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Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

On the whole, directors should be careful when making films from best sellers. The rush of enthusiasm in the reading community (think women’s book clubs and Oprah selections) doesn’t always flow through to a sensible or even enjoyable film. This one comes with lots of “I loved the book” anticipation and some strong first week business is probably guaranteed. The greater puzzle is why Richard Linklater should decide to add this to his eccentric but often brilliant oeuvre. Perhaps the thematic key is the stress of maintaining family for, after all, Linklater made one of the most remarkable films about growing up in America in Boyhood (2014).

A further thing that will get the film noticed is another big performance from Cate Blanchett in the lead. Despite an only half-committed accent, she is fully committed to the role. Here she is again playing an American eccentric on the borderline of being annoying. Her character is the eponymous Bernadette. She is an architect of ‘genius’ who was so original that she struggled against the constraints of her (mostly-male) profession, and she more or less dropped out at the height of her powers.

Now, she is an undiagnosed manic depressive who lives in a rundown mansion in Seattle (picking up on the joke that builders always have the worst houses). She is married to a geeky IT millionaire, Elgie (Billy Crudup) who worships her but still somehow ends up taking her for granted. He tries hard as a dad and a supporter but his ‘crime’ is not to provide enough opportunity for Bernadette to realise her great potential.

They have a precocious daughter called Bee (a nice perf from relative newcomer Emma Nelson) who is unhappy at her posh school and slightly embarrassed by her eccentric mother.

In a series of ridiculously implausible plot twists Bernadette ‘escapes’ her life and ends up on an Antarctic adventure. The film then contrives to make the place provide an opportunity for visionary architects.

The choice of the Antarctic is itself significant because in many ways it represents the ultimate positional good in travel one upmanship terms (one day this will be the moon). The very fact that we shouldn’t really be opening up this pristine place for tourism at all gives it unassailable snob value. If you have ‘everything’ then what is the next thing you must collect in your search for ‘experiences’?

The book has been hailed as a satire on the go-getting classes in Seattle (where the book’s author Maria Semple lives). If this is so, then it is true only in the sense that Bridget Jones’s Diary is a ‘satire’ on romance. In other words, the film pushes all the right buttons for the self-help generation trying to perfect their lives (and regretting the first world obstacles that fall in their way) without ever really questioning the need for the quest in the first place. Self-actualisation is an unquestioned good for the upper middle class in rich countries. Deep down though, it is quite conventional and takes the case of a safe white fantasy to be a paradigmatic search for meaning. If the tale had just a bit more grit, we could perhaps get some traction on its glassy surfaces.

 
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Mafia Inc.

Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Adapted from André Cédilot and André Noël’s non-fiction novel of the same name, Mafia Inc. follows the antics of Montreal’s most influential crime family, The Paternòs.

Set predominantly in 1994, Canadian-based Sicilian Mafia patriarch Frank Paternò (Sergio Castellitto) – a deceptively-suave drug kingpin who upholds virtues of traditionalism, family and Italian pronunciation – forwards a plan to make a substantial investment in the development of a bridge that connects Sicily to Italy. The money to be made in tolls alone is expected to clear one million dollars per day!

Frank, along with his son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) and the son of Frank’s long-time tailor Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), navigate the murky, deceit laden waters of Montreal’s gangster scene to go undetected, transferring $180 million towards the endeavour. Lies, jealousy and under-the-table arrangements propagated by greed (almost a given in the genre) ensue, with the mysterious (and barbaric) transportation of a lucrative narcotics run adding fuel to an already disorderly flame.

Director Daniel Grou empowers an oscillating rock-heavy score and bleak visuals to paint the mood of an underbelly on the fritz. The well-established Canadian filmmaker keeps Mafia Inc. trodding at a purposeful pace, with this only falling asunder with jarringly intertwining back and forth between the present (1994) and past (1980). Scenes of gratuitous violence appear here and there, and are tastefully administered to convey the bloody implications of mistrust and envy.

At 135 minutes, Mafia Inc. provides ample time to articulately flesh out character motivations and behaviours. The film features an array of superb performances (seldom seen women, not without leaving their impact, include Mylène Mackay), with noteworthy turns from Castellitto – refraining from ‘capeesh’ and ‘che vuoi’ gestures – successfully elevating a role ripe for caricature into something human and realised.

Intricately told and impressively acted, do what Marty says and avoid watching it on your phone.

 
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House of Cardin

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In the prologue of new documentary, House of Cardin, it’s noted that the fashion designer, Pierre Cardin, is very particular about what he lets people know about him. Indeed, a more youthful Cardin, through archival footage, acknowledges that Pierre Cardin as a brand is completely separate from the person. And if you’re looking for an official biography to read, then apparently, good luck finding one. Perhaps then that’s what will make House of Cardin, directed by husbands Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole (Mansfield 66/67), so special to some.

Given full access by the titular House, the documentary explores Cardin’s life from his family’s escape from fascism during the second world war in Italy, becoming a male model and of course, opening his own fashion house before essentially creating mod chic. Hughes and Ebersole interview Cardin, as well as his family and peers, in what essentially becomes a huge love-in. A fashionable love in, where everyone looks impeccable, but a love-in nonetheless. This is because House of Cardin’s biggest issue is that for all its gloss and glamour, it never really manages to get under the skin of a man who didn’t get to his late 90s by letting every Tom, Dick and Harry know his most intimate secrets.

Brush aside the repeated cries of genius – and no one is denying he is otherwise – and you get to the meat and potatoes of the piece. As well as his fashion, Cardin shattered the conceptions of how a model should look. He hung his clothes on models from all over the globe, in stark contrast to the uber white, skinny template of yore. To Cardin, it just made sense to make clothes for everyone and he is heard to comment on the fact that he doesn’t have a particular woman in mind when he makes his dresses.

Another narrative that stands out is Cardin’s keenness to put his name to everything. We’re told at the beginning that the Pierre Cardin name can be found on 800 different products, ranging from dominoes to planes. With such a potential dilution of brand, he is seen as both a socialist and a capitalist, even by the people who worked with him, but House of Cardin doesn’t waste much time tackling this. Again, this is not the in-depth doco you might be expecting, but rather a flag waving celebration of one man’s career.

Your mileage will certainly vary as a result, but even if your fashion sense currently extends to what trackies you’re going to wear in front of the TV, you are still liable to extract some nuggets of interest from the film.

 
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Preview: Alex Rider

The teenage spy is about to have another go on the screen, this time as a series on Amazon Prime. We got an early look.
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Detention

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

The “White Terror” period was a dark moment in Taiwan’s history, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians suspected or accused of being anti-government, were sought-out, arrested and killed.

Adapted from the popular supernatural video game of the same (which is set in 1962 during this bleak period), Detention stars Gingle Wang as Fang and Tseng Chin-hua as Wei, high school students who believe in freedom in a country under martial law, where freedom of speech is banned.

Part of a secret high school book club which studies banned books, one day Fang turns up to her school to find the halls empty, her tutor missing, a massive storm looming and not a person around. As the students search their deserted school, strange happenings, dead bodies and ghost-figures begin to appear.

So begins this Taiwanese high-school-set horror, the debut feature film directed by John Hsu.

Like the game on which it is based, Detention combines the historical evils of this era with CGI monsters, mythological elements, demons and villains, switching between fantasy and reality.

Comprised of multiple chapters and parts, Detention jumps back and forth between the savage horrors committed by the repressive Kuomintang military (KMT) and the physically monstrous creatures and devils roaming the hallways of the fictional Greenwood High School.

As the movie progresses, the flashbacks of brutal and torturous abductions start to blur with the game-ified, gory, fantastical monsters devouring educators, pupils and civilians, as bit by bit, the answers to what happened to the students’ peers and teachers become slowly apparent.

Shifting away from its game origins into historical horror, Detention attempts to unpack the true reality of the evils inflicted over decades by a frightening regime – one that left thousands missing or worse.

Scenes of torture are not shied away from; the movie depicts these happenings without hesitance.

This is one of the first large-scale movies to address the White Terror Period. Replete with CGI demons, gore and hellish monsters, this is a historical-horror movie genre fans will be entertained by.

 
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Lovemobil

Documentary, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

A palpable stillness fills a lonely country road sitting outside of Wolfsburg, Germany.

As though the dead-silent streets weren’t eerie enough, the total darkness, illuminated only by the deceptively inviting lurid glow of a roadside caravan, does little to ease the mood.

It is women who occupy these caravans (known as Liebesmobiles); many of whom travel from afar to earn a living performing sex work.

The stories of these women and their systemic oppression are explored with a sympathetic gaze in hard-hitting documentary Lovemobil.

We spend most of Lovemobil inside a caravan belonging to Uschi; a former sex-worker who when not enforcing strict housekeeping demands upon her employees – Rita (from Nigeria) and Milena (from Bulgaria) – can be seen overwhelming her dogs with affection. It is a duality that expresses both desensitiaation and benevolence; the latter being a courtesy denied to the women she exploits to make a living.

For many of the women employed by Uschi, assault, neglect and death prove more than just concerns, but realities of their employment. Their dreams of freedom from a life of sex work, initially met with glowing optimism, become short lived when jolted back into the present. Forced isolation and financial captivity amplify their mounting trepidation; a byproduct calcified by the looming threat of danger which presents itself with each client.

Director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss does an exemplary job connecting the experiences of women with the institutionalisation (and commoditisation) of their abuse. The astute filmmaker directs with an incisiveness that not only respects and grants dignity to interviewees but presents the implications of their inequality in contrast to broader society.

It is considered documentary filmmaking at its most potent.

 
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A Family

Australian, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

As family is one of the basic units of human association, it is not surprising that it occupies a central space in most cultures. And of course, there have been endless explorations of this institution in art over the centuries. All this ought to give a timeless relevance to director Jayden Stevens’ explorations around the theme. That said, he has gone about it in a very oblique, not to say odd, way. The approach is the point of the film really, and it probably means you will either love it or hate it.

Though the director is Australian, he has chosen to make his film in the Ukraine using Ukrainian actors, none of whom is very polished. Once again, he tries to use this in his favour. After all they are only ‘acting’ themselves in the first place.

The protagonist is Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lugubrious looking dude who bears a passing resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family. He is fond of filming family occasions on his old-fashioned mini video camera, and we start with him filming a Christmas get together. It is no spoiler to say that this quickly turns out to be a con or a spoof, in the sense that he has paid the various ‘relatives’ to pretend to be his family. That is the whole idea of the film really. The rest of the piece then jogs along with this idea, with various iterations of fake family scenarios.

All this could be quite funny (and there are a couple of mordant jokey exchanges) but it would have been a great deal more interesting if the concept had been developed more, or if the film had more of an arc. As it is, it is very grey and monotone in both look and characterisation.

As noted, there is a deliberate quirkiness to all this. There are parallels perhaps with some of the work of Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismaki (the deadpan humour, the affection for the misfits) or even with the ever-cultish Yorgos Lanthimos (the sheer absurdity of the premise, the creepiness of an artificial family a la Dogtooth).

The idea of the distorting longing for family is potentially poignant and, here, occasionally nicely absurdist. The problem is the joke wears thin and no real empathy is possible for the viewer.