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Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

This is both a tense film and a rather understated one, with those apparent contradictions exemplified in its subdued and troubled protagonist. The immediate trigger for his distress is an incident in 2002 when a friend of Palestinian youth Ziad (Ziad Bakri) is fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. Shortly afterwards, a passenger in Ziad’s car responds by also shooting someone at random. Ziad takes the fall for his friends, and spends the next fifteen years in prison, where he evidently does it even tougher than we might assume. What happens after his release – and his complex but bottled-up feelings about it – are the meat of the matter in this involving story.

Adjusting to a changed outside world is one of Ziad’s challenges, but of course the sense of disorientation engendered by things like Facebook and a greater range of coffee pale into utter insignificance next to his deeper alienation. Traumatised, haunted by his past and unable to sleep at night, Ziad is unwilling – or possibly unable – to talk about it when approached by a well-intentioned female documentary maker. Nor he can he relate to his family, the friends who welcome him as a returning hero or the exigencies of holding down a job. In one of his less taciturn and more evocative moments, he describes himself as feeling “out of my skin”.

Screwdriver is an intelligently conceived and sustained mood piece, which manages to show the universal in the personal without – for the most part anyway – being an overt propaganda vehicle. (One character even says that such films “only make people feel sorry for us”.) And it’s got that rare virtue, a terrific ending.

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Code Vein

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s iconic series, has become so ubiquitous and influential in the realm of video games it basically changed the industry. These days there’s a “[Something] Souls” for everyone. Prefer Lovecraft and monsters to knights and dragons? Well, it’s Bloodborne for you. Dig on scifi? Well, friend, The Surge series beckons. How about a samurai aesthetic? There’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice just waiting for your twitchy digits. And now we have Code Vein, which could easily be pitched as “Anime Souls” or, if you’re feeling feisty, “Dark Souls for weeaboos!”

Set in an apocalyptic, attractively cel-shaded future, Code Vein tells a story that is somehow both undercooked and bafflingly convoluted. Your player-created-character wakes to find themselves bludgeoned by leaden slabs of exposition, before being given control and instructions to find blood beads and fight monsters. Happily, once the NPCs stop banging on, the actual gameplay itself is much more comprehensible. It essentially involves you killing monsters, collecting better armour and weapons and learning new skills in the various classes you can summon at will. The amount of in-menu faffing you can get up to in this game is astonishing, and fans of deep diving RPG management will be in absolute fiddly heaven. On the downside, while the combat apes many of the best aspects of Dark Souls, it lacks that fine touch, that necessary precision, that sets the title apart. That said, Code Vein is a much easier proposition, giving you a choice of AI partners who are actually pretty useful in combat and can be tweaked to suit your play style.

Your biggest barrier to enjoying Code Vein, however, will hugely depend on your tolerance for anime nonsense. If you’re a fan of giggly vampire schoolgirls, metrosexual cheekboney blokes with perplexing hair and endless monologues that feel like beat poetry read by someone suffering from recent cranial trauma, you’re in for a treat. However, if you’re a wee bit anime agnostic… you might not get the charm. Within the opening minutes of Code Vein, a scantily clad lady – with boobs so big they jiggle when she frowns – appears, and talks at you at length, rarely getting anywhere near a coherent thought. Pay close attention to this moment, because variations of it will appear throughout your 30ish hour playthrough.

Code Vein is a strange, imaginative and frustrating proposition. It’s mostly fun, and certainly delivers an engaging world, but if a little more attention had been paid to combat precision – and a little extra work done on the story and dialogue – it could have been a legitimate classic. As it is, the mixture of baffling lore, stilted dialogue, boobtacular fanservice and item management will likely appeal to a very niche crowd who, admittedly, will embrace it like their brand new waifu.

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Zombieland: Double Tap

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

It’s been ten years since the first Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer’s slight-but-fun directorial debut, and the world hasn’t exactly been crying out for a sequel. Don’t get us wrong, the original is a cute flick, but the realm of popular culture isn’t hurting for a lack of zombie comedies these days. The best zombie comedies are about something. Shaun of the Dead (arguably the king of the subgenre) was a story about taking responsibility and maturing, that just happened to take place during a zombie apocalypse. Peter Jackson’s Braindead was a story about a man learning to embrace love and stand up to his domineering mum, who eventually manifests as a gigantic, undead monster. Zombieland: Double Tap, like the original Zombieland, is about… four extremely charming actors pissfarting about in the land of the dead, which isn’t a lot to chew on.

Zombieland: Double Tap joins the foursome of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) after another stunning opening credits sequence set to a Metallica song (“Master of Puppets”, this time). After they take over the White House as their new home base, the group falls into a rut. Little Rock is a young woman now and wants some friends her own age, and after Columbus proposes to the notoriously commitment-phobic Wichita, the sisters decide to head off on their own. Naturally things go tits up and Little Rock goes missing, so it’s up to the gang – with new character Madison (Zoey Deutch) – to save her, quip and kill a shitload of zombies.

So many elements of Zombieland: Double Tap shouldn’t work. The story is essentially a slightly remixed retread of the original, the characters are basically learning the same lessons they did a decade ago and on paper Madison’s dumb, giggling blonde schtick should be the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Yet, here’s the twist: Zombieland: Double Tap is actually a whole lot of fun. The script is clever and knowing, the leads are as charming as always, and new addition Zoey Deutch commits so fully to her cartoonish role, she ends up being one of the highlights of the film. Combine that with a sensible runtime of 93 minutes, a capable support role from the always welcome Rosario Dawson and some cheerfully creative zombie kills, and you’ve got a recipe for a brisk and fun time at the movies.

Zombieland: Double Tap isn’t dripping with subtext, depth or nuance, but it knows exactly what it needs to be. And although it’s a sequel the world wasn’t crying out for, it’s probably one those in the mood for amiable, charming nonsense will devour.

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A Short Tribute To Damian Hill

With his final feature film appearances in Locusts and Slam hitting cinemas this week, we pay tribute to the very sadly departed Australian writer/actor, Damian Hill.
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Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Maiden looks at the Whitbread Round the World Race (now named the Volvo Race) – a grueling male-dominated 9-month regatta. The documentary pays particular attention to the historic 1989-90 competition, notable for having the inclusion of the first all-female team.

The ‘Maiden’ in the title refers to the name of the 58-foot ocean racing yacht, skippered at the time by the valiant 26-year old British sailor Tracy Edwards. Through an array of Super-8 home videos we learn of her troubled childhood, including an abusive stepfather, disappointed mother and eventual migration/escape to Greece, where Tracy meets a group of like-minded fellow expats and talks her way into jobs on charter boats and yachts.

It is during this period of her life that Tracy learns of the Whitbread race but is met with rampant sexism and misogynistic remarks such as “Girls are for screwing when we get into port” when making enquiries to get involved. Her persistence eventually leads to a job as a cook on one of the 15 competing boats in the 1985-86 race and despite being treated like a servant, Tracy uses the experience to gain invaluable insights into sailing and the ocean. Returning to dry land, she sets out to form her own female crew and break into the old boys’ competition.

But the road is not an easy one – over several years, Tracy is met with numerus challenges and obstacles such as anxiety, financial detriments and sponsorship issues; eventually garnering the help of the King of Jordan. A flawed character by her own admission, Tracy has spent the majority of her life running away from something, be it her own responsibilities and failures.

The Maiden team are also met with biased press and patronising men who believe the women are doomed to fail, given the physical and emotional demands of the race – “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” reiterates Tracy.

Directed by Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), the documentary effectively captures all 33,000 nautical miles of the journey – juxtaposing nostalgic archival footage with present-day articulate interviews. Tracy’s teammates and rivals (male journalists and yachtsmen) are all interesting characters who bring individualised and passionate context to what is effectively a rousing story about an indomitable woman.

Near-mutiny and near-death experiences abound, while we also learn of Tracy’s (often laborious) leadership and persistence throughout the different legs of the race, which take the ladies from Southampton to Uruguay, New Zealand and beyond.

A thrilling documentary about dreams and equality, Maiden also serves as an inspiring portrait of a remarkable woman (and group of women) that went against the tide and pioneered the sport of ocean racing.


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Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

“Mother, they cannot silence my tongue”. Such are the opening words of a young Muslim-Australian poet Ameena at a Western Sydney slam poetry reading. This is the starting point for Partho Sen-Gupta’s engaging drama-thriller. Ameena (Danielle Horvat), is a talented young woman driven by her passion and by her anger at marginalisation and non-acceptance.

When she suddenly disappears, this drags her whole family and community into a state of defensive anxiety. In particular, it affects her older brother Ricky (previously known as Tariq, played by Adam Bakri). He has an ‘Anglo’ wife Sally (Rebecca Breeds), and he seems to have settled for an identity compromise and a sometimes-reluctant decision to blend in. Like all good immigrants, he translates between the two worlds and tries his best to reassure his devastated mother.

Also drawn into the action is policewoman Joanne Hendricks (Rachael Blake) who carries a certain sadness from the loss of a close family member and who can identify, perhaps too much, with Ricky’s situation. Sen-Gupta doesn’t want to concentrate upon the crime and thriller elements, although the film is occasionally slowed down by scenes that are police-procedural. More central is the characters’ sense of rootlessness and longing and displacement.

The events of Ameena’s disappearance and the grinding lack of any real progress (all played out against the somewhat relentlessly-flagged Islamophobic media background) frays Ricky’s marriage. He begins to doubt whether social acceptance and harmony will ever return. At one point, a character tells him that he should be grateful because “Australia has been good to you”, but we can see this is an ambivalent truth, if not actually an insensitive accusation.

As with the director’s previous film, Sunrise (2014), the hero’s journey is a tormented one. We cannot but feel for Ricky’s plight, but it is not always easy to be in his company. Bakri (who was so good in the arthouse hit Omar (2013)) doesn’t have that much dialogue and is here required to communicate his character’s narrative mostly through his facial expressions. Still, the message that ethnocentrism blights aspects of contemporary Australia comes across loud and clear.

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Blue Hour

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

The trappings of independent cinema transcend cultural boundaries. The emphasis on intimate character studies, minor narrative setup that feels like an excuse for the characters to be highlighted, keyboard-centric soundtrack that sounds like it was written for ads playing in the background of pharmacies – even for the uninitiated in Japanese cinema, what appears in writer/director Yuko Hakota’s debut feature should still ring familiar. As much as all of this may sound like backhanded statements, Blue Hour does make for good drama, although one wishes that it carried just a little more emotional heft.

Centred on Kaho’s Sunada, a 30-something commercial director working in Tokyo, Blue Hour serves explores antisocial tendencies in the more literal sense: people who actively avoid other people. Between Kaho and Eun-Kyung Shim’s frequent moments of people-watching, their bonding over homemade comic books, and the numerous iterations of self-centred humanity, this all carries a certain Daniel Clowes social distance quality. Only it replaces Clowes’ plain-faced misanthropy with copious amounts of self-loathing, with Sunada claiming that she is doing everyone a service for not having to deal with her.

The way that relationships form the self, ends up containing the bulk of the narrative, as we see Sunada’s connection (or lack thereof) to others. Her strained relationship to her husband, her chalk-meets-cheese dynamic opposite Eun-Kyung Shim’s Kiyoura, her hesitant connection to her parents and grandmother, even down to her experiences with animals and insects. It echoes certain greener sentiments about how healthy connections to wildlife can lead to a more empathetic relation to living things as a whole, a trait that Sunada is shown to be lacking initially given her unsettling childhood recollections.

As backed by Ryuto Kondo’s sterile yet warm cinematography, Daisuke Imai’s editing that helps bring the intentionally jarring nature of the pacing to the forefront, and the combined efforts of Nao Matsuzaki and alt-rock group Shikanoichizoku on the soundtrack, Blue Hour is the story of a woman essentially growing out of her self-imposed shell and reconnecting with those around her. Again, it shares traits with Western indie dramas, looking like something Lena Dunham could eye for a remake, and part of that comes with the low-key emotional wavelength that some may have difficulty adjusting to.

But beyond that, this still makes for a resonate depiction of social isolation and 30-something ennui. Despite its main catch-call of tackiness is life, it resolutely avoids dipping too far into cliché and the production values are as far removed from being tacky as you can get.

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Alexandra Nell: Going Places

The West Australian actress will soon be seen in Zak Hilditch’s Netflix thriller, Rattlesnake, along with short film I’m Not Hurting You, both films premiering at the Austin Film Festival.
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The Report

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This is a slow-burning but cumulatively engrossing drama about the investigation into the CIA’s interrogation of Al-Qaida detainees after 9/11. They employed what were euphemistically termed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, but which were actually – as the world of course came to know – nothing less than torture.

Adam Driver plays Daniel L. Jones, who works tirelessly on this project of truth-gathering for years, compiling the massive titular report in the process. Driver is excellent in a complex role which requires him to evoke subtly controlled intensity, frustration, moral outrage and alarm, often simultaneously – and Annette Bening’s performance as his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein is equally impressive.

The action jumps forwards and backwards in time over many years, and no-one who’s investigated – President Obama included – emerges smelling of violets.

During the first half of the film, the depiction of Jones’s painstaking work and interaction with both sources and obstructors is interspersed with truly horrifying footage – dramatised, but no less repulsive for that – of torture techniques including waterboarding. It’s a considerable relief when the depiction of atrocities stops and the focus is only on Washington DC.

That the sadism unleashed in places like Abu Gharib was useless as a method of finding out truth from suspects only adds to the sense of iniquity.

The Report is not easy viewing, for a couple of reasons. The torture sequences are deeply disturbing, as they should be, and the plethora of characters and vast amount of detailed information require a lot of concentration. But it’s a gripping, intelligently written and deftly constructed thriller, and of course all the more compelling because it’s true.

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

The year is 1945. World War II has concluded, and Russia is in the process of rebuilding. Set in the city of Leningrad, director Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature is the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two hospital workers trying to continue their lives in the face of widespread tragedy.

As captured by Kseniya Sereda’s sickly and jaundiced photography, the depiction of Leningrad is one of utmost dread. Watching this film is like seeing an entire country in the depths of suicidal depression, a void of numbness so pervasive and deadening that its inhabitants are in search of something, anything, that can make them feel again. It is almost crippling in how uncomfortable it gets, to the point where child death not only sets the tone for this over-two-hour golem of misery, we’re barely 20 minutes in when that moment strikes.

Against that backdrop, the story of Iya and Masha and their respective responses to their personal trauma almost feel like a domestic reprieve from what’s happening around them. Echoing post-war sentiment regarding women – both in terms of how employment drastically alters in war time and as their base biological position as part of the effort to continue life – their mere presence in the story seems to buck against social norms regarding gender.

Through their individual circumstances regarding child-rearing (Iya is capable of having children but struggles with conception, while Masha is infertile), what should be rather tragic in how bodily autonomy takes the backseat, almost turns into plain-faced domestic drama. The stance of putting one’s society above one’s own body is Soviet in its logistics, but when put in context with the protagonists’ histories as mothers and surrogates, it winds up being the most pleasant aspect of the story. That, and the surprisingly rousing bit of crisis management at its conclusion that sees the sickly yellow give way to a vibrant, life-affirming green.

With all that said, there is a major barrier to entry, and it’s one that is rather synonymous with even the greatest entries of Russian cinema – the pacing. In-step with the dour numbness of the setting and tone, this film tends to drag in places, not helped by how it ends up relying very little on dialogue to carry the story. Those who thought that Leviathan was too slow should probably give this one a miss.

But for those with the patience to traverse it, Beanpole will provide with a dour and all-too-effective look at post-war collective depression, both in its debilitating effects on the populace and the kind of chasm-bridging hope that is needed to cure it. Bolstered by terrific performances and the kind of preternatural skill that makes Balagov a filmmaker to keep an eye on, it’s a depressing ride that might just make you thankful for the tears.

Beanpole won both the FIPRESCI Prize (critics) and Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2019.