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Disco Elysium

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Disco Elysium isn’t like other games. Oh sure, superficially, the role-playing game from developer ZA/UM resembles titles you’ve seen before. The isometric third person point of view, the ability to level up various character traits and branching conversation trees are all typical of the RPG genre. However, it’s in the details, the nuance, that Disco sets itself apart and offers one of the most unique and fascinating games in recent memory.

Disco Elysium puts you in the well-trodden shoes of a grizzled cop who has such severe amnesia that he can’t remember a damn thing. Not his name, age, location, purpose or what the bloody hell he did the night before. Full of self-loathing and nameless remorse – not to mention some very chatty aspects of your fractured psyche – you leave the skanky, trashed hotel room you woke up in and begin to explore the city of Revachol. There’s been a murder, you see, and it’s up to you and your straight-laced partner Kim Kitsuragi to solve the mystery before tension in the town boils over into violent chaos. Or, you know, not. Because in Disco Elysium you can pretty much do as you please. Prefer to piss fart about getting trashed on booze and goey? Have at it. Want to become a rabid communist, or a dead-eyed fascist, and blurt political dogma at all and sundry? Knock yourself out. Hell, in a particularly dark turn you can even become a murderer yourself, although it’s heavily discouraged.

Still, freedom is nothing new in RPGs. Where the difference comes with Disco Elysium is the fact that there’s no combat. None. At all. No random encounters, no boss fights, no trash mobs, no secret hidden enemies. While violence does exist, it’s rare and not a game mechanic. No, in this game it’s all about talking, thinking, reaching conclusions, sharing arguments, debating and banging on like you’re being paid by the word. Most conversations will include skill checks to unlock further information, or goals, and your performance in these moments is dependent on which traits you’ve upgraded on your character screen. Shockingly, pleasingly, it works a treat, giving Disco Elysium the feel of reading an engaging, smart and dense (in a good way) novel that lets you bumble through the narrative, trying to get the best result.

The uniformly excellent writing is buoyed further by the gorgeous aesthetics and design sensibility of the game, which drip with grime and despair, offering locations so vivid you can practically smell them. Smart, incisive dialogue pairs with the otherworldly score and the brilliantly realised characters will keep you guessing about the game’s numerous mysteries and conspiracies right up until the end.

Disco Elysium is smart, surprising and utterly engrossing. Get ready to spend 20-30 hours in a gorgeous, painterly world in a twisted tale that brims with both menace and wit, a dreamlike stroll through a world unlike any other and a stunningly satisfying video game that will stay with you long after you’ve woken from its surreal embrace.

 
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A Guide to Second Date Sex

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Earlier this year, Aussie audiences were greeted with the film Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age drama that took a weirdly specific and under-represented demographic within that genre and, through an uncanny understanding of human emotionality, crafted a story that gave viewers of all ages something to relate to. While A Guide To Second Date Sex may not be focused on the same ideas of social isolation and growing up, it is also a film that takes a weirdly specific and under-represented aspect of its own sub-genre, this time with rom-coms, and turns it into something that is sure to give audiences all kinds of cringe.

Of course, that might make the film out to be far more painful than it actually is. It definitely gets squirmy, but unlike a lot of mainstream cringe comedy out there, it’s less from being uncomfortable at what’s being said and more because it’s difficult to figure out what one is even supposed to say in the first place.

Indeed, for Alexandra Roach’s Laura and George MacKay’s Ryan, both back in the dating game after a tough break-up, the story largely consists of them drowning in their self-consciousness, working only on the advice of the varyingly uninformed on how this is ‘supposed to’ work out.

First dates are a common rom-com scenario. Second dates, not so much. A situation where you have previous experience with the other person, but not enough of it to be clear on what their intentions are.

Born from writer/director Rachel Hirons’ stage play of the same name, most of the story takes place in Ryan’s apartment, the close-up framing putting the audience in the same awkward proximity as the main characters. There are very few cuts to be found, save for the transitions between their first date and their current position, meaning that we get to see all of the struggling to find appropriate glasses for port, the last-minute grooming, and the bonding over what they think Jennifer Aniston smells like, all in close-enough-to-real-time.

It makes for a refreshingly relatable offering, built more on genuine human interaction as opposed to working through clichés. But where it gets interesting is when the apartment gets a bit more crowded and one of the exes gets involved.

Artificially raising the tension in this matter is when the clichés could have started flooding in… but instead, it’s couched in the same confusion over what the right social cues are.

Basically, it compares real life with the fabricated reality found in most rom-coms, and the result is much like what preceded it: Cringe that gives way to crippling fits of laughter. Those who have a taste for rom-coms, or just those who like relating to people in films, for better and for worse, should definitely check this one out.

 
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Downhill

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Is it too much to expect remakes to be as good, or at least as notable, as the original? In the age of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and even Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, there’s more reason to think so than one would expect. But then, the typical feelings come rushing in, and when attached to a film with a title that’s basically a kick-me sign for pull-quote-seeking critics, it can feel all too obvious to even point out. So, before getting into the remake issues here, let’s dive into the everything-else-that-is-wrong issues with this thing.

An ostensible black comedy, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back) never manage to find the right tonal lane to make the main premise work to their advantage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus far exceeds the material she’s given (which given the plot’s mild resemblance to Seinfeld’s ‘The Fire’, that might be because she’s technically done it already), but she’s the only one who manages to sell the crumbling mood of the core marital friction.

Otherwise, it’s Will Ferrell on his Daddy’s Home kick once again, their sons who look about as psyched to be here as we are, and Mirando Otto as the kind of European caricature that might fill some audiences with the urge to chew through their armrests. It’s difficult to take seriously, and even more difficult to find funny. Especially when the humour is largely derived from talking too loud, talking for too long, not talking loud or long enough, and social cringe that only highlights the discomfort, rather than the social norms that create it in the first place.

It’s a pretty tired affair all on its own, but as a remake of 2014’s Force Majeure, its flaws only grow even deeper. Any resemblance of psychological edge that existed in the original has been essentially babyproofed, lest the actors catch themselves on an actual point to what they’re saying or doing, and whatever genuinely interesting ideas it presented are replaced with middle-aged ennui that is as bland as anything. Both because the dialogue is just that weak, and the characters spouting it are lacking in tangible empathy or even humanity.

The only person here who looks more out of place than Louis-Dreyfus is Jesse Armstrong in the writer’s room, as his work with Mitchell & Webb, Chris Morris and even his stint on Black Mirror show that he can balance dark comedy with an even darker examination of the human animal. But instead, he and everyone else’s talents are wasted on a project that epitomises the worst case scenario for an American remake of a European film: A grating, gentrified mess that reflects Ugly Americanisms, both as a production and as cinematic narrative.

Maybe it’ll convince some audiences to check out the original, but with how much this has hacked it to pieces, all without adding anything of its own worth to the mix, it wouldn’t be surprising if it completely turned people away from ever looking at Force Majeure. And that, quite frankly, is the worst thing that a remake can do.

 
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Motherless Brooklyn

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Is there anything as satisfying as a well-made movie? Lovers of big, densely-plotted, period gangster films will want to settle back for this one. The film, based on the 1999 book by Jonathan Lethem (who co-wrote the screenplay with director/actor Edward Norton), tells the classic American story of city development, crime and politics bundled together.  In fact, Motherless Brooklyn is something of a one man show for Edward Norton who not only directs here with great flair but gives one of his most complex screen portrayals.

The action takes place in 1950s New York, the city is growing and there’s huge money to be made in planning the transport corridors and building and redesigning (or obliterating) neighbourhoods. In this drama, there is one patriarch cum megalomaniac whose decisions seem to count most and to whom more and more power accrues. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin at his bellicose best) is already wealthy but mere money no longer interests him; now his more refined lust is power for power’s sake. Every residents’ organisation or individual citizen who gets in his way is regarded as a mere fly to swat.

At the other end of the scale is the humble private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton). Lionel is as organic to the city as Randolph. He was brought up an orphan and his mentor Frank Minna (a wonderful turn from Bruce Willis) nicknamed him ‘motherless Brooklyn’. Lionel has Tourette Syndrome but when he is not barking out repetitive nonsense, his mind is like a steel trap and he remembers everything that he hears. Norton makes much of Lionel’s verbal tics and mannerisms from the get-go, in a way that seems almost showy or excessively mannered, but such is the actor’s commitment to the portrayal that we come to love Lionel and find in his flaws all the more reason to root for him.

The film is densely plotted in a sort of ‘let’s lose everyone’, Maltese Falcon kind of way. This sometimes requires actors to devote whole scenes to expository dialogue about who is double crossing whom, but it is a very small flaw. The reliance on the Marlow-esque hard boiled dialogue/narration is another genre staple which could be over relied upon, but which is mostly sharp and literate and not too intrusive or contrived here.

Motherless Brooklyn is beautifully shot (great work from British DOP Dick Pope) and the period recreation is smoothly done, from the classic cars to the interiors and the great clothes. There is also a great jazz score from Daniel Pemberton and a complex role for the riveting Gugu Mbatha-Raw. All the elements combine to an accumulative effect. Like Randolph’s grand constructions, the film is built to last.

Every now and then a film comes along where the care and craft combine to give it an instantly recognisable solidity and watchability. LA Confidential might be a point of comparison. Polanski’s Chinatown is perhaps the granddaddy of them all. This one is a worthy addition to that pantheon.

 
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A Hidden Life

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There are some things in life you can’t rush, like ageing a single malt or a Terrence Malick film. Of course, both are an acquired taste. Malick broke into the American film world with Badlands back in 1973 and, though he has written and filmed nearly twenty stories since, his filmography has been both drawn out and patchy. Not that he would care, this most ‘European’ of American directors never seems to listen to anyone when he is on a quest to film things his way. His films can also feel terribly long and demand a lot from audiences. Be warned this one is no different.

It tells the story a German man trying to pull away from the second world war madness. Franz’s (August Diehl) father died in the trenches in WW1 and so he has an understandable detestation of war. When he sees his country lurching into the collective madness of Nazism, he resolves to flee with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) to the rural life. Things go well for a while and he and Fani find the heavy labour of farming both rewarding and absorbing.

Alas, Franz has to join up. Eventually he is back in the village and, this time he is determined to stay away from active service. Unfortunately, the villagers regard him as a traitor and do nothing to shield him from the jackboots brigades that come to haul him off to jail as an objector. Fani is left to look after their three little girls but at least she has her sister to share the farm work.

Malick’s deliberately stylised touches are in evidence throughout. There are the strangely low-level prowling camera angles mixed with beautiful wide vistas that set Franz up against the sky like a poster hero. Then there are oddly oblique interactions with the people around him, the muttering and side long glances from the villagers, and the deep and meaningfuls with his devoted wife. In many ways, Franz remains an enigma. He is engaged in a Lutheresque conversation with God and his conscience, and that implies a sense of purpose more important than earthly existence.

Even his choices and motives are open to question though. One character suggests that God judges not so much by a person’s actions, as by what is in their heart. So why doesn’t Franz just play along till the national madness blows over, thereby saving himself and his family all this heartache? Of course, there would be no film then, at least not the three tortuous hours that Malick devotes to his plight.

Malick is widely read in philosophy and (see for example 2011’s The Tree of Life), and he is clearly obsessed with the ineffable beauty and mystery of life. That this can never be explained doesn’t foreclose his sense of wonder or inflicting it on us. Whether the audience will forgive his getting lost in all this burdensome rapture, is itself another kind of mystery.

 
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Hostage

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A stridently independent filmmaker, in 1983 Frank Shields was out to compete with the bigger cinema releases of the day, when he shot his first dramatic feature film on the smell of an oily rag (he had previously shot the 1974 documentary The Breaker about Breaker Morant, using similarly guerilla filmmaking methods). Ultimately, he managed to do some pretty decent box office with this indie thriller.

The film opens with the teenage Christine Lewis (Kerry Mack) working with a group of carnys at a small NSW South Coast showground. There, she meets Walter Maresch (Ralph Schicha), a Teutonic pretty boy who looks (and acts) like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s younger, less-body sculpted brother. Walter is obsessively fixated on Christine and professes his undying love for her at every opportunity, only to then declare his intent to marry after a few brief dates.

Unsettled by his general whiff of desperation, Christine rebuffs Walter’s proposal. Incapable of exuding any charm whatsoever, Walter threatens to shoot himself if she doesn’t agree to his offer (she doesn’t), so he attempts to make good on his suicide threat, unable to bear the pain of being spurned. Later, Christine sits in a hospital waiting room racked with guilt.

She relents to the pressures of the hospital priest who believes it a mere formality to give ‘a dying man’ his last wish, thus Christine agrees to ‘marry’ the near-death Walter. As fate would have it, Walter inconveniently survives his suicide attempt.

Christine chooses to stay married to him and soon becomes pregnant. Walter becomes even more controlling and unhinged once their young daughter is born and after several mysterious visits by an odd looking stranger with envelopes of cash and plane tickets, Walter relocates Christine and their young daughter to Germany. Once there, it becomes apparent that Walter is a member of a neo-Nazi group, though he seems too unhinged even for them.

Soon Walter forces Christine to participate in bank robberies, like a bizarro Patty Hearst and the surreal nightmare continues, to unspool into even stranger situations from there.

Hostage (aka Savage Attraction in the US) navigates similar territory that later thrillers Sleeping with the Enemy, Not Without My Daughter and Dead Calm would delve deeply into: a young, naïve woman meets an unassuming guy and makes the mistake of trusting him, only to discover that he’s catastrophically toxic, violent and controlling.

Based on Christine Maresch’s biographical account of her own nightmarish marriage, it’s filtered through the prism of Frank Shields’ marketing eye for ‘what the audience wants’ resulting in the addition of the requisite staples of the ‘80s low budget film: ‘splosions, a sprinkling of gore, some fist fights and car hijinks and sex scenes with exploitative nudity. All this nestles uncomfortably up against themes of toxic masculinity and one man’s quest for control over a woman’s body.

Kerry Mack’s uncanny resemblance to actor Michelle Williams imbues Christine with a strange sense of melancholy though her co-star Ralph Schicha doesn’t fare as well, and his thick accent and wobbly command of English dilutes his performance considerably.

Still, the film LOOKS terrific [re-released after a 4k restoration]; Vincent Monton’s handsome lensing holds up and gives the film much needed scope and authenticity.

Hostage impresses more with its weirdly unpredictable story than the performances; even so, the crazy-ass plot that lurches from one insanely compelling development to another is reason enough to revisit this slice of ‘80s Oz cinema.

 
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H is for Happiness

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Winner of the 2019 CinefestOZ prize ($100k, thank you very much), H is for Happiness is the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy. Girl Asleep from 2015 also won the prize, and was the first feature from celebrated theatre maker, Rosemary Myers. Both films were about a girl going through puberty, the awkwardness, obsessing over appearance, and starting to be attracted to the opposite sex. The similarities go beyond this premise alone, and are uncanny in fact, though H is for Happiness is a superior film.

Girl Asleep started off with a bang, establishing a very strong style, which unfortunately went awry in its third act’s turn to the surreal. In H is for Happiness, the film’s style is initially clunky, as each scene is presented without enough connecting tissue or cinematic style, but thankfully, as the film progresses, and the characters build, so does the audience engagement.

Candice Phee (impressive newcomer Daisy Axon) is full of life, smart and nerdy. She’s happy in her skin, even though the cool kids look down on her. When new kid in school Douglas Benson (adorable Wesley Patton) turns up and sits next to Candice, sparks eventually fly, and the two become inseparable. The ever-chirpy Candice also has a challenging home environment, with a tragedy clouding over her dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and especially her mum Claire (Emma Booth). On top of all this, Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) loves Candice but has been ousted by the family for a deal gone wrong.

As per the title, an assignment has been set at school by eccentric Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes), in which students must take a letter of the alphabet and create a presentation around it. Candice makes it her mission to make her family happy again.

Sheedy’s inexperience in cinema (his only effort behind the camera is the 2017 short film Mrs McCutcheon) is evident, making the early scenes especially uncinematic, despite the premise’s potential, the beautiful locations (Albany, WA), cinematography (Bonnie Elliott – Slam, Palm Beach) and production design (Nicki Gardiner). However, the source material, Barry Jonsberg’s book My Life as an Alphabet adapted by Lisa Hoppe, means that the spine is strong enough to sustain your interest, and build your investment in the characters, performed expertly by the cast, including small turns from Deborah Mailman and WA legend George Shevtsov (Love Serenade).

Unlike Girl Asleep, H is for Happiness plays much younger, and should appeal to family audiences (lookie here, it’s not even the end of January and we have a second local family film to embrace), despite slightly dark themes. It is generous hearted, embracing the rich, the poor, the normal, the damaged, the eccentric, the full breadth of humanity. Life in Australia may look idyllic but it isn’t neat and tidy, and out of the optimistic hopes of its damaged young heroes emerges true happiness, and an ending that will have you sailing away to another world.

 
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The Lighthouse

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Director Robert Eggers made a startling and original feature film debut with 2015’s The Witch. Shot using natural light for exteriors and only candlelight for interiors, it also featured era-appropriate dialogue and didn’t seem to particularly care if audiences were on board with its subtle, slowburn shenanigans. The film was a modest success, not to mention critically beloved, and there was a good deal of excitement regarding Eggers’ sophomore film. Would the 36-year-old production designer turned director continue to defy the Hollywood establishment or would he suckle at the commercial teat and knock out a remake of some ’80s horror property? Well, The Lighthouse is here and, lordy, if anything it makes The Witch appear downright mainstream!

The Lighthouse tells the tale of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is sent to work as a wickie (or lighthouse keeper) on the isolated coast of New England, with salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). And that’s… about it in terms of narrative drive. What starts off as a slow character drama soon morphs into something far stranger, and more interesting, dealing with themes of memory, loss, loneliness, identity and even otherworldly horror, but in many ways this is a film that defies easy summary.

Shot in moody black and white, in the claustrophobic 1.19:1 ratio, it’s a film that constantly keeps the audience on the backfoot, never offering easy answers or even definitive conclusions. Suffice to say, this is a film that very much will not be everybody. Willem Dafoe’s performance is glorious as the mad Thomas, but Pattinson also impresses, bringing a sort of wounded vulnerability to a role that could have easily been overshadowed by his iconic co-star. Eggers’ direction is stylish and nuanced, with some unforgettable sequences, particularly in the third act, and the dense symbolism of the film’s conclusion will likely be debated online until the heat death of the universe.

So, will The Lighthouse be for you? Well, if you found The Witch to be a slog, then absolutely not. This is stagey, obtuse, deliberate filmmaking and frankly in terms of wider audience appreciation it makes The Witch look like The Avengers! If, however, you’re up for some weird, dense, symbolist gear, then The Lighthouse might just be the beacon in the darkness you’ve been searching for.

 
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The Rhythm Section

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The messed-up-naïf-who-goes-on-to-become-a-lethal-assassin is a well-trodden thriller cliché, given ample, often impressive play in films like La Femme Nikita (and its US remake), Red Sparrow, Hanna, and The Marvel Cinematic Universe exploits of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Now you can add Blake Lively’s Stephanie Patrick to the list, and while there’s a lot of familiarity here, there are enough new notes to keep things moving. The third feature film from on-the-rise female cinematographer turned director Reed Morano (who’s crafting an interesting career with films like I Think We’re Alone Now and Meadowland, along with her work on TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale), The Rhythm Section is particularly intriguing for the fact that its central assassin never becomes all that lethal, nor that accomplished.

Broken after the death of her entire family in an air accident, Stephanie Patrick (an excellent transformative turn from Blake Lively, who is barely recognisable here) is now a hopeless junkie selling herself for her next fix. But when a freelance journo contacts her with the truth about what sent her family’s commercial flight up in flames, the frail and feeble Stephanie is suddenly hurled into a world of terrorists, ex-CIA handlers, killers, bomb-makers, and a reclusive former MI6 agent (Jude Law at his rugged, charismatic best) who serves as an unlikely mentor on her quest for revenge.

Though copping its world-hopping plot from the Bourne and Bond films, The Rhythm Section works best when it settles on the engagingly flawed Stephanie. Weak, horribly damaged, and twisted by pain, grief and addiction, she’s a near lost cause in the assassin stakes, and when she gets her act together enough to start ratcheting up the body count, it hardly transpires in the expected super-spy style. In The Rhythm Section, killing doesn’t come easy. And while the film might suffer pacing and plausibility issues, this interesting thematic push makes it well worth a watch.

 
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The Truth

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Who should have ownership over their own story? And, what if the telling of your story upsets significant others or even causes harms? These are some of the areas tackled in a delicate and searching way in this fine French film. When we say French, we should also recall that it is made by a Japanese filmmaker. Hirokazu Kore-eda scooped the top prize at Cannes in 2018 with his delightful offbeat family drama The Shoplifters. He also made the devastatingly simple but effective Like Father Like Son (2013). This is his first film in France and, despite not speaking French, he has garnered a start cast including Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.

Deneuve plays Grand Dame actress Fabienne who is revered in French cinema (so perfectly cast then). She is both neurotic and needy and sometimes completely impossible, but she inspires people nonetheless. She has just written a bestselling autobiography which, like all such documents, is part truth telling and part justification.

Fabienne’s long-suffering daughter Lumir (Binoche) flies back to France with her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke). They all converge at a French chateau for celebrations and sturm and drang. Fabienne is not actually consumed by guilt about putting her career before mothering (perhaps she is too selfish to do that), but nor is she just an egotistical diva. Lumir herself has a child now and the themes of never being a good enough parent, especially with the demands of showbiz/art, reverberate throughout.

In one of many delightful scenes, Fabienne stays up late one night spilling the beans to the hapless but willing outsider Hank, fully aware that he doesn’t really speak enough French to understand her confessions.

Kore-eda, is such a deceptively artful director. The film appears to be just ambling along at times but the arc of each character’s development (or sometimes where they are stuck) unfolds in the most satisfying way. All his films bear repeated viewings to get their riches. It obviously helps that he has such strong leads. Deneuve shows real range here and is genuinely moving when she reverts to the vulnerability that she had blinded herself to for so long. Binoche (who suggested the project to the director) is content to play second fiddle, but she too commits to her role in a way that makes Lumir seem both the archetypal child overshadowed by a brilliant parent and someone with her own contradictions.

If you like complex human studies directed and realised with the utmost finesse, make sure you put this one on your holiday viewing list.