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The First Monday In May

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New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art (known to all as The Met) has a phenomenal collection of masterpieces. Its Costume Institute also has, in the basement, the world’s biggest fashion collection, and every year, it stages a themed exhibition. Last year’s was the rather clumsily-named “China: Through The Looking Glass”, which focused on the Chinese influence on Western fashion. This documentary is about the preparation (over eight months) of that exhibition, and of the celebrity-studded fundraising gala party – on guess-what date –which marks its opening. The supposed “queen of the night” on that occasion is Rihanna, who arrives in a dress that she claims took two years to make, and gets a bewilderingly rapturous response when she sings.

A lot of people are seen and heard here, but the central “players” are young Englishman, Andrew Bolton (the curator of the C.I. and overseer of the exhibition’s creation) and Vogue’s formidable editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who organises the gala. (Fairly or not, she was of course the real-life inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada.) Neither is especially eloquent, but various other individuals debate the thorny question of whether fashion is art or mere commercial frippery. And then there are those who are given to gushing excitedly for no apparent reason and calling each other geniuses. But there’s also a more interesting diversion on the vexed question of orientalism and “colonialist” perspectives.

There are brief side trips here to Paris – where the creators go to view the Yves St. Laurent collection – and to China, to promote the exhibition. But the meat of the matter is of course back in New York. The First Monday In May is watchable enough, but it has a quorum of excess and narcissism, and some of it is as vacuous and pointless as fashion itself can be.

 
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Remember

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The measurement of time is extremely relative, by varying sets of standards fleeting and excruciatingly long. The breathless progress of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is such that WW2 is something that we view mostly through an abstract removal of grainy archive footage, horrific but intangible. Yet the seventy years since the end of the war are but a miniscule iota in human history. Witnesses, war veterans, holocaust survivors, and war criminals amble on into old age with the acute burden of memory and first-person knowledge.

Atom Egoyan’s Remember contends with the spectral nature of time and memory through an 86-year-old Auschwitz survivor named Zev (Christopher Plummer). Suffering from dementia, Zev embarks, with instructions from his friend, Max (Martin Landau), on a manhunt across North America for the German who he believes killed his family during the war, brandishing a glock as he progressively crosses off a list of potential targets. Zev’s dementia, however, means that his memory is unreliable. Things are not what they seem, and his perceived past proves to be composed of subjective, selective memory, the truth of which proves devastating.

Remember is that rare film that is both a thriller and a deeply serious character drama. Christopher Plummer gives an extraordinary performance, with the deeply fraught passage of Zev’s near ninety-years written in his soulful eyes. There is a sense, understandably, of his deep entrenchment in the character, not because Plummer was at Auschwitz – he wasn’t – but because he cannot help but be simpatico with having lived the same length of time. Egoyan has fashioned a marvellous film, replete with the typical compassion with which he usually attributes his characters. Remember is a fascinating examination of time, memory, and the human condition which is both meaningful and outwardly entertaining.

 
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Florence Foster Jenkins

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This is a story of self-delusion on a very grand scale. The eponymous Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was an American society lady from the mid-20th Century who loved classical music and opera. All would have been fine if she had stopped at being a patron, but her flip into absurdity came when she tried to actually be an opera singer. In this film, we soon find out that there is no more chance of that than a tone deaf parrot winning The Voice. In fact, the real Jenkins, as history recalls, made it all the way to a (brief) appearance at Carnegie Hall. However, she was – though she did not really know this – a kind of novelty act.

There are touches of both cruelty and comedy here but Brit director, Stephen Frears (Philomena), also depicts the characters with sympathy. The film also looks very fine. It does a lavish job with the costumes and cars of the time. This is a Gatsby-esque world where the rich lead opulent and insulated lives caring only about each other and visible status and wealth. Underneath, of course, there is also bitchiness and cynicism. What were all those people doing when listening to Florence, one wonders? Should not their sycophancy be also called to account? Frears keeps the story in focus via the triangular relationship between Florence’s worried husband, St Clair (Hugh Grant), and her timid, not-high-born pianist, Cosme McMoon (nicely played by Simon Helberg). In relation to Hugh Grant, it is easy to forget that, beneath the easily-parodied foppish Englishness typecasting, he is a good actor. Undaunted by La Streep, his scenes illustrating the private side of their marriage are affecting, and anchor the film. Streep can get that larger than life quality which suits the role, but she also brings a convincing childlike element here which adds grace notes to her interpretation. Only at one point (no spoilers) do we get a scene where her fragile grasp on how she is perceived is punctured by a direct exchange and a reality check. It is an unnecessary closing of the narrative as we could draw our own conclusions.

By a strange coincidence, this film comes hot on the heels of the French version of the very same story (Marguerite). They are both good films. That is perhaps because at the heart of the story is a sense of human foibles which deserves our tender feelings.

 
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Review: Bad Neighbours 2

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Life is good for Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) and pregnant wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), following their epic war with their fraternity neighbours, Delta Psi Beta. This is until history seems to repeat itself when the unruly sisters of Kappa Nu move in next door. As loud parties continuously disrupt the peace, the couple turn to former neighbor and onetime enemy, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) for help. Now united with the fraternity stud, the trio devises a scheme to get the wild sorority off the block. Unfortunately – and hilariously – the rebellious young women refuse to go down without a fight.

The first Bad Neighbours was rife with predicable frat-boy misogyny, stoner jokes, and internalised homophobia. The second installment, however, is almost a complete 180 on that premise, tackling – and in fact – supporting issues including feminism, gay rights, the war on drugs, and racism with a solid balance of humour and sincerity. Director, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek), takes a big swing here in his attempt to add depth and emotion to these intensely shallow characters and surprisingly, pulls it off. Having said that, there are stupid and totally cringe-worthy moments, including Zac Efron covering himself in pork fat and dancing on stage for a swarm of screaming girls for, literally, no reason. Although, the shift from male to female-gaze in this iteration is a welcomed change.

But despite the many poo and dildo jokes, Bad Neighbours 2 actually hits the humour pretty hard. Seth Rogen fans will be stoked with his inability to play anyone other than Seth Rogen – he totally delivers on the “I’m an ageing stoner tryin’ to be a parent, whhhaaat?” vibe, and to be honest, it’s always pretty funny (think Knocked Up). Rose Byrne is thankfully given more opportunities to stretch her funny bone this time around, where her young mother character is equal parts relatable and hilarious. Zac Efron and series new-comer, Chloe Grace Moretz, rely on how young and attractive they are, but still get small moments to demonstrate their value outside of that. All in all, it’s not winning any Oscars, but its progressive reboot approach to what has traditionally been a pretty sexist and predictable genre makes Bad Neighbours 2 refreshing and funny enough to sit through.

 

 

 
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The Man Who Knew Infinity

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Genius is, by definition, such an individual and unknowable category. How can one really compare the peerless achievements of, say, Newton, Beethoven, or Sachin Tendulkar? This is one of the questions brought up by this finely realised historical drama. Yes, it is a biopic, but few outside the field of pure mathematics will have heard of the film’s subject, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel).

But as the film makes clear, Ramanujan – a self-taught clerk from Madras – not only showed natural brilliance, but actually moved maths into new paradigms. The proofs would have to come later, but his insight proved to be trail-blazing. He was able to do this partly because he was brought to Cambridge at the beginning of the twentieth century, where he could find advanced mathematical minds to spar against. This is the part of the story that gives us the emotional as well as the historical structure. The unconventional G.H. Hardy (the typically splendid Jeremy Irons) was a typical Don; living in his head and not much interested in emotions or people. When Ramanujan writes out of the blue from India saying that he has new theories, Hardy takes the risk of bringing him over. The other Cambridge types (the film has a fine back up cast including Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam, and Stephen Fry) range from, er, unenthusiastic to unbelievably racist. Those were the times perhaps, but the film leaves us in no doubt as to how this badly wounded Ramanujan. In fact, this more brutal aspect could, no doubt, have been even more spelled out but director, Matt Brown, is more interested in the unlikely friendship that develops between Hardy and his protégé.

Jeremy Irons is always so good at playing bottled up types with suppressed longing, while Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is a very good foil indeed. The film also looks beautiful, thanks to Larry Smith’s effortless cinematography. It’s all very English, but it never falls into self-parody, and the true story does make one ponder. How is it that some people can see the patterns of the universe like that? As both a story of finally-recognised greatness and of the thawing of the human heart, The Man Who Knew Infinity scores very highly.

 
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Mia Madre

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Actor/director, Nanni Moretti, is justifiably very well known in Italian cinema. He has made 24 films. But this is his first in four years, so he obviously likes to take his time and really craft his films. He often shows his compassionate humanist side, never judging his characters or merely parodying their predicaments. He tackles everyday life in all its messiness and seriousness (he made the excoriating The Son’s Room, for example), and he always gives full weight to the importance of experience. Mia Madre is another subtle and poignant evocation of reactions to the sort of dilemmas that we must all face.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a middle aged film director. She is no longer sure that her films are any good. She worries that she may have lost whatever it was that made her an artist in the first place. In fact, she is not sure about much, really. She has just told her long-term partner that she wants a separation, which will leave her to look after their teenage daughter, and also Margherita’s dying mother. Her current film is about a foreign boss who is oppressing his workers. He wants to discipline his workforce and they, in turn, want to man the barricades. All solid Italian post-war themes, but again, she wonders, has politics moved on? Is the film a bit dated, and its dialogue a bit too obvious? To cap it all, she has cast an Italian-American “star”, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), to come to Italy to play the boss.  Barry turns out to be a pompous, name-dropping pain, and he can’t learn his lines either.  Turturro gives a wonderfully double-edged and completely un-vain performance here. Barry is insufferable enough to make us sympathise with Margherita, but Turturro shows enough humanity to help us understand him by the end.

The main thread of the film – the necessity of letting go, and of learning to live as fully as possible – is never approached didactically. Instead it loops through all the moments of re-calibration that make up Margherita’s complex but emblematic journey.

 

 

 
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Legacy: A Ride To Conquer Motor Neuron Disease

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We often use the phrase “life’s too short” when we’re buying a slice of cake or paying for the most up to date smartphone. It’s a way of justifying things in our heads, but we never really give it much credence. The subjects of Legacy, Ian Davies and Scott Sullivan, know all too well the true meaning of that phrase. When we meet them in Tony Prescott’s documentary, they have both been diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), a condition that attacks without prejudice, robbing the sufferer of their mobility before an inevitable death.

Wishing to spread awareness of the disease and Sullivan’s charity “MND And Me”, in 2013 they chose to cycle, in a specially designed tandem, across the whole east coast of Australia. What we witness over the next 80 minutes is two men facing their own mortality with a courage to be admired. This inspiring film also talks to the people – family and friends – whose lives have been touched by the duo. They are frank and open in the inevitability of the men’s lives, as well as the good that they are doing.

As they make their way across the coast, Legacy captures personal moments that can hint at the everyday struggle they go through. Scott, a loving husband and father of two, openly champions euthanasia as his preferred method to go when he considers himself too much of a burden to his family. Ian, a self-imposed loner, expresses regret at pushing away his ex-fiancée, realising that he did it more for himself than her. But the documentary never chooses to overplay these moments; this is not a pity parade. These men don’t want your sympathy; they want to keep their dignity.

An emotional ride to say the least, Legacy showcases the bravery of humans in the face of adversity, whilst highlighting a truly worthy cause. Fantastic.

Legacy: A Ride To Conquer Motor Neuron Disease is now playing nationally in cinemas thanks to the cinema on demand platform, TUGG. Everyday Australians with a passion for a movie topic are able to hold their own screening of the movie, and then sell tickets via their social media networks and reap 5% of the box office. People simply need to request a screening at TUGG

 
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Code: Debugging The Gender Gap

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In this documentary from Robin Huser Reynolds, the fate of America’s technological future is hypothesised to depend on how it tackles the idea of gender bias. Despite their part in computer development – going back as far as the 19th century (!) – Code: Debugging The Gender Gap argues that women are still marginalised in the tech industry.

The startling effect of gender bias is brought into sharp relief when the film discusses the invention of the airbag, which ended up killing women and children in crashes. The reason? The all-male engineering team had used one of their own for the body measurements of an average human. It’s admittedly an extreme example that borders on scare tactics, but it’s just as scary to think that smaller frames weren’t taken into consideration, and it drives home the point of the film.

For more personable examples, Code: Debugging The Gender Gap interviews women from all areas of the tech industry, including Pixar’s Danielle Feinberg. The thread throughout these talking heads is that the early indoctrination of what boys and girls should like is stifling a potential love of computers for women later in life. Even those who do break the glass ceiling suggest that they are often made to feel like they’re some sort of abnormality in a male dominated world. Whilst Code: Debugging The Gender Gap is a US-centric documentary, Australia gets a dubious shout out when two aussie “bro-grammers” at a tech conference give a presentation for their new app, TitStare. Whilst the app was part of a fictional jape, the supposed humour merely highlights the issues that women face when they’re trying to be taken seriously. “You can be part of the group,” it seems to say, “but know your place.”

In a time when technology is allowing women and other marginalised groups to have their voice, Code: Debugging The Gender Gap successfully highlights that even now, they are struggling to have their say in shaping that very same technology.

Code: Debugging The Gender Gap is now playing nationally in cinemas thanks to the cinema on demand platform, TUGG. Everyday Australians with a passion for a movie topic are able to hold their own screening of the movie, and then sell tickets via their social media networks and reap 5% of the box office.  People simply need to request a screening at TUGG

 
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A Month Of Sundays

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A month of Sundays metaphorically refers to something that only happens very rarely. It also implies that you have to wait a long time to get an expected benefit. Unfortunately, these associations come back to bite Mathew Saville’s new comedy/drama, which takes an age to get to its point, and doesn’t deliver that much in the end. Saville made the tense and densely-plotted crime thrillers, Noise and Felony, so he has credit in the bank. On the looks of this one though, comedy is not his thing.

The film has a very solid Aussie line up of actors, though they’re not necessarily cast in roles which suit their style. The whole film hangs on the performance/persona of Anthony LaPaglia, who does his best with a sort of “not there” kind of character. He is Frank Mollard, a middle aged real estate agent ticking all the boxes for a midlife crisis. His wife, Wendy (Justine Clarke), who has moved on and become a successful TV actress, resents the fact that Frank is so clingy and aimless. When Frank receives a phone call from Sarah (Julia Blake), an older woman who resembles his deceased mother, he decides to befriend her.

As noted, both LaPaglia and Blake are experienced actors and, when together, they do convey mutual sympathy and the wisdom-sharing which is at the emotional heart of the story. There are also small bits of light relief, especially when Frank’s boss, Phillip (John Clarke), is involved. Clarke’s natural comic timing and delightfully dry delivery are welcome, but his role is sealed from the rest of the film and feels inserted. The film looks and feels flat, with little or no music score and lots of nondescript locations and half-realised scenes. The real problem is that Frank is depressed, and his life and occupation are dull. How do you make an engaging film about a dull person with very ordinary problems? It’s a tricky problem and – we’re afraid to say – Saville doesn’t seem to have found the answer.

 
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An

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An

Director, Naomi Kawase, has made over a dozen features, but she is still not that well known internationally. Her last film, Still The Water, received critical acclaim, and this gentle tale should extend her reputation. It is a simple enough story, but engaging if you re-tune your expectations away from the busyness of Hollywood fare.

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is a middle aged man running a small doryaki (pancake) cafe in the city. He has a “past” (we later find out), and that might account for his daily sense of irritation as he sweats to make the perfect doryaki. He cannot help being slightly annoyed by the giggling school girls who gather in his cafe. One day, an old lady called Tokue (Kirin Kiki) walks in. Even though she is 76, and has damaged hands, she is very keen to get the lowly job of kitchen hand. When she makes an azuki bean paste that is simply the best ever, Sentaro hires her. The film then follows their unlikely friendship.

If all this sounds a bit inconsequential, it is. An contains relished foody pleasures, but it certainly isn’t fast; the first reveal isn’t until about forty minutes in. By then, we have had so many loving close-ups of bubbling red beans that you feel like changing your diet. However, the part of Tokue is very well played by Kiki (if this is remade into English, they would have to cast Maggie Smith). It is a calm, centred performance, as it needs to be. She has a sort of end-of-life wisdom, a sense of finally getting in rhythm with nature in order to savour our brief time on earth. It is a simple pleasure but, like the doryaki pancake, there is sweetness within.