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Mile 22

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg have developed a rather enviable chemistry over the past six years. Over the course of their collaborations, they have continued to give each other elements that they definitely lacked prior: Berg has been able to get noticed as a filmmaker without having the cinematic headache of Battleship and Very Bad Things weighing him down, and Wahlberg has been given healthy narrative bedrocks from which he can remind everyone that, yes, he is still an amazing actor. However, looking at their fourth collaboration in Mile 22, this well is starting to run dry.

For a start, it seems like whatever sense of restraint Berg previously showcased has been reported ‘missing in action’, as the action beats here frequently enter the realm of exploitative. They are undoubtedly well choreographed and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret definitely shows an ability with framing, so we can see all the hard work, but the amount of sheer gore can come across rather goofy at times. It’s wince-inducing in the extreme, like when Iko Uwais’ special operative uses a broken car window to dispatch an enemy, but not always in the best way.

The approach to action, much like the repeatedly trying-way-too-hard-to-sound-mature dialogue, ends up giving the impression that all this bombast and explosiveness is just masking what is otherwise a plain story. Largely, because it is.

Unlike Berg and Wahlberg’s previous collabs with Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, this isn’t working from a based-on-actual-events framework. That lack of a tether to something real ends up making the blood and guts feel even more immature, but it also goes some way to explain how aimless a lot of the narrative gets. Yes, even though the main plot is quite straight-forward in its framing around an extraction mission where our leads must get from point A to point B fast, there’s too much here that doesn’t end up adding up to anything. From Wahlberg’s James Silva being implied to be on the autism spectrum (he’s described as having a brain that races too quickly, and his mile-a-minute delivery certainly gets that across), to Lauren Cohan’s Alice who is estranged from her family due to her work. Even with  the inclusion of Russians in the narrative to give this some feeling of relevancy, it all feels pointless.

The writing can’t even sell the admission that black ops work like this requires emotional detachment – a common espionage trope – because that would require the audience to actually be concerned about these characters. Between the rather limp characterisation outside of specific markers, the remarkable lack of tension throughout and the weak note it all ends on, and this all feels like a colossal step backwards for everyone involved.

 
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The Insult

Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

The tension and resentments of opposing political and religious viewpoints are taken down to everyday street level in The Insult, an impressive overview of the political and religious arguments in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The film takes a petty argument between two men as its central starting point, an argument that becomes far greater and serves as a distillation of conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Lebanese and Palestinian, and pretty much everything in between.

The problems all start in Beirut, where Lebanese Christian garage owner Tony (Adel Karam) is watering his plants on his balcony garden. Some workmen, including the Palestinian refugee Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), happen to be nearby on the road below. When some water drips down onto Yasser, he demands that the drain is fixed straight away. When he sees that it hasn’t been, he calls in his team to fix it properly.

Tony lives in the apartment with his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) and does not want any work to be going on while she is there. The workmen are modifying the faulty guttering system on the building and claim every right to be there. Tony disagrees and smashes up the gutter in a fit of rage. Yasser calls him a ‘fucking prick’ (or words to that effect) to which Tony demands an official apology.

Yasser’s employers eventually manage to persuade him to go to Tony’s garage to apologise for the insult. But once he gets there, he finds a riled-up Tony listening to anti-Palestinian diatribe on his radio. Yasser grits his teeth and nearly gets the sorry out, but then Tony drops the verbal bombshell: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” And in that line, all of the animosity and ill-feeing of decades between opposing states and religions is boiled down to its core. The film in effect then asks the question, how did it get to be so?

Ziad Doueiri, a former camera assistant who worked in the US on movies including Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, gets the escalating threat and feel of the courtroom drama down perfectly.

Nominated for and just missing out on a Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars, The Insult is a gripping drama that offers plenty of food for thought. While there are more questions than answers, the audience is at least left with the sense that, for better or worse, real individuals with their own motivations, prejudices and private histories will make the decisions that create or destroy peace and understanding.

 
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China Love

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Australian filmmakers Olivia Martin-McGuire and Producer Rebecca Barry, follow the families of young clientele who take part in the hugely popular ‘Pre-Wedding’ photographic industry in China. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year industry and is something akin to cosplay, where adults dress up in their ‘marriage costumes’, to stage and create dream memories. A bride floating ethereally in water, suspended above her groom-to-be or a bride depicted as a French Dauphine in a Louis XVI throne room; visualising one’s dreams of a happy future and the possibilities of love is something that has become a tradition for young Chinese couples.

Ranging from the relatively inexpensive to flat-out insane, couples are prepared to pay top-dollar for the best locations in which they can dress-up and act out their wedding and lifestyle fantasies. Locations are only limited by price. Pastoral English countryside inspired by Downton Abbey? Sure. Underwater Bridal fantasy? Sure. Greek islands or French Chateau? Just step right in to a ready-made set, costumed by an array of top bridal designers (Vera Wang is a favourite) and built in a photographic soundstage in Shanghai or Beijing and your dreams can be reconstructed, manipulated and framed for your pleasure.

One subject of the documentary is a young Chinese entrepreneur, who owns the largest pre-wedding photography franchise in Asia. With over 7,000 staff and 300 office locations, his celebrity and fantastic wealth serve to signify just how popular this indulgence is and just how obsessed the younger generation is with realising their marital fantasies, even though they are, for the most part, aware of the fact that there is a crushing expectation and stifling familial need for them to marry: children.

Oppressed for decades during the cultural revolution, their parent’s generation is focused on the perpetuation of their offspring. Bemused and slightly baffled by the ostentatiousness and wealth obsession exhibited by the younger Chinese, for the older generations, it’s an even stranger idea, to celebrate the reality of marriage with fantasy imagery. Juxtaposed with this industry of dreams is the reality of marriage and once the couples are together, just how they cope with the expectations of family, and of themselves, is a fascinating and engaging study of a part of Chinese culture you may know nothing about. Highly recommended.

For session times go to https://au.demand.film/china-love/. Note: all tickets must be pre-purchased online before the screening. If you can’t find a location near you, you can host your own screening and sell tickets via your social media channels to your mates and colleagues.

 
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The Happytime Murders

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

While the concept of horny puppets isn’t startlingly original – Peter Jackson was banging that drum way back in ‘89 with Meet the Feebles – there are enough potential laughs in the conceit to justify having another go. At least, that seems to be the rationale behind The Happytime Murders – a “comedy” that boldly forges ahead, blasting onto screens despite being stultifyingly bereft of jokes or charm.

Happytime is set in a world where humans and puppets coexist, with the latter being treated as second class citizens. In the film’s opening minutes it looks like this will be the basis for a heavy-handed allegory about racism (ala Netflix’s Bright) but this potentially topical narrative thread is swiftly dropped in favour of jizz jokes and bad ad-libbing. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a charisma-free private dick and puppet who, due to a series of grisly murders, is forced to reunite with his old human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). To be fair this is a pretty elegant premise; a mismatched duo entering the seedy side of the puppet world would seem like the kind of foundation for chuckles-a-plenty – and yet Happytime seems blithely unconcerned with making anything but the most surface-level puns and achingly obvious dick and fart jokes. This is especially true in the film’s second half where it actually attempts to be a pseudo cop movie, leaving the audience sitting in confused, awkward silence.

It’s hard to express how unfunny this movie is, like being shot in the face with an icy cold blast of humour-retardant chemicals. “Are they even attempting to make a comedy?” you’ll wonder, “Is it puppet noir and they just advertised the movie wrong?”

None of the puppet characters distinguish themselves via voice acting, although the puppeteering is moderately impressive, but sadder still is the criminal waste of human talent like Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale who gamely give it their all but are working from a script that offers less than zero. Say what you will about Sausage Party (2016) but that was a shock comedy that knew what its premise was and milked the bloody thing accordingly. The Happytime Murders, on the other hand, is a bafflingly humour-free slog that doesn’t even offer enough weird sex stuff to be a cult hit for undiscerning furries!

Ultimately The Happytime Murders isn’t remotely happy and the only murder victims are a solid premise and 91 minutes of your life.

 
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McQueen

Documentary, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Close up, the camera lingers on a richly decorated skull, butterflies, bird feathers and snakeskin, motifs that are at once primal and cultured, like details from a Jacobean painting with its connotations of death and mortality. This is the opening sequence of McQueen, a stunning, immersive documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, filmmakers at the top of their game and a passionate interest in celebrating the creative genius of fashion’s iconoclast, Lee Alexander McQueen.

The film documents McQueen’s journey, starting as the youngest of six children to a taxi driver father, He left school at 16 to apprentice himself on Savile Row then to Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno. When his talent was recognised by London’s prestigious St Martins School of Art, a relative paid his fees. A teacher from that time comments,

“He had no formal education so he was open, discovering everything like a sponge.”

The opportunities seem incredible for someone with no money, background or connections, but the film shows us that, every step of the way, McQueen’s extraordinary talent and thirst to learn rapidly opened doors. His undeniable gift was a prodigious and hard-working skill in the craft of making clothes, and he used that craft to express his own obsessions.

His show ‘Jack the Ripper stalks his Victims’ (1992) fused the violent history of east end London with outrageous couture. Stylist and cultural trailblazer Isabella Blow said she had never seen clothes move like that, and bought the whole collection. McQueen had erupted onto the catwalk in the way he was to continue. His shows were more theatre than runway with a blend of pageantry, social comment and surrealist art that was shocking and exciting. “You can be repulsed or exhilarated but if you don’t come out with an emotional reaction then I haven’t done my job,” McQueen says in one of the pieces of video footage threaded throughout the film.

What sets this documentary apart is a five act structure based around McQueen’s key collections. The device is compelling as we watch the designer’s creative trajectory, outdoing himself every time, each show more provocative than the last.

The assured narrative gives us a taste of why McQueen was considered a genius. Well cut footage from shows like ‘Highland Rape’ and ‘It’s a jungle out there’, documented from conception to catwalk, brings us some of the excitement of McQueen’s lavish, daring clothes that subvert fashion as much as applaud it.

McQueen’s sexuality brought influences from the ‘90s club scene and fetish, adding to his romantic identification with Scottish ancestry, and trauma from early sexual abuse and domestic violence. Everything was expressed in his creations.

Bonhote and Ettedgui are particularly well placed to handle this documentary of the fashion genius. Bonhote is a veteran of fashion and music films, while Ettedgui has several documentaries under his belt, including Listen to me Marlon and George Best: All by Himself. More specifically he had a lifelong connection to the fashion world and personal experience of the 1990s London scene.

It’s exciting to see McQueen’s story handled by filmmakers who bring their own strong energy and creative vision. You sense they really ‘get’ what McQueen was about and though they don’t shy away from his personal struggles and failings, they keep the overriding perspective on the designer’s talent and legacy.

In spite of his success McQueen was bread line poor until the fashion house of Givenchy, seeking to revitalise its brand, brought him on as couturier. It was a true ‘rags to riches’ moment for the 28-year-old. Suddenly he had massive status and budget.

McQueen tended to draw in people who could keep up with the punishing work demands and who he could rely on for emotional support. Some of these key people are interviewed in the film, and all express what excitement and fun they had, in the beginning at least. They gave hugely in terms of unpaid work, but their gratitude for the ride he took them on is palpable.

The filmmakers managed a coup when they were able to bring in McQueen’s sister Janet and nephew Gary as voices that anchor the designer’s family relationships and personal demons firmly in the narrative.

The alliance with Givenchy was a massive turning point. The first show wasn’t a success, though filmed scenes of the catwalk for the gold themed ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ are lavish and beautiful. McQueen buckled, employing his gifted craft to create ensuing collections, while building his own label from the money earned.

It was the McQueen collections, unrestricted by mainstream dictates, where his genius exploded. ‘It’s a jungle out there’ was a repost to the Givenchy rules as models prowled and growled like wild animals down the catwalk and a car burst into flames. “He was living his dream,” says his sister.

Video clips of McQueen have him mention how close he was to his dark side. He could pour the violence and romance of his inner world into public expression through his art.

The film shows how McQueen didn’t like the celebrity, and was basically shy except with friends. With the money came drugs, especially cocaine. Commentary by friends and video footage of McQueen show a rapid personality change. One commentator says he was shocked at the increasing paranoia and aggression. He transformed from the chubby, funny young boy to a skinnier figure in a Comme des Garçon suit, becoming something he didn’t want to be. He was increasingly more obsessive, working everyone to exhaustion. According to the people closest to him, including hair stylist Chai-Hyde and assistant Sebastian Pons, ‘none of it was fun anymore’.

Yet the genius was unstinting. The show ‘Voss’ (2001) looked directly at madness, with disintegrating clothes, models performing like asylum inmates and culminating with a naked model revealed inside a glass prism as butterflies swarm around her. The girl in the box was writer Michelle Olley and she points to the subversive nature of what McQueen was doing. “A fat girl and moths? It’s fashion’s worst nightmare isn’t it?”

Tom Ford comments that McQueen’s gift was in creating incredible conceptual work but also knowing how to create clothes to put on a hanger, a ‘blend of poetry and commerce’. It was Ford that brought McQueen onto the Gucci label in 2000.

Apart from the footage from the shows that make McQueen required viewing on the big screen, there are fascinating captures of the designer sculpting garments on a model with astonishing skill, ‘a magician’ as Pons described him.

‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was his last show, the one he was most personally satisfied with. It had themes of surveillance and paranoia, and the notion that we come from the land back into the sea. As a commentator noted, he loved the ocean and scuba diving, it was like going back to the womb, escapism from the pressures that he couldn’t relinquish. His sister recounts how he felt responsible for the fifty people he employed in his fashion house.

By then he had been awarded Designer of the Year four times and a CBE, but Pons describes how McQueen was so lost that he talked about killing himself onstage as a finale to ‘Plato.’. He was HIV positive, Isabella Blow, the mentor he had loved and rejected, had suicided with cancer. The dark side of his own past and trauma caught up with him and his mother’s death seemed to be the tipping point. He hung himself on the eve of her funeral. He was just 40 years old and arguably the most prestigious and notorious designer in history.

Wrapping up such a powerhouse film isn’t easy. The documentary could have ended with the last frame of McQueen disappearing through a doorway, but the filmmakers chose to add a montage of interview clips and fashion footage that celebrate the designer’s creative genius. We are reminded of his legacy, an unparalleled and subversive artistic vision, and how in spite of the madness and exploitation, his friends and associates wouldn’t have missed the ride for anything.

 
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West of Sunshine

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Inveterate gambler Jim (Pawno‘s Damian Hill) has a serious problem: he needs to pay off his loan shark (Tony Nikolakopoulos) by the end of the day. The odds of that being accomplished are pretty remote. Jim’s working as a courier, struggling to make ends meet, and is saddled with looking after his young son, Alex (Ty Perham, Hill’s real life stepson) for the day. Of course, the real stakes in West of Sunshine aren’t whether or not Jim can scare up the cash he needs, but whether he can maintain any kind of meaningful connection with the kid since the breakdown of his relationship with the boy’s mother.

It’s easy to imagine a dumber, meaner, and less successful version of West of Sunshine, one that highlights the seedy underworld elements of the story in service to cheap melodrama and to the detriment of real thematic heft. Luckily, first time feature director Jason Raftopolous is drawing on a deeper and more interesting vein of cinematic inspiration than Quentin Tarantino or even Andrew Dominik, whose 2000 crime chronicle Chopper was set in a comparable Melbourne milieu. Rather, in expanding and repurposing his 2011 short Father’s Day, Raftopolous has looked to the Italian neorealists for stylistic grist, and you could make a case for the works of American indie auteur John Cassavetes as well.

In concrete terms, that means West of Sunshine takes place in real, working Melbourne locations and is populated with real, working, Melbourne people – Raftopoulos fills his ensemble with non-actors and lenses in real, open businesses in order to get the grainy, textured tone he’s after. You feel the length of Jim’s day and the weight of his burden the way you feel your eyeballs grit up after you’ve pushed it too hard for too long, and you can smell the cigarette smoke clouding outside the street corner pubs and the diesel fumes from idling trucks. The film is grounded.

And yet it also soars, thanks in no small part to James Orr (2.22) and Lisa Gerrard’s (Gladiator) beautiful score, which adds a luminous, ethereal counterpoint to the action of the drama, but also to Raftopolous’ understanding that he’s grappling with archetypal themes here: fathers and sons, freedom and responsibility, guilt and redemption, sex and death. That these play out in this inner urban microcosm makes them no less heady or universal, and the director demonstrates his understanding with a scattering of religious iconography throughout the film.

Which might spill over into pretentiousness if the proceedings weren’t anchored by fantastic understated turns from Hill and Perham, the latter making his screen debut here, along with a supporting cast that includes Underbelly‘s Kat Stewart and veteran Kaarin Fairfax. A screenwriter himself, Hill has carved out a niche (or perhaps he’s had the niche thrust upon him – he’s got a look) playing put upon, inarticulate working class guys who are trying their best to get ahead of their own considerable flaws, and with that in mind the role of Jimmy fits him like a court appearance suit. For Perham’s part, he imbues Alex with just the right amount of unconditional love for his old man – tempered with the growing suspicion that he may be a bit of a terminal stuff-up. In combination, their dynamic never feels less than absolutely authentic – a crucial element in what is almost a two man show.

Small scale, big-hearted, thematically ambitious and formally deft, West of Sunshine is a nigh-perfect slice of inner city Australian cinema that manages to dodge the dour, self-serious pitfalls that so often dog its genre mates, while at the same time remaining absolutely committed to its characters, themes, and intents. It is, make no mistake, a minor miracle.