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Yuli

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Director Icíar Bollaín’s powerhouse storytelling (aided with a script by Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty) aside, the sheer athleticism of the ballet performances featured in Yuli is reason enough for a cinema ticket.

The biopic follows the life of decorated Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, and exists as a stunning embodiment of perseverance told through the art of cinema and dance.

Acosta’s trajectory – from misbehaving youth, one set against the impoverished backdrop of post-revolution Cuba, to principal dancer across various renowned ballets – is impeccably told through a series of flashbacks interjecting with a present-day Acosta (portrayed by the real-life Carlos Acosta) choreographing his life.

A large portion of the film focuses on a young Acosta and his complicated relationship with his father Pedro (heartbreakingly portrayed by Santiago Alfonso). Carlos, who is of African and Spanish heritage, remembers a man whose support was just as encouraging as it was belligerent.

Pedro had pushed his son into ballet not as a means of exploitation, but as an escape from a country unwilling to provide equality to people of colour.

Bollian proves non-judgemental as a director. She commands astounding performances from the cast and allows the struggles of the time, both from the perspective of a father and a son, to highlight the complexities of their relationship. Her approach is carefully layered and never verges on manipulative.

How Acosta’s childhood is recreated into dance is nothing short of exquisite. Moving back and forth between the present and past is seamlessly rendered with Acosta proving masterful in his ability to communicate through movement. He is a polished and seasoned performer with his performance in Yuli a testament to his ability as a storyteller. It is an achievement that gathers support from Academy Award-nominated composer Alberto Iglesias’ commanding score which inherits all the sensibilities of a dramatic ballet.

 
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Martha: A Picture Story

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Martha Cooper is best known for Subway Art, the groundbreaking 1984 book on which she collaborated with Henry Chalfont. There’s a paradox in this, because when she was first photographing the work of New York City’s graffiti artists it was widely dismissed as vandalism, and now that it’s appreciated (by both critics and the public) the walls and trains of the Big Apple are relatively bare.

But subway graffiti is only one of many objects of her fascination, as this engaging documentary makes abundantly clear. Born in Baltimore, she had a stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, began her photographic career at the New York Post and moved on to National Geographic. Over the ensuing decades she’s focussed her lens on hip-hop, street life and urban folk culture in its myriad forms, tattoos in Japan, latter-day graffitists in Germany …  The unifying theme, as an admirer puts it, has been “people rising above their environment in one way or another”. That and an apparent cheerful disregard for danger and personal risk.

Martha Cooper comes across here as a likeably strong, self-contained and independent individual, who doesn’t care about posterity – “I’ll be dead” – and who refers modestly to taking rather than making photos because subject matter is the key. But therein lies her brilliance: having the ‘eye’ for a vibrant and photogenic subject, and always at a crucially opportune moment. At 76 she’s still quite a trooper, and this film – a visual document of visual documents – is an interesting testament to the massive archive she’s accrued in a lifetime of restless creative energy and observation.

 
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Zombieland: Double Tap

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It’s been ten years since the first Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer’s slight-but-fun directorial debut, and the world hasn’t exactly been crying out for a sequel. Don’t get us wrong, the original is a cute flick, but the realm of popular culture isn’t hurting for a lack of zombie comedies these days. The best zombie comedies are about something. Shaun of the Dead (arguably the king of the subgenre) was a story about taking responsibility and maturing, that just happened to take place during a zombie apocalypse. Peter Jackson’s Braindead was a story about a man learning to embrace love and stand up to his domineering mum, who eventually manifests as a gigantic, undead monster. Zombieland: Double Tap, like the original Zombieland, is about… four extremely charming actors pissfarting about in the land of the dead, which isn’t a lot to chew on.

Zombieland: Double Tap joins the foursome of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) after another stunning opening credits sequence set to a Metallica song (“Master of Puppets”, this time). After they take over the White House as their new home base, the group falls into a rut. Little Rock is a young woman now and wants some friends her own age, and after Columbus proposes to the notoriously commitment-phobic Wichita, the sisters decide to head off on their own. Naturally things go tits up and Little Rock goes missing, so it’s up to the gang – with new character Madison (Zoey Deutch) – to save her, quip and kill a shitload of zombies.

So many elements of Zombieland: Double Tap shouldn’t work. The story is essentially a slightly remixed retread of the original, the characters are basically learning the same lessons they did a decade ago and on paper Madison’s dumb, giggling blonde schtick should be the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Yet, here’s the twist: Zombieland: Double Tap is actually a whole lot of fun. The script is clever and knowing, the leads are as charming as always, and new addition Zoey Deutch commits so fully to her cartoonish role, she ends up being one of the highlights of the film. Combine that with a sensible runtime of 93 minutes, a capable support role from the always welcome Rosario Dawson and some cheerfully creative zombie kills, and you’ve got a recipe for a brisk and fun time at the movies.

Zombieland: Double Tap isn’t dripping with subtext, depth or nuance, but it knows exactly what it needs to be. And although it’s a sequel the world wasn’t crying out for, it’s probably one those in the mood for amiable, charming nonsense will devour.

 
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Maiden

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Maiden looks at the Whitbread Round the World Race (now named the Volvo Race) – a grueling male-dominated 9-month regatta. The documentary pays particular attention to the historic 1989-90 competition, notable for having the inclusion of the first all-female team.

The ‘Maiden’ in the title refers to the name of the 58-foot ocean racing yacht, skippered at the time by the valiant 26-year old British sailor Tracy Edwards. Through an array of Super-8 home videos we learn of her troubled childhood, including an abusive stepfather, disappointed mother and eventual migration/escape to Greece, where Tracy meets a group of like-minded fellow expats and talks her way into jobs on charter boats and yachts.

It is during this period of her life that Tracy learns of the Whitbread race but is met with rampant sexism and misogynistic remarks such as “Girls are for screwing when we get into port” when making enquiries to get involved. Her persistence eventually leads to a job as a cook on one of the 15 competing boats in the 1985-86 race and despite being treated like a servant, Tracy uses the experience to gain invaluable insights into sailing and the ocean. Returning to dry land, she sets out to form her own female crew and break into the old boys’ competition.

But the road is not an easy one – over several years, Tracy is met with numerus challenges and obstacles such as anxiety, financial detriments and sponsorship issues; eventually garnering the help of the King of Jordan. A flawed character by her own admission, Tracy has spent the majority of her life running away from something, be it her own responsibilities and failures.

The Maiden team are also met with biased press and patronising men who believe the women are doomed to fail, given the physical and emotional demands of the race – “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” reiterates Tracy.

Directed by Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), the documentary effectively captures all 33,000 nautical miles of the journey – juxtaposing nostalgic archival footage with present-day articulate interviews. Tracy’s teammates and rivals (male journalists and yachtsmen) are all interesting characters who bring individualised and passionate context to what is effectively a rousing story about an indomitable woman.

Near-mutiny and near-death experiences abound, while we also learn of Tracy’s (often laborious) leadership and persistence throughout the different legs of the race, which take the ladies from Southampton to Uruguay, New Zealand and beyond.

A thrilling documentary about dreams and equality, Maiden also serves as an inspiring portrait of a remarkable woman (and group of women) that went against the tide and pioneered the sport of ocean racing.

 

 
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Slam

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

“Mother, they cannot silence my tongue”. Such are the opening words of a young Muslim-Australian poet Ameena at a Western Sydney slam poetry reading. This is the starting point for Partho Sen-Gupta’s engaging drama-thriller. Ameena (Danielle Horvat), is a talented young woman driven by her passion and by her anger at marginalisation and non-acceptance.

When she suddenly disappears, this drags her whole family and community into a state of defensive anxiety. In particular, it affects her older brother Ricky (previously known as Tariq, played by Adam Bakri). He has an ‘Anglo’ wife Sally (Rebecca Breeds), and he seems to have settled for an identity compromise and a sometimes-reluctant decision to blend in. Like all good immigrants, he translates between the two worlds and tries his best to reassure his devastated mother.

Also drawn into the action is policewoman Joanne Hendricks (Rachael Blake) who carries a certain sadness from the loss of a close family member and who can identify, perhaps too much, with Ricky’s situation. Sen-Gupta doesn’t want to concentrate upon the crime and thriller elements, although the film is occasionally slowed down by scenes that are police-procedural. More central is the characters’ sense of rootlessness and longing and displacement.

The events of Ameena’s disappearance and the grinding lack of any real progress (all played out against the somewhat relentlessly-flagged Islamophobic media background) frays Ricky’s marriage. He begins to doubt whether social acceptance and harmony will ever return. At one point, a character tells him that he should be grateful because “Australia has been good to you”, but we can see this is an ambivalent truth, if not actually an insensitive accusation.

As with the director’s previous film, Sunrise (2014), the hero’s journey is a tormented one. We cannot but feel for Ricky’s plight, but it is not always easy to be in his company. Bakri (who was so good in the arthouse hit Omar (2013)) doesn’t have that much dialogue and is here required to communicate his character’s narrative mostly through his facial expressions. Still, the message that ethnocentrism blights aspects of contemporary Australia comes across loud and clear.

 
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The Report

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This is a slow-burning but cumulatively engrossing drama about the investigation into the CIA’s interrogation of Al-Qaida detainees after 9/11. They employed what were euphemistically termed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, but which were actually – as the world of course came to know – nothing less than torture.

Adam Driver plays Daniel L. Jones, who works tirelessly on this project of truth-gathering for years, compiling the massive titular report in the process. Driver is excellent in a complex role which requires him to evoke subtly controlled intensity, frustration, moral outrage and alarm, often simultaneously – and Annette Bening’s performance as his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein is equally impressive.

The action jumps forwards and backwards in time over many years, and no-one who’s investigated – President Obama included – emerges smelling of violets.

During the first half of the film, the depiction of Jones’s painstaking work and interaction with both sources and obstructors is interspersed with truly horrifying footage – dramatised, but no less repulsive for that – of torture techniques including waterboarding. It’s a considerable relief when the depiction of atrocities stops and the focus is only on Washington DC.

That the sadism unleashed in places like Abu Gharib was useless as a method of finding out truth from suspects only adds to the sense of iniquity.

The Report is not easy viewing, for a couple of reasons. The torture sequences are deeply disturbing, as they should be, and the plethora of characters and vast amount of detailed information require a lot of concentration. But it’s a gripping, intelligently written and deftly constructed thriller, and of course all the more compelling because it’s true.

 
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Choir Girl

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In this drama from filmmaker John Fraser – marking his feature-length debut – we follow a lonely photographer down the dark alleys of Melbourne and through the glitzy world of the media. That photographer is Eugene (Peter Flaherty); a nondescript man who you could quickly lose in a crowd. Something which seems to work in his favour as Eugene likes to take pictures of the social decay he sees daily while looking after his invalid father (Roger Ward).

Drug taking, crime and prostitution all feature heavily in his work. It’s a turn off to the magazines he sends them to, but Eugene believes everything he shoots is in the public interest. When he witnesses 15-year-old sex worker, Josephine (Sarah Timm), being assaulted by her pimp, the mild-mannered photographer decides to intervene. And in doing so, puts both of their lives in danger.

Like a certain Todd Phillips’ comic book joint that came out recently, Choir Girl feels somewhat indebted to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. As Travis Bickle became obsessed with the adolescent Iris, so too does Eugene with Josephine. It’s an uneasy relationship to watch develop. Sure, Eugene wants to help her out of her current situation, but is he doing it because he can get more photos out of her? The waters are muddied by the introduction of Josephine’s pimp, Daddy (Jack Campbell) and Eugene’s magazine editor, Polly (Krista Vendy). To toss out a cliché, both characters are fundamentally different sides of the same coin; encouraging Eugene and Josephine to plunge further into the depths than they had been initially.

Shot in beautiful black and white, this is by no means a jovial film, and you’ll taste every bit of grit it force-feeds you in the first act, but once Daddy offers Eugene the opportunity to buy Josephine off him it all becomes tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Eugene effectively becomes the young girl’s pimp, protecting her from clients as she continues the trade that he’s been trying to save her from. Meanwhile, while Polly appears to be concerned for everyone’s welfare, it’s hard not to see the dollar signs in her eyes. And that’s where Choir Girl starts its bumpy road towards denouement, despite some excellent performances. Flaherty, in particular, does a lot of heavy lifting.

Films like Nil By Mouth or Romper Stomper show that tales of redemption don’t need to be as clean-cut as we’d like, or even have a happy ending. Choir Girl makes good on that philosophy and then some. This is a brutal film to watch, and Fraser has no intentions of making you comfortable throughout its duration. There will undoubtedly be some who find all its nihilism more numbing than shocking. Like exploitation, Choir Girl piles on the tragedy until you’re almost drowning in it and a highly aggressive sexual assault in the final act will undoubtedly put a nail in the coffin for many.

There’s no doubt about it, Choir Girl pulls no punches, and its arms must be heavy from holding up a mirror to modern society for so long, but in doing so, it does itself the disservice of potentially alienating the audience.

 
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The Sky is Pink

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At one point in writer/director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink, a distraught mother (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) ties her personal wish tag onto a communal wishing tree, reminding the fates that her ailing daughter’s name is Aisha – ‘she who lives’. Aisha’s life is shown as a constant struggle from birth since she has inherited SCID – a rare disorder which makes her susceptible to life threatening infections.

The film is based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary (Zaira Wasim) – an author and motivational speaker, who died at the age of 18 from complications caused by a bone marrow transplant. Bose’s previous film Margarita with a Straw (2014) was also about adapting to chronic illness, parents who strive to establish normalcy, and the effects of grief. The rosy titles of these films are a nod to her positive treatment of depressing material. Both films are dedicated to Bose’s own son, Ishan, who died in a car accident at the age of 16.

The lead actors – Zaira Wasim, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar are all primarily connected with the Hindi commercial film industry (Bollywood), as is the musical composer Pritam. This film, however, is indie in its orientation. The treatment of the songs is modern and understated. Vignettes of family life, celebration or romance are montaged to appear quite natural (as opposed to choreographed and staged). The mise en scene is natural although it extends to glamorous realism when the family’s wealth increases.

Although Priyanka Chopra Jonas gives a grounded performance, it is difficult to disassociate her from the diva of her filmography. Farhan Akhtar as Aisha’s father disappears more convincingly into his role. Zaira Wasim is the soul of the film even though it is primarily focused on Aisha’s parents, who facilitate her beautiful albeit short, life.

In both the Sky is Pink and Margarita with a Straw the main characters are well off financially. This makes it easier for the filmmakers to concentrate on emotions, since day-to-day economic survival isn’t an issue[i] and life enhancing trips abroad are an option. In their poorer days, the parents are unable to afford their daughter’s treatment but that obstacle is quite simply, and perhaps too conveniently, surmounted. Emotional trajectories are salient with lots of chronological breaks covering a 25-year period – juxtaposing scenes of Aisha’s dark, empty bed in the present with shots of the parents’ sunny love affair; the trauma of treatment with the joys of family life.

The narrator is Aisha who, as a motivational coach, is not sorry for herself, for her family or for us. (‘We all have to die some time.’) The narration, written by award winning Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky Donor, Piku) and Nilesh Maniyar, capture a wry humor which, combined with Bose’s innate understanding of adolescence, make for an endearing character. The film does get melodramatic towards the end but relative to other Hindi films, it’s not overly sentimental given the real-life material.

A team of non-Indian producers is credited which points to the fact that the film is targeting festivals and an international audience. Aisha’s brother (Rohit Saraf) is not given enough attention to justify his many brief appearances. The songs – although pleasant, just add unnecessarily to the film’s length. A tighter edit and perhaps a little less fragmentation might have made it the film it wants to be.

[i] http://racheldwyer.com/hindi-cinema-the-aesthetics-of-excess/

 

 
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Hustlers

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Inspired by the real-life story of strippers who exploited wall street bankers, the female-helmed caper, Hustlers takes a unique look at a world that up until now has predominantly been seen through a male lens. Its director and screenwriter Lorena Scafaria treats the strip club here like any other workplace, with its competitive nature (including dressing room banter) and hierarchy of power (sleazy managers and bitchy co-workers).

Constance Wu plays Destiny – a single mother struggling to survive while looking after her ailing Grandmother. She then meets the magnetic Ramona (a never better Jennifer Lopez) – a seasoned dancer in control of her sexuality and business – and learns how to make the most of their circumstances.

Until the recession hits and ruins everything… with Scafaria paying impressive pop culture attention and detail to 2008, most aptly through an amusing meta-cameo from Usher Raymond, a known regular on the strip club circuit in his heyday. As a means of survival and formidable form of revenge, the entrepreneurial women hatch a plan to quite literally steal their power back by drugging some truly unsympathetic characters (including the omnipresent Frank Whaley) and taking their credit cards for a ride.

From here on, we navigate through a collection of scams and escapades that, though humorous, quickly become tiresome. Scafaria employs a style that occasionally feels reminiscent of Scorsese flicks like Goodfellas and Casino, but is let down by repeating the same edit patterns and format when moving from the bar to the strip club to (eventually) an apartment.

Based on a New York Magazine article, the script noticeably loses its momentum and direction in the second half. As with most true-crime stories, it was only time before issues of morality (and the law) caught up with the eponymous hustlers – though the police, for that matter, are so poorly represented that they might as well be sitting behind their desks eating doughnuts.

But there’s no denying the chemistry between its two leading ladies – from their first interaction where the maternal Ramona keeps Destiny warm under her massive fur coat, their friendship feels believable and genuine across the story’s 7-year drip-fed structure.

Unfortunately, less can be said for their thinly written protégés, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, who round out their expansive team of scam artists. Julia Stiles is another such casualty – shelved with an unimaginative journalist role that is integral only to the film’s framing narrative.

Elevated by Wu and Lopez, Hustlers is fun when it wants to be – succeeding more as an insightful drama about female camaraderie than a thorough meditation on gender politics and empowerment.

 
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Judy

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The Wizard of Oz is a timeless adventure whose message of optimism speaks as relevantly today as it had in 1939, and it has stood the test of time like no other film before it.

Owing to its success is the ingénue Dorothy; a role made famous by actress-singer Judy Garland. An extraordinarily talented actress whose sunny, all-American public persona hid a lifetime of abuse brought about by a misogynistic Hollywood system.

Garland’s efforts to re-establish her dimming spotlight in 1960s London are at the centre of Judy and are brought to life by a mesmerising performance from Renée Zellweger.

Perceived as unreliable by the once adoring eyes of the American public, Garland relocates to London due to a looming custody battle and a desire to provide her kids with a degree of normalcy never received during her own childhood. The seeds of neglect festering since childhood haunt Garland into her forties, with Judy director Rupert Goold profoundly interjecting scenes involving her mistreatment as a child-star to show how her grief manifested into adulthood.

Garland’s fame is driven by both her talent on-screen and her exploits off-screen. Relying on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol to calm her anxieties, Garland’s severe emotional fragility is matched by her emaciated physicality; right or wrong, it is an appearance which Zellweger commits to achieving.

As reliant as Garland was with silencing her demons through substance, so too was she infamous for seeking out relationships as temporary relief – falling just as quickly in love as she did out of it.

Goold never fails to miss an opportunity to make a pointed message about inequality and uses Garland’s life to draw parallels with today’s #metoo climate. It proves an earnest attempt to remain current but too often winds up removing the viewer from the film due to its blatant application. He is guiltiest of this when introducing themes of homophobia into an already busy film and giving nothing but lean scraps for supporting characters to chew on.

The retro set-design and inspired costuming allow Judy to do a respectable job in transporting the viewer back to the 1960s. This ultimately enables production design to convey history, with the looming rise of hippiedom and Beatlemania correlating with Garland’s dissipating stardom.

There is much to be said about Zellweger’s performance saving Judy from the doldrums of mediocrity. From her sharp-wit to her captivating charm over a crowd, Zellweger (who showed she had singing chops in Chicago) manages to masterfully embody Garland’s electrifying-show-stopper performance style. Zellweger’s ability to capture not just the razzle and dazzle of Garland, but emote her heartbreaking struggle with profound levels of vulnerability, enables the actress to slide into the role as comfortably as Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slippers.

It is easy to look back on the lives of actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood with a sentimental gaze. Where the likes of My Week with Marilyn and Stan & Ollie delivered similar sagas about the fall of stars from yesteryear, Judy acknowledges the troubling experiences of a Hollywood icon in an engrossing and timely biopic spearheaded by a transcendent Zellweger performance.