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Never Look Away

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After following his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Lives of Others with the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie infamous flop The Tourist, Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck returns to soaring form with Never Look Away – a drama spanning three eras of German history through the eyes of Kurt Barnert, a character based on the acclaimed artist Gerard Richter.

Opening in 1937 Dresden, the 6-year-old Kurt visits Joseph Goebbels’ Degenerate Art exhibition with his freethinking Aunt Elisabeth; played by Saskia Rosendahl in a short but affecting performance. She advises him to “never look away” from horror or beauty because both contain elements of truth. When Elisabeth shows signs of mental health issues, she is taken away to be ‘sterilised’ by the horrifying Nazi Euthanasia program – a tragedy that will have a profound and latent effect on Kurt and his artistic aspirations.

We then follow Kurt’s (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) career arc through Nazism, the Second World War and Communist occupancy in Germany. It also details his romance with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) – a relationship resented by her father (Sebastian Koch) who harbours an unforgivable crime.

Koch, who featured in The Lives of Others, is brilliant as Professor Seeband, a revered physician who refers to his daughter’s boyfriend as being not of “the genetic material I want for our descendants”. His nuances of behaviour are captured so well that you can feel his hatred for Kurt emanating from the screen.

Although a familiarity with Gerard Richter is not necessary, it does bring interesting weight to the film. Donnersmarck was inspired by an investigative article on Richter and the true nature of his photorealistic painting period and mysterious ‘blurring’ technique. After meeting with the artist over the course of several months and forming a friendship, he came up with the eventual script for Never Look Away. Richter has since gone on to publicly disown the film for grossly distorting his biography. Which is rather appropriate, given that the film’s German title translates to “Work Without Author”.

Despite his subject’s disapproval, Donnersmarck’s 189-minute film covers substantial moral ground and addresses a totalitarian society whereby people, even monsters, reinvent themselves to assimilate into its changing landscape and ideologies. This is what permeates Kurt’s journey, as he moves from socialist realism in East Germany to modern art in West Germany and begins to channel repressed memories and generations of trauma into his work.

Praise must also go out to Caleb Deschanel’s gorgeous Oscar-nominated cinematography; from POV shots of a young Kurt trying to obscure traumatising sights with his hand, to a flowing single take through the avant-garde Kunstakademie Academy in Düsseldorf.

Regardless of whether you take on board the parallels to Richter’s life (Donnersmarck has recently remarked that the film is perhaps ‘for everyone except him’), the irony of the film’s title is that you’ll be glued to the screen throughout its epic running time.

Never Look Away stands as both a stirring historical drama and meditation on creativity and art, flanked by outstanding direction and intimate performances.

 
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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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When the first X-Men movie came out back in the ancient year of 2000, it made a decent case for its own existence and, by extension, the existence of big budget superhero movies in general (which were outliers at the time). It was followed up by a superior sequel three years later, X-Men 2, and we officially had an X-Men franchise! There have been ups and downs along the way – with X-Men: First Class (2011) representing a peak, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) very much a trough – but overall the series has been solid.

Not quite at the level of Marvel Studios’ output, mind you, but respectable nonetheless. But with 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (a decent entry), the whole box and dice was reset due to some time travel shenanigans, and the series really hasn’t known where to go next. 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse did very little to steer the franchise in a fresh new direction, and now we have X-Men: Dark Phoenix to act as a sort of end point for the entire series. So, does it work? Yeah, nah, hey. Yeah, nah.

The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most revered comic book runs in X-Men’s printed history. It involves an alien force, epic battles and personal sacrifice that spans many issues and remains an iconic story arc. It was first attempted in X-Men: The Last Stand to frankly woeful results, but since Days Of Future Past essentially rebooted the continuity, first-time director (but longtime X-Men franchise producer and screenwriter) Simon Kinberg decided that he’d have another bash. The best thing that can be said about Dark Phoenix is that it’s absolutely better than The Last Stand. That, however, is a very low bar to clear.

Dark Phoenix tells a very truncated version of the saga, that has Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbing what appears to be a solar flare during a rescue mission in space. It soon becomes clear that something has changed Jean, and she manifests power at levels that cause Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) to become increasingly concerned. Add to this a weird alien conspiracy led by one-note villain Vuk (Jessica Chastain), and you’ve got 114 minutes of, well… adequate entertainment.

The problem with Dark Phoenix isn’t that it’s bad, although it is at times, it’s just terribly uninvolving. The reason that audiences were so moved during Avengers: Endgame was because they’d earned the big emotional moments, the pay-offs that felt like logical conclusions to the films that had come before. Dark Phoenix feels like it comes out of nowhere and exists solely to give everyone involved a chance to do the saga one more time, and consequently it’s all weightless.

Sophie Turner did lovely work on Game Of Thrones, but continues to be miscast as Jean Grey. James McAvoy tries admirably but is hamstrung by a truly wonky script, and Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are quite simply wasted.

Ultimately, X-Men: Dark Phoenix just isn’t very good. Flat direction, a weak script and uninvolved performances are livened occasionally by decent action in the third act, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. If this is indeed the final X-Men film, the series has gone out with a whimper, and it’s hard to imagine even wanting this particular phoenix to rise from these drab, listless ashes.

 
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Tolkien

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“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence.”

With these words from the legendary storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien, the existence of this particular biopic feels… off. It fits in with the standard modern depiction of creative minds, winding imagination and history together to depict an artist on the brink of something that they have to create, if only to settle their own demons. Biography that treats art as allegory for the artist. Knowing that the Tolkien estate has disavowed this film, this feels like it’s already on an uphill trudge to justify itself as an art work. Even without having seen the film for themselves, the estate might have a point in not approving this.

But while the approval of the man himself will never be known, it helps that this film does a certain degree of justice to his legacy and his work. Embodied with idealistic fervour by Nicholas Hoult, his performance combined with the scripting convey a lot of what makes Tolkien such a beloved writer: His willingness to bond rather than break off from others, his intuition when it came to the power of art, and of course, his masterful understanding of language that would form a crucial foundation in his literary universe.

This is somewhat to the film’s detriment, since the story spends an almost overindulgent amount of time discussing linguistics and the written word, overshadowing a lot of the other aspects, including Tolkien’s connection to his faith. Of course, it’s difficult to get too annoyed about that, since the scenes that dive head-long into the mechanics of language make for quite enthralling dialogue. Crafting artificial languages is one of the trickier aspects of narrative worldbuilding, something that Tolkien remains one of the few true masters of, so highlighting one of the key elements that made him truly extraordinary feels apt.

As for the visuals, director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) and frequent collaborator Lasse Frank as cinematographer leave traces of the works we all know throughout the film, almost as if they’re dreams being filtered through the camera lens.

This results in a fair bit of direct visual reference to Peter Jackson’s adaptations (as well as retroactive ribbing of the length of said adaptations), but for the most part, it manages to maintain its own aesthetic identity without leaning too hard on the audience’s nostalgia. From the dusky haze of fire on the front line in France to the regal opulence of a tea room, it does just enough to not be completely overshadowed by the deliciously quippy dialogue.

The depiction we get of Tolkien is that of a warrior poet, one who had to work his way through everyone else’s preconceptions about him and the potential of his art. It may serve as the latest biopic in a trend, but for those who appreciate his work, the creative process, or even just the nature of language, it gets the job done.

 
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My Big Gay Italian Wedding

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A feelgood slapstick comedy exploring differing attitudes to love and sexuality, this entertaining movie is based on a long-running off-Broadway play. Fun, fast and frenetic, the pace never lets up and the frivolous nature of the piece keeps things firmly on the lighter side.

Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) and Antonio (Christiano Caccamo) are living a comfortable life together in the metropolitan city of Berlin. Paolo proposes and the two, along with their oddly matched flatmates, a wealthy actress and a depressed cross dressing bus driver, head across to Antonio’s family village in central Italy.

As well as introducing his parents to his partner, his flatmates and the fact that he’s gay, Antonio has to convince them that the wedding will take place in the village. His stern father (Diego Abatantuono) happens to be the village mayor, and despite showing a progressive position towards immigration and the refugee crisis, is not so forthcoming when it comes to gay marriage.

Antonio’s mum is more reasonable, and sets about making it her mission to bring about a successful, and fantastically extravagant wedding. She even hires a wedding planner from a popular TV reality show to help with the finer points. She does, however, insist that Paolo’s own mother attends the wedding ceremony.

Paolo has much difficulty with this, as he has been to all intents and purposes disowned. He enlists the help of his fiancee and their friends to convince his mum of the importance of her being there.

In the midst of all this, their depressed flatmate is questioning life itself and everything around him. This strikes the wrong chord most of the time, and is a bit of a dud in the laughter stakes. Laughing at a depressed transvestite experiencing a mid-life crisis is at odds with the spirit of the rest of the film. His communications with the other overdramatic flatmate are also oddly constructed and seem tagged on in a half-baked way.

These shortcomings are made up for by the sheer beauty of the setting. The first glimpse of the village is simply stunning. It’s made as the group of the two lovers with their two friends make the walk to the fantastically picturesque elevated hillside village of Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s a dramatic scene and strikes as an image more soundly than much of the scripted action.

Above all else though, it’s a fun light-hearted movie with its heart in the right place, even when the details don’t make a whole lot of sense.

 
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Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

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Author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo’s Asterix comic books are iconic not only in their native France and Belgium, but have literally travelled the world, with plenty of adults in Australia growing up reading the English translations.

A series of live action films, with Christian Clavier as the title character and Gerard Depardieu as his bulky buddy Obelix, were box office hits in French speaking territories but hardly travelled, whilst an animated franchise was launched with 2014’s Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods, and was a massive hit, especially in France. The same filmmakers return with a follow up, an original story this time (as opposed to a comic book adaptation) with The Secret of the Magic Potion.

In the tradition of the comic books, the adaptation into English is seamless, with puntastic character names – Getafix, Demonix, Vitalstastix, Tofungus and our fave, Cakemix – offering passing laughs as the full tilt action takes hold.

The story devised for the film takes many of the series’ favourite motifs (magic potion for one) and channels them into a narrative that sees the holder of the magic potion recipe, the ageing Getafix, fall from a tree and decide that he needs to find a gifted young Druid to pass on the recipe to. Escorted by Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix, and not-so-secretly followed by the entire village who need the potion to ward off those dastardly Romans, the group soon encounter the evil Demonix, a Druid who has turned to the dark side, and who alerts Julius Caesar and the Roman army about the mission and the possibility of discovering the secret of the magic potion.

The 3D animation is never less than impressive in adapting the original characters into moveable form. There are reverential references to the original 2D comic, and some lovely touches such as the use of a map to illustrate the countryside, something that was always a feature of the comics. Like the comic, the main source of the comedy is the slapstick derived from the use of the magic potion and the buffoonery of the Romans, the villagers and particularly, Obelix.

It’s all in good fun and moves along at a brisk pace; almost too brisk as there are aspects you will struggle to grasp before it moves on to the next scene. A particular subplot involving wild pigs, in particular, may make sense upon repeat viewing. Which is a kind way of saying that the main pleasure derived from this entry may be in nostalgia. Parents will be able to take their little ones to enjoy a bit of silly buggers for 100 minutes, whilst you recall why these characters struck a chord with you in the first place. This time around, unfortunately, it will not have the same impact.

 

 
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Godzilla II: King of the Monsters

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Godzilla has always been bit of a tough sell for western audiences, at least compared to the near unanimous adulation he receives in Japan. It doesn’t help that attempts to make him western-friendly have included the disastrous 1998 version by director Roland Emmerich. But hell, even the 2014 Gareth Edwards version seemed almost embarrassed to show the big scaly bloke for more than a few seconds at a time, leaving the heavy lifting to a largely tedious human cast and a bewilderingly under-utilised Bryan Cranston. Still, the 2014 version made bank and allowed the creation of an extended “MonsterVerse” that continued with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and now manifests its most spectacular entry, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

King of the Monsters really has two stories happening throughout. There’s the monster story and the human story and you can probably guess which one’s the best. The monster story features stunning action sequences with the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah (and numerous lesser entities) fighting amongst themselves or destroying whole chunks of this pretty blue planet we call home.

Director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) has an absolute ball setting up blistering beastie beat downs in all sorts of environments, and they never fail to impress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the human story – despite featuring quality actors like Vera Farmiga, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe and Kyle Chandler – is adequate at best, bewilderingly silly at worst. The plot, revolving around crypto-zoological agency Monarch and an eco-terrorist conspiracy, works on paper but in execution falls flat. It’s strange because monster movies don’t need to be this flavourless, Kong: Skull Island proved that, so quite why KotM chooses to be so is a little baffling.

However, this is Godzilla II: King of the Monsters, not Humans: A Coherent Story and taken as a loving homage to the Godzilla flicks of yesteryear and a balls-to-the-wall creature feature in its own right, KotM succeeds; and in terms of sheer unbridled spectacle, it is the best of the MonsterVerse so far. One does rather hope, however, that when Godzilla vs. Kong drops next year, they’ve actually included some human stories that are either good enough to enjoy or silly enough to appreciate ironically.

Still, if you’re in the mood to see skyscraper-sized monsters smacking the everloving shit out of one another, you’re absolutely going to have a good time with Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

 
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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 4 Comments

Offering an inspirational look at the process of coping with emotional and physical trauma, Camino Skies is a powerful feature documentary looking at the lengths people will go through to experience recovery.

Tracing the path of a group of Antipodean walkers as they traverse the 900km route from the French Basque town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the film naturally provides space for each individual story to shine through.

The major motivating force at work in all of their recent histories is a desire to push themselves and to confront and hopefully come to terms with recent or ongoing pain. Each of the walkers have experienced grief of some kind, and the filmmakers sensitively display all of the accounts with integrity and purpose.

Displayed against the stunning scenery of the mountainous route, a pathway considered to be the Mecca of pilgrimages for religious and non-religious alike, the questions each walker asks themselves take on profound implications. At points, the film delivers a powerful level of emotional impact.

The filmmakers never overdo this however, and each response, be it laughter or tears, always comes across as a human reaction to where they are and what they happen to be talking about. The various personalities in the film are also linked by their sheer passion for wanting to complete the arduous walk.

Aged from 40 – 70, the walkers deal with all weather and terrain along the way, bravely coping with the blisters and bruises that come with the territory. Away from their homes for a whole month, the walkers learn to help each other; the comradeship and shared desire to experience a greater achievement is portrayed evocatively.

Key to this accomplishment of showing the stories of recovery up against the big picture of nature, is Noel Smyth’s cinematography. Demonstrating the majestic grandeur of the Pyrenees and the intense elements that preside around them, the camera work is at once transporting and beautiful.

It’s also a well-paced film, benefiting from editing that pushes the film along elegantly. Like the walk itself, it’s a steady and gradual journey that does not have need of overly dramatic disclosures or jump cuts.

A meditative film that invites reflection and wonder, Camino Skies delivers on its brief. We discover why people choose to put their bodies and minds through the pilgrimage, and just what can be learned. In effect, it’s a moving account of moving on.

 
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Happy As Lazzaro

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A fantastical magical-realist fable, Alice Rohrwacher’s beautifully crafted film is a time-spanning allegorical study of class and social-structures. Awarded the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year, the film fixes a studied gaze at the workings of exploitation, immigration and work.

Drawing on a wide template of influences, with echoes of Pasolini and Fellini sounding out amidst the exquisitely designed imagery, the film impacts upon the consciousness like a haunting dream. It’s a picture that wraps its mysterious arms around an audience, revealing long-held secrets and memories.

In the bright Italian summer at remote rural estate Inviolata, honest and hard working Lazzaro (a mesmerising debut from Adriano Tardiolo) is both taken advantage of and relied upon. Ordered this way and that, and living in a tightly controlled world ruled over by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), he never once complains, displaying a beatific, saint-like disposition to whatever is demanded of him.

Lazzaro has a sweet, guileless innocence about him, and has the tenancy to drift off at times, making it seem as though he is not wholly present. Early in the film, one of the townsfolk remarks on this and observes that he has been ‘staring into the void again.’

Given what happens later, with the stepping over into the future or possibly a different timeline, this sense of being caught between two worlds (and under la luna, the moon) makes Lazzaro more of a mystic or a seer.

Into this innocent world of hard work and the cycles of life steps Tancredi (Luca Chikovi), the marchesa’s rebellious and arrogant son. He sets about using Lazzaro as a way to make extra money, by invoking another well known story, the boy who cried wolf.

The interplay between these two forms another layer to the film, with the boisterous Tancredi offering Lazzaro a different view of the world, and ultimately bringing him into a completely different environment. Propelled by Tancredi’s ruinous, greedy plans, the boy suffers an accidental fall from a cliff-edge and, after being looked after by a far more dependable companion lone wolf, wakes up in a different world.

He then makes the long march from countryside to city, dramatically constructed to resemble a pilgrimage or a monastic walk of penitence for imaginary sins. For Lazzaro’s essential goodness is never in doubt, even in a turbulent world where people and things take on different appearances and roles.

All of this plays into Rohrwacher’s captivating artistry that draws out the ethereal and timeless imaginings of communities across the world, with a specific Italian sense of family and generational concerns. An exceptional film that constantly surprises, Happy as Lazzaro melds reality and myth, sound and vision, to create a wonderful feast for the senses.

 
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Rocketman

Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Biopics about subjects who are still very much alive are always a tricky proposition. The creatives involved want to tell a story that’s as true as possible, but at the same time don’t wish to risk offending the subject. We saw this in action with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, an entertaining film that nonetheless heavily sanitised the historical details of the surviving members of N.W.A. Then again, even when the subject is deceased, as in the case of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the tendency to omit the more complicated details persists; in the case of that film Freddie Mercury’s drug use and prolific sexual adventures. All of that brings us to Rocketman, a bright and intense biopic about Elton John and a film that seeks to straddle the line between warts and all truth and misty-eyed hagiography.

Rocketman opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed in a stunning devil costume, crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and spilling his life’s story. This is used as a framing device, giving writer Lee Hall license to skip back and forth through time, to better understand how a chubby little boy named Reginald Kenneth Dwight became the incandescent superstar we all know him as today. The action plays out as a sort of musical fantasy rather than a straight drama, with various characters breaking into song or choreographed dance numbers to underline an emotional beat or emphasise a specific moment in time. It works, for the most part, with plenty of joyous singalong sequences including a stunning scene where Elton makes his American debut at the iconic Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

Performance wise, Edgerton nails not only Elton John’s physicality but even has a crack at singing a surprising number of the songs himself and doing so really rather well. His turn isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Rami Malek’s from Bohemian Rhapsody, but in a film that spends much of its runtime questioning who Elton really is, that seems oddly appropriate. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Elton’s creative partner Bernie Taupin, who often seems to be the rock idol’s only true friend. See, for all the glitz and glamour, Elton has had a frequently sad life. His parents Sheila and Stanley (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) were manipulative and unavailable respectively, his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden) was a dead-eyed sociopath and despite all the adoring fans screaming his name, the man was unable to love himself.

Director Dexter Fletcher, who himself was brought onto Bohemian Rhapsody after credited director Bryan Singer went walkabout about two thirds of the way into production, crafts an imaginative and engaging story here. Although much less grim in its delivery, it has shades of Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, and the puckish, playful moments set the biopic apart from its safer genre mates. Things do drift a little towards the mawkish and sentimental by the end of the film, but generally speaking it feels earned.

Ultimately, Rocketman is a colourful, exciting tribute to a colourful, exciting musician, brimming with solid performances, imaginative direction and great music. And while it certainly glosses over some aspects of the man’s life, it contains an emotional truth that will likely resonate with you for a long, long time.

 
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Brightburn

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The story of Clark Kent is a tender one, and you almost certainly know it already. A child from another world lands on a small Kansas farm and is cared for and raised by a sweet, childless couple. They instill their values in the little tyke and years later he grows up to be the heroic metahuman known as Superman. But what if that kid hadn’t come from an essentially good place like Krypton, and what if that boy, when he grew older, had zero interest in using his powers for good? That is, essentially, the premise of Brightburn and it’s a beauty.

The childless couple in this case are Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), who live in the small town of Brightburn and raise young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) as if he were their own flesh and blood. For twelve years things proceed beautifully. Brandon is a sweet kid, and appears normal in every way, but once puberty starts knocking at the door, things turn nasty fast. You think adolescence is rough with a normal kid, try that same journey with a sullen superpowered pre-teen!

Brightburn, produced by James Gunn and written by his brother Mark and cousin Brian, is very much a dark and violent “what if” story. And the notion of a young superhero as a budding serial killer is darkly ironic and appealingly subversive in a misanthropic sort of way. The cast do a solid job, with Elizabeth Banks giving a typically strong performance, and director David Yarovesky manages to keep the tension high and really delivers on the squirmy gore when needed. One sequence in particular involving ocular trauma will have even the stoutest of gorehounds wincing.

In fact, the only really flaw that can be levelled at Brightburn is that it doesn’t do much with the premise other than what’s on the tin. The story proceeds briskly, and sometimes very nastily, but it never really offers much in the way of big surprises or twists once the conceit has been established. Still, if you’ve had a gutful of hopeful heroic adventures, and crave something from the darker side of the genre, Brightburn offers a jet-black look at a bad seed with super powers. And you don’t need X-ray vision to see that this is one story that’s going to get super bloody.