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The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

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Directed by Ronald Neame, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie was the film which won Maggie Smith her first Oscar. And understandably so, as playing the fire haired flamboyant titular character, she speeds her way through daily life at the conservative school that she works for, Marcia Blaine For Girls. To her female colleagues, she is a confronting dichotomy to the school’s principles. To her male colleagues, she is something to lust after. To her students, whom she refers to as “Brodie’s girls”, she is inspiring, delightful, and someone to seek affection from. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she states boldly in her first scene, “and she is mine for life.”

Following the footsteps of four girls under her care, particularly from the point of view of studious Sandy (Pamela Franklin), their feelings for their daring teacher begin to change as they themselves begin to grow up. The once rambunctious one-liners that Miss Brodie would deal out to great mirth when they were younger, begin to sting as adolescence sets in. The fanciful gossiping that they shared about her relationship with the male teachers darkens when, as teenagers, she encourages them to flirt with one of her ex-lovers, played by Robert Stephens.

The film is as much about putting away childish things, as it is a portrait of an eccentric and often sad individual. As Jean Brodie, Smith is a powerhouse of romanticism, sly wit, political naivete and loneliness. She has built an “envious” lifestyle for herself upon the adulation of her students; for as soon as they grow up, there will be others to take their place. Smith was rightly commended for her performance, but Franklin must also be applauded, showing herself, even at the age of just sixteen, to be formidable in her final scenes with Smith.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will screen as part of David Stratton’s The 2nd Great Britain Retro Film Festival at The Hayden Orpheum in Sydney’s Cremorne, which runs from May 12-June 1. For full programme information, dates, tickets, and sessions, head to The Hayden Orpheum.

 
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The Ladykillers

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Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (Whiskey Galore!) and written by William Rose (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), The Ladykillers is one of the finest comedies to come out of Ealing Studios during its heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Despite being over 60 years old, it still resonates with modern audiences because of its exquisite performances and tar black sense of humour, even inspiring The Coen Brothers to a 2004 remake with Tom Hanks.

There are those who say that it’s Alec Guinness’ iconic performance as the nefarious “Professor” Marcus that makes this film so joyful. Rumoured to be an impersonation of critic, Kenneth Tynan, who once described the actor as being so “nondescript” that he could be a murderer, Guinness is gleefully monstrous as he takes up residence in the home of the sweet but prying Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), using it as a base of operations for he and his gang to plan the ultimate bank heist, whilst under the guise of middle class amateur musicians.

That said, to single out one person does a disservice to the whole, in what is really an ensemble piece that includes Peter Sellers’ teddy boy, Harry; Danny Green’s simplistic One-Shot; Herbert Lom’s surly Louis; and Cecil Parker’s cowardly Major. All of whom are held together by the glue that is Mrs. Wilberforce, who admonishes and dotes on her tenants like the sons she’s never had. The Ladykillers is a perfectly constructed piece of cinema composed of well-thought out dialogue and scenes – including a hilarious tea party where the men must play nice around Mrs. Wilberforce’s equally patience-testing friends; all of which culminates in the classic murderous finale. It’s a cliché to say that they don’t make films like this anymore, but with an experience like The Ladykillers, it’s hard to refute the suggestion.

The Ladykillers will screen as part of David Stratton’s The 2nd Great Britain Retro Film Festival at The Hayden Orpheum in Sydney’s Cremorne, which runs from May 12-June 1. For full programme information, dates, tickets, and sessions, head to The Hayden Orpheum.

 
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NotFilm

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“I’ve never quite trusted films about film,” says filmmaker, Ross Lipman, who with his new documentary has curiously attempted to create a film about film. The result is NotFilm, a two-hour plus deep dive into the only cinematic undertaking of acclaimed Irish writer, Samuel Beckett. Film, a simply-titled experimental film written by Beckett and, somewhat surprisingly, starring silent film actor, Buster Keaton, was released in 1965 at The Venice Film Festival to simultaneous acclaim, controversy, and confusion.

Throughout the documentary, Lipman explains that despite Beckett being hugely successful in his creative endeavours, when he set out to make Film, he in fact had very little knowledge of film production. He assembled what on paper appeared to be a super-team of talented people. First and foremost, there was Beckett himself, a writer so celebrated that he would go on to win The Nobel Prize for Literature four years after the release of Film; there was theatre director, Alan Schneider, who directed the 1956 American premiere of Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting For Godot; Boris Kaufman, a cinematographer who in 1954 won an Academy Award for his work on Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront; and finally Buster Keaton, a genius silent film actor, albeit one whose star had declined by the time Film was made. When it came time for them all to work together, the collaboration wasn’t as smooth as you would imagine. Beckett’s vision was singular and uncompromising, and the film itself, with a running time of just over 20 minutes, was seen by many as flawed. Keaton openly admitted that he didn’t understand the script, but accepted the role because he needed the money.

Lipman does a respectable job of making the inaccessible seem accessible, and his fascination with Beckett’s project and its place in cinematic history shines through. NotFilm is at its best when it is alluding to the many and varied production troubles that were encountered during the making of Film, and you can’t help but be intrigued by the relationships of the four aforementioned men involved. In its final third, the film strays more toward the bizarre and, at times, downright confusing structural aspects of Film, and leaves the viewer trying to decode the philosophical aspects of Beckett’s film that perhaps only he fully understood.

NotFilm will screen as part of Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now which runs from May 17-June 8. For full programme information, dates, tickets, venues, and sessions, head to Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now.

 
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The Keeping Room

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In the dying days of The American Civil War, three young women are forced to take up arms and defend both themselves and their property from a pair of Union soldiers, bent on violence and destruction. Directed by Daniel Barber, The Keeping Room is a bleak, brutal and solid entry into the revisionist Western genre.

The film is anchored by Brit Marling’s superb performance as Augusta, the tough yet loving older sister turned surrogate mother figure. Hailee Steinfeld, meanwhile, marks her third appearance in a western as younger sister, Louise, though this is not quite as impressive as her outstanding turn in The Coens Brothers’ 2010 film, True Grit. Instead of the proud and confident Mattie Ross, Louise is far more on the sullen side. Finally, Muna Otaru brings a stoic strength to the sisters’ dutiful slave, Mad.

Deliberately slow paced, and broken only by brief, explosive bouts of violence and blood shed, The Keeping Room doesn’t create the simmering tension that it is attempting to. Barber unfortunately lets the film dawdle too much, sapping its narrative thrust. That is, however, with the exception of a stand-out sequence in which the two Union renegades (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) besiege the trio’s house at night. Here, the slow, escalating dread works wonders, and will have you on the edge of your seat. The unconventional approach of heading a western with three female leads offers fertile ground to examine interesting ideas regarding women, the cruelty that they endure, and the breaking of their traditional roles and expectations. The Keeping Room does a good job of this. But when it hints at its most intriguing notion, the film ends, leaving a potentially fascinating avenue of exploration tragically untapped.

The Keeping Room will screen as part of Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now which runs from May 17-June 8. For full programme information, dates, tickets, venues, and sessions, head to Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now.

 
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The Bad Kids

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You can’t help but smile as the students and teachers of Black Rock High School line the corridors in applause. Another of their schoolmates has graduated. It’s a rare moment of joy amongst a seemingly endless barrage of hardships for the attendees of the Mojave Desert-based institution. Abusive and absent parents, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, and extreme poverty have left them with nowhere else to go.

However, as directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe set out to show in this sombre yet powerful documentary, there is hope yet. Headed by the optimistic and compassionate principal, Vonda Viland, Black Rock provides the troubled kids with a progressive and empathetic pathway to a high school diploma.

Taking an observational, vérité approach, Fulton and Pepe (who most famously made the Terry Gilliam doc, Lost In La Mancha) follow three of these kids in particular, detailing their individual struggles and successes. Doing so, the pair allow for lengthy periods where the camera lingers on its subject, providing much needed breathing room to contemplate the often disheartening realities of the students’ situations. A stand out sequence sees us gaze upon the crowded halls of the school, while a cacophony of voice-overs piles up – each another story of despair.

While undoubtedly affecting, one can’t help but wonder if the film might have been even better served had its focus been with the principal. Viland’s incessant selflessness is truly captivating, and yearns to be detailed further. At school before daybreak, she prepares for the day’s work, and then calls individual students to ensure their attendance and greets them as they step off the school bus. It’s moments like this that give the film its power, moments that suggest that despite a seemingly overwhelming tide of hardships and heartache for these kids, not all is lost. “This town swallows people up and brings them down,” explain Joey, one of the three main focuses of the film. The Bad Kids suggests that, perhaps, it doesn’t need to.

 

 
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GTFO

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GTFO is confronting, frightening and, at times, disheartening, yet it’s ultimately optimistic and needs to be seen. Directed and produced by Shannon Sun-Higginson, GTFO delves into the systematic and institutionalised discrimination and misogyny present in the video game world. From the perpetuating cycle of the gaming industry’s “boys’ club” and the sexualised and objectified presentation of the female form, to the shocking treatment of the female gamer online, Sun-Higginson crafts an intensely distressing portrait of life as a female gamer.

Yet despite what could easily have been a merciless crusade against wrongdoers is, instead, a surprisingly objective and balanced investigation into the root causes that result in such a culture. Assembling an array of casual and professional gamers, game designers, and creators, Sun-Higginson allows each to tell their story, providing valuable perspectives that are all too often silenced.

Beginning its life as a Kickstarter project, the film’s low budget hurts, but it’s by no means a barrier to achieving its goals. In fact, the film creatively and cleverly delights in its unsophisticated approach, at times utilising rudimentary gaming graphics to cheekily highlight the challenges facing female gamers.

What may outwardly appear as a depressing presentation of a haunting reality is, in fact, precisely where the value of the film lies, and this is something that should be celebrated. This documentary is, in the end, about starting a conversation, and a dialogue. It is about bringing awareness to something that so desperately needs it. As one commentator in the film says: “That’s where the human aspect comes in. If you can explain these more human stories, you can produce empathy, and if you can produce empathy, maybe then they will bend their ear and try and understand.”

 
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Drone

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“We’re the ultimate voyeurs. The ultimate peeping toms. No one’s going to catch us,” admits former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, in this solid if fairly familiar examination of the unmanned aerial vehicle’s place on the battlefield.

Turning the tables, and placing the crosshairs squarely on this modern-day instrument of war, Norwegian director, Tonje Hessen Schei, asks us to contemplate the consequences of remote warfare. It’s a shame then, that for the most part, she fails to truly bring anything new to the discussion. The proliferation of combat and surveillance drones within the theatre of war has led to a similar abundance in our media and entertainment. Consequently, Schei is left treading where many others have already ventured.

However, an all too brief exploration into the fascinatingly terrifying notion of “militainment” does stand out, and perhaps would have made for a more absorbing and innovative avenue of exploration. The sight of military leaders gazing out over the packed floor of a gaming convention is chilling as both computer games and gamers become targets for militarisation and recruitment.

Where Drone does succeed, however, is when it turns personal, and we’re exposed to the individual stories that are, too often, ignored when focusing on the big issues. And it isn’t merely the harrowing stories from survivors on the ground; perhaps the most intriguing portion of Drone is former drone operator, Brandon Bryant’s story. His experiences both at the controls of these weapons of war and since speaking out about their use is particularly poignant. Make no mistake, the questions that Schei poses are important ones, and Drone is a sleekly produced documentary. But a failure to bring any new perspectives on the topic means that what should be required viewing, unfortunately, isn’t.

 
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Lenny Cooke

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Lenny Cooke was a sneaky film entry at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Although, MIFF is holding a ten film retrospective celebrating the Safdie Brothers’ career, the boys had to push for their little known documentary to be included. Yet, with its incredible back story and unprecedented footage, it’s easy to see why the young directors were so attached, and now the film is getting a run in Sydney via the MCA’s new weekly Film Program.

The 2013 documentary presents the life of Lenny Cooke, a high school basketball player that was top ranked in the United States leading up to the 2002 NBA draft. His roots of poverty in Brooklyn are contrasted with his suburban adolescence with his wealthy guardian in New Jersey. This juxtaposition provides a powerful foundation for the story, as the highly naive and vulnerable Cooke is faced with a number of very important and very public decisions.

Although, much of the footage is grainy, ill-framed and jumpy, the doco’s ultimate cohesiveness serves as a testament to the Safdie’s editing prowess. The project began in 2001 when New York Times writer, Harvey Araton, shot hours of video recordings of Cooke training in high school. Yet, as it was shot by a sports cinematographer, it lacked the obvious quality and intention that would allow it to translate into cinema form. The project was abandoned but eventually placed into the willing hands of the Safdies. Along with footage shot of their own and a remarkable feat of editing, the brothers harnessed the older recordings like a time-capsule and constructed an interesting story with a flowing narrative.

Production quality aside, the 2001 recordings contain rare images of professional basketball players such as Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, training in the ABCD Adidas camp as teenagers. For those who aren’t familiar with basketball, that’s like watching a young Robin Williams rehearse lines at Julliard.

The Safdie brothers have done well to present an objective insight into the American professional sport system by stripping back any myth or glamour. Their focus on the individual, unfettered by any heavy handed intervention, provides an honest look into the person behind the sportsman.

The story itself evokes a complicated blend of emotions. The narrative of misguided youth and opportunities squandered, grips the audience with a confronting sadness that eventually moves into pity. The power of this film, however, lies in its fading moments when everything is brought full circle. Cooke’s socio-economic background and malleability as a teenager are put into perspective and reveal a distressingly relatable set of mistakes made.

Admittedly, Cooke isn’t the most likeable character. Since the Safdies avoid framing him with any sense of irony or criticism, his clumsy womanising, lumbering temperament and unchecked ego can have a grating effect on the audience. What’s more, the shots look more like home-videos and the decision to let them run for a considerable length creates a disengaging effect.

Nonetheless, the Safdies have done remarkably well in resurrecting an old project, which although lacking in production value, simply needed to be seen by the world.

 
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Brand New Testament

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If asked to picture God, most of us would conjure up images of a charismatic Morgan Freeman or a cantankerous Graham Chapman peeking out from behind a cloud to berate King Arthur. Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film, The Brand New Testament, challenges this by positioning God (portrayed with detestable aplomb by Benoit Poelvoorde) as a Belgian slob with anger management issues – and an unquenchable desire to see humanity suffer.

Dissatisfied with her father’s uncaring and cruel lordship over the Earth, Ea (portrayed by the superb Pili Groyne) takes matters into her own hands; she sabotages his outfit, recruits a handful of apostles, and sets about penning a “brand new testament” for the people of Brussels to live by.

The morbid humour and morose aesthetic may feel a million miles away from the sunny Garden Of Eden, but a deft screenplay from Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig finds room to inject gentle flecks of hope. The string of encounters (or “gospels”) that follow Ea’s flight into the world showcase the length and breadth of Van Dormael’s proclivity for mixing touching human stories with absurdist comedy and abstract visual metaphors. Whether it’s a life-long sex pest (Serge Larivière) pining after a childhood crush, or a bored housewife (Catherine Deneuve) committing adultery with a gorilla, Van Dormael’s eye for the unsettling and the striking never fails to disappoint.

The meandering second act might test the patience, but a sweet seaside finale sees everything tie together for a touching and suitably strange conclusion. The central message – what would you do if you knew the hour of your death? – is delivered in rousing fashion. If you can wrap your head around Van Dormael’s surrealist imagination, you’ll find a confounding and uplifting tale of love, compassion, and morality.

 
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Naz & Maalik

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Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) are a couple of teenage kids with their sights set on college. They spend their days at school and their afternoons fund-raising on the streets of Brooklyn, selling lotto tickets, trading cards, and anything that could earn them a little extra cash. Being black in Brooklyn doesn’t draw attention, but being Muslim does, most notably from the new FBI officer on the block, who starts trailing the young men. So starts this gentle coming-of-age tale which harkens back to indie films of the early nineties with its gentle pace and guerrilla spirit. It’s coupled to a stripped down, trip-hop soundtrack that makes an evocative pairing with the unpretentious urban landscapes in which the story unfolds. This oozes laidback cool as the film goes about its business, ticking off social issues without making them the focus of the narrative.

Stepping up the action is racial profiling by the FBI, a line of enquiry which exposes a secret that Naz and Maalik had hoped to keep to themselves. In fact, the film is in no hurry to confirm their relationship with the audience either, to its credit. This isn’t the kind of film that screams GAY from the outset, and speaks to a new generation of filmmakers for whom sexuality is just part of the story, and not the story.

Naz & Maalik is the first feature from writer/director, Jay Dockendorf, whose film, as charming as it is, rides on the charisma of his leads. They’re very appealing company, and they help us through the more abstract, meandering moments of Dockendorf’s story. Add a sidebar of New York crazies who inhabit the margins, streets, and subways, and you’ve got a compelling day in the life of Brooklyn.