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The Unsettling

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A couple’s guilt around a tragic event in their lives fuels this supernatural horror from Anglo-Ghanaian Director, Harry Owens. The couple in question are Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba), who arrive in Los Angeles to recuperate after a terrible loss. Although they appear to love each other, it becomes clear that there is much that is left undiscussed.

Kwame has found them a property they can relax in and immediately gets to work trying to instil normality back into their lives; encouraging Abena to make homecooked meals and, more awkwardly, trying to instigate some form of sexual contact. Abena, meanwhile, wants to explore Los Angeles and have an actual vacation. And therein lies the rub, for Abena this is simply a holiday, but Kwame has ideas of setting down roots in America.

Abena’s displacement in a new country is further heightened by the bumps and creaks that echo though their new abode. While hubby-dearest is quick to dismiss his wife’s concerns that all is not right in the house, Abena becomes more and more sure that there is something in its walls that wants to hurt her.

Those looking for the next Blumhouse production are going to be left wanting. Owens’ focus here is on Kwame and Abena and how they navigate a new chapter in their lives. Ever the outsider, Abena acts the dutiful wife when it appears she would like to do nothing more than tear strips off her husband. This all comes to a head when their friends, now ex-pats, Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) and Vivian (Aussie Libby Munro) come to visit. As a therapist specialising in trauma, Vivian can see the pain in Abena that Kwame either doesn’t, or refuses, to see. There is obviously some connective tissue between what stalks Abena in the house and what weighs heavy in her heart. Does this mean that everything that’s happening to the couple is merely a manifestation of their guilt? Well… sort of.

 

The Unsettling is well shot and for the most part blends African culture with a more western gothic aesthetic. Owens doesn’t rely on cats inexplicably jumping out of closed cupboards or other cheap tricks to elicit a scare out of his audience. In fact, at times he appears to bait and switch the viewer, setting them up for a scare they’re sure is going to happen, before slamming on the brakes. With no release, we’re left wondering – and in some cases, fearing – when he’s going to do the big reveal.

However, once Owens shows his cards, the film loses something in the final act as it dips into Insidious territory. It just doesn’t quite gel together and the final reveal, which has echoes of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, doesn’t have the impact that you might be hoping for.

Despite solid performances by the leads and a strong start, there’s something about The Unsettling that leaves you wanting more and not in the way you’d expect.

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Memory

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

In Memory, directed by Tina-Maria Feyrer, we are told that there is a spot in the Austrian countryside where the Devil, disguised as a peacock, as was the fashion at the time, tried to seduce three maidens bathing on the shore of a lake. The women, sensing that something was wrong with the peacock eyeing them up, swam further into the lake and were never seen again. Some say at night that the Devil still stalks the forest surrounding the lake, looking for his next conquest.

Several hundred years later, four young up-and-coming directors rock up at that very same spot to take part in a reality TV show called Director’s Cut. Hosted by a man who is more The Emcee from Cabaret than he is Sonia Kruger, the quartet are offered the opportunity to win financial support for their own feature length film. All they have to do is produce their own short film from which the winner will be decided. Simple as that. Well, they also have to resist the temptations of water nymphs, the Devil and each other. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing.

Our youthful, oversexed filmmakers lounge around the pool discussing their psyches and the process of creation and destruction, stopping only to drink and fornicate when the mood chooses. They initially seem immune to the surreal things that happen around them until one of their number starts showing symptoms of not being well at all. From there, reality blurs and the film becomes a montage of seemingly disconnected scenes.

Despite the semblance of a plot, Memory is more art installation than horror film. It’s what would happen if Nicolas Winding Refn decided to put all of Bret Easton Ellis’ work into a blender and distilled it to its most potent nihilism. There is no one to root for here, but then that’s likely the point. When they’re not trying to jump into bed with each other, our four leads try to outdo each other as to who is the more profound in the artistic stakes.

So, if it’s not really plot driven, does it still engage? Unfortunately, not really. Despite the myriad of colours and sound, Memory feels slight and soulless. The images Feyrer conjures up are dreamlike, but like many a dream, you forget them once they have passed. You can see what is trying to be achieved, but it never seems to quite make it over the finishing line.

Perhaps projected on an across all four walls of a room in a gallery somewhere, with its soundtrack bouncing around, Memory would be more of a sensory overload. Restricted to the one screen however, it just doesn’t appeal.

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Red River Road

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Outside of Boston, a family of four isolates in their summer home while the world goes through a pandemic. That alone will sound familiar to anyone who has experienced, well, the last two years. For this family though, there are no comforts like trying to complete Netflix or doom scrolling twitter. The pandemic in this reality concerns a virus that is spread via the internet, causing people to hallucinate and die. Social media has become a hotbed of misinformation that the human brain can no longer work out what is real and what is not…

Yes, that all sounds extremely heavy handed and on the nose. It’s the kind of narrative that plays out in the discourse of both the extreme left and extreme right. To be fair to Red River Road though, the allegory is perhaps the only real weakness of the film.

Directed by Paul Schuyler, making his feature length debut, and starring his entire family including the pet dog, Red River Road is a tight piece of filmmaking that does a lot with its meagre budget. Filmed over the course of ten days, when Schuyler and his family were locked down themselves, the film manages to do a lot of world building when there is only ever four people (and a dog) on screen at any one time.

Schuyler plays Stephen, the patriarch who wants to keep his boys (Quinn and Shaw Schuyler) safe from the supposed dangers of a Boston under lockdown while they wait for everything to calm down. The family as a whole, is dependent on the care packages that ‘They’ leave for them outside the house. It’s never made quite clear who ‘they’ are, but all signs point to a government that is going to extreme measures to keep everyone locked up.

Stephen’s wife, Anna (Jade Schuyler), is beginning to suspect that life may never get back to normal, and it’s clear that the lockdown is weighing on her heavily. When one of her sons is injured cutting a bagel, her reaction is indicative of someone who feels that they are no longer in control of their life.

Red River Road has a throbbing sense of unease running throughout the first half of the film that suggests that Anna might be right, and the world is indeed hurtling toward unknown territory. And then Stephen makes a discovery and the family begin to think that they can’t trust each other. However, as has been stipulated, are these truths? Could the family be having a mass hallucination brought on by the virus? Schuyler happily plays around with the idea of truth and reality, and he’s clearly a massive Lynch fan.

What Schuyler has achieved with the tools he had is certainly to be commended and the film is a testament to independent filmmaking. Not everything he throws at the wall sticks but what does is certainly memorable.

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The Brilliant Terror

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

Non-horror fans, and genre snobs in general, will tend to look at movies like The Stall (2013) or I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday (2017) and opine “a real sicko must have made that” or perhaps ask “who the hell is that movie for?” For director/special effects creator Mike Lombardo – one of the main subjects of agreeable documentary The Brilliant Terror – this is par for the course. In fact, Mike fairly regularly gets death threats for making movies that assorted online wingnuts don’t care for and feel their dissatisfaction is best expressed through promises of graphic violence. Lombardo tries to shrug this off with dogged affability. Hey, it’s a living.

The Brilliant Terror focuses on the creative efforts of the so-called “grassroots horror” movement. These are films made so cheaply that a “shoestring budget” would be a considerable step up. Frank Henenlotter’s conjoined camp classic Basket Case (1982) looks like The Lord of the Rings trilogy compared to most of these flicks. And yet, the creators themselves are almost uniformly thoughtful, passionate and genuine types who simply express themselves through a rather niche form of creative expression. After all, who else but someone truly committed to their craft is going to lie in an ocean of (fake) blood on a toilet floor in the wee hours, shooting a short about a Lovecraftian incursion into a toilet stall? You don’t see Paul Thomas Anderson getting up to that kind of gear!

It’s not that the movies in The Brilliant Terror look particularly good, mind you, but that’s beside the point. This is a documentary in line with the likes of American Movie (1999), with some wry observations and hilarious anecdotes. There’s stuff about Gitchy (2009), a short about a morbidly obese clown who tickles people to death. “It’s huge in the tickle fetish community” director Thomas Norman assures us. There’s a nice cameo from horror author Brian Keene, getting slathered in blood and gore for Fast Zombies Suck (2015) and the welcome revelation that instant coffee makes for “good coagulated blood!”

The Brilliant Terror is a niche proposition. Well, perhaps a niche inside of another niche is a more apt description. However, it’s an appealing enough portrait of people who love horror enough to express it no matter what constraints – budgetary, personal, professional – stand in their way and that kind of passion always makes for an enjoyable watch.

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Masking Threshold

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There’s a common discourse around self-diagnosing, and how it’s inherently a terrible idea. You wake up with a sore ankle and two minutes on Web MD later, you’ve convinced yourself that you have seconds to live. Having access to everything all of the time is probably not conducive towards rational thinking. That’s certainly the case in Masking Threshold, from Austrian director Johannes Grenzfurthner (Glossary of Broken Dreams).

The film’s unnamed protagonist (played by Grenzfurthner and voiced by Ethan Haslam) is an IT worker with a complex diagnosis of tinnitus. Well, complex to him at least. Through his narration, we learn that the protagonist has spoken to many a doctor about his tinnitus, only to be told that there’s not much that can be done. Despite what the experts have advised – including several suggestions of therapy – the IT worker refuses to believe that there isn’t something unique about his condition.

Over the next 90 minutes, the protagonist takes us through numerous experiments and papers he’s read online that, to him at least, point to something much bigger going on in his ears. In minute detail, he tries to convince us that his tinnitus changes when there are certain objects in a room: plants, bananas, super glue and so on. Shut away in his tiny basement with his makeshift lab, he just knows that he’ll get to bottom of it all. There is, after all, a meaning behind everything.

Masking Threshold’s worst horrors come in the final act, when the protagonist makes a monumental leap of faith about his condition that pretty much cracks his sanity in two. And bear in mind this is a man we’ve seen boil his own urine.

Before then, this is almost a powder dry film, as we watch the protagonist become obsessed with minor things that would ordinarily go over the heads of others. A brief visit from his neighbour doesn’t seem to persuade him that his time might be better spent outside. When he uploads his ‘findings’ to YouTube, the derisive comments from the public only seem to fuel him further.

The languid pacing is a deliberate play by Grenzfurthner, which lets you marinate in his character’s worldview, before he finally turns up the heat. When the protagonist starts experimenting on ants and slugs, it’s clear to see where this is all going, but it’s still shocking.

Grenzfurthner’s use of extreme closeups adds to the increasing uncomfortableness of the protagonist’s ‘research’. The director makes the audience a part of these unconscionable deeds even when we try to look away. Yes, at times, the heavy use of medical terms and theories becomes impenetrable, and this will be off putting to some. However, it serves the purpose of showing how everything in Masking Threshold is this man’s world now. He is so entrenched in his work that he ignores his mother and his boss’ calls, just so he can take the next step towards self-actualisation. His conclusion is that he gets ‘it’, he knows what’s happening in the world, and he’s just waiting for everyone else to catchup. Sound familiar?

Masking Threshold is a stressful and grimy look at obsession. Its one-of-a-kind presentation will make you squirm and get under your skin long after the film is over.

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The Justice of Bunny King

Australian, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, Sydney Film Festival, This Week 1 Comment

In her debut feature film The Justice of Bunny King, Gaysorn Thavatt affectionately portrays the eponymous character as a victim of a faceless welfare system, while her life spirals out of control through a series of unfortunate decisions and incidents.

In this character-driven drama, Bunny (Essie Davis) lives up to her namesake, with an energetic but combustible personality, as she struggles to maintain dignity in her life. She pockets tips from washing car windshields, while living with her sister whose new partner Bevan is reluctantly hospitable.

Pertinently though, Bunny is motivated to resume a normal life with her estranged children that have since gone to live with foster parents after a violent incident renders Bunny incapable to raise them. Bunny endlessly haggles with government and welfare agencies, but they insist she must get a job and find a house to even be considered a viable parent for her children.

The film resembles Ken Loach realism by dissecting the grim depths that the lower-class are subjected to in order to survive. In this case, Bunny utilises all the resources around her as she imposes a staunch sense of justice, although mainly justice to herself. For instance, just as a pathway to a normal life emerges, Bunny witnesses Bevan committing a potentially horrendous act with his stepdaughter Tonyah and absconds with her. Not only this, she is able to slither into sleeping in a vacant high-rise apartment after hoodwinking a real estate agent. Her ability to deceive off-the-cuff might raise an eyebrow to her moral ambiguity, but her resourcefulness keeps the film constantly on edge.

The screenplay by Sophie Henderson is particularly adept at only doling out information about Bunny’s past when her current mistakes and shortcuts force them to reveal themselves. This effectively prevents any pre-meditated judgement about Bunny and allows sympathy and compassion for her plight. Even in its dramatic ending, where Bunny will try anything to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, the life-threatening twists feel palpable and earned.

Particularly noteworthy is the phenomenal acting by Essie Davis, but also the supporting role of Thomasin McKenzie as Tonyah. Davis is placed once again in a maternal role, but varyingly to, say The Babadook, Bunny is unafraid of the contours of her desperation as laid bare with a ruggedness of appearance and rapid-fire bluntness in the way that she speaks.

While Bunny oscillates between doing right and wrong, each of her decisions compound with greater consequences on other aspects of her life. This renders Thavatt’s film a penetrative glimpse into lower-class realities, with a self-destructive central character hell-bent on regaining her family.

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A Sexplanation

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

Alex Liu’s A Sexplanation is a documentary about a topic that most of us can not define or are comfortable talking about, yet it is something we encounter every day. A Sexplanation is a documentary about sex. It is a film that questions everything we think we know about the subject and aims to get us to talk more openly about it.

Liu’s film explores how we learned about sex, what we were taught about sex, and what we don’t know about sex. It is often awkward and uncomfortable and that is exactly the point; sex is something that each of us encounters so often and is such an important part of our lives, and to not be comfortable with talking about it to others can be potentially damaging to our health.

Liu introduces this topic through his own personal struggles with sex and sexuality, which left him on the brink of suicide. And because he is so open about his own experiences, he manages to break down some of these awkward and uncomfortable barriers we put up when dealing with these conversations.

We see scenes where Liu gets personal with his family about sex, asking them how their sex life is, and whether they knew he was masturbating as a child. It is uncomfortable to watch, and you spend the whole time awaiting something terrible, except it never comes. We are left wondering if it really is that simple and are forced to question whether we have been open enough with our loved ones about sex.

Liu directs, produces, co-writes, co-edits and is essentially the main character of the film. His awkward responses and genuine nervousness ground the film and give us someone to follow. He also brings a much-needed comedic presence to the screen, inviting us to participate in the conversation by making it light-hearted. Without him, the film would be far too uncomfortable to watch.

Balanced with Liu’s personal stories are an array of different perspectives from experts, plus Liu’s friends, random people in the street, a politician and even a priest. The film does well in providing lots of different perspectives and not judging them or having an agenda. We can see the film’s primary aim is to educate people about these issues, rather than tell them what to think.

In this way, we are forced to come to our own decisions and to consider these topics deeply, which is something most of us haven’t done before.

The camerawork is personal, and makes the audience feel like we are a part of these conversations. The film is also complimented by a small amount of animation which helps illustrate emotions and the things that people are saying.

A Sexplanation is a documentary that successfully engages its viewer in conversations about porn, sex, masturbating and sexuality in a way that is entertaining and enlightening.

More about A Sexplanation here.

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Josée

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

Director Jong-kwan KIM has to be one of South Korea’s hardest working filmmakers, having completed the introspective Shades of the Heart (also playing at this year’s KOFFIA) just months after releasing his brooding adaptation of the young adult novel Josée, the Tiger and the Fish from author Seiko Tanade.

While Tanade’s bittersweet novel is no stranger to big screen adaptions, with a feature length anime recently coming out of Japan, Jong-kwan has once again injected his own complex perspective on the contemporary love story to deliver a thoughtful, confronting, and socially relevant drama.

Released simply as Josée, the stripped down title hints at the prolific director’s approach in witling away much of the ‘fluff’ embodied by the Japanese release, instead choosing to focus on his primary antagonists, the reserved college student Young-seok and his unexpected ward, the disillusioned wheelchair bound Josee. And while Jong-kwan does sprinkle a small supporting cast into his narrative, it’s the disruptive and volatile relationship between the two very different personalities that commands your attention.

Having appeared in the 2019 drama series The Light in Your Eyes, Joo-hyuk NAM as Young-seok and Ji-min HAN as Josee, with both young actors embracing the darker side of their character’s respective damage in a deeply humanising fashion, allowing Jong-kwan to subtly craft a duel-redemptive arc that is at once hopeful and heartbreaking.

Coupled with the film’s intimate cinematography, which allows the cluttered back streets of Seoul’s suburban landscape to breathe as an organic character in and of itself, Josée is nothing short of an affecting experience.

And while there are moments where Jong-kwan over-indulges his social commentary regarding wealth and poverty, the abled and disabled, and the widening generation gap playing out in South Korea, Josée is nonetheless an engaging modern fable trapped in a confronting realism and rich in metaphor.

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Growing Pains《少年阿堯》

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

Taiwanese short film, Growing Pains focuses on fourteen-year-old Yao (Chen Chong-En), who has had enough of his dilapidated sneakers.

Tired of having them merely repaired again and again by his financially strapped father (Yi Wen-Chen), who can’t afford to replace them, Yao attempts to convince his father to purchase a new pair.

For Yao, this becomes his obsession, and it is all that he focuses and concentrates on – he is eager to not be scoffed at by his classmates and wants to be able to match his peers on the track team.

One day, Yao’s father receives a visit from debt collectors, which ends in a nasty dispute. Immediately following this, Yao suddenly gets a pair of shoes from his father. What Yao fails to realise is how close his father is to real, far-reaching trouble.

Whilst his father makes attempts to get approval from his son, trying to uphold his dignity, and deal with unscrupulous standover men, Yao remains largely unaware of what his father is going through – and how near he is to facing serious problems and becoming insolvent.

All he can think about is his decrepit shoes and how much he wants a new pair.

Heavily in arrears to the debt collectors, Yao’s father continues to hope (dream) a lottery will help him out of his financial woes, pay his bad debt and give him respite and peace which he so needs and craves.

Despite the fact that his father toils and is under pressure from his outstanding financial obligations, things remain tense between the two, and Yao never fully understands the magnitude and severity of the situation.

The film is directed by Tapei-born filmmaker Po-Yu Lin, partly based on his adolescent encounters with his father.

This is a sharp, thoughtful study of the relationships between parents and children, the father-son bond and the sacrifices parents make by putting children first.

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Butterflies

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, short film, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

There is a distinct sense of politically charged awareness and anxiety, which hangs over Taiwanese romance, Butterflies, set sometime in the near future.

In this setting, the island country has been occupied and taken over by an oppressive regime and turned into a province of this empire.

Within this Orwellian situation, a young woman, Yu (Han Ning) is accused of conspiring against the incumbent ruling power and hiding her treasonous family, who refuse to obey and comply with the new administration.

After escaping from the clutches of the authorities that have detained her, Yu attempts to find Lien (Yu Pei Jen), a plastic surgeon who can change her appearance and aid her in escaping the totalitarian state.

The desire for freedom and free-will however, renders Yu vulnerable to and desperate for help and a safe harbour. She is ultimately seduced by the charm and charisma of Lien, who represents hope and love. However, things are not as ideal as they may seem…

So begins this 43-minute Taiwanese dystopian film, set in Taipei.

Interestingly, the film is not directed by a Taiwanese-born filmmaker, but by Spanish (Catalan) expat and Taiwan-based director Albert Ventura.

Nonetheless, it is a movie informed by, and with distinct parallels, to Taiwan’s past and present. Although this story is told from an outsider’s view, the two characters reflect the past, dark days of the Taiwanese White Terror period (May 1949 – July 1987) and its modern-day challenges. There are echoes of the political angst of current and past Taiwan, and the horrors faced, in Yu and Lien’s search for freedom – this is a country which only came out of martial law in 1987 yet faces threats to its acceptance and adoption of democracy and its freedom.

The burgeoning relationship between its two characters nods to hope of a free and independent future for Taiwan, whilst the dire and difficult climate they’re caught within acknowledges the past the country has faced – and its subsequent legacy.

Despite the challenges faced by its two characters and the diabolic political state they and those in the film find themselves in, the film is optimistic for Taiwan’s future.

Butterflies recognises this upside – as well as charts the precarious road ahead.

This is one sci-fi fans and genre buffs will enjoy.

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