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Melodrama / Random / Melbourne!

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

An unusual pink hue is one of the shades that Melbourne is seen through in Melodrama / Random / Melbourne!, the film by VCA alum and emerging Australian-Fillipino director Mathew Victor Pastor.

Melodrama / Random / Melbourne! is the second part in the up-and-coming practitioner’s Filipino-Australian trilogy following I am JUPITER I am the BIGGEST PLANET (15 mins) – a thriller about a mother in the red light district of the Philippines.

Co-written and starring Celina Yuen, MRM! screened at the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival, and follows various disparate characters around the metropolitan Melbourne melting pot.

In this vast milieu, we are introduced to an assortment of personalities: amongst them a Filipino-Australian feminist documentarian, a pickup artist, and a virgin – all of whom are disparate characters removed from each other; all trying to go about their lives and all crossing paths.

It is a lens we nary see through, especially in Australian films. The perspective of those living on the margins and fringes, who never would have met each other.

The narrative is told by filmmaker Aries Santos (Bridget O’Brien), who is struggling to complete her new film.

In this mix, sheaths of pink, red and various others are just a few of the colours employed in Pastor’s movie.

As various individuals tussle and interlace – the internet, toxic masculinity, racism and xenophobia are but a few of the topics that the 80 minute feature touches on.

This is a tale that wavers between experimental and narrative, and takes on several characters and storylines.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are a few issues with the piece. Some characters, such as the virgin come across at times as not fully sketched, not entirely multi-dimensional.

Several stories feel unsatisfactorily closed, occasionally pre-emptively or arbitrarily introduced or finished.

This may be due to a larger question of the film taking on too many strands and disparate beats, in the end confusing viewers.

What does it all add up to? What Pastor is trying to say, or not say, in this jungle, ultimately becomes clouded amidst the range of styles, POV, place, character.

Effort, vivacious colours and zaniness are there, albeit inconsistently – though one gets the sense that this relentless image-maker will refine this.

MELODRAMA / RANDOM / MELBOURNE! (Trailer 2) from Matthew Victor Pastor on Vimeo.

 
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I Was a Teenage Serial Killer

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

A wild mix of fired-up feminist rallying and pitch black humour, this early ‘90s short from influential filmmaker Jacobson still packs as much of a punch as it did back in Riot Grrrl’s hey-day.

The ground-breaking underground film cost an estimated $1600, and has a grainy sliced-up look perfect for its gritty subject matter. Featuring ultimately serious comment and inquiry into patriarchal society (along with gruesome laughs amidst some decidedly non-professional acting) that is as relevant now as it was then, the 27min film is far more than merely a museum piece or passing curiosity.

To reinforce the darker dreams of the film, the grungy soundtrack features a song from the notorious cult leader Charles Manson. That piece plus tracks from ‘90s punk rockers Heavens to Betsy and underground stalwarts Gas Huffer merge sound and vision for a short, sharp shock to the senses.

This was Jacobson’s debut in a career tragically cut short by illness that also included the feature Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996), which will screen with I Was a Teenage Serial Killer at the inaugural Paracinema Fest.

A memorable intro to her work, the film shows how a lasting statement can be made with a purely indie DIY approach to filmmaking.

Paracinema Fest at The Classic

 
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You Might Be The Killer

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

Taking its cues – and one of its stars – from meta-slasher comedies such as the Scream films and Cabin in the Woods, this is a clever and entertaining indie-flick perfectly suited to the geekier end of the horror-comedy spectrum. Offering a sideways take on the summer camp style of horror film – a mini-genre all of its own – the film scores highly for sardonic laughs and horror fan reference points.

Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods) stars as camp councillor Sam, a guy with a serious blackout and memory loss problem. He wakes up in the great outdoors, which soon become not so great as he discovers corpse after corpse. Luckily for him, he has a phone to connect with best friend and horror movie expert Chuck (Alyson Hannigan). Chuck runs through the various possibilities with Sam, including the fact that, yep, he might be the killer…

With lots of entertainingly envisaged death scenes and a few jump scares, this movie certainly has the requisite nods to the glory (and gory) days of summer camp slashers. But more than that, it has plenty of witty lines examining the state of play of that particular type of film. The tropes of cursed masks, lost loves and of course the ‘final girl’ are all closely looked at by Chuck – who just happens to be working at a comic book and video store – and calmly delivered to a bloody and near-psychotic Sam.

What initially sounds like an uninspiring premise scores highly for laughs and sheer entertainment. Simmons gets the tone just right, with a succinct and always funny script offering lots of scope for the performers to get the best out of it. Good support to the main duo comes from Brittany S. Hall as Sam’s romantic interest Imani and Jenna Harvey’s sweet natured Jamie. A repeated joke involving Steve ‘the Kayak King’ (Bryan Price) is also far funnier than it probably has any right to be.

On the surface, You Might Be the Killer takes simple ideas, jokes and scares and builds on them to create a highly accomplished horror-comedy. A top treat for any horror fan, the film is sharp, snappy and executed with a killer touch.

Also playing at Cameo Cinemas and Classic Cinemas

 
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Luz

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Luz

Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind while watching Luz. Its stripped-back examination of the cinematic form and sequences featuring ‘set-less’ scene construction bear similarity to the intent of Tilman Singer with this, his debut feature.

It’s at once a synth-soaked ‘80s-inflected demon possession thriller but also an experiment in narrative re-structuring and re-jigging conventional cinematic storytelling language. It plays with event chronology as well as depicting sequences played out through re-enactments of the events by individuals who are demon-possessed, their actions controlled by a literal puppet-master.

Nora (Julia Riedler) meets Doctor Rossini (Jan Blurhardt) in an empty bar. Nora buys drink after drink for the doctor, intent on getting him plastered. Rossini mentions he’s a psychiatrist and eventually the two disappear to the restroom where Nora moves to kiss Rossini and a strange glow begins to emanate from her mouth. The kiss is less romantic and more like a regurgitation of food. Whatever is animating Nora vanishes after the transition into Rossini and Nora drops to the floor unconscious.

Rossini then shows up to a police station, where Luz (Luana Velia), a taxi driver, is being held for questioning after a car accident. As Detective Bertillion (Nadja Stubiger) watches, along with translator Olarte (Johannes Benecke), Rossini creepily places Luz under hypnosis and steers the unwitting woman through re-enacted scenarios in the room which further unravel the story and reveal just what the hell might be going on.

Dialogue is repeated by different characters within various contexts, this puzzle-like, fractal recycling of dialogue and alternating perspectives of the scenes themselves creates different conceptual layers through which this film can be understood and digested.

Like Nolan’s Memento was an exercise is deconstructing form to tell a genre story, Luz fragments the narrative structure as well as the form itself. The story, as it is, is something of a lo-fi reworking of the 1987 sci-fi action-horror The Hidden. The emphasis here is on atmosphere and there’s a good deal of creepiness elicited as Singer works within his budgetary limitations utilising the unique structure and format to spark audiences’ imaginations.

If you’re willing to go with it, there’s an exhilaration at the sheer audacity of a filmmaker bringing this kind of storytelling perspective to bear on a genre picture. Fascinating stuff.

Also playing at Classic Cinema and Cameo Cinema

 
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Oh Lucy!

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

Japanese Office worker Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) leaves her tiny flat – where she appears to live as a hoarder – and makes her way to work. Whilst she avoids her overbearing sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), she loves her niece Mika Ogawa (Australian born Shioli Kutsuna, who recently appeared in Deadpool 2) even though both see her as a doormat. Standing at the train station, Setsuko witnesses a man throw himself in front of a train. In another film, witnessing such an event would spur on our hero to seek out excitement, but in writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! it just means Setsuko is late for work.

It’s not until our downtrodden protagonist is encouraged to take an English class that things take a turn. There, Setsuko meets John (Josh Hartnett), an English tutor who knows very little Japanese and encourages his students to wear wigs and use western names in class. As an EAL gateway, he’s a bit of a flop, but to Setsuko he’s a chance for change. In a tacky blonde wig and using the name Lucy, Setsuka starts digging deep into herself to find something new.

Hirayanagi defies her audience’s expectations almost immediately. Rather than embracing life, Setsuko merely gets drunk and badmouths her colleagues at a leaving party. However, when Mika runs off with John to America, Setsuko takes Ayako to find her, even though it’s obvious she’s doing it for her own interests rather than that of her sibling.

Based on her own short, Hirayanagi has constructed a protagonist who, initially, breaks the stereotypical mould of someone who sets off to rediscover themselves ala Eat Pray Love or Shirley Valentine. No, in her dogged pursuit of John, Setsuko comes across as somewhat manipulative. Not that the audience isn’t made to feel sympathetic towards her. Knowing that her sister once stole her boyfriend from her, it’s understandable that Setsuko would look for love in all the wrong places. Hirayanagi is quick to prove that her hero is only human.

Once things move to the US though, Oh Lucy! loses something and it’s not just Hartnett’s foppish English teacher being exposed as a sad sack once he’s back on his home turf. Having originally kept the aforementioned rediscovery tropes at arm’s length, Setsuko’s world view is broadened by clichés of alcohol, drugs and sex. And as she explores America, she comes across as more naïve than you would expect. She’s not Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, but her actions don’t ring true. None of which gels with what we’ve seen of her previously. Though admittedly, this could be a byproduct of Setsuko reinventing herself.

That aside, there’s strength to be found in her interactions. As sisters, Minami and Terjima are wonderfully bitter to each other, sniping at any given chance. A highlight sees them bickering in broken English over the head of a fellow passenger, played by Megan Mullaly (Will and Grace).

Sombre with broad strokes of humour, Oh Lucy! may not do much with its fish out of water second half, but with strong performances by all the cast, Hirayanagi has assembled a testament to self-discovery that is happy to admit that we can’t make changes wholesale.

 
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The Soul Conductor

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Every culture has their own thoughts about what it would be like to see ghosts. In American blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, it’s a heavy burden borne by a child. In Russian film, The Soul Conductor, it’s an enormous pain in the arse that can only be helped by vodka.

Katya (Aleksandra Bortich) is a moody, gloomy 22-year-old woman who can communicate with the spirits of the departed. The problem is, ghosts are bloody needy! They’re always demanding she help them with their unfinished business and strong spirits are the only way to deal with these, well, strong spirits. Just when you begin to suspect The Soul Conductor will become a Russian riff on Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, Katya’s twin sister vanishes mysteriously and Katya begins to experience terrifying, nightmarish visions. A dark occurrence is taking place and Katya must try to solve the mystery before it kills her, however it’s hard for her to trust her own fractured, drunken mind much less anyone else…

The Soul Conductor is a strange, appealing, mishmash of genres and tropes with an unmistakably sharp Russian edge. Aleksandra absolutely steals the show as the troubled Katya, and watching her work through a compelling supernatural yarn never stops being engaging. Director Ilya S. Maksimov directs with confidence, imbuing some of the more rote ghost attacks with a genuine sense of tension and otherworldly horror. The film occasionally tries to overplay its hand, with the twists in the third act coming so fast they do tend to strain credulity. However, the strength of the lead and the unravelling of what’s real and what’s imagined gives The Soul Conductor enough narrative propulsion to be consistently intriguing. And while you may or may not be afraid of ghosts, either way it seems like a decent excuse to neck some vodka.

 
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The Challenge

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

Reconfiguring a hostage situation and siege-style action premise into a more resonant story of morality and political whims, Aleksei Petrukhin’s new film is a modern and compelling thriller.

Filled with surprises and shocks, but above all else, showing huge respect for debate and education, The Challenge is actually a sequel to Petrikhin’s 2015 film The Teacher, and once again stars Irina Kupchenko as Alla Nikolaevna.

A high school group of teenagers manage to persuade their former favourite teacher (Kupchenko) to join them on a trip to the theatre to watch the premiere of a new performance of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone is excited, and everything seems to be going well; even the new modern dance interpretation is received warmly enough. It’s a nice evening at the theatre. That is, until masked figures shouting insults and baring guns descend on the stage and the drama all gets very real.

Before the crowd really knows what’s going on, the gang of terrorists start to intimidate and threaten, keeping the hostages in their seats and refusing to explain or make any demands. The former teacher is then forced into a dicey situation of negotiation with the terrorists, asking them pertinent questions to try and work through the confusion.

It’s a wonderfully realised plot device. With violence and melodrama taking over the entire venue, Nikolaevna remains calm, broaching subjects of history and cultural ethics with the bad guys. The film raises several important points such as how we view what a terrorist is, and how they became that way. The history of religion and morality is also widely discussed, and with each new question we can see the process of humanisation taking place, as masked villains become different people in search of an answer.

The ‘challenge’ of the title is one that’s set to the students as well as to Nikolaevena, having to use skills learnt in classroom debates of philosophy in the all too real arena of the crisis. It is also a test of the terrorists as well. The situation forces everyone to take responsibility for their actions and not hide behind political or religious doctrine.

Ultimately, the film is about self-discovery, something that’s only done by asking the right questions. The fact that it manages to do this framed in a high-octane thriller only goes to show what a well-produced and imaginative film this is.

 
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The Last Warrior

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With wild horse chases, Matrix-style arrow dodging, tree-chopping swords, wizards turning into horses and witches turning into owls, Dmitriy Dyachenko offers a lot to wrap your head around, and that’s all before the opening credits.

 

The Last Warrior (which also translates as The Last Knight) is loosely based on Russian medieval legends, specifically the Bogatyr warriors, who you could compare to the infamous Knights of the Round Table.

With literally centuries’ worth of retellings and stories behind them, the screenwriters are clearly trying to cram it all in, and unfortunately many characters feel underdeveloped and subplots are introduced half-baked.

The film’s hero is portrayed by little-known Viktor Khorinyak, who makes it very hard to determine whether we’re supposed to like or mistrust his character. He plays Ivan, a hustling magician in modern-age Moscow, who literally waterslides his way into the magical realm of Belogorye. The people there are convinced he’s the long-lost son of a great medieval warrior – who, among his kind, was turned to stone.

From there it’s a very Lord Of The Rings-inspired epic, with a mismatched gang in search of a magical sword, which will supposedly bring the great warriors back to life to defeat the evil witch. Along the way they encounter various battles and strange creatures, most notably a womanising merman.

If that all sounds completely bonkers, well it is, and that’s what makes it so amiable.

Produced by Walt Disney Company CIS, their Russian-based studio, it still has a lot of heart – even if it’s mostly cheesy and predictable.

Marketed as “Braveheart meets Game of Thrones” this should have been a lot grittier, when in fact it’s closer to something like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The tone of the film is rockier than a boat in a storm, whether it’s taking time from the main plot for a 10-minute selfie montage or a soundtrack that’s part orchestrated scores and part new-age pop.

It’s worth noting that when this was released in Russia last year it became their most profitable local-language film of all time, so it’s worth seeing if only to understand why. Whether anyone wants it or not, expect a sequel heading our way soon.

 
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Pagans

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Based on the critically-acclaimed stage play by Ukrainian Anna Yablonskaya, director Lera Surkova sticks close to the source for most of the part in this slow-burning family drama.

The moments where she strays in order to take creative control, usually when we leave the main family home setting, is where it also takes audiences out of the moment. Some pivotal scenes feel overproduced for no reason, particularly the black-and-white flashbacks and an impromptu rap routine.

When Valentin Samokhin’s introverted musician, Oleg, is interrupted during an audition with a call from his mother, his minor reaction makes it seem like a regular occurrence. It turns out she’s been out of contact for most of his life serving God, and has arrived at their doorstep to interrupt their very lives.

Regardless of their new visitor, Oleg’s family has many cracks beneath the surface. Their daughter arrives home drunk and depressed, his wife is struggling for work, and their handyman can’t stay sober enough to finish renovations.

Slowly but surely his mother, as though possessed by a higher power, convinces everyone to follow her ways – and ultimately, they think they’re becoming happier people as a result. This is only believable because of the perfect timing of Tatyana Vladimirova, continually tiptoeing a fine-line between compassionate and patronising.

Similar films typically have you question the very idea of religion without forcing beliefs, but initially Pagans seems quite clear about the message: Devote yourself and good things will happen. It’s not until the final act where things start unravelling that audiences get a chance to decide for themselves.

Judgement is the core theme that carries through, particularly the unfair judgement by all five main characters, against one another’s actions and beliefs. This is summed up nicely with the film’s prologue, with each of these characters breaking the fourth wall and raising the question of what exactly makes us happy – whether it’s family, love, creative passion or religion.

 
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As I Lay Dying

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This is adapted, very freely, from the 1930 Southern Gothic novel of the same name by William Faulkner. It is (of course) relocated to Iran, and there are superficially major plot differences. (The central death in the book is of a woman, for example, while here it’s of a man.) But the big themes and the structure are intact.

The premise, or at least the earliest event, is that an 80-year-old man with a number of children by different women dies. He’s stipulated – in person, though not in his will – that he wishes to be buried in a certain distant location. And, more to the point, he emphatically did not want to be buried in the town where he died: a place whose inhabitants hated him, and vice versa.

The various adult sons and daughter start driving across the desert as requested, with the steadily deteriorating corpse in one of their cars. There are tensions between them, and revelations of mistrust, unresolved disagreements, and ambiguities which should not be revealed here…

‘As I Lay Dying is about as downbeat as it gets, but – intermittent references to putrefaction aside – the grimness is predominantly psychological rather than physical. In fact, on a visual level, it’s rather beautiful and ‘poetically’ shot, especially the twilight scenes. This is a sombre, quiet and lyrical film, whose languid pace and subtlety make it seem longer than its 74-minute running time – but in a good way.