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Australian Movie Stars

In a throwback to our infamous What’s Wrong With the Australian Film Industry column, Stephen Vagg takes a look at the 'definites', 'maybes' and 'not reallys' of this country’s screen stars.
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MIFF Blog: Day For Night

A cinema marathon can often result in a blurring of emotions, as our Melbourne International Film Festival blogger discovered with his latest feast of cinema.
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Hearts and Bones

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Dan Fisher (Hugo Weaving), a lauded war photographer nestled in the bustle of the Western Sydney suburbs, comes across a South Sundanese refugee (Andrew Luri). Unexpectedly drawn together and forming a close friendship, the two divergent men become entangled in emotional, political and moral complications. Each finds their beliefs questioned, as does the audience.

Led by a brilliant and understated Hugo Weaving, Hearts and Bones is the considered debut feature narrative film by Ben Lawrence (Ghosthunter).

Fisher, esteemed for his work and married to former ballet dancer Josie (Hayley McElhinney) receives an unexpected door knock from cab driver Sebastian Amad, insisting the photographer hear what he’s got to say.

Sebastian is concerned that Fisher’s forthcoming exhibition and book of collected works will feature images of a slaughter he was involved in 15 years ago in his South Sudanese village. A massacre where Sebastian (who is expecting a child) lost his first wife and three children. His partner knows nothing of his former life. He doesn’t want these in the public and asks Dan to alter the plans.

Fisher, still reeling from his own war experiences, is wary but sensitive to the man’s concerns. He agrees to let Sebastian into his home, and eventually, his life.

Dan and Sebastian become chums, unexpectedly finding much alike. Dan learns intimate details of the Sudanese migrant’s life, his culture, beliefs and cuisine. He befriends Sebastian’s wife Anishka (Bolude Watson), and their friends in the community. Dan is intrigued by local efforts to develop a choir.

Bus as their kinship grows and Dan looks deeper into the meaning of the photos, he finds himself dealing with complexities surrounding Sebastian’s past actions; concerns which threaten to unravel his burgeoning friendship, his thoughts on Sebastian, and the very bedrock of what he believes right or wrong. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the photos than Sebastian made out.

Should Dan tell anyone about his discovery? Can he tell his wife, and cancel his own exhibition? What is the cost of defying his friend and publishing the photos?

All of this happens while Dan is navigating his own stressed relationship with his partner. Worsening the situation, Josie springs the unexpected news on Dan that she’s expecting.

Further complicating matters, Dan’s war-related anxiety is deteriorating. Josie finds out about the photos for herself and becomes wedged in the conflict due to her friendship with Sebastian’s wife – who is unaware of all of this and also pregnant.

Weaving is sterling, guiding fresh face Andrew Luri, yet leading the film with careful and honed sensitivity as he unravels into infinite states.

With multiple concerns arising from each confrontation, the narrative of Hearts and Bones provides many thought starters. Troubling and complex questions are posed through a character (a refugee) and setting (the outer Sydney suburbs) scarcely examined in Australian films. The location is key. One of the intentions Lawrence had in mind with the film, was to capture Sydney in 2019 in an honest way.

Coming from documentary roots, the street photography captured by cinematographer Hugh Miller (Sherpa, Ghosthunter, 2040) and Lawrence, who is the son of celebrated Australian director Ray Lawrence (Bliss, Jindabyne, Lantana) imbues the story with the desired familiarity and sensitivity. This is magnified by the prominent suburbia, a backdrop and a character itself, throughout the film.

Hearts and Bones is an involving and tightly wound human drama which hits close to home.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Detailing with precision an innocent child’s descent into the world of forced labour, Rodd Rathjen’s excellent feature debut Buoyancy is a brutal and painstaking account of the South-East Asian slave trade.

14-year-old Chakra (breakout first timer Sarm Heng) picks rice for his father (Sareoun Sopheara) on a Cambodian farm. Rewarded with a roof above his head and little else, Chakra is told by a friend of an opportunity in Thailand to do the same thing – yet earn significantly better pay.

Impressionable and sick of toiling on the rice fields, Chakra throws himself into the new world, glad to leave home and start a new life – only to find himself sold to a seafood trawler to work as a fisherman.

Initially told only the first month of work must be free, days and weeks soon go by – his situation quickly disintegrates.

The 14-year-old’s shipmates, those who don’t burn out from exhaustion – or attempt suicide – are routinely humiliated, tasered, thrown overboard by the boat’s sadistic captain, Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).

A helpless innocent, Chakra can only watch as his colleagues on the trawler are stabbed, drowned and beaten, with the promise of improved conditions evaporating.

Focusing on specifics and little moments, the frequently wordless thriller thoroughly and empathetically conjures the misery of its victims’ experience: the gratitude for eating a little bowl of rice after working with no rest; the relief at getting off-board and into the water; the callouses on the workers’ soles. Its sharp-eyed and naturalistic approach blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

Rathjen gives significant attention to these details, placing viewers in the tormented condition of the film’s protagonist. (The writer-director conducted interviews with many young real-life survivors of the fishing slave trade).

Performed mostly by a cast of non-professionals in Thai and Khmer with English subtitles, audiences are immersed in a harrowing account.

This is aided by the penetrating cinematography of Michael Latham (Island of the Hungry Ghosts, the documentary-like feature Strange Colours), whose experience in non-fiction lends intimacy and familiarity to Chakra’s plight.

Atmospheric sound design by Sam Petty (The Rover, Animal Kingdom), and rhythmic editing by Graeme Pereira capture and enhance the film’s claustrophobic elements – the inescapable confines of the boat; the endlessness of the ocean and their situation; the constant repetition of the thud of the day’s fish; the waves which don’t cease.

As it races to its taut, breakneck finish, the film – which won the Panorama Prize at the esteemed 2019 Berlin Film Festival – offers viewers a brief ray of hope through the vital Chakra, an object of a fishing industry which reaps Thailand an estimated $6 billion a year.

Pulling no punches in its intently human rendering of the horrors of human trafficking, this is a thrilling film which finds fleeting moments of beauty – amongst infinite senselessness.

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Trailer: Little Women

Greta Gerwig recruits Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Timothee Chalamet for her Louisa May Alcott adaptation, in cinemas January 1, 2020
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Inseparable Bros

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

Written and directed by Yook Sang-hyo, Inseparable Bros [The film’s literal translation from Korean is “My Special Brother”] is a gorgeous tale of the yin and yang of co-dependent friendship.

When the movie opens, Kang Se-ha (later played by Shin Ha-Kyun) is a teenaged and quadriplegic boy confined to a wheelchair. With no immediate family left to care for him, his second cousin doesn’t want to be responsible and so foists him off on a local priest who runs a home for mentally-challenged youngsters. There, Kang Se-ha stands up to bullies with intelligence and scorn.

Also a resident of the home, his simple-minded “brother”, Dong-gu (Lee Kwang-Soo) helps him with daily tasks such as eating, going to the toilet and brushing his teeth for him, even assisting Kang Se-ha to read and get around.

We jump ahead to adulthood and see how Kang Se-ha negotiates his way through life by being the brains, while Dong-gu somewhat ineptly follows his minute instructions. Eventually, Kang Se-ha engineers a savvy business providing various services (such as translation and compiling reports) for cash while trading the skills of those seeking his help to assist others at a volunteer organisation.

Every time circumstances throw a new obstacle at him/them, Kang Se-ha has to use his wits to come up with a creative solution.

One day, the duo crosses paths with a young woman at the local swimming pool where Dong-gu loves to play. Always looking for ways to make enough money for them both to survive, Kang Se-ha engineers a meeting with Mi-Hyun (E Som) and offers her an irresistible and mutually beneficial proposal. She proves to be the only person to treat them without prejudice. Eventually, Mi-Hyun helps the pair broaden their horizons. The unexpected reappearance of Dong-gu’s mother upsets the balance of their friendship as she petitions to bring him back into their family circle, unfortunately at the expense of Kang Se-ha.

Sang-hyo’s visual style is beautiful but mostly pedestrian – that is to say, in service of his storytelling. Occasionally we see fun scenes such as the action-packed and vertiginous sequence where our enterprising duo deftly use strategic manoeuvers on a pedestrian ramp to outrace an elevator. The writer/director’s strengths lie in his candid dialogue that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter. His gifts are best displayed in his ability to present a tight trio of endearing characters who ingeniously navigate the stuffy constraints of bureaucracy and wrangle social and standard media to their advantage.

Shin Ha-Kyun gives an excellent performance despite his character being mostly immobile and restricted to his wheelchair, while Lee Kwang-Soo is especially endearing and convincing as the goofy Dong-gu.

Heart-warming and infused throughout with mild drama and gentle comedy, Inseparable Bros is an adorable film that champions love and family beyond blood-ties.

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The Faceless Man

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Faceless Man begins with a long, wordy, moodily intense scene in a hospital corridor which sees a young woman diagnosed with cancer bitterly arguing with a long absent father who she seethingly accuses of neglect, narcissism and alcoholism. It’s a confronting, well executed scene that suggests that an emotionally wrought psycho-thriller is about to unspool. And then, well, things take a decidedly different turn. After the controlled slow-burn of the film’s opening sequence, The Faceless Man goes glaringly, amusingly off the rails.

Written and directed on a shoestring with blaring gusto by enterprising and hard-grafting feature debutante, James Di Martino (who has five shorts under his belt), this little-Aussie-film-that-could is a wild and woolly affair that gleefully references everything from contemporary Blumhouse horror and vintage Ozploitation through to Mad Max, Cabin Fever and Quentin Tarantino, with one scene even mashing up Michael Madsen’s ear-snipping act from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction’s infamous bring-out-the-gimp showstopper.

The story draws in a disparate swing of themes and tropes, as a group of largely insufferable teens (including Sophie Thurling’s Emily, whose cancer is now in remission three years after the opening scene) head off to a country retreat for a night of serious partying. Unfortunately, they have unknowingly lifted a suitcase full of coke from a vicious gangster, and, also unfortunately, the redneck denizens of the small town in which they are planning to party have a very, very, very serious and ruthlessly enforced just-say-no-to-drugs policy. Oh, and yeah, there’s also a weird, faceless, humanoid monster skulking around…who may or may not just be a psychological hiccup of one of the teens…and there’s also mention of a serial killer known as The Axeman.

As you can probably guess, The Faceless Man is not short on ideas. This makes it a lot of fun, but it also leads to an unavoidable unevenness of tone, with the film awkwardly lurching from broad, straight-up-the-guts, off-colour comedy to serious drama, often in the one scene. The variance in performance is also uneven, with the teens (including young actor Lucas Pittaway, in his first feature since making his auspicious debut in Snowtown) playing it straight, as the bigger name supporting players (Mad Max legend Roger Ward and busy character actor Andy McPhee) go wonderfully, hilariously over the top. The tight budget hurts, but also helps in a strange way, with the lashings of blood, decapitations, dismemberments, stabbings and shootings lent a goofy charm courtesy of the ropey special effects. The movie’s monster, however, is very creepy and well-crafted indeed.

Though not always completely successful, The Faceless Man is loveably lurid and guiltily entertaining, and with a little more money (and just a smudge more restraint), James Di Martino could likely follow it up with something truly special.

The Faceless Man will premiere in Melbourne at a special red carpet Halloween event on October 31. Click here for tickets and more information. The upcoming screening at Monster Fest is already sold out.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Irish are famed for their love of poetry and song, their conviviality, their storytelling and their affectionate humour. And then there is the heavy drinking. All of these aspects are represented in spades in this buddy movie with a twist, a tale of two girls on the loose awash in a sea of wine.

Tyler (a grab-you-by-the lapels performance from Alia Shawkat) is the dark and stormy type. She even drinks that concoction when she is not slurping buckets of white wine or doing tequila shots or snorting substances. She is determined to live life to the full. She scorns the comfortable suburban life and the conventional dream of getting hitched and having babies. As she tells her gal-pal Laura (Holliday Grainger) when they find themselves in the pre-dawn streets, the silence of the suburbs is a lie and a trap. ‘They sell it as peace but really it is death closing in’.

Laura has been hanging out with Tyler for a decade and has used up most of her twenties by being swept along. This is not to say that she is merely regretful. Not at all, she has been on board for all the friendship-defining hellraising. However, she is a wannabe writer and she buys into the myth that she has to live life to the fullest to gather material (the film is based on a novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, who also adapts the screenplay, which must be partly autobiographical).

Most of Laura’s ‘work’ is still just snatched insights jotted down in the always-carried notebook. But Laura also has a family that loves her and a sister who, by contrast, is getting on with things. The sister has a young baby and she reminds Laura that a child is not a ‘thing that you can just put down when you have had enough’.

The film wins us over with its gentle affection for its flawed characters. As befits a portrait of the artist as a young woman, it has a strong script, which is brought to life by Australian director Sophie Hyde, who was behind the extraordinary Trans drama 52 Tuesdays as well as the TV series Fucking Adelaide.

The ghost of Withnail and I hangs over some of this. That is now the granddaddy of films about a mismatched pair on the fringes of the Arts. That film has the characters celebrating their debauchery and yet making us feel, too, the plangent move towards a final sobering up and a necessary farewell to a youth clung on to too long. Animals is not just that though. It has its own observations to make and its own rhythm and sensibility. It is also crucially a modern women’s story. It is a small film but an authentically realised one.