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Slow-motion, skull-cracking violence sets the scene for Below, inspired by Ian Wilding’s award-winning play of the same name. Wilding’s screenplay shifts the action from a mining town to a slightly dystopian outback immigration detention centre run by the evil guards from Newhaven Border Solutions, no doubt privatised out by the Australian Government. Dark web con-artist Dougie (Ryan Corr) finds himself working there to repay a debt to his Scottish stepfather and detention centre guard Terry (an almost unrecognisable Anthony LaPaglia), after an online bribery scam he sets up under the moniker ‘Dreadnought’ goes south.  

Detainees faced with little to no chance of freedom are microchipped and numbered. Self-harm becomes the norm, so to flatten the curve inmates, or their extended family members, are threatened with a trip to ‘the cage’ as punishment. Curve flattened, Terry and his cohorts reinvent the cage as a fight club for their captives. Ever the shyster, Dougie revitalises his Dreadnought persona and offers a live stream of the fights to voyeurs on the dark web. When champion fighter Azad (great work from Phoenix Raei) cops a shiv to the throat, Dougie’s conscience kicks in and he must find a way to help Azad’s orphaned little sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell) escape to a new life of freedom in Australia.

Skilfully directed by Maziar Lahooti on his first feature-length film, Below paints a pitch-black comic portrait around the horrors of Australian immigration detention. At one point Dougie exclaims ‘every day in here is like a holocaust movie’, he wants out, so sets up another pay per view fight, this time between detainee ‘King Ciggy’ (Robert Rabiah) and three double-ended dildo wielding female MMA fighters (Deanna Cooney, Lee-Ann Temnyk, Shimain Osbourne).

Performances are inventive and energetic, with Corr and LaPaglia excellent and Morgana O’Reilly as detainee guard Michelle hilarious. Director of photography Michael McDermott adds another character to the film with his footage of the foreboding detention centre.

Below‘s darkly comic undertones don’t shy away from the nightmare existence of a people locked away in a system designed to break them. Lahooti’s film, while bleak, shines a light on Australia’s moral compass and when those ethics are questioned, we’re left with a glimmer of hope.

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Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Home, Home Entertainment, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Of all the multifarious horrors of the human condition, dementia is surely one of the most chilling. A disease that not only steals memory like a thief in the night, but dignity, hope and connection to family as well. Multiple films exist touching on the subject matter, but usually in the context of a drama or tragic romance. Aussie horror Relic, helmed by first time feature director Natalie Erika James, views the condition through a genre lens, and the result is poetic and, ironically enough, unforgettable.

Relic tells the tale of mother and daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who have left the big city of Melbourne to try and find their family matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin). When they arrive at Edna’s sprawling, messy home they find evidence of dementia but little else. Kay tries to piece together her mother’s movements, while dealing with her occasionally surly daughter and being plagued by strange, vivid nightmares. And when Edna finally does make it home? Things start to get weird.

Relic is very much of the Babadook/Ari Aster/Mike Flannagan school of horror, where family trauma and tragedy go hand-in-withered-hand with more familiar genre trappings. The notion of an older loved one losing their mind is deeply confronting, even without supernatural elements, and Relic cleverly toys with the audience’s perception. The first half hour plays a little prosaic, even dull, but when the story properly kicks in, the film becomes a grimy, slowburn nightmare that is both tense, uncomfortable and yet somehow oddly beautiful.

Three assured performances anchor Relic, with Heathcote, Mortimer and Nevin all providing some of their career-best work as three generations of women from the same family. Natalie Erika James’ direction is clever and confident, imbuing the film with a Japanese horror vibe which juxtaposes nicely with the initially mundane rural Australian setting. The final twenty minutes in particular, with its clever use of dimensional subversion and mould imagery, are unforgettable and feel fresh in a genre woefully bereft of original iconography. While Relic’s themes are never exactly subtle, they’re strongly realised and add texture to the proceedings, making the experience a pleasingly cerebral affair.

Relic is perhaps not the unrelenting spookshow some of the advertising material suggests it to be, and fans of more traditional meat and potatoes horror may want to look elsewhere. However, if you like your genre flicks with lashings of nuance and subtext and very little exposition or easy answers, you’re in for a treat. With strong performances, confident direction and a stunning third act, Natalie Erika James is a director to watch and Relic is an Australian horror movie not to be missed.

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Nonso Anozie: The Butler Dun It

After working with Kenneth Branagh on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella and All Is True, as well as in the theatre, British actor Nonso Anozie, 41, reunites with the director for Artemis Fowl.
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Josh Gad: Being Mulch

He’s been the voice of Olaf in Frozen and Chuck in The Angry Birds Movie. Now American star Josh Gad, 39, pitches up as Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Artemis Fowl, a family fantasy adventure based on the best-selling books by Eoin Colfer.
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High Resolution

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When Tao Lin released his novel Taipei, it was to much acclaim (in certain circles) and he was lauded as a bold, new creative voice in literature. Though many critics dismissed him as a product of a younger, more vacuous generation with nothing on its mind except nothingness, he was largely regarded as a self-promoter, ever-present on a litany of social media platforms, cultivating most of his writing by recording and re-examining his own life experiences and filtering them through a dissociative, ironic gaze which in turn would give birth to a style of writing not dissimilar from the endless and overly detailed monologues deployed in American Psycho by author Bret Easton Ellis. It’s worth noting that Tao Lin’s own physical voice tones are themselves droll and monotone. It’s at this point that Jason Lester (son of Commando director Mark L. Lester!!) adapts Taipei, significantly reworking the material but keeping the central characters and core plot and themes.

The film begins with Erin (Ellie Bamber), having just ended a relationship, wandering into a book signing by author Paul Chen (Justin Chon), of whom she is a huge fan. Erin meets Paul, in something of a ‘meet-cute’ and soon the pair are swept up in a self-introspective whirlwind of circular conversations about relationships, life and existence. The pair take drugs, A LOT of drugs, in fact Paul’s imbibing of everything from Ecstasy to Xanax, to Adderall and cocaine becomes so ubiquitous it ceases to hold any sense of reality.

Paul decides that they should document their relationship on his laptop using the webcam, recording their waking moments and their descent into drug-addled self-obsession. Erin plays along, literally, with the pair becoming locked in a strange performance art-piece of a sort, playing the roles of star-crossed lovers in a self-aware, hyper-conscious artwork that exists only on Paul’s laptop. Drugs fuel their adventures, which they record, which then inspire them to take more drugs to fuel continuing hijinks and deliberate, pointed bad decision-making. Though it’s when Paul decides to take Erin to Taipei to meet his parents that things start to unravel.

Jason Lester has given himself a difficult task in taking on Taipei as a film adaptation. The book’s stream-of-consciousness first person perspective is not something that is ripe for a drug-infused Before Sunrise style walk-and-talk with dreamy music and visuals. Lester’s cinematic ambitions are decidedly European, though not consistent, he manages to cultivate a dreamlike atmosphere at times, ably assisted by composer David Harrington and Cinematographer Daniel Katz.

Visuals aside, there’s an infuriating emotionless void at the centre of the story. As Erin, Ellie Bamber feels galactically miscast, her performance (though solid and well-performed) just doesn’t engage; there’s an emotional disconnect as if her performance is viewed through binoculars. As Paul (an avatar for Tao Lin himself, in the book as well as in this film), Justin Chon delivers an impersonation of Tao Lin, which, as mentioned earlier, means he has a strangely monotone, droll voice. For the unaware viewer, this translates as a stilted and oddly bizarre performance choice. This isn’t helped by the script which translates the stream-of-consciousness prose from the book into a two-hander featuring characters who behave counter-intuitively, feel deeply unrelatable and are prone to delivering ‘word salad’ non-sequiturs of ripe, over-written dialogue.

Ultimately, it’s the inscrutable characters that frustrate any attempt at viewer empathy or even interest. We don’t need to ‘like’ a character, we simply need to understand them in order to engage with the story. Such ironic distance may be intentional, even laudable for some, but it nevertheless makes for an empty, vacuous experience, even if vacuity is the point.

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The Extraordinary

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Autism is a complex condition and therefore providing for people who have it, is also a complex challenge. This semi-fictionalised drama deals with some people who have taken that challenge head on by providing specialist care for autistic teenagers in their centre in France. The first person we meet is Bruno (Vincent Cassel), who is constantly scurrying around, flying from place to place, missing meetings but always putting the needs of his teenage clients first.ccccccccc

The centre is called The Voice of the Righteous, a multi-faith hostel where the staffing ratio has to be just about one to one. The centre is seemingly getting results where no one else can, but is also subject to a slightly hostile oversight by the French authorities. Bruno has another struggle, which is to prevent the inspectors from de-funding him. His ally and co-leader is Malik (Reda Kateb), who worries that Bruno may be spreading himself too thin. Both of them need to be fully functioning if they are going to help the teenagers that they are so committed to.

It has to be said that the film is quite unstructured in a way (a bit like Bruno and Maliks’ working days perhaps), as it simply follows the kids having one little incident or upset after another. Their lives are prone to being quite repetitive and progress is often slow. One kid feels compelled to pull the emergency cord whenever he travels on the train, and to get through a whole journey without doing that is a major victory. Another boy is so prone to repeatedly bashing himself that he has been put in a boxer’s sparring headgear to protect himself. To remove that would be another major advance.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano obviously feel passionate about promoting the humane treatment of people with special needs. After all, for years society simply locked kids like this away and more or less forgot about them. Incidentally, Nakache and Toledano made The Intouchables (2011), and they clearly have got a feel for this kind of subject matter and treatment. They don’t quite bring off a similar coup here, but then they don’t have the chemistry that Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy brought to that.

Cassel does his best to carry this film. He is a talented actor who can play anything really. Here he plays against type in the sense that he is not too abrasive or dangerous and also brings small but chamming touches of tenderness to his work with the kids.

The film might be regarded by some as a kind of essay on better ways to treat autism and one which can’t help itself editorialising in support of that idea. Still, for all its structural flaws, it has moments of grace and the little victories it chronicles are heart-warming enough to make a film that earns our affection as well as our patience.

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It’s a tough life being a woman in a man’s world. Well, that seems to be the main, if not entirely original, message of this drama about a woman becoming an astronaut. The film stars Eva Green who just about manages to anchor proceedings with an earnest performance, but one suspects that it won’t be a role that will be long remembered.

She plays Sarah Loreau, a thirty-something physicist who is selected to join the International Space Station in a mission named Proxima. Sarah has split from her husband Thomas (a sympathetic turn from prolific German actor Lars Eidinger), but they seem to be still on good terms. They have eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant), who has mild learning difficulties and who, despite being bright, is not thriving at school. She also seems to be developing separation anxiety about her mother’s imminent venture into space. Sarah is unintentionally fuelling this problem by being by turns clingy and then brusque.

The men in the space station team are led by Mike (Matt Dillon slightly dialling it in from outer space himself). There is a bit of tension around whether they will adapt to having a female in their crew, and we see Sarah pushing herself in training to prove herself to them and the authorities. Basically that, and the anxiety around the mother-daughter relationship, form the substance of the entire film.

At one point, Mike tells Sarah to chillax as there is no such thing as a perfect mother or a perfect astronaut. This sage advice, if followed, could more or less negate the whole film. There are some other elements that keep the film firmly on the launchpad rather than in lift-off.

Director Alice Winicour (Augustine) can’t quite decide how much to concentrate on the dynamics between Sarah and the crew (resulting underwritten roles), or how to get our sympathies for Sarah without making her a neurotic that needs a lot of (male) help to get her up to speed.

The film is vaguely feminist about celebrating the contribution of female astronauts (several real-life examples are featured under the credits). However, we still get three separate unnecessary scenes of Green showering. These glimpses of nudity don’t really seem to add to her character development. We certainly don’t get any parity with the male crew members in the ablution stakes, so we presume they do their astronaut showering off camera.

Proxima does make one think very briefly about the gender inequalities of science and space travel but there isn’t enough substance here for a long-haul mission. Houston we have a problem.