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Mafia Inc.

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

Adapted from André Cédilot and André Noël’s non-fiction novel of the same name, Mafia Inc. follows the antics of Montreal’s most influential crime family, The Paternòs.

Set predominantly in 1994, Canadian-based Sicilian Mafia patriarch Frank Paternò (Sergio Castellitto) – a deceptively-suave drug kingpin who upholds virtues of traditionalism, family and Italian pronunciation – forwards a plan to make a substantial investment in the development of a bridge that connects Sicily to Italy. The money to be made in tolls alone is expected to clear one million dollars per day!

Frank, along with his son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) and the son of Frank’s long-time tailor Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), navigate the murky, deceit laden waters of Montreal’s gangster scene to go undetected, transferring $180 million towards the endeavour. Lies, jealousy and under-the-table arrangements propagated by greed (almost a given in the genre) ensue, with the mysterious (and barbaric) transportation of a lucrative narcotics run adding fuel to an already disorderly flame.

Director Daniel Grou empowers an oscillating rock-heavy score and bleak visuals to paint the mood of an underbelly on the fritz. The well-established Canadian filmmaker keeps Mafia Inc. trodding at a purposeful pace, with this only falling asunder with jarringly intertwining back and forth between the present (1994) and past (1980). Scenes of gratuitous violence appear here and there, and are tastefully administered to convey the bloody implications of mistrust and envy.

At 135 minutes, Mafia Inc. provides ample time to articulately flesh out character motivations and behaviours. The film features an array of superb performances (seldom seen women, not without leaving their impact, include Mylène Mackay), with noteworthy turns from Castellitto – refraining from ‘capeesh’ and ‘che vuoi’ gestures – successfully elevating a role ripe for caricature into something human and realised.

Intricately told and impressively acted, do what Marty says and avoid watching it on your phone.

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

The “White Terror” period was a dark moment in Taiwan’s history, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians suspected or accused of being anti-government, were sought-out, arrested and killed.

Adapted from the popular supernatural video game of the same (which is set in 1962 during this bleak period), Detention stars Gingle Wang as Fang and Tseng Chin-hua as Wei, high school students who believe in freedom in a country under martial law, where freedom of speech is banned.

Part of a secret high school book club which studies banned books, one day Fang turns up to her school to find the halls empty, her tutor missing, a massive storm looming and not a person around. As the students search their deserted school, strange happenings, dead bodies and ghost-figures begin to appear.

So begins this Taiwanese high-school-set horror, the debut feature film directed by John Hsu.

Like the game on which it is based, Detention combines the historical evils of this era with CGI monsters, mythological elements, demons and villains, switching between fantasy and reality.

Comprised of multiple chapters and parts, Detention jumps back and forth between the savage horrors committed by the repressive Kuomintang military (KMT) and the physically monstrous creatures and devils roaming the hallways of the fictional Greenwood High School.

As the movie progresses, the flashbacks of brutal and torturous abductions start to blur with the game-ified, gory, fantastical monsters devouring educators, pupils and civilians, as bit by bit, the answers to what happened to the students’ peers and teachers become slowly apparent.

Shifting away from its game origins into historical horror, Detention attempts to unpack the true reality of the evils inflicted over decades by a frightening regime – one that left thousands missing or worse.

Scenes of torture are not shied away from; the movie depicts these happenings without hesitance.

This is one of the first large-scale movies to address the White Terror Period. Replete with CGI demons, gore and hellish monsters, this is a historical-horror movie genre fans will be entertained by.

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

A palpable stillness fills a lonely country road sitting outside of Wolfsburg, Germany.

As though the dead-silent streets weren’t eerie enough, the total darkness, illuminated only by the deceptively inviting lurid glow of a roadside caravan, does little to ease the mood.

It is women who occupy these caravans (known as Liebesmobiles); many of whom travel from afar to earn a living performing sex work.

The stories of these women and their systemic oppression are explored with a sympathetic gaze in hard-hitting documentary Lovemobil.

We spend most of Lovemobil inside a caravan belonging to Uschi; a former sex-worker who when not enforcing strict housekeeping demands upon her employees – Rita (from Nigeria) and Milena (from Bulgaria) – can be seen overwhelming her dogs with affection. It is a duality that expresses both desensitiaation and benevolence; the latter being a courtesy denied to the women she exploits to make a living.

For many of the women employed by Uschi, assault, neglect and death prove more than just concerns, but realities of their employment. Their dreams of freedom from a life of sex work, initially met with glowing optimism, become short lived when jolted back into the present. Forced isolation and financial captivity amplify their mounting trepidation; a byproduct calcified by the looming threat of danger which presents itself with each client.

Director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss does an exemplary job connecting the experiences of women with the institutionalisation (and commoditisation) of their abuse. The astute filmmaker directs with an incisiveness that not only respects and grants dignity to interviewees but presents the implications of their inequality in contrast to broader society.

It is considered documentary filmmaking at its most potent.

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A Family

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

As family is one of the basic units of human association, it is not surprising that it occupies a central space in most cultures. And of course, there have been endless explorations of this institution in art over the centuries. All this ought to give a timeless relevance to director Jayden Stevens’ explorations around the theme. That said, he has gone about it in a very oblique, not to say odd, way. The approach is the point of the film really, and it probably means you will either love it or hate it.

Though the director is Australian, he has chosen to make his film in the Ukraine using Ukrainian actors, none of whom is very polished. Once again, he tries to use this in his favour. After all they are only ‘acting’ themselves in the first place.

The protagonist is Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lugubrious looking dude who bears a passing resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family. He is fond of filming family occasions on his old-fashioned mini video camera, and we start with him filming a Christmas get together. It is no spoiler to say that this quickly turns out to be a con or a spoof, in the sense that he has paid the various ‘relatives’ to pretend to be his family. That is the whole idea of the film really. The rest of the piece then jogs along with this idea, with various iterations of fake family scenarios.

All this could be quite funny (and there are a couple of mordant jokey exchanges) but it would have been a great deal more interesting if the concept had been developed more, or if the film had more of an arc. As it is, it is very grey and monotone in both look and characterisation.

As noted, there is a deliberate quirkiness to all this. There are parallels perhaps with some of the work of Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismaki (the deadpan humour, the affection for the misfits) or even with the ever-cultish Yorgos Lanthimos (the sheer absurdity of the premise, the creepiness of an artificial family a la Dogtooth).

The idea of the distorting longing for family is potentially poignant and, here, occasionally nicely absurdist. The problem is the joke wears thin and no real empathy is possible for the viewer.

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The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead

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

BS (Roy Chiu) and Wenxi (Huang Di-yang) are childhood friends and dreamers who spend more time dreaming about making movies than working or finding a job. Desperately wanting fund their zombie thriller The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead and hard up for cash, the amateurs decide to join a gang where their wishes catch the eye of Gang Leader Brother Long (Lung Shao-hua), who agrees to bankroll – and take control of the production.

So begins frenetic Taiwanese oddball comedy The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead, directed by Kao Pin-chuan (The Soul of Bread).

A movie laden with bloodied-up hijinks and gross-out gags, Kao’s fast-moving spectacle takes its audience on a ride which includes run-ins with angry mobsters, cut-off fingers, lots of killing and a dead lead actress. It is not for the faint of heart.

The movie is the second feature by the Taiwanese director, whose first and starkly lighter effort, a romantic comedy, screened at the prestigious Tokyo and Bucheon International Film Festivals.

This, his follow-up, played at the equally renowned Busan International Film Festival.

It is about as much of a 360-degree flip in tone as possible. Packed with flying body parts and splatter gags, this is not a film for everyone. There is frequent shooting, spurting liquids, chases and explosions.

Local Taiwanese star Roy Chiu (Dear Ex, Marry Me, or Not) anchors the feature amidst the bang, boom and whack.

There is an element of self-referentiality in the goal of Kao’s two fledgling Taiwanese producers, who mention internationally-known Taiwanese figure and film director Ang Lee (Gemini Man, Life of Pi) by name. It is unfortunately little known that the frequently undervalued and fledgling multimedia industry of Taiwan has produced many internationally high-profile filmmakers including Edward Yang (Yi Yi), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness) and Tsai Ming-Liang (Stray Dogs).

A gross-out comedy with gore all over, this is a charged film that thriller fans and genre viewers will find entertaining.

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Andrey Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer

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

In 1962, when Soviet Filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood won the Golden Lion at Venice, Soviet authorities were disapproving of the film’s anti-war overtones. Tarkovsky was strident in his perspective of the filmmaker as poet artist, discerning meaning from the mysteries of existence on behalf of the masses. Lyrical expression of his own personal spirituality was intrinsic to his cinematic vision and as such, Tarkovsky smuggled whatever he could of himself into his films. He saw his authenticity as an artist and poet eroded by the centralised (and highly controlled) film production machine in Soviet Russia.

It was not until Tarkovsky’s 1966 follow-up, Andrei Rublev, that the repressive Soviet authorities descended on the filmmaker, going on to make his artistic life hell for years to come. Tarkovsky’s primary concerns with the lyrical and the spiritual were at loggerheads with the demands of the politburo. For the powers that be, they saw his languid, atmospheric visuals and intensely personal themes as edging dangerously close to the indulgent and the religious.

After 1972’s Solaris, 1975’s semi-autobiographical childhood memory-piece Mirror and his much-referenced 1979 masterwork Stalker, Tarkovsky had grown weary of the restraints placed on his work by the Soviet Government. He decamped to Italy to shoot a film and made the choice not to return to his homeland. He would go on to live out his days in self-imposed exile, until his death in 1986.

Tarkovsky’s son Andrey has used old audio recordings and interviews with his late father, as well as footage from his films, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage, to create Andrey Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer. The film encompasses each one of his seven films, though it’s handled more as a thematic collage of sorts, with each film’s imagery bleeding into another as his entire oeuvre is considered as one autobiographical visual expression of his spiritual journey, with Tarkovsky opining at one point that “the meaning of art is prayer”.

Tarkovsky’s cerebral and introspective narration muses on topics ranging from the practicalities of filmmaking under the Soviet regime, to his opinion of critics (“… as usual, they didn’t understand anything”), to the philosophical and spiritual notions he was attempting to tackle in his films. There is also some terrific on-set footage for a number of films, showing Tarkovsky in his element.

The film is broken into chapter headings: Childhood and Youth, Work in cinema, Leaving Russia and The Artist as a Prophet, where Tarkovsky discusses his faith and life’s meaning. Heady stuff indeed.

For fans of Tarkovsky, this is a terrifically illuminating and hauntingly beautiful trip through the mind of a filmmaker who was deadly serious about his artistic self-expression (and its cost) and whose innate spirituality imbued his work with a hypnotic sense of awe and mystery. For the uninitiated, it’s a great access point into the mindset of a filmmaker whose work helped shape modern cinema (and indeed cinematography), fundamentally shifting the narrative cinematic form.

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

Set in 1985 against the backdrop of a Taiwan in martial law, GF*BF (Girlfriend, Boyfriend) chronicles the coming-of-age struggles of three lifelong friends during an era of significant political upheaval.

Liam (Joseph Chang), his girlfriend Mabel (Kwai Lun-Mei) and their best friend Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan) are students navigating friendship and romance in the midst of Taiwan’s tumultuous and evolving political landscape. Maintaining a close bond which has seen them through their younger days, the three move to Taipei to continue their studies and join the burgeoning pro-democracy movement. When Mabel falls for Aaron, who Liam has feelings for, the trio find their steely bond being shaken by their conflicting aspirations.

This is the twisty dilemma which drives the intriguing second feature from Taiwanese filmmaker Yang Ya-che (Orz Boyz).

With terrific and sensitive performances from each of his three leads, Yang’s sophomore feature renders an effective time capsule of changing friendships, and a country in the grip of a democratic and societal metamorphosis.

As the trio’s wants and relationships go in different directions, so too does their country – Taiwan is slowly liberated from its years of political repression – optimism and happiness all appear distinct possibilities. Until clashing ambitions cloud the hopeful, childhood bond between the three friends.

Spanning plenty of ups and downs, writer-director Yang acutely tracks the compellingly-performed characters over three decades – from their teen years in the ‘80s through to a tense reunion in 2012, allowing audiences to witness through each character’s trajectory the impact of the changes and actions which reshaped Taiwan from a country under siege into a more tolerant and democratic society.

Whilst its title might suggest more of a run-of-the-mill affair, GF*BF is anything but, a thoughtful, insightful snapshot of an era which sensitively delves into the relationships of each of its three characters.

The film begins with schoolgirls gathering in a playground after morning assembly, demanding the right to wear pants instead of the prescribed dresses as their uniform. The director of the movie has said that the film was partly inspired by a real-life protest in 2010 in which students of Tainan First Girls’ High School protested their right to wear shorts to school as opposed to wearing the requisite skirts – an action that would be impossible prior to the complete evolution of Taiwan depicted in GF*BF.

A warm coming-of-age story set amidst personal, political and cultural sea-change, GF*BF is a terrific portrait of three friends – and a country coming face-to-face with transformation.


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No Time For Quiet

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words,” Rolling Stones immortal Keith Richards once said. “It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” It’s certainly in the bones of the young women who often happily but more frequently awkwardly populate the deliriously affecting documentary No Time For Quiet. Like a perfectly written rock song, this incredible debut effort from Australian directors Samantha Dinning and Hylton Shaw evokes a cavalcade of emotions during its brief running time, stoking up feelings of joy, pain, sadness, community, isolation and redemption, all of which ride and flow on a continuing swing of grace notes. The story of a diverse group of young people who at least temporarily find their place in the world through the gift of music, No Time For Quiet is a joyfully bittersweet experience, of both the entertainment and learning variety.

Unspooling in the effortlessly too-cool-for-school environs of Melbourne, the film wades in amongst the forty girls and non-binary youth aged from eleven to seventeen who took part in Australia’s inaugural Girls Rock! Camp. Established in Portland, Oregon – and now happening all around the world – these camps provide the opportunity for attendees to learn how to play instruments, form bands, write songs, and eventually perform, all with the aim of empowering young girls and inspiring self-esteem, friendship, support, creativity and a deeper love of music. It’s a great initiative, and when one of the girls in the film responds with “The Runaways” when asked which band in history she would most like to have been a part of, you know that No Time For Quiet is going to be a winner.

Courtney Barnett

With great skill and economy, Samantha Dinning and Hylton Shaw hone in on a diverse group of girls, all of whom have highly varied experiences at the camp: the instantly loveable Phoebe has a history of serious mental health issues; Lucy is socially awkward but keenly intelligent and obviously gifted; talented singer Dakota prefers to live life online; spunky drummer Mika is a ray of sunshine; and punk rapper Zeiro is navigating the world of gender fluidity. Though in different ways, they all blossom while at the camp, and the film operates almost like a classic coming of age tale. There is, however, pain too: when eventually outside of the nurturing, kindness-first world of the camp, life again gets tougher for some of the girls, and heartbreaking for the viewer.

While all of the raw material is there for something special (there’s also a very welcome appearance from the brilliant Courtney Barnett, who drops a tune and offers up a little mentorship for the kids), Samantha Dinning and Hylton Shaw make it even more charming and illuminating by skillfully utilising animation to overlay the participants’ own explanations of the fears and anxieties that make their young lives so difficult. If you’ve never experienced things like anxiety, gender fluidity, sexism, extreme self-doubt or crippling grief, this film lays it all out with sensitivity, honesty and from-the-frontlines reportage. A beautifully constructed mix of joy and sadness, No Time For Quiet is a gorgeous testament to both the power of music and the mix of fragility and strength that bubbles away in all young people.

Click here for info on how to watch No Time For Quiet.

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Killer of Sheep

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

There’s an overall sense of oppressive ennui in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a film shot for $10,000 by Burnett as his Masters thesis while he was studying at UCLA Film School.

It shows us the mundane existence of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who works long hours in a slaughterhouse. Returning home to his wife (Kaycee Moore) and kids, Stan emanates a deep dissatisfaction with his lot in life and his daily slog through a repetitive existence.

Much like the observational slices of life in a film like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, we observe Stan in this milieu: as he fixes his sink, as he works on his lino floor, as he parents his kids and complains about his inability to sleep. His wife tries to engage Stan and connect with him, but Stan is unmoored and overwhelmed, trying to stay afloat amid the futile circumstances that he is caught in.

Like a collage of life events without peaks and troughs, it is a dirge of disaffection. The aimlessness of bored youth, suburbs caught in the listless haze of summer and the crushing oppression of the inability to control or change the course of your life.

The disjointed structure delivers a sequence of scenes without any overall context: children play war on an abandoned lot, one is hurt momentarily, the rest stop playing and check on him. Then the group gravitate towards rail tracks where they throw rocks at a passing train. Another scene has kids playing in an alley as they watch two men vault a fence with a large TV they’ve just stolen; these scenes are interspersed with decontextualised episodes featuring Stan going about his day: where he tries to buy a car engine, when he’s asked by a white woman to work for her and when friends attempt to convince him to take part in a crime.

Killer of Sheep has gained a reputation on the festival circuit in the years since it was made because its music rights were so prohibitively expensive and theatrical distribution wasn’t possible (the soundtrack features Dinah Washington, George Gershwin, Paul Robeson and Earth, Wind & Fire). The music rights were eventually ironed out (thanks to a donation from Steven Soderbergh) and it was restored by UCLA and blown up from 16mm to 35mm, for a 2007 release.

It’s not an easy watch, but it is rewarding. Burnett grew up in Watts in South Los Angeles. That community gained notoriety during the 1965 riots as well as during the 1992 LA riots. Watts is front and centre here as a location and it’s in these autobiographical details that Burnett’s film achieves its power: by letting us experience slices of life with Stan and his kids, we are left feeling the sense of claustrophobia and hopelessness and the desperation that it gives birth to.

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

VHYes is the directorial debut from Jack Henry Robbins and is ostensibly the found footage answer to the sketch show. Shot entirely on VHS and Betacam, the film starts on Christmas Day 1987 and young Ralph (Mason McNulty) has just been given a camcorder. Feeling elated, he makes it his holiday resolution to create the world’s greatest video playlist. Everyone has to have a dream, eh?

After discovering that he can use his camcorder to record television programs, Ralph stays up late to record his nocturnal-channel-hopping for his best friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw). It’s this ADHD flicking that makes up the bulk of VHYes, as we skip from one spoof TV show to another. There’s the shopping channel selling household goods that are clearly drug paraphernalia; a high brow arts program that shows porn movies with the pretence that they contain weighty environmental messages; and an Antiques Roadshow knock off where its host simply tries to guess the purpose of the things he’s been shown. Cameos include the likes of Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) and even the director’s own parents, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

While the hit to miss ratio is not in the audience’s favour, it could be argued that the sketches fly by so quickly that you shouldn’t worry too much. However, even at only 70 minutes, VHYes is a patience tester. There is just simply too much going on.

As the film hits its halfway mark, Robbins offers up the heart and mind of the piece. When Ralph isn’t taping his TV, he’s inadvertently recording his parents (Jake Head and Christian Drerup) arguing. He even catches his dad at the cinema with a woman that is not his mum. They’re only glimpses of a problem, but it’s heavily suggested that Ralph’s golden years with his parents are coming to an end. The fact that he’s also accidentally taping over their wedding video seems to underline the tragedy of their failed marriage.

From here, the sketches begin to snowball into each other, and our own 2020 problems get caught in the chaos. Robbins seems to be suggesting that our love for nostalgia is blinding us to the real issues facing us here and now. While there’s nothing inherently with the topic, it’s the execution that does the damage. A humourless professor is interviewed about VHS addiction and prophesies a world where we’ll have smaller VCRs in our pockets and will record our every moment on them. We’ll be so busy cultivating our image, our memories will be irreversibly altered, and we will elect celebrities as President. It’s all just a little too on the nose to be genuinely ground-breaking, and the film’s final message is lost in a literal sea of videotape and Lynchian surrealism.

Robbins has perfectly captured that late-night rush of early cable television and it will likely appeal to a particular demographic. It’s just unfortunate that VHYes feels like it would make more impact if it was a short rather than having its point stretched out. A curiosity for those who like to dive in and dissect meaning, but you’ll ultimately end up wallowing in shallow waters.