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Becoming Cousteau

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In the beguiling Nat Geo documentary Becoming Cousteau, famed French sea captain (and man responsible for the creation of twee) Jacques Cousteau becomes an interloper within his own story.

Expanding on several decades worth of Cousteau’s seafaring antics, a visual feast captured through archival footage in all its celluloid glory, director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) constructs a potent exploration of an individual reckoning with self-regret.

You’d be hard-pressed defining Cousteau’s career with fewer than three monikers: activist, futurist, filmmaker (just don’t say documentarian). Through Garbus’ deft gaze, we witness Cousteau from his younger days journeying the oceans, the imagery of which belongs on a Wes Anderson mood board, to his later life operating as an environmental activist working to undo the damage brought on by his thalassic adventures.

What begins as bright and summery nautical hijinks, brimming with all the buzzing energy of a soft-drink commercial, transforms into Cousteau’s ideological reawakening. Garbus applies inviting visuals to express the jubilance of a young and intrigued Cousteau. Only when Cousteau’s immense affinity for the ocean is established does the romanticism stop, with Garbus, impeccably, setting-up a mercurial shift in tone that grapples with the grim consequences brought on by Cousteau’s unbridled curiosity.

There is a level of self-awareness in Garbus’ direction that smartly dovetails away from defining Cousteau as a model human being. His shortcomings, depicted through his familial absenteeism and the impact his popularity had on the ocean by way of pollution and global warming, are on full display, with the film ardently denoting the seriousness of climate change and the ongoing conservational inaction from big business and politicians.

Alas, there is more to take from Becoming Cousteau outside of its environmental evangelism. It isn’t so much about ignoring the mistakes of the past, but possessing the willingness to evolve from them.

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Waiting for Anya

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In the early months of 1942, while the Nazi occupation of Paris was well underway, the South of France remained relatively untouched by the horrors of WW2. In a small farming village at the foot of the Pyrenees, Jo (Noah Schnapp), a young shepherd boy, stumbles across a group of Jewish children being harboured by the town’s reclusive widow Horcada (Anjelica Huston). Keeping the secret from his family, Jo joins forces with Horcada and her Jewish son-in-law Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), working together to smuggle the children across the border to Spain and on to freedom.

Based on the novel by acclaimed YA author Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and co-written for the screen and directed by Ben Cookson (Almost Married), the story tackles a truly dark period in our history, if not a particularly original one. However, by reframing what is ultimately well-trodden ground for the genre through the eyes of a guileless teenager, the tale becomes accessible to a whole new generation of filmgoers.

Noah Schnapp, best known for his work on Netflix’s Stranger Things, brings the perfect blend of wide-eyed naiveté and youthful defiance to Jo. His lack of worldliness allows the film to brush lightly over the more horrific realities of the situation as the former sleepy mountain village finds itself overrun with German soldiers. Here, the screenplay becomes over reliant on metaphor, talking down to its audience with teachable moments that would perhaps be better suited to after-school specials or Saturday morning cartoons.

The film itself is visually captivating. Cinematographer Gerry Vasbenter works real magic with the mountainous backdrop of Southern France, the enchanting scenery bringing a sense of wonder to a tale that sadly does not inspire the same.

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Lamb

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Lamb is a foggy creepshow about a farming couple in the Icelandic foothills who happen upon a ‘gift’ from nature in the form of a child. Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason star as Maria and Ingvar, the childless couple, and their routine has them miserably plodding along with the farm chores in this treeless and rocky land. As dull as this might sound, it’s actually a quietly fascinating start to the film, which may be down to the oft-mentioned ‘otherworldly’ landscape. Icelandic folk must be tired of everyone going on about their topography.

The opening is a slow tracking shot through a snow-swept exterior, via a herd of tiny horses. We end up in a barn full of frightened sheep with the hint of something off screen – the eyes of the sheep are a clever way to suggest this. Later, as Maria and Ingvar are birthing lambs, an ‘arrival’ (unseen by the viewer) clearly provokes shock, then decisiveness. For a good further 15 minutes or so, whatever they delivered is kept out of shot until, finally we see the child. Now, surely the writers (Sjón and director Valdimar Jóhannsson) didn’t plan for there to be titters and snorts, but unfortunately, at the reveal of the child, Ada, that’s the default setting.

The ‘family’ are content, except for the annoyance of the birth mother – A SHEEP – constantly bleating outside Ada’s window. Maria sorts out this problem and things are going well until the visit of Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. Pétur is pretty much every member of the audience when he asks, “What the fuck is going on here?” Ingvar’s reply of “Happiness” doesn’t quite scan with Pétur, but after his initial shock, he reluctantly accepts this situation.

There’s a lot of food for thought on the intentions of the filmmakers here. Lamb seems to have its roots in Nordic folk tales, but it could be read as an anti-disablist statement or a pro-nature tract. Maria’s insistence that “Ada is a gift” is no doubt magnified by the loss of her children (we see her tending to a small plot of graves at one point – one of which has the name Ada on the cross), but nature takes an alternate view on her understanding of this. A curiously simplistic, almost minimalistic, style is used to present this complex tale. Suffice to say, Lamb is an odd, captivating film that will stay with you days after watching.

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Flashback

Home, Home Entertainment, Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The life of Fred Fitzell (Dylan O’Brien) is, on the surface, an unremarkable one. He’s got a steady 9 to 5 in data entry, he married his high-school sweetheart Karen and together they spend their time discussing the minutia of everyday realities, such as which shade of red to paint the bathroom.

It’s steady, calm and predictable. Safe. That is until Fred finds out that his mother’s illness has progressed past the point of a cure; now, any time he sees her could be the last. The news is doubly heartbreaking given Fred’s mother no longer has any recollection of who he is, the deterioration of her memory making a true goodbye feel hopeless.

As Fred deals with his own memories of childhood, his mind keeps flashing back to thoughts of Cindy (Maika Monroe), a girl who vanished in high school after a psychedelic street drug called Mercury started doing the rounds. Tracing increasingly unreliable memories back to his old high school, Fred tries to uncover the mystery of what exactly happened to Cindy and how it all connects to the horrific visions that have begun to haunt his daily life.

At the core of the film, writer/director Christopher MacBride (The Conspiracy) offers up an intriguing deconstruction of the concept of linear time as a prison. Unfortunately, that premise is really all that the screenplay offers. Rather than exploring the implications of Mercury as a drug that can break the constraints of reality, MacBride takes us on a journey of dull office meetings and looming high school deadlines, interspersed with enough chaotic jump cuts that the film warrants an epilepsy warning.

There’s a fog of disconnection hanging over Fred, long before he’s even aware of the existence of Mercury, which feels like wasted potential given the energy O’Brien brings to the rare scenes in which he’s allowed to truly play out his emotions. He’s gloomy and detached as an office drone and equally as gloomy and detached as a high schooler, the only real difference being his teen self’s unfortunate hair.

The same can be said of the supporting cast. It’s difficult to understand the pull Fred feels toward this group of dead-eyed misfits. Even Cindy, supposedly the mysterious, unattainable one, is given little to do beyond sit in corners and look wistful.

We do catch occasional glimpses of the psychological thriller this could have been: one particular scene with Fred menacingly swinging his baseball bat at an intruder, who may or may not be a figment of his own imagination, is masterfully shot using a mix of security camera footage and flashes of Fred’s own waking terrors, bringing a moment of true tension to the jumbled mess of shock and disassociation we’ve seen throughout.

The score, composed by Pilotpriest, succeeds in creating a dark, unsettling atmosphere, but while Flashback does its best to be a high concept film questioning the effects of free will on reality, its ambition is sadly lost in the dreamlike haze of its chaotic narrative.

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Skies of Lebanon

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Chloé Mazlo’s Skies of Lebanon is boldly ambitious for a first feature. Finding inspiration in the real-life experiences of her own Swiss grandmother, Mazlo’s film follows the story of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), who leaves her home in Switzerland to make a new life in sunny, vibrant Lebanon. There, she meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), an astrophysicist with stars in his eyes, who plans to be the first in his field to send a Lebanese national into space. Together, they build an idyllic home, warm with the love of family and friends, only to find their blissful life threatened by the oncoming storm of civil war.

Best known for her work in animation, Mazlo does a masterful job of combining live action and stop motion to bring her tale to life. There’s a whimsical charm to her visual style that clashes gratifyingly with the darker themes of the film, making the creeping intrusion of violence and oppression into Alice’s dreamlike world all the more striking.

The cast of characters are every bit as eccentric and charming as the story they inhabit. As the world falls to ash and rubble around them, Alice and her tight-knit family band together in the hopes that love will prove more powerful than the hardships they’re facing. Friends and neighbours weave in and out of Alice’s life, each one with their own tale to tell: at times heartbreaking, at times quirky, oftentimes both at once.

As the beating heart at the centre of all this volatility, Rohrwacher and Mouawad are commendable in their ability to switch tone from the light-hearted tenderness of a young couple finding love to the fraught emotional turmoil of two people straining to hold tight to what matters most. The story is a personal one, dear to the storyteller’s heart, and Mazlo tells her tale with a genuine emotion and love for her characters which shines through in a visually enchanting film that speaks to the importance of love, family, and the places we call our home.

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The Children in the Pictures

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

As one of the police officers in this difficult-topic documentary says, child exploitation footage is not pornography in the sense of erotic adult entertainment, it is the photographic evidence at the scene of a crime. In that sense, it is closer to snuff movies although the death on screen is the death of innocence.

This harrowing work from filmmakers Akhim Dev and Simon Nasht takes us into the police work that is trying to apprehend child exploitation producers. The cops are sensible people with a strong sense of civic duty. All the way, though, we are thinking ‘rather them than me’ as they have to, in the course of their working day, repeatedly view such horrendous footage.

Sometimes, they let their poker face slip and confess to the sheer psychological wear and tear of being confronted with this evil daily. Mostly though, they muster some composure and turn it into professionalism and use their anger to fuel their endeavours. As the one female member of the team says, “if one child is saved, that alone justifies what we do”.

As noted, the film focuses on the work of a specialist unit (based in Brisbane), but the film cannot go into too much detail. For example, they use clues in the seized footage to try and trace country or city of origin, but they don’t tell us exactly what their methods are for fear of giving perpetrators an advantage.

The most problematic aspect of their work is that they have to not only infiltrate the online encrypted sharing sites, but actually continue to run them for a while to draw users in and then bust them. The implications of this tactical decision, and the agonising moral dilemma it raises, are discussed at length.

The doco is by nature a bit one note. It can’t show any footage or advertise the sites they are prosecuting and so basically all the filmmakers are left with is the talking heads. The film is quite short (there was a longer version submitted to the OFLC, which earned the film an MA rating…) but that is plenty of time to absorb what is going on.

The film also talks about how technology itself has made it easier to catch some offenders but has massively facilitated the ease of sharing the vile images. As fast as they can close them down, new ones open up. One of these recent sites seems to have over two million subscribers, which suggests that it is growing in ‘popularity’. At this point, you just want to stop watching and go and have a shower. Still, the film is measured and has significant points to make. It is also true that such things cannot be allowed to be swept under the rug, and ignoring the phenomenon won’t make it go away.

Check here for screening details.

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Nitram

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

The Port Arthur Massacre was one of the darkest days in Australia’s modern history; an event which shook the country to its core; reverberations of the 1996 shooting are still felt today.

Justin Kurzel’s Nitram (which is the Port Arthur killer’s given name in reverse) attempts to investigate and probe the occurrences and factors that led to this carnage.

Nitram (pronounced Nit-ram; played by rising American actor Caleb Landry Jones) lives with his elderly, tired, working-class parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) in inner city Australia.

Virtually ignored and left to his own devices, he lives an unstructured, directionless life, not fitting in with his peers nor society. We gain an insight to his sad and difficult existence, with his life teetering out of control, till things suddenly and dramatically change when he meets the eccentric, reclusive heiress Helen Harvey (Essie Davis), who takes a liking to him.

As Helen gets more friendly, the relationship strengthens and grows to the point where Nitram moves in with her, becoming her home companion.

Just as he begins to adjust to his new, unclear relationship and living with the much older Harvey in her run-down and dusty mansion, the relationship ends – triggering Nitram’s spiral down a dangerous path of violence and destruction.

So begins this disturbing look at the days, weeks and months preceding one of Australia’s worst-ever documented crimes.

The film is uncomfortable to watch. Deliberately.

Writer/Producer Shaun Grant (Berlin Syndrome, Snowtown) wrote the film when he was living in America, at a time of several mass killings, with some close to his location. His own disgust at the continual and sustained acts of violence occurring in America, on a virtual daily basis and others around the world, motivated him to write the film. Nitram illustrates the ease of procuring lethal weapons, questioning and highlighting “gun rights” claims and campaigners.

The director, Justin Kurzel, who has lived in Tasmania on and off for the last 25 years with his wife Essie Davis, has witnessed the outcomes of these senseless massacres, as well as the lasting damage the killings left on the people of the state, and on the psyche of all Australians.

The terrain is also familiar for both Grant and Kurzel, who first collaborated on Snowtown (2011), based on infamous Australian killer John Bunting.

This is not a film for everyone. Many will be unable to watch the film due to its sensitive subject matter.

Despite this, Nitram disquietingly and shrewdly examines the factors surrounding gun violence and the Port Arthur killings, and makes its mark.

All the individual elements of the movie are excellent, and they work in harmony.

Led by the convincing Texan-born Landry Jones, who won the prestigious Best Actor award at Cannes for his role as the eponymous character, the principal actors are terrific and extremely well cast.

Judy Davis, particularly, is fantastic and a standout as Nitram’s disconnected mother; as is Essie Davis, as the elder heiress, who takes a dangerous interest in her new friend with perhaps negative consequences.

The photography by Germain McMicking (Acute Misfortune, Berlin Syndrome) is stellar, offering a comprehensive and broad snapshot of the omnipresent, natural Australian landscape, in which the film and the characters develop.

Each element works seamlessly; the film feels like Kurzel’s most unconstrained work to date.

Kurzel and Grant offer no easy answers; instead, they leave viewers to ponder the complex questions the film raises – concerning the total ease and simplicity the killer had acquiring guns, gun regulation, the difficulties of weapon registration, licences, the proliferation of violent and fatal lone killers and their lack of care about the inevitable consequences.

This is a disturbingly chilling film, and one that is sure to be divisive. It will provoke heated debate on an issue confronting the world; seemingly illogical and senseless murders and killings/massacres.

Unfortunately, this “plague” has touched and affected most modern societies and yet, there is a reluctance to confront the issue of gun reform.

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Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

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Márta (Natasha Stork) is an esteemed neurosurgeon based in the US. Soon after the opening titles, we find her home in Hungary, on Budapest’s Liberty Bridge, waiting on a romantic rendezvous that never comes.

The man Márta was meant to meet is the cuddly János (Viktor Bodó), a celebrity physician she first encountered at a medical conference in the States weeks earlier. Hurt, confused, Márta stalks him. When they finally come face to face, János greets her inviting grin with a blank stare; he has to admit that they’ve never met and walks off. Márta falls to the street in shock, as if all hope has left her body.

The rest of this quite brilliant film works as a twisted kind of detective story. Instead of crawling into a hole of despair, Márta ‘beds down’ with her desire. Electing to stay in Budapest, she scores a low-status gig at the same hospital as János and digs into his family life online. She even rents a crappy flat because its outlook takes in a view of the Liberty Bridge. All the while she must wonder, as we do, is János a creep? How do you make pain like this go away? Why continue the suffering?

Márta, reserved and decent, tells her shrink eventually that ‘she dreamt’ it all. Natasa Stork’s superb performance is a study in subtlety and this moment is core to the film; we know this ‘confession’ is false, but the guilt is real enough. But what gives?

A lot of critics see Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time as a feminist rejoinder to the misogyny of, say Fatal Attraction and Play Misty for Me or even Vertigo. It’s true, no bunnies are boiled, and no villains emerge. Yet, writer-director Lili Horvát is not afraid of the dark; Márta draws upon her obsession as life-force and nightmare, torment and power source, cruel dance and courtship.

Still, Horvát’s genius is to give Preparations… the terse energy and speed of a thriller. Perfectly ordinary scenes are underscored with suspicion. Márta isn’t so much spoken to but interrogated in the most innocent circumstances; while her vulnerability is converted into images of entrapment where even banal locations – hospital, street, dining room, library – are made claustrophobic and strange in the lens of cinematographer Robert Maly, shooting in autumnal tones on grainy 35mm. The suspense never lets up and the atmosphere has the grip of Knife in the Water. That’s something.

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Riders of Justice

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It’s not often that the genre of the revenge thriller gets upended to be something almost completely unrecognisable from its stablemates; but in director Anders Thomas Jensen’s almost uncategorisable Danish film Riders of Justice the remarkable writing and characterisation creates something that defies viewer expectations and leads down a wholly original path.

In the lead up to Christmas, a young Estonian girl asks for a blue bicycle from her grandfather. The bicycle seller is part of an international gang and puts a call out for one to be stolen. That bicycle belongs to a teen called Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) and the theft of the bike leads to a series of events that eventually leads to the death of her mother, Emma on a Danish commuter train. Also on the train, is recently fired statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kags) who offers Emma his seat. Also on the train, is a biker criminal who is about to testify against the leader of the group The Riders of Justice. Another man that Otto notices depart the train just before the accident disposes of an expensive sandwich and juice, which raises Otto’s suspicions: what if the accident wasn’t an accident at all but a planned assassination of the witness? With his background in statistics it seems almost mathematically impossible that the train accident wasn’t somehow planned.

Roping in his long-time friends, fellow statistician Lennart (Lars Brygman) and hacker Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto finds his way to Mathilde’s father Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) with his proof that the accident that made Markus a widower was not an accident and that in fact the Riders of Justice are responsible.

Markus is a closed off soldier who refuses to help Mathilde grieve and by nature is looking for someone to blame for what happened to his wife. He forms a strange posse with Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler (who by any measure are an absurd trio of misfits) and plans to extract revenge from the biker group.

In most other films, this set up would lead to a set conclusion, but Jensen subverts the tropes that make up the vengeance movie with a sly sense of very dark humour and some top tier character creation. Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler are each damaged and strange men who haven’t quite managed to learn how to function as adults. Markus is too walled-off from his emotions to allow for himself or his daughter to seek post trauma therapy. Yet somehow in all the chaos that ensues, as they track down the biker gang, therapy is exactly what is happening. It doesn’t come necessarily in the cathartic act of gunning down the bad guys, but in the strange mix of personalities that improbably learn from each other as the narrative progresses.

The film also plays with the conventions of purpose and meaning; existential questions are asked and often the answer is left in the air. What has meaning? Is it the likelihood that we will experience pain and joy in our lives? What can we plan for? What does each moment signify, especially if those moments when connected, spiral into something that we cannot ever fully comprehend?

Riders of Justice doesn’t take the audience where they expect to go. Yes, there is a surfeit of grief and violence, but there is also pathos and profound understanding. As much as Mads Mikkelsen is excellent in the film, it is the supporting cast, particularly Nikolaj Lie Kags who breathe a deep humanity and surprising humour to the piece. A peculiar family is formed by those who ride for justice (the title’s double meaning becomes clear), and once along for the ride, the unexpected becomes one of the film’s chief pleasures.

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Rhapsody of Love

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Joy Hopwood’s Rhapsody of Love mixes light-hearted fun with the struggles of relationships, spotlighting Asian-Australian talent.

Jess Flowers is the best woman for her close friend, Ben’s wedding. There, she meets filmmaker Justin Judd, who is capturing the special day. It is here that Jess also comes across Victoria, a cupcake maker. We soon see how the lives of different couples become linked.

The film has a ‘sweet’ aesthetic (the treats Victoria whips up will have you craving sugar), and a floral theme as well – there’s the wedding scene, but also the protagonist’s surname and the business she runs with her sister Jade: “Blooming Success Media”.

Admittedly, further storyline development could have helped. Jess expresses her dream of becoming a screenwriter and despite it being stated that she is working on a script, integrating this aspect into the plot would have been beneficial. Also, issues between Jess and Justin are solved too quickly. Some of the jokes are on point but others don’t quite land, coming off as cheesy. All that being said, it is a rom-com, a famously forgivable genre for audiences, so it could be argued that they were intended this way.

Regardless, the characters are quirky and there are a couple of twists which are well executed. Kathy Luu portrays the bubbly Jess Flowers effortlessly and Damien Sato is charming as Justin. Ben Hanly is impressive as Ben, especially when conveying the anxiety his character experiences during stressful situations. Tom Jackson excels as the hilarious Hugh, a waiter who seems to work at practically every event the characters go to. Lily Stewart is entertaining as Victoria and Jessica Niven is captivating as Natasha. Writer/Director Joy Hopwood fits the role of the caring Jade nicely, and Khan Chittenden is comical as Phil.

If you’re in the mood for a feel-good movie, Rhapsody of Love could be what you’re looking for.

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