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Roma

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Roma is a throwback to what is truly wonderful about cinema. And ironically, there was a great deal of doubt around the possibility of audiences being able to see it in a cinema. Thankfully, Netflix – who came onto the project in a similar way to the recent Cargo, whereby the film was already in production when the streaming giant bought it outright for the world – has beckoned and the experience is sublime.

Although it is never said in the film, ‘Roma’ refers to the Mexico City neighbourhood in which the film takes place. It’s also a cinematic reference point, with the work of the Italian neorealists and films such as Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) informing every frame. Photographed in black and white by Cuaron (his first film since his shorts where he took on DOP duties), the story centres on Cleo, an indigenous maid to a middle-class family in the early 1970s. Through Cleo’s wide, open eyes we see the drama unfold in the family’s lives, her own, and more broadly, the country and its people. There’s change coming, signaled by the regular planes going through the sky.

Another cinematic reference point for Cuaron is the ‘women’s picture’, with the story focusing on the lives of the women in this world, and their unjust treatment at the hands of men. The period detail, too, is truly convincing, with the use of mostly wide shots transporting you right into the heart of this vibrant culture. The period recreation is reminiscent of the recent Australian film Ladies in Black, except here it is wholly successful.  Aided by immersive sound design, and moments of relieving humour, you really are transported into this world, and go on the journey with Cleo throughout.

Cuaron has spoken about the film being highly biographical, but more than anything, this film is personal, and harks back to the work of great auteur filmmakers who, no matter what story they were telling, would include their identifiable concerns throughout. In the case of Roma, there are various references to his own previous films (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Gravity), to cinema and humanity which are also evident in his previous work.

At a time when the digital revolution has allowed filmmakers to iron out any true, subtle personality from their films (read: imperfection), and ironically here supported by a platform that is all about an algorithm, Roma arrives like a breath of fresh air, transporting the viewer to a land and a time that they would not ordinarily be privy to; through the lens of one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers, bringing empathy and a joie de vivre that is impossible to experience in the disposable world of the streaming age. It is ironic that this film will get less eyeballs on Netflix than junk such as The American Meme, however, we should be thankful that the continued dumbing down of the entertainment industry has somehow allowed a masterpiece such as Roma to be made as well.

 
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The School

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In one of the most intense, pedal-to-the-metal opening flourishes of any film you’re likely to see in the next few months, The School kicks off with a woman emerging from a bathtub filled with bracken water into a strange, inexplicable world filled with terrified children and ghoulish monsters. It’s a great statement of intent, and it gets The School off to an absolutely flying start. Surprisingly, this low budget Aussie belter then maintains the hectic pace, veering off in all directions, and ultimately playing out like a weird crash-together of Pan’s Labyrinth, Lord Of The Flies, The Babadook and The Others.

The woman in the bath is Dr. Amy Wintercraig (a committed and sensitive turn from Megan Drury), and the inexplicable world that she enters is some kind of strange place between worlds, where children have been abandoned to fend for themselves. The result is a harsh, cruel world populated by feral kids in face-paint, invading monsters (namely the creepy “weepers” and even creepier “hungries”), nightmare visions, and a dangerously inhumane leader in the form of brutal teenager, Zac (Will McDonald). This strange world also involves Dr. Amy Wintercraig’s son and her own personal demons, which are slowly revealed in the film’s equally edgy “real world” scenes featuring a welcome appearance from Bad Boy Bubby’s Nicholas Hope as a suspiciously benign doctor.

Belying an obviously tight budget, debut feature director, Storm Ashwood (who has a number of shorts to his credit), creates an impressively bravura dream-come-nightmare world here, making an ingenious use of interior sets and cannily employed CGI. The performances are strong (child actors, Jack Ruwald and Alexia Santosuosso, are great as Amy’s kindly but needy hosts in this strange new world), and a vivid sense of unease and controlled chaos are expertly maintained throughout. The crashing genres don’t always mesh, but The School remains an impressive piece of local low budget horror.

 
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Mortal Engines

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After finishing up with the works of JRR Tolkien (for the moment at least), the question on many fan’s mind is ‘what will Peter Jackson’s WingNut Films release next?’ The answer appears in the form of Mortal Engines, a young adult dystopian steampunk adventure that features one of the most delightfully bizarre premises in recent memory.

Based on the popular series of books by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic society where mobile wheeled cities prey on other, smaller mobile wheeled cities (and towns) with the city of London playing the part of vicious, hamlet-scoffing apex predator.

The story really kicks off when sixteen-year-old Tom (Robert Sheehan), a Londoner who has never left the rolling Pom factory, is forced to exit his home after accidentally becoming embroiled in a plot involving the gleefully wicked despot Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and masked would-be assassin Hester (Hera Hilmar). What follows is a rollicking adventure that manages to successfully balance world building and storytelling to a favourable degree, although the exposition at times can be a little dizzying and relentless.

Director Christian Rivers has worked with Peter Jackson as far back as Braindead (1992) and has a lot of history in visual effects despite this being his first full feature film. Consequently, Mortal Engines showcases Rivers’ ability to confidently film massive, complicated worlds and structures, without making the audience feel they’re staring at a bunch of weightless CGI. The sets and environments feel lived in and authentic, with a floating town being a particularly memorable location. Rivers is, however, slightly less assured with some of the actors, with Robert Sheehan never quite as charming or lovable as he’s written on the page. Hera Hilmar, however, is fabulous as the driven, conflicted Hester, as is Jihae whose character Anna Fang threatens to walk away with the rest of the film despite being essentially an extended cameo.

Mortal Engine’s world is massive and engaging, the concept of “municipal Darwinism” is deliciously silly and imaginative, and there’s much fun to be had drinking in the sheer gleeful absurdity of it all. That will, of course, rely on a certain amount of an audience member’s ability to suspend their disbelief, but for those young and/or young at heart enough to embrace it, Mortal Engines will hit that sweet spot of imaginative fun and escapist adventure.

 
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Mary Queen of Scots

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This is the kind of double-billing that makes for the stuff of cinematic history. On one side, you have Saoirse Ronan, who has had an unprecedentedly excellent track record these last handful of years, from Brooklyn to Lady Bird to On Chesil Beach. And on the other, Margot Robbie, star of one of the year’s finest efforts I, Tonya, and a rising force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. As Mary Stuart and Elizabeth R respectively, this shows them both at the peak of their respective powers.

Saoirse’s knack for strong-willed and wildly affecting character acting brings the Queen of Scots roaring to life, balancing almost superhuman poise and restraint with enough simmering power to reduce anyone else in the room to cinders. Robbie as the reclusive and aesthetically-obsessed Queen of England channels even quieter emotion at deafening levels, creating a solemn and even tragic depiction of a monarch who wears the crown on a very worrisome head.

These two could so very easily carry the entire film on their own, but thanks to great supporting performances – David Tennant as a fear-mongering cleric, Ismael Cruz Córdova as Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio (or sassy gay friend, as realised here) and James McArdle as Mary’s half-brother – they thankfully don’t have to.

Nor do they have to lift up the entire production around them as this film’s depiction of the turbulent and scandal-laden life of Mary Stuart does a capital job of highlighting the ruler who wanted to unite kingdoms and stop the fighting, yet was more than willing to take up arms herself when needed, either in the literal sense or in staring down those who wished to dethrone her.

It’s a depiction of Elizabethan sexual politics that shows remarkable progressivism from Mary, especially in her relationship with both Jack Lowden’s Lord Darnley and David Rizzio, yet it never feels anachronistic or even pandering.

Indeed, as captured by DOP John Mathieson and Alexandra Byrne’s impeccable costume design, it all fits in nicely.

While the film’s depiction of country matters certainly gives this period drama genuine sensuality, it ultimately serves as backing for the film’s bigger statements. Namely, how everything from physical love to emotional love become pawns in the dynastic game of chess, particularly with regards to female rulers in a largely patriarchal time. The need to show one’s own independence, removed from talk of lineage and marriages of convenience just to tie ruling families together, is given immense weight through both Mary and Elizabeth, both showing different sides of how the throne can affect both those in power and those who seek to take it.

Period costume dramas take a serious level of talent to make them work, let alone make interesting in the modern film market, but this manages to accomplish just that. It takes an upper-tier cast, a fascinating piece of historical drama, and truly burgeoning filmmaking talent in director Josie Rourke, and manages to bring the best out in all of them.

 
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The House That Jack Built

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Movies about serial killers from the perspective of the killer seem to have fallen out of favour of late, but for a short time they were all the rage. There have been some legitimately great ones over the years, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Maniac, American Psycho, I Stand Alone and bizarre 1992 Belgian entry Man Bites Dog, all offer compelling narratives from the point of view of a sociopath. They’re also, it has to be said, not exactly a good time. Joining this niche list is Lars Von Trier’s latest The House That Jack Built and, crikey, this one’s going to be divisive to say the least!

The story revolves around Jack (Matt Dillon) aka Mr. Sophistication (his serial killer name) who is describing his life in an offscreen narration to a mysterious second person, Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack wants Verge to understand why he does what he does, and will illustrate his twisted philosophy in five incidents. And so, the film progresses, showing in sadistic and shocking detail how Jack killed his primarily female victims and how he managed to stay out of jail. The stories all run rather too long, as does the entire film at 155 minutes, but they’re undeniably effective. Animals are tortured, women are viciously butchered and even children fall afoul of Jack’s insatiable lust for murder. It’s extremely dark stuff, lightened somewhat by splashes of black humour, but likely to alienate all but the most hardy of audience members.

The problem with movies from a serial killer point of view is that serial killers are wankers. They’re always banging on about their half-baked personal philosophies, which are essentially masturbatory justifications for being murderous dickheads, and it becomes deeply tedious. Matt Dillon’s performance as a killer with OCD is effective, but he’s such a profoundly unpleasant and dull character that you’ll be praying for his death long before the fifth bloody incident.

Perhaps that’s the point that director Lars von Trier is making, that these empty vicious men are as vapid and shallow as they believe everyone else to be, but it doesn’t make for a good time at the pictures. Having said that, this is a well-made, well-constructed, mostly well-acted and extremely effective movie. It can happily sit among the ranks of extreme cinema like Cannibal Holocaust, Salo and A Serbian Film as movies very few people will be able to sit all the way through, much less enjoy. If that sounds like your jam, you’re in for a nihilistic treat, but everyone else is advised to stay well away from this house.