’s almost sensual arrogance, making their relationship the black beating heart of the flick. Mary Stuart Masterton also brings the goods as Luke’s mum, portraying a character who is fascinatingly bowed but unbroken by the demons of her mind. Ironically, the dissection of real world themes is so deftly handled, it’s almost a pity when the horror arrives in earnest, although that too is skillfully executed, if occasionally a tad familiar.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a low budget horror flick with a lot on its mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always utterly compelling, it’s a reminder that genre films don’t need to be empty-headed regurgitations and that supernatural themes can resonate with more grounded concepts. If that sounds like your jam, check it out and bring some friends, both real and imaginary.

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

The Soska Sisters, comprising Canadian identical twins Jen and Sylvia, have been notably absent from genre filmmaking for a little while. Certainly, they directed the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 in 2014, but their last original work was body modification-infused, Katherine Isabelle starrer, American Mary in 2012. It’s fitting that their return is a remake of a work by another bonkers Canadian, David Cronenberg and his 1977 body horror Rabid.

To be blunt, Rabid is far from Cronenberg’s best work, making it perfect for the remake treatment and the Soskas rise to the challenge, bringing their comic book-esque sensibility to the proceedings to mostly positive results.

Rabid tells the tale of Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a timid woman who has issues about her appearance and seems unable to break into the world of fashion design. After Rose gets into a terrible accident, she is hideously disfigured, and pretty much thinks her life is over until Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) offers to give her a radical treatment, on the house.

Post operation Rose looks and feels fantastic, imbued with a fresh face, new found confidence… and a new hunger that seems impossible to sate. From there Rabid kicks off in splattery style, featuring a bunch of engaging gore and body horror moments that will likely have all but the most hardy audience members squirming.

It should be noted the Soska Sisters are not trying to ape Cronenberg’s style at all. Whereas Dave’s vision was icy and slowburn and full of slow building menace, the Soskas’ take is more like an adult comic book. All the characters are broad and just this side of camp, with muscular hunks, heavily accented fashion designers, bitchy models and scientists that feel one stiff drink away from cackling at the heavens, roaring, “it’s aliiiiiiive!” Cronenberg’s stubby armpit stinger has been replaced with a lengthy, whipping pit-tentacle and the overall story is generally bigger and goofier, although in a mostly entertaining way.

Ultimately, Rabid is a solid, engaging horror remake with an unapologetically over-the-top tone that slips frequently from the visceral to the farcical and back again. If you can forgive the occasional ropey moments where the Soskas bite off just a little more than they can chew, and you like your movies with a bit of body horror, you’ll likely find yourself foaming at the mouth over Rabid.

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A Russian Youth

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A Russian Youth is very much a ‘festival film’. It is best seen at a festival where there is an appetite for a healthy dose of experimentation, a disruption of traditions and an upheaval of expectations. The film premiered, appropriately enough given its subject matter, at the Berlinale and has picked up a few festival awards across the year, most notably at the Pacific Meridian Film Festival in Vladivostok.

No one does war films quite as well as the Russians. These films are about humanity and sacrifice in the face of extreme horror. They are powerfully dramatic, invariably hyper-realistic and employ the war context as a shortcut to eliciting deeply emotional connections with the audience. They are rarely patriotic chest-thumping proclamations, but rather sophisticated and delicate appraisals of character that are decidedly anti-war. It is not surprising that this remains a staple genre in Russia, and every year new, high quality films are released to broad audience appeal that find fresh stories within the broad canvas of Great Patriotic War.

In contrast, A Russian Youth disrupts Russian war cinema expectations. It is one of a very small group of Russian films set during WWI – a humiliating series of events with dire consequences for the 20th century. The film follows the misadventures of a weak, simple-minded but spirited peasant boy willingly signing up to fight the Germans. Within days of appearing in the trenches on the Eastern Front, Alyosha entertains his older comrades before being blinded during a gas attack. As he recovers in a field hospital, blind and desperate, it is clear that he cannot go home to his mother. He begs to continue fighting and before long he is assigned to listening to enemy airplanes with a huge steampunk ear-horn that can pick up the sound of advancing enemy planes from miles away. He becomes the army’s ears on the frontline.

Running in parallel to this is a present day story of an orchestra in St. Petersburg rehearsing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor’ (1909) and the 1940s ‘Symphonic Dances’ with the sound of the rehearsals often interrupting or sitting on top of the war time action, with the soundtracks intersecting.

There is no explanation for the interaction of the rehearsal and the wartime narrative, with the audience required to make the symbolic connections for themselves and interpret the conductor’s notes, whether to the filmmaker or his musicians.

A Russian Youth is a curious film that purposefully works against the grain. The action is set during the infamous WWI trench war, it eschews the realist tradition and powerful emotional connections, with its aesthetically over-determined use of war cinema tropes, stunning nostalgic treatment of the images, and some incendiary homoerotic horseplay.

The film asserts a contrasting provocative tone to earlier Russian war melodramas. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between a video essay on war and patriotic music and a Brechtian cinematic and symphonic experiment. The orchestral rehearsal provides only brief glimpses of impact on the action, with the finale a highlight, juxtaposing a close up of the pianist at full throttle with the band of soldiers pushing a heavily laden cart with a machine gun up a hill in what is without doubt the signature image of the film – the men in silhouette pulling with all their might against a darkly ominous sky.

The first thing that leaps out with this film is its visual style – the images appear to be delightfully nostalgic, as if yearning for a lost summer at the start of the 20th century. The colours are warm and the images grainy but luminescent. It is as if freshly discovered documentary footage was painstakingly hand tinted years afterwards, bringing back to life a world that was lost. Yet rather than making it appear authentic and real, this technique creates a feeling of distance. It is startling and visually moving and yet a long way from Soviet war melodramas.

The orchestral score and its foregrounding as a documentation of a real rehearsal is confusing – it acts as a way of interrupting the staged action and highlighting its artifice, but to what ends? We get it, but in order to see a war film we make certain adjustments of expectation and emotional readiness. Conceptually it may have been a good idea at the time, but it highlights the lack of substance in the story of Alyosha.

There is an argument that this film, Alexander Zolotukhin’s feature debut, would not have been possible without the heavyweight backing of modern master Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) as producer. Zolotukhin comes from Sokurov’s special director’s masterclass that he established in the small southern Russian town of Nal’chik. Some of the 12 graduates of this course have already established their international credentials with twentysomething Kantemir Balagov a two time winner at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category in 2017 for Closeness and 2019 for Beanpole. Sokurov’s masterclass and his producer credentials certainly facilitated this film’s appearance and festival recognition and there are clear reverential nods to the master’s style, but this film is a long way from Sokurov’s elegiac simplicity and stoic power.

Zolotukhin’s choice to opt for an improvisational approach with his cast of largely untrained actors may have been a pragmatic decision but also points to a lack of intensity and thematic observations, especially on the fractious composition of the Russian army riven by class divisions and lack of structure.

Like Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) and Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), this is a war film from a child’s point of view, but unlike those two masterpieces it seems to question the whole tradition of Russian war cinema without offering an alternative. A Russian Youth’s provocations are worthwhile to consider and enjoy intellectually, especially in the context of a festival where such significant questions need to be posed and discussed in the foyer afterwards.

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Love Me Not

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Directed by Lluís Miñarro, Love Me Not is a modern(ish) interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome; itself being an interpretation of the tale of John the Baptist from that popular religious text, The Bible.

The year is 2006, and at an army base in the middle of the desert, the terrorist Yokanaan is being held in maximum security. Dubbed a prophet by some, Yokanaan’s most significant crimes appear to be nothing more than cheering on the coming of a red moon. It’s enough for corrupt commander, Antipas (Francesc Orella), to keep him out of the picture. Antipas’ stepdaughter, Salome (Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson), is intrigued by Yokanaan, to the point of sexual fascination. A soldier herself, there doesn’t appear to be a man she hasn’t met who she can’t curry favour from. When Yokanaan spurs her advances, however, Salome contemplates ways to ensure that she will kiss his red lips.

Miñarro has crafted film that a tale that will reward those willing to dig deep beneath the pretext to find something to chew on. Take, for example, soldiers Hiroshima (Luis Alberti) and Nagasaki (Fausto Alzati) who bicker daily about their captive. Their flirtatious fighting and polar opposite reactions on the best way to treat Yokanaan are symbolic of the philosophy of war. Are you fighting a faceless enemy who only wants to see you dead? Or should you consider that there’s another human staring down the barrel of your gun?

In terms of performances, Garcia-Jonsson is at the top of the heap; swinging easily between Salome’s sultry nature which has captured the heart of many a man, and her shark eyed determination to rip out of the heart of many a man. She’s the glue that binds the film.

And yet, with all these ticks in the positive column, there’s just something that doesn’t quite gel. Despite the Iraqi sun and the bubbling sexuality threatening to burst out at any moment, Love Me Not feels cold and standoffish. And some moments seem too obvious in a film that craves dissection; for example, Yokanaan’s distinct orange jumpsuit which quickly brings up memories of Guantanamo Bay. In the film’s final moments, Love Me Not throws itself open to a Shakespearean ending wherein the whole affair could be flights of fancy and merely symbolic of something altogether more interesting. And when that moment comes, the film is annoyngly taken away from you. A deliberate trick by its director, of course.

A polarising film, Love Me Not engages as much as it frustrates. If you know your literature, then you’ll know where this is all leading to and will likely be surprised that, despite the tale being dropped into the Iraq war, Miñarro takes it to its logical bloody ending. This time with added Mexican drag shows.

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Chained for Life

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Introduced by a quote from critic Pauline Kael, opining on the topic of actors being “more beautiful than ordinary people”, Chained for Life opens with a scene set in a creepy hospital in the 1940s. Freda (Jess Weixler) feels her way through unfamiliar surroundings, stumbling into an operating theatre where an all-too-Germanic sounding surgeon performs cosmetic surgery on a patient.

Suddenly, a loud noise distracts them outside, a film crew member yells ‘cut’ and it’s apparent we’re watching a film being shot, on location at the very same huge, creepy old hospital.

The Werner Herzog-esque filmmaker overseeing the production is referred to only as ‘Herr Director’. He’s portrayed by Charlie Korsmo (who starred in Dick Tracy and Hook as a child but hasn’t acted on screen for twenty years). His strangled Bavarian accent impatiently berates performers as they struggle through take after take.

The film Herr Director is making seems to be something of a B-picture that features Nazi-type doctors performing weird medical procedures on patients, while prattling on about how aberrant human deformities and afflictions can be fixed by his amazing surgical expertise.

Mabel/Freda (Jess Weixler) is a well-established actress who’s taken a role that’s beneath her talents, solely to work with the lauded and (apparently) talented ‘Herr Director’. We follow Mabel as she prowls the set in her downtime, relaxing with cast and crew members, overhearing conversations about actors ‘getting facial work done’ or lamenting her own superficial shortcomings as she languishes in the make-up chair before a scene.

This concern towards performers’ perception of their appearance and indeed, people and their perspective of ‘beauty’ and symmetry in the world at large, is the primary concern of the entire film.

These sequences feel very Altman-esque in their sound design, as conversational chatter overlaps in waves. Mabel contends with the unwanted attention of sleazy co-star Max (Stephen Plunkett) but is enthralled and fascinated by an indefinable attraction to her co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man afflicted by neurofibromatosis, which is a condition that causes non-cancerous but highly deformative tumours, much like ones John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick endured.

Rosenthal has been hired, along with a cast of other people born with natural deformities, to perform in Herr Director’s film because the filmmaker desires ‘authenticity’.

Seemingly influenced by Tod Browning’s Freaks, it’s this ‘carny’ infused element of the film that lends the most pathos. One scene in the film-within-the-film is lifted completely from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, further emphasising the tonal shifting and referential trickery deployed by Writer/Director Aaron Schimberg in order to subvert audience expectations, playfully throwing a wrench into the mechanics of cinema and revelling in wrong footing us as viewers.

Whether Mabel’s feelings towards Rosenthal are genuine is open to interpretation, she could well be ‘method’ acting as part of her performance as an actress in the film’s production but it’s another layer of interpretation on top of the metaphor already in play.

As a visualist, Schimberg’s stylistic leanings tend towards a seventies-inflected surrealism bordering on dread-laden psychological horror. He’s unafraid to deploy a zoom lens for dramatic intensity and experiments with sound design, which recall UK auteur Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy.

As a meditation on our perception of beauty and how much it infuses our psyches, Chained for Life is an intriguing effort; structurally it’s playful and enthralling, though ultimately falls short of being greater than the sum of its parts.