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Peter Medak: Exorcising the Ghost of Peter Sellers

The director of The Ruling Class, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Changeling, The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo is Bleeding and various episodes of your favourite TV shows, opens up about his unreleased film starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and the documentary that he has made about the traumatic experience.
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Who You Think I Am

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This French drama could not be described as a straight romance, nor quite as a thriller but it has elements of both. Based on a recent popular French novel, it explores the very contemporary phenomenon of online dating and the temptations to fake or polish one’s online self. The fact that it stars the indefatigable Juliet Binoche (still a plausible romantic lead at 55) is bound to give its initial box office a boost.

Here, Binoche moves beyond her sometimes-glassy demeanour to show a fuller range of emotion. Her character is not entirely sympathetic (see below) but she holds our attention throughout.

The mushrooming of social media inside modern life (here with le Facebook as the French know it) is cropping up more and more in films these days, as it more or less has to if they want to inhabit the zeitgeist. The origins of this aspect of the web are rooted in the apparently universal desire to share all, and this can intersect (often dangerously) with the need to connect intimately. If we stop and think about it, intimacy is something that can only take root if we are fully honest, but when it is so easy to project a false or idealised image, that honesty is often fatally undermined.

This is the dilemma that eventually grows like a cancer inside the life of Claire (Binoche). She is a middle-aged separated woman who is still able to attract much younger men. Soon she starts to flirt online with twenty-something Alex (Francois Civil). She can’t help herself really when she borrows some photos of a younger woman to entice her new prospect. Of course, the poet’s adage hovers over this decision; “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”.

One of the problems with showing this new world is that so many scenes are essentially static, with us just looking at someone typing into their phone or computer. Perhaps the director could have opened it out more, or balanced this with more dynamic interactive scenes.

The excellent Charles Berling is a bit wasted in his underwritten role as Claire’s ex, and Claire’s relationship with the obligatory analyst (played largely unsympathetically by Nicole Garcia) become routinised.

It is important to our enjoyment of the film (directed by a man incidentally, who previously directed 2008’s Mark of an Angel, which has, coincidentally, been remade into the Australian film Angel of Mine, premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August) that we don’t judge Claire too harshly. She is insecure or prone to being narcissistic, but who isn’t today, at least a little? She could also be seen as forced into an impossible position by a youth-obsessed culture. Perhaps we can agree that she didn’t set out to hurt anybody. However, as Gustav Flaubert understood (in that seminal French work Madame Bovary), fate is both merciless and without rancour once the mechanism has been tripped. Claire is neither pure victim nor heroine, but she is recognisably human in her folly.

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The White Crow

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No film ends up being about just one thing. Whether a director sets out to capture the life of a single person or an entire planet, the culture wrapped around both the artist and the art end up influencing the final product. Hell, half the fun of watching movies is reading the material between the lines that the filmmakers themselves may not be aware is on the page.

Today’s offering, the latest from master thespian-turned-filmmaker Ralph Fiennes, is ostensibly a biopic about Russian danseur Rudolf Nureyev but is also a look at the political and cultural climate around him. Unfortunately for Fiennes, the latter ends up overshadowing the former, much to the production’s detriment.

The depiction we get of Nureyev, as captured by newcomer Oleg Ivenko, is one of frustrating inconsistency. His background as a dancer lets him glide across the stage when he’s called to do so, but backstage, his position in a story supposedly all about him feels in flux. He fluctuates between rebellious selfishness and wide-eyed wonder, wanting to see as much of the world as he can, when he isn’t actively trying to avoid talking to anyone. In greater hands, this could have worked as showing character depth and complexity, but what we ultimately get is a big switch being thrown, with what we learn about the artist different to what we learn about the art.

This is where things get rather disappointing as, in contrast to the film’s impact as biography, its musings on the nature of art make for quite enticing viewing. Meshing the French attitude towards all things sexual with a traveller’s point-of-view in wanting to experience all art possible, it creates a mood for Nureyev’s journey beyond the Iron Curtain as one of voyeuristic admiration.

Mike Eley’s camera work and Barney Pilling’s editing enforce comparisons between different forms of art, from paintings to sculptures to mosaics to songs to the human body itself. Maybe that’s what attracted Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adéle Exarchopoulos to the project: Fiennes actually pulled off comparing nude bodies to sculptures without turning it into exploitative softcore fit for late-night SBS.

And when added to the Soviet influence within the story, cementing Nureyev’s eventual defection not as political but as personal in reaction to the KGB’s attempts to stifle his exploration, it makes for a very rich atmosphere that the core story winds up letting down. Where that gets weirder is with David Hare’s scripting, containing numerous pleas to focus on the story and the emotion behind it, rather than the technique with which it is presented. The exact opposite of what makes this film worth sitting through.

It still makes its point as a work of art, one that insists on the appreciation of other works in turn, and it furthers Fiennes’ aesthetic behind the camera. But in the end, it feels like being in a restaurant where the salad has more flavour than the steak it’s been paired with.

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The Lion King

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Even the most Disney agnostic of cinema audiences are likely familiar with The Lion King. The 1994 animated feature remains one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved works, and is a masterclass in storytelling, style and emotion. That’s not a bad effort for what essentially amounts to Hamlet retold with some songs and cartoon carnivores. Since Disney seems intent on turning all of their animated features into “live action” concerns, it was inevitable that we’d get to this mane event, and the studio seemingly failure-proofed it. First up, director Jon Favreau – the bloke who directed the surprisingly solid live action The Jungle Book in 2016 – helms the piece. Follow that up with a staggeringly excellent voice cast that includes Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and freakin’ James Earl Jones and you’ve got a sure winner on your hands, right? So why is the end product so weirdly flat?

For those not in the know, The Lion King tells the tale of Simba (JF McCrary/Donald Glover), a young cub who leaves the Pridelands – the domain over which he is destined to one day rule – after the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Not realising he has been manipulated by his jealous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into believing Mufasa’s death was his fault, Simba slinks off in disgrace and becomes a shiftless hippie with Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner). You can probably guess where it goes from there, and to be honest there’s nothing really wrong with the story; it worked in 1994 and it works now. No, The Lion King just feels… off. The animation, while competent and slick, never manages to graze very far outside The Uncanny Valley, and it’s difficult to connect emotionally with furry animal friends who look just a bit too stiff and dead-eyed to be credulous.

Worse still is when the animals, who all look borderline photorealistic, burst into song, which feels more like an acid trip gone horribly wrong while watching a David Attenborough doco than a joyous expression of musical exposition. It’s not all bad, mind you, Pumbaa and Timon manage to inject a little fun into the proceedings and James Earl Jones’ vocal delivery has lost none of its gravitas. And yet, for all of the many positives attached to this project, it just doesn’t take off and consequently feels like an overlong slog through the savanna. Maybe kids will find something to latch onto here, but most of the adults attending will sadly not be feeling the love tonight.

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The Shanghai Job

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Known as S.M.A.R.T Chase in the Chinese market, The Shanghai Job is a British-Chinese co-produced thriller that sees Orlando Bloom shirk off the shackles of popular franchises – see Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of The Rings – in order to reshape himself as bonafide action hero.

Bloom stars as grizzled security agent, Danny Stratton, who has been living at the bottom of a bottle in Shanghai since his last job, a year ago, saw him lose a valuable painting to a gang of professional thieves. For reasons unknown, Danny and his team are given one last chance to redeem their reputation by escorting a valuable artefact from one destination to another. Wouldn’t you Adam and Eve though? The same gang turn up to relieve him of said item, leaving Danny to work quickly to save what’s left of his expiring reputation.

Largely known for his TV work, director Charles Martin (Skins, Being Human) has put together a solid if somewhat silly action piece that sees Bloom charging around barking at people like Jason Statham whilst sporting the bleached hair of a Buffy-era James Marsters. He’s joined in his sprint across the city by a team of fellow security agents, including Full Contact’s Simon Yam. Riffing off the relationships within the Fast and Furious franchise, each member brings their one personality trait to the table that manages to both compliment and aggravate the others in the group. A quick shout out to the dubious Ding Dong (Leo Wu) who spends a large part of the film following a girl using his drone; his cutesy puppy eyes failing to cover the slightly creepy invasion of privacy.

Moving on… Whilst The Shanghai Job is nowhere near to being of the same quality as later instalments of the aforementioned franchise, it does give an indication of the direction the series could be taken should the higher ups wish to pursue it. The acting is definitely a mixed bag, but Bloom seems to be relishing the opportunity to do his own stunts and get his teeth into something a bit grittier.

Perhaps The Shanghai Job’s biggest issue is pacing and an over-reliance on the cliched. Seemingly realising that the S.M.A.R.T. team are running out of breath, screenwriter Kevin Bernhardt (John Rambo) throws in a damsel in distress into the third act which also sees a literal game of catch added to the mix. Presumably because everyone got tired of punching each other.

Derivative of a number of recent actioners, including John Wick, The Shanghai Job is certain to find its niche with a select few. And if all involved are willing to return and embrace the hyper-realistic absurdity of it all, there’s potential for more fun ahead in future installments.

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Her Smell

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Alex Ross Perry’s new film Her Smell presents a story that is familiar, but injects it with a unique sense of realism, resulting in a marriage between the cynical and effervescent joy.

The film follows Becky Something, a fading indie darling who is a member of Something She (think Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill). Becky is going through various substance abuse problems and this causes her to isolate the people around her. While the plot is derivative and may remind audiences of past biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody, the film does inject originality into this tired format. While there are traces of melodrama and silliness, the film relies on realistic dialogue, unique editing and handheld camera movements to make the events organic.

Regular Ross Perry collaborator Elisabeth Moss gives an outstanding performance in the lead role. She balances the mental and physical challenges, with most of the tension in the drama coming from her character alone. While her character can be unlikable at points, the script is smart enough to have moments of realisation and raw emotion to keep you with her on the journey. Agyness Deyn who plays Marielle Hell, is the yin to Becky’s yang, and despite this aspect being engaging, the characters could have been developed further and this would have made the finale more earned.

What is successful are the themes concerning mental abuse, change and forgiveness, which audiences will relate to, and the true emotional power of the film comes from these explorations through character. Admittedly, these themes are most evident in longer scenes, which allows the audience to absorb the atmosphere; however, it also causes notable pacing problems. This issue is especially jarring in the first half, but once you’re equipped for Ross Perry’s unique approach to the drama and actors, as the film goes along, these issues become less apparent.

Her Smell is a solid entry into Alex Ross Perry’s filmography (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, Golden Exits). If you like rock ‘n’ roll themed films with a dash of heart, then you’ll find much to appreciate.

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Trailer: Angel of Mine

A 'married white female' reimagining of so-so 2008 French film Mark of an Angel, with a script co-written by Luke Davies (Lion), directed by Kim Farrant (Strangerland), starring Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh, Finn Little and Rob Collins.
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Victoria Stone: Circle of Life

The wildlife documentary maker has seen her first feature length film, The Elephant Queen, travel the world's biggest film festivals, and will next be available on Apple TV+.