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Escape And Evasion

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Aussie actor Josh McConville has been quietly plying his trade for years now, delivering rock solid turns in unfortunately little seen local indies. His work in films like the ingenious sci-fi charmer The Infinite Man and the viciously brilliant bikie film 1% was nothing short of exceptional, while his brief comedic appearances in Down Under, Top End Wedding and The Merger have highlighted an actor of great range.

With his latest effort, Escape And Evasion, McConville gets his best showcase yet, and the actor absolutely blows it out of the water, hitting every point on the emotional map with gritty aplomb, and creating a rich, complex, difficult but highly sympathetic character in the process. While inventive writer/director Storm Ashwood (The School) doesn’t hold back on the flash and the pizazz, he also sensibly uses McConville’s performance to anchor the action, which gives Escape And Evasion its rich sense of humanity.

McConville is Seth, an ex-soldier debilitated by a burning case of PTSD. His relationship with his ex-wife and daughter is shattered, and he can barely come to terms with what his time in the military has done to him. When a determined journalist (Bonnie Sveen) comes knocking, we slowly learn – through flashbacks – what has pushed Seth to the edge. An operation in Burma to reign in an officer (the perfectly cast Steve Le Marquand, who brings requisite menace and mania to the role) gone rogue in the jungle is quickly delineated as a mess, with Seth and his men (strong work from Firass Dirani and Hugh Sheridan) instantly slapped in the middle of a physical and moral firestorm.

Thanks to Storm Ashwood’s ambitious choppers-and-gunplay direction (and fairly ample budget, by the look of things) and daring range of influences (Apocalypse Now looms large), Escape And Evasion easily busts free of its Aussie indie underpinnings and looks and feels like something far bigger. The film also has something to say, with Ashwood’s righteous anger about the mistreatment of ex-soldiers and the prevalence of PTSD an obvious driving force behind Escape And Evasion. Superbly performed, exciting, moving and meaningful to boot, Escape And Evasion is a cinematic tour of duty worth taking.

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A film about young people in a burgeoning music scene comes with the promise of a well-traversed thrill ride. The expected tropes and visual measures are relatively fixed: a coming-of-age tale, drug-induced psychedelic imagery, railing against authority, a craved brush with passion and sex. Beats executes these blaring notes with clarity and verve, and offers notable additions and insights.

For one, Brian Welsh’s Scottish film pivots on a specific law imposed by Westminster in 1994. The law forbids public gatherings across Britain “at which amplified music is played…wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” A policy so tragically comic as if belched from the very gut of British prudery.

Within this precise social moment, Welsh follows two Scottish teenage boys as they make a tortuous journey to an illegal rave in the woodlands. On the one hand is Johnno (Christian Ortega), a timid boy whose mum and stepdad aspire to middle class life, hoping to escape their dreary flat for a pristine estate. His best friend, Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), is the playful one desperate to alleviate his suffering at home in pursuit of an unforgettable night out.

It is remarkable how the two young actors carry the emotional weight of the film. One of Welsh’s many achievements is the intimacy of their friendship, that brief adolescent haze before the modulation of masculine adulthood. By the same token, this is no romanticised coming-of-age story. For Spanner, his home life is savagely marred by his abusive brother, and any closeness he feels is gleaned from his friendship with Johnno.

The film’s other major claim to individuality is its black and white format. Its effect was originally baffling, if only unexpected, but as each shot unfolds, there’s something so enticing as the sombre glaze of light and dark visualises the boys’ hedonism. On cinematography alone, Beats excels. Backed by Steven Soderbergh as executive producer, Welsh goes beyond the social realism so prevalent in British film, to capture the immediacy and euphoria of 1990s rave culture. Yet another reason for nineties nostalgia.

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In Fabric

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Peter Strickland’s In Fabric tells the story of a mysterious, red dress and the people who come into contact with the haunted garment. The film opens with middle-aged single mother Sheila (a standout performance from Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who buys the dress from Dentley and Soper’s department store for a date. Later, the dress falls into the possession of washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires).

Divided into two parts, the film could be seen as paying homage to the classic British portmanteau horror film, but the links established between the two sections create a larger narrative that focuses on the object of the dress rather than the human protagonists.

Set in the mythical town of Thames Valley-On-Thames during the 1993 January sales, In Fabric creates a seamless, deeply uncanny sense of time and location. This is a strangely-familiar suburban world of clunky answerphones, clothing catalogues, and lonely-hearts columns. But it is also a world of pneumatic tubes that transport cash and receipts through the depths of the department store and strange sales assistants who wear Victorian mourning dress. In Fabric creates a haunted and haunting world that resonates with a misremembered recent past (did shop assistants really clap-in the customers into the sales in 1993?).

This sense of memory flows throughout the film, some scenes play like half-recalled childhood trips to the shops – such as when Reg stares at stockings on the legs of mannequins and the film cuts to what appears to be the figure of a boy being served by a salesperson in a skirt split-high on the thigh, revealing black stockings. Look again, however, and the salesperson seems to be dressing a showroom dummy. The department store location and themes enable Strickland to explore the relationship between the human and the mannequin, creating some genuinely unsettling moments that are located in surrealism as much as horror. The high street has never felt so uncanny. The dream logic of the surreal is emphasised by Cavern of Anti-Matter’s (Tim Ganes of Stereolab) score, which detours already haunted melodies into drones and strange echoes of sound, creating an audio undertow to the narrative.

But Strickland is not just a stylist, his script and direction has a real empathy for the human condition, best exemplified by Shelia’s lonely struggles as a single parent. There is a strong sense of character developed through the film, as protagonists come into contact with the dress and it slowly, invariably effects their lives. There are also moments of laughter in the occasionally darkly comic exchanges that transpire between the pair of managers at Waingel’s Bank, whose attention to personal detail becomes almost claustrophobic. Similarly, oblique humour emerges from the sales assistants at Dentley and Soper’s, who talk to customers with an archaic precision that underpins a unique articulation of the experience of shopping.

Like Strickland’s previous works, In Fabric is a beautifully realised film that engages with the true potentials of contemporary cinema.

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Honey Boy

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Though this is quite a good and unusual film, the story behind it is more memorable than the movie itself. Shia LaBoeuf wrote the script, based on his own experiences. And here, in the fictionalised screen version of his life, we have LaBoeuf playing James Lort (essentially a representation of his own father) – while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges portray Otis (Shia, more or less) at the respective ages of 12 and 22.

So much for the back story. When we first see the older Otis, he’s in rehab after a drunken altercation with police. The action – or rather the memories and the dreams – flashes back and forth between that ‘present’ and Otis’s tough life as a child actor living with his decidedly unhinged father. The latter has a foul temper, and is an alcoholic combat veteran who thinks he’s very funny – which he would, being also a former rodeo clown – but really isn’t. What he is, emphatically, is an intensely dislikeable and brutal man. (As Otis remarks, “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain”.) That said, we start to feel a measure of sympathy for Lort – if not to like him – after hearing him at an AA meeting reminiscing about his own childhood.

Honey Boy is well acted, and features a lot of very credible and naturalistic dialogue. It’s distressing in places, and predominantly bleak and sad. The main characters constantly struggle for some sort of catharsis and transcendence without seeming to get close. It’s worth seeing them try.

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In My Blood it Runs

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

‘My generation will make a change.’

This is a mantra that echoes through a lot of political discourse, and one that has only heightened in relevance in the age of Greta Thunberg, Howey Ou, and the subject of this film in particular, Dujuan Hoosan. Will the youth of tomorrow finally put right the errors of today? It is a mentality that occasionally leads to a lethargic “let them sort it out” attitude, and there is a continuing argument about just how much importance we place on the young to fight our battles… but in the face of issues that really should have been remedied long ago, it can mean everything that at least someone is doing the talking. And in light of the subject of this film, it’s talking that needs to be done.

A candid depiction of Dujuan, his family and his local community, the intimate framing allows the raw reality to shine through. Watching Dujuan talk about his culture, his living conditions, and his position as a healer within his community, it’s all too easy to see how this is the same kid who spoke to the United Nations about the treatment of kids like him.

Not that he’s shown as any kind of home-grown wunderkind or anything as sensationalised as that; just that he’s someone who can see what is happening around him and process it in a rather preternatural way. And the things he notices around him are quite unsettling. The film at large, beyond just being a portrait of the young man himself, is one that looks at the current state of the Australian education system, specifically as it pertains to Indigenous students.

The shots of his lessons in a state school, where the teacher laughs her way through discussing the Aboriginal Dreamtime and the ‘heroes’ of the First Fleet, is a snapshot of the problem. If you were sent to a school that insisted on telling you that your beliefs mean nothing, chances are you’d act out a bit too.

Through that, the haunting visage of juvenile detention centres, and archive footage of Indigenous protestors, the film presents a child in the middle of a tug-of-war between learning about his own culture honestly, and learning about what has become the new dominant culture. It helps put a lot of knee-jerk ‘don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time’ excuses into context, and as personified through Dujuan, it shows a need to fix a system that almost seems designed to let down a specific part of its constituents.

No child should have to go to a school just to learn that there’s something supposedly wrong with them, and with education being such an important backbone of a nation no matter where it resides, it makes an empathetic and hearty argument for the culture of the Arrernte people, and all other First Peoples, to be acknowledged and not forgotten.


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The Professor and the Madman

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What does it take to be forgiven? Is there a true line whose crossing deems one as being entirely beyond redemption? Are there any singular feats that are capable of rebalancing the scales of one’s actions? The directorial debut of frequent Mel Gibson collaborator Farhad Safinia (directing as P.B. Shebran here) uses a stranger-than-fiction tale to explore these questions, that of the initial creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the contributions of William Chester Minor, who added a significant amount to the effort while serving as an inmate in a psychiatric hospital.

With the infamous exploits of the main stars being part of pop culture legend for so damn long, it makes one ponder if the film’s look at guilt and forgiveness is meant to reflect on both the real-life subject being portrayed and the actors portraying them. Mel Gibson as the titular Professor, along with handling the Scottish accent with adequate lucidity, delivers his frequently populist quips with great aplomb. And as for Sean Penn as the Madman, it makes for a remarkable return to his emotionally intensive roots, as his depiction of a man in the clutches of shellshock and schizophrenia ranges from sombre to harrowing.

The film is at its best when it highlights their working relationship and budding friendship, with Professor James Murray (Gibson) wanting to basically democratise the English language through a form of retro-crowdsourcing for the dictionary, and Minor (Penn) being given a working routine that allows him clarity and peace of mind through that crowdsourcing. Aided by Safinia and Todd Komarnicki’s dialogue, which uses the inherent literacy of the premise as an excuse for all kinds of wordplay throughout, they create an interesting dichotomy that highlights both the ingenuity and insanity required to perform such a colossal undertaking as cataloguing an ever-shifting language for posterity.

In terms of the redemptive arc, finding Minor in lingering bouts of crippling guilt over the life he took that ultimately landed him in the asylum, the film relies on modern-day empathy regarding mental illness to really make its point. Admittedly, such a task proves fruitful… until the cracks begin to show in the film’s overall understanding of forgiveness.

The scenes between Penn and Natalie Dormer as the wife of the man Minor killed, while palpably heartfelt, keep depicting the act of forgiveness as a foregone conclusion. It makes the same mistake that a lot of people make in thinking that just the want for penance is enough to grant it. It’s a tad selfish in its machinations and, knowing Gibson’s history with self-indulgently masochistic stories (Passion Of The Christ, anyone?), a bit suss even without the meta aspect creeping in.

But even with the prominent Gibsonisms in the text itself, the film’s musings on language, definition and redefinition, and its dual character study at its core, it makes for decent viewing. Whether that’s enough to overlook its flaws, its cast, or Safinia and Gibson actively distancing themselves from the production at large is up to the interpreter, but in the spirit of theme, it’s worth giving a chance.

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For Sama

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Documentary filmmaker Waad al-Kateab chronicles her time in the Syrian city of Aleppo in For Sama. Beginning in the period following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Egypt and Libya in 2011 and then jumping forwards and backwards in time throughout.

She begins by documenting the job of her friend Hamza, a young doctor at an East Aleppo hospital, as he goes about his daily routine treating the growing number of victims of the Assad regime’s shelling and aerial bombardment. After a time, Hamza declares his love for Waad and the two marry. Soon after that, in an attempt to claw back a semblance of domestic normalcy, the pair move into a partly-damaged house which they clean up and decorate, embracing marital bliss.

As time progresses, the Russian air force begins bombing the city and taking out civilian locations. Eventually, eight out of the nine hospitals in the city are destroyed. Hamza’s hospital is badly damaged, and a substitute building is found which is untraceable on existing maps. This means Russian bombs would find it difficult to target. It’s here that the film’s heart is exposed, in intimate minutiae. We sit quietly with the close-knit volunteer nurses and doctors during periods of shelling as they huddle together and crack jokes, making small talk and laughing to break the tension. We watch as many of those same people are randomly, pointlessly killed in the bombings. We gaze unflinchingly as wounded civilians are brought into the hospital: families who were trying to run, children who were in the wrong place when a shell hit, their slight ages intensifying the immense and heartbreaking tragedy of it all.

In 2002, English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) made a cinema verite masterwork called In This World, which was a clear-eyed response from Winterbottom to the UK immigration debate of the time. It documented the journey of two Afghan asylum seekers as they made the crossing through a number of perilous and tragic situations, all in an attempt to get to a new life in London. By letting the viewer walk in the main character’s shoes, it prodded and disturbed with a gut-punch conclusion that demanded the experience be reckoned with. It presented you with a highly realistic depiction of something that’s at the heart of a politically contentious issue, it demanded you empathise or at least merely comprehend, the magnitude of the plight of the illegal immigrant.

In For Sama however, the ever-vigilant self-documentation of Waad al-Kateab places us squarely in the real.  All those feelings of certainty that come with actors performing a story evaporate. We are there as silent witnesses. The understated first-hand narration of Waad al-Kateab, is constructed as a letter to her daughter Sama, telling the story of why she was uprooted from her homeland and why her mother did her best to stay amidst the carnage, the gassing and the shelling.

It’s a singular experience to even see reportage this intimate and shattering. Waad al-Kateab has birthed a monumentally moving testimony to her and her husband’s humanity, deep conviction and unending compassion for their fellow Syrians – and for their daughter.

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Ashburn Waters

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A group of errant youths drinking and carousing at a remote campground are stalked by a malevolent evil, and have to fight for their lives. No, this is not a reboot of Friday The 13th, or indeed of any of the kill-scene-check-list films that staggered around in its bloody, frivolous wake. This is Ashburn Waters, an Aussie take on the slasher genre that skitters in on a tiny budget and lots of independent spirit. The debut feature of David Pether, it thankfully avoids most of the ugly pitfalls of its US counterparts, cutting the gleeful sadism and instead injecting a little mysticism and a taste of the supernatural into proceedings.

Still stinging after a nasty relationship breakup, Brett (Kyal Scott) is convinced by his buddy Binns (Andrew Lowe) to join up with their old high school crew for a camping trip over the Easter weekend. Unfortunately, Brett’s bitchy, cheating ex, Scout (Jade Prechelt), is also coming along, with a new boyfriend in tow. The considerably sweeter Cassie (Maia Rose Michaels) provides a more pleasant distraction, but when the bodies start to mount up, romance is quickly put on the backburner.

Unlike many, many other directors who have tackled the slasher genre, writer/director David Pether knows that you’ve got to care at least a little bit about who gets killed, and sensibly makes his characters a fairly likeable lot, with Kyal Scott and Maia Rose Michaels particularly appealing in the lead roles. The identity of the stalking killer is also a refreshing change from the usual psychosexual knife wielder, and gives Ashburn Waters a real sense of difference. While the budget occasionally hurts, and the tone is a little uncertain, this Aussie underdog boasts more than enough bite.

Ashburn Waters will screen on February 4 in Melbourne and will be followed by a Q&A with writer/director David Pether. For all venue and ticketing information, click here.

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The Leunig Fragments

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

A French poet once said, “there is another life, but it is inside this one”. That could describe the way of being of Australian illustrator and cartoonist Michael Leunig perfectly. Now, finally we have a documentary about his life and work called, revealingly enough, The Leunig Fragments. We are never going to get the whole guy, he is too contradictory and fractured for that.

Documentarian Kasimir Burgess (who made the fictional feature Fell to great acclaim back in 2014) has taken nearly three years to get this in the can and, though he is patient with Leunig, you can feel touches of exasperation. It is not that the great cartoonist is not helpful, in fact there are endless face to face conversations in which he tries to explain his thoughts and processes. Most of the film is made up of this with several of his cartoons and animations thrown in. Like many artists, Leunig is quite fascinated by what art is and where inspiration comes from, but he is also deeply suspicious of exposing too much to the light in case it shrivels and dies.

Also, Leunig is pretty much a ‘national treasure’, and so it is not hard to find other people in the media to be sympathetic talking heads. ABC Radio broadcaster Phillip Adams points out that no one stays the course for decades unless they really have something to say and care about being heard. Adams neatly nails Leunig’s sly apparently-innocent approach as ‘weaponised whimsy’. Indeed, the best of Leunig can be uniquely memorable. Like the Canadian cartoonist Gary Larson, everyone has their favourite Leunig, and his drawings adorn middle class fridges throughout the land. On occasions, he can stand in for the conscience of a nation.

That said, he has made the occasional misstep in his long career and felt the pain of rejection.  His sometimes ill-judged gags about LGBTI issues saw him recently fall on the wrong side of cancel culture. The film implicitly alludes to the fact that Leunig’s is a Boomer sensibility. Up and coming entertainers definitely don’t feel that they need to treat him with kid gloves or reverence.

The film also circles around the fact of his sometimes strained personal relations. Only one member of his semi-estranged family takes part in the film. Leunig worries away at this a bit, but then he worries about a lot of things. He also notices a lot of things that other people don’t notice they have noticed. He has a poet’s eye for detail, and he is primarily concerned with what he calls the ‘felt life’. He also prizes simplicity and being true to oneself (he is Christian in a quirky kind of way). But, for such a determinedly simple man he is decidedly complex.

Ultimately it is not a matter of forgiving or condemning the man or his art; that would be to fall into a very modern form of judgementalism. Though the film is slightly unsatisfactory in some ways, it nevertheless has a fascinating person at its centre. In the end artists care about their art and, yes, they contain multitudes.

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The Rescue

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The Rescue is the capper of what can be considered a thematic trilogy for Chinese director Dante Lam, following up Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea, all fictionalised showcases for the men and women who make the public service personnel of the country. Mekong featured the police force, Red Sea had the Navy, and now Rescue shows members of the China Rescue and Salvage arm of the Ministry Of Transportation. It’s a great big blockbuster feature, but what makes this truly remarkable isn’t what it gets right. Rather, it’s what it gets right that rationally should not work in the first place.

This film looks amazing, to the point where it ends up showing up the Hollywood standard at its own bombastic game. The visual effects work courtesy of Digital Domain and Scanline VFX, who regularly work on Marvel efforts, hit a nice stylistic balance which makes clear why they’re going with CGI to begin with, but without its use being too conspicuous and/or distracting. From the opening oil rig rescue to the nail-biting finale, it all bursts onto the screen. To say nothing of the mind-blowing cinematography from Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Forbidden Kingdom), who utilises multiple points-of-view and incredibly fluid movement to keep every moment engaging. Even on the rescuers’ down time.

Because all work and no play makes for dull cliché, we end up following these heroes in their personal lives as well, primarily Eddie Peng’s Gao Qian, and it’s here where the perplexing part comes in. Going from the intense action scenes to Gao’s son playing romantic matchmaker (that’s a trope that really should have been left in the ‘90s) is the kind of tonal whiplash that usually comes from Bollywood productions, and the effect is about the same.

Hell, the more comedic and even emotional scenes not involving life-saving are so unashamedly goofy, that whiplash can feel all too literal at times. No doubt, the cheesy Western localisation doesn’t help, as kung-fu-style dubbing may be sensible given the visual energy, but still gives this an almost-lotiony sheen.

And yet, even those moments still work. It may feel like being pulled from one emotional reaction to another by the ankles, but it results in a solid hit every time, whether it’s the gut punch from the more tear-jerking moments or just the cheesy grinning at how precious things can get, particularly between Gao and his son. Between the humour and the emergency workers as superheroes, this is basically Playing With Fire done right.

The production values let the caped moments shine like wildfires, and the humanity of their civilian identities may be silly (okay, definitely silly), but it’s a likeable kind of silly. The kind that only works in the realm of blockbuster cinema, where the need to please crowds in droves overrides any semblance of self-awareness and just lets movies be fun. And for the rest of 2020, this is where the ‘fun’ benchmark will sit.