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Relic

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Home, Home Entertainment, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Of all the multifarious horrors of the human condition, dementia is surely one of the most chilling. A disease that not only steals memory like a thief in the night, but dignity, hope and connection to family as well. Multiple films exist touching on the subject matter, but usually in the context of a drama or tragic romance. Aussie horror Relic, helmed by first time feature director Natalie Erika James, views the condition through a genre lens, and the result is poetic and, ironically enough, unforgettable.

Relic tells the tale of mother and daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who have left the big city of Melbourne to try and find their family matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin). When they arrive at Edna’s sprawling, messy home they find evidence of dementia but little else. Kay tries to piece together her mother’s movements, while dealing with her occasionally surly daughter and being plagued by strange, vivid nightmares. And when Edna finally does make it home? Things start to get weird.

Relic is very much of the Babadook/Ari Aster/Mike Flannagan school of horror, where family trauma and tragedy go hand-in-withered-hand with more familiar genre trappings. The notion of an older loved one losing their mind is deeply confronting, even without supernatural elements, and Relic cleverly toys with the audience’s perception. The first half hour plays a little prosaic, even dull, but when the story properly kicks in, the film becomes a grimy, slowburn nightmare that is both tense, uncomfortable and yet somehow oddly beautiful.

Three assured performances anchor Relic, with Heathcote, Mortimer and Nevin all providing some of their career-best work as three generations of women from the same family. Natalie Erika James’ direction is clever and confident, imbuing the film with a Japanese horror vibe which juxtaposes nicely with the initially mundane rural Australian setting. The final twenty minutes in particular, with its clever use of dimensional subversion and mould imagery, are unforgettable and feel fresh in a genre woefully bereft of original iconography. While Relic’s themes are never exactly subtle, they’re strongly realised and add texture to the proceedings, making the experience a pleasingly cerebral affair.

Relic is perhaps not the unrelenting spookshow some of the advertising material suggests it to be, and fans of more traditional meat and potatoes horror may want to look elsewhere. However, if you like your genre flicks with lashings of nuance and subtext and very little exposition or easy answers, you’re in for a treat. With strong performances, confident direction and a stunning third act, Natalie Erika James is a director to watch and Relic is an Australian horror movie not to be missed.

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Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

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In Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, Juha (Pekka Strang) is a happily married father and husband, who (in a lyrical and dream-like opening sequence) loses his wife in a drowning accident at their lakeside holiday home. Jumping forward many years, we find Juha entirely focused on his career as a heart surgeon and directing the rest of his energy toward his strong-willed and independent teenage daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta), and generally just drifting through his existence as a loving single-dad. His emotional inner life atrophied by grief, Juha does his best as a dad but denies himself any kind of relationship.

One evening, when celebrating Elli’s birthday, Juha takes her to get her tongue pierced. While he’s waiting, he wanders through the cavernous basement of the tattoo and piercing shop killing time, into a downstairs room that’s the workspace for professional dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen, Blade Runner 2049). Mona’s reflex response when she discovers Juha in her ‘office’ is to aggressively leap on him and choke him, presumably because she thinks he’s a client. This impromptu dalliance with erotic asphyxiation unleashes strong visions of his near-drowning in his attempts to rescue his late wife.

After the encounter with Mona, Juha drives home with his daughter and cannot think about anything else other than Mona’s attack on him. So, after some hesitance, he makes an appointment to see her. Their initial encounter devolves from the usual boot-licking into somewhat darker territory, as Juha insists on more aggressive asphyxiation, a line Mona doesn’t like to go near, let alone cross.

As Juha escalates his fetishism towards something akin to grief therapy by way of BDSM, Mona becomes disturbed by Juha’s fragile mental state. As we follow Juha through the experience, titillation isn’t really the point, it’s more Juha’s state of mind and his feelings during the BDSM experiences that we’re given access to.

Which all makes this story less a quirky, button-pushing romance and more a non-judgemental and heartfelt love story of how Mona and Juha each provide a salve to the other’s inner scarring.

Krista Kosonen’s Mona is a quietly intense character, saying everything with a glare. Pekka Strang’s initially rigid and stoic Juha, unravels into an emotionally unhinged mess, though his journey is strangely relatable and at times, it’s quite moving.

This subtle emotional manoeuvring by writer/director JP Valkeapää (and his co-writer Juhana Lumme) shows us the interior life of Juha, letting us understand his actions, his sense of loss and emptiness, something key to the strangely moving and tender brutality at this film’s heart and to the evocative spell it casts.

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What Goes Around

Australian, Home, Horror, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Taking its cue from the likes of I Know What you Did Last Summer and Heathers, What Goes Around manages to blend a teen drama and a checklist of slasher tropes into a bloody smoothie that goes down exceedingly well.

Erin (Catherine Morvell) is a socially awkward film student living with anxiety; the kind which makes you lock yourself in a club toilet and cry until there’s not a drop of water left in your body. While her BFF Rachel (Gabrielle Pearson) stands fast with her troubled friend, the other members of Erin’s social circle share varying degrees of impatience with her. Friends such as the political pillock Cameron (Charles Jazz Terrier) and the mouth on legs Marnie (Ace Whitman) seem like the very people you should stay away from, but seemingly wanting to appear ‘normal’, Erin hangs with them regularly.

Entering from stage left is Alex (Jesse Bouma), Erin’s class crush and very quickly her lover. Despite finding what appears to be a snuff film on his laptop, Erin lets herself get lost in Alex’s doe eyes. And that’s when the bodies start piling up. Someone is picking off Erin’s ‘friends’ and uploading their violent deaths online.

Like any good slasher, you’ll need to not question the fact that the police are rarely, if ever, seen investigating these public mutilations. Nor does Erin appear to have any kind of structured support despite clearly battling some kind of trauma. Writer/Director Sam Hamilton leaves them to fend for themselves before they’re vivisected in front of a go-pro camera during one of the film’s more tense moments.

In fact, at times, Erin doesn’t seem too fussed that her chums are being turned into chum.

Hamilton – making his strong feature-length debut – uses Erin’s apathy to their termination to throw the viewer off his scent. Sure, Alex acts a bit odd, but our hero also fantasises about slicing the face off the eternally cheerful Cara (Aly Zhang) while she’s at work. So, its anyone’s guess as to who is doing what. In fact, had What Goes Around been longer it would have been interesting to see the film play out this conceit a little bit more.

Acting like a swift, deep knife to the guts, What Goes Around is a nice throwback to the slashers of the ‘90s where kids rule and adults drool. While it can’t completely hide its rough edges, it does enough to be an entertaining 80 minutes that knows precisely what kind of film it is.

Available globally now via Prime Video, Genflix and Vimeo on Demand.

 

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Lizzie

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The fascination with the true case of Lizzie Borden, involving the violent hatchet murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, has persisted throughout the years to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the violent nature of the crime, or the fact that Lizzie, while almost certainly guilty, was acquitted of the murder and no one else ever charged. Regardless, it’s rich material for the right storyteller and with Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, we have the tale reimagined as a slowburn, simmering queer romance.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is a smart young woman, frustrated by her lack of agency in society and very dubious of her father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and his ongoing fiscal mismanagement of her inheritance. Lizzie is a bit too forthright for her own good, and finds herself alone and mostly friendless. That is, until the arrival of Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), whose gentle manner and innate kindness have the pair bonding and then becoming faltering but passionate lovers.

Lizzie works best as a romance, with the forbidden love between Lizzie and Bridget providing an extremely engaging throughline. Slightly less deft is the handling of Andrew, stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) all of whom are so cartoonishly evil you’ll be yearning for them to cop a hatchet to the bonce within the first fifteen minutes. While it’s fine to have an unpleasant antagonist or two in your tale, their complete lack of literally any redeeming qualities means there’s very little room for character development or nuance, which leads to some awkward pacing issues particularly in the second act. The always-welcome Kim Dickens fares better as Lizzie’s slightly more sensible and practical sister, Emma, who seems to sense her sister’s growing rage and tries to calm it.

Director Craig William Macneill’s direction is deliberate and may, for some audience members, be just a little too slow for its own good. However, the central performances from Sevigny and Stewart anchor the piece and the eventual reenactment of the bloody crime is certainly visceral and effective.

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Angel of Mine

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There are few things worse than a parent losing their child. One of them would be letting a deceptive hope creep in that maybe, just maybe, the child isn’t lost after all.

Dealing with a tragic situation is already too much for a lot of people to take, as the psychological strain of death that can truly mess with the mind. But throw in the possibility that all that pain and heartache might have been misplaced and… well, you get films like this.

A remake of the 2008 French film Mark Of An Angel, with the only major change being the framing of the narrative climax and who is directly involved, it plays out as a character study of Noomi Rapace’s Lizzie, a divorced mother who has been left traumatised by the death of her daughter, and who starts obsessing over a child in the neighbourhood that she believes is her.

Thrillers of this nature benefit from plot ambiguity, keeping the audience in stasis while the two potential outcomes whirl around the story: Is this actually her daughter, or has she lost her mind from the grief?

In the hands of writers Luke Davies, who has experience with displaced families through his work on Lion, and David Regal, best known for his work in late-‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons, that ambiguity feels somewhat misplaced.

Lizzie herself isn’t given the most sympathetic of frames, even with her emotional baggage. This isn’t helped by Rapace’s performance, which is a little too dead-eyed to give the audience a chance to consider her actually being right.

But as the story plays out, its position both as a stand-alone film and as a remake starts to become clearer. Director Kim Farrant (Strangerland), even when the scripting lets her down, shows staggering empathy for the position Lizzie is in, along with that of Yvonne Strahovski as the child’s mother.

On one hand, having an adult basically stalking your child will never not be cause for alarm. But on the other, it’s a nightmare-come-to-life scenario to be so wracked with sorrow for the loss of one’s own flesh and blood that some hope, any hope, is worth clinging to. And this is all without getting into Australia’s dark heart, with children being separated from their families, a history which is still irritatingly debated to this day.

This is definitely rough around the edges, and the weakest of Luke Davies’ most recent efforts (also Beautiful Boy) dealing with familial strains, but overall, it just manages to work.

The performances may not be as strong as they needed to be, but the film’s sense of mood and unending sense of dread fill in the blanks, and the intent at its core regarding maternal instincts feels like it’s tapping into something real. More than a little unsettling, but real.

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The Lodge

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Six months on from the death of their mother, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are struggling to come to terms with their father’s new fiancé, Grace (Riley Keough) – a young woman who escaped a suicide cult as a child.

To try and strengthen their relationship, their father (Richard Armitage) organises a family trip to a remote winter house. But after he is forced to return to the city for business, a snowstorm hits and the estranged kids and Grace begin to experience strange and frightening occurrences.

Cut from the same traumatic cloth as their debut Goodnight Mommy, Austrian duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s new horror The Lodge concerns another family dealing with emotional hysteria. Opening with a truly unsettling epilogue, the directors are becoming adept at manipulating their audience’s fears; exploring similar themes of despair, human frailty and motherhood.

The jewel here is Riley Keough – a vulnerable woman wrestling with her own tragic history. In true giallo-style, her first appearances on screen are fleeting and enigmatic; the camera catching her slip out the back of a garden or as an intangible silhouette outside a window.

Her attempts to bond and connect with the grieving children, played well by Martell and McHugh, are what the story initially hinges on and the destruction/regression that ensues is where the psychological horror really digs in its claws.

Their differing religious beliefs create many unsettling moments, including Grace’s discomfort at the sight of crosses around the household and a creepy omnipresent painting of the Virgin Mary. Eschewing cheap jump scares, the film’s musical cues and sound design is mostly effective and adds to its jarring and claustrophobic territory.

We also get eerie found-footage glimpses into Grace’s life in the evangelical doomsday cult – further amplified by her cult leader father being played by Keough’s real-life father (musician David Keough, in his debut role).

Franz and Fiala, who also co-wrote the screenplay, draw out the tension well – never letting us know where our sympathies should lie between the three central performances, as the ambiguous frights and (often implausible) red herrings accumulate. With obvious nods to The Shining, there are elements that draw to mind Ari Aster’s Hereditary – foreshadowing events with the use of dollhouse imagery and slow panning shots through the retreat’s dark wooden interiors.

Punctuated by a menacing score and finale that will resonate loudly, The Lodge is a visceral chiller, with an impressive turn from Keough.

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Dark Waters

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Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer (Rob Bilott) here, in other words the precise opposite of the sort of person who would normally go in to bat for the little guy’ against a huge environmentally vandalistic company. Yet that is precisely what happens in this true story.

The tale of horrifying conduct, rampant dishonesty and the long struggle to expose them begins in Parkersburg West Virginia – Bilott’s home town – in 1975, and the rather labyrinthine ‘plot’ unfolds over a subsequent period of decades. Basically, it’s all about the scandalous behaviour of the Dupont chemical company, involving massive-scale dumping of landfill containing sky-high levels of the man-made chemicals used to make Teflon. And the nastiness doesn’t stop there.

Bilott is first alerted that something is amiss by some understandably furious and distressed Parkersburg residents who eventually contact him at his workplace in Cincinnati. Their animals are getting sick and dying prematurely, and we soon discover that this is the thin end of a wedge leading to some truly ghastly consequences, both human and ecological. Bilott is initially reluctant to get involved but, of course, he does… It should all be gripping but somehow isn’t particularly so for quite a while, though the level of tension does eventually ratchet up.  Ruffalo’s performance is fine, and Tim Robbins is very good as his boss, Tom Terp.

Dark Waters is likeable not only for what it includes but for what it excludes: excessive swelling strings, histrionic speeches and ‘redemptive’ messages. This leaves it a bit workmanlike and plodding, and feeling somewhat overlong. But those are all lesser evils.

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Honey Boy

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Though this is quite a good and unusual film, the story behind it is more memorable than the movie itself. Shia LaBoeuf wrote the script, based on his own experiences. And here, in the fictionalised screen version of his life, we have LaBoeuf playing James Lort (essentially a representation of his own father) – while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges portray Otis (Shia, more or less) at the respective ages of 12 and 22.

So much for the back story. When we first see the older Otis, he’s in rehab after a drunken altercation with police. The action – or rather the memories and the dreams – flashes back and forth between that ‘present’ and Otis’s tough life as a child actor living with his decidedly unhinged father. The latter has a foul temper, and is an alcoholic combat veteran who thinks he’s very funny – which he would, being also a former rodeo clown – but really isn’t. What he is, emphatically, is an intensely dislikeable and brutal man. (As Otis remarks, “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain”.) That said, we start to feel a measure of sympathy for Lort – if not to like him – after hearing him at an AA meeting reminiscing about his own childhood.

Honey Boy is well acted, and features a lot of very credible and naturalistic dialogue. It’s distressing in places, and predominantly bleak and sad. The main characters constantly struggle for some sort of catharsis and transcendence without seeming to get close. It’s worth seeing them try.

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High Resolution

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When Tao Lin released his novel Taipei, it was to much acclaim (in certain circles) and he was lauded as a bold, new creative voice in literature. Though many critics dismissed him as a product of a younger, more vacuous generation with nothing on its mind except nothingness, he was largely regarded as a self-promoter, ever-present on a litany of social media platforms, cultivating most of his writing by recording and re-examining his own life experiences and filtering them through a dissociative, ironic gaze which in turn would give birth to a style of writing not dissimilar from the endless and overly detailed monologues deployed in American Psycho by author Bret Easton Ellis. It’s worth noting that Tao Lin’s own physical voice tones are themselves droll and monotone. It’s at this point that Jason Lester (son of Commando director Mark L. Lester!!) adapts Taipei, significantly reworking the material but keeping the central characters and core plot and themes.

The film begins with Erin (Ellie Bamber), having just ended a relationship, wandering into a book signing by author Paul Chen (Justin Chon), of whom she is a huge fan. Erin meets Paul, in something of a ‘meet-cute’ and soon the pair are swept up in a self-introspective whirlwind of circular conversations about relationships, life and existence. The pair take drugs, A LOT of drugs, in fact Paul’s imbibing of everything from Ecstasy to Xanax, to Adderall and cocaine becomes so ubiquitous it ceases to hold any sense of reality.

Paul decides that they should document their relationship on his laptop using the webcam, recording their waking moments and their descent into drug-addled self-obsession. Erin plays along, literally, with the pair becoming locked in a strange performance art-piece of a sort, playing the roles of star-crossed lovers in a self-aware, hyper-conscious artwork that exists only on Paul’s laptop. Drugs fuel their adventures, which they record, which then inspire them to take more drugs to fuel continuing hijinks and deliberate, pointed bad decision-making. Though it’s when Paul decides to take Erin to Taipei to meet his parents that things start to unravel.

Jason Lester has given himself a difficult task in taking on Taipei as a film adaptation. The book’s stream-of-consciousness first person perspective is not something that is ripe for a drug-infused Before Sunrise style walk-and-talk with dreamy music and visuals. Lester’s cinematic ambitions are decidedly European, though not consistent, he manages to cultivate a dreamlike atmosphere at times, ably assisted by composer David Harrington and Cinematographer Daniel Katz.

Visuals aside, there’s an infuriating emotionless void at the centre of the story. As Erin, Ellie Bamber feels galactically miscast, her performance (though solid and well-performed) just doesn’t engage; there’s an emotional disconnect as if her performance is viewed through binoculars. As Paul (an avatar for Tao Lin himself, in the book as well as in this film), Justin Chon delivers an impersonation of Tao Lin, which, as mentioned earlier, means he has a strangely monotone, droll voice. For the unaware viewer, this translates as a stilted and oddly bizarre performance choice. This isn’t helped by the script which translates the stream-of-consciousness prose from the book into a two-hander featuring characters who behave counter-intuitively, feel deeply unrelatable and are prone to delivering ‘word salad’ non-sequiturs of ripe, over-written dialogue.

Ultimately, it’s the inscrutable characters that frustrate any attempt at viewer empathy or even interest. We don’t need to ‘like’ a character, we simply need to understand them in order to engage with the story. Such ironic distance may be intentional, even laudable for some, but it nevertheless makes for an empty, vacuous experience, even if vacuity is the point.

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Descent

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

Dutch Kiki Bosch sits in her car, shivering, her skin blue. Eyes closed; she calmly explains to the documentary crew that despite appearances, she is fine. The cold blood at her extremities is mixing with the warm blood in her core, bringing its temperature down and leading to her current situation. Again, she assures everyone that she is fine. There’s potentially good reason to feel concerned though. Before being in the vehicle, Kiki Bosch has just spent an extraordinarily long-time swimming in some of the coldest water in the world, wearing nothing but a regular bathing costume. For some, the contemplation of taking a cold bath is torture. However, for Bosch, freediving into icy depths is not just a career, it’s part of a continuous journey into expanding her mindset.

Directed by underwater cameraman, Nays Baghai, Descent allows Bosch to sit down and tell her story. Starting off as a psychology student, she discovered the joys of freediving, and she was soon taking tour groups around Thailand. Sadly, she was raped by a colleague who would go on to do the same to someone else. This, unsurprisingly, led to a downward spiral for the freediver. Feeling guilty for not reporting her rapist and blaming herself for the assault, Bosch goes on to associate her freediving hobby with what she went through.

Descent captures Bosch casting off the oppression of being a victim and being reborn as an ice free diver. For Bosch, plunging into cold water helps her focus. Those familiar with the practice of mindfulness will recognise a strain of this in her swimming. Jolted by the cold, she remains acutely aware of where she is at that given moment, not the future and certainly not the past.

Bosch’s lo-fi narration accentuates the gorgeous scenes of clear blue seas and lakes. As the audience, we’re introduced to a whole new way of seeing the world. And just in case we’re too swept away in its majesty, Descent reminds us how dangerous it can be by telling us about Bosch nearly dying of hyperthermia while shooting a short film.

The key theme for Descent is ‘uplifting’, so we’re never allowed to ponder too long on what propels someone to test their body to this extent. Even when Bosch admits that doctors have told her she could lose her sight, Descent never asks us to question her methods.

Is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. However, it does have the potential to paint an unrealistic picture of trauma/depression treatment. Just going for a run doesn’t automatically cure your anxiety, for example. For Bosch, freediving has allowed her to expand her mindset and reset her thinking. And then in the last minutes, we’re introduced to her new career as a Wim Hof method instructor, and the documentary essentially turns into a paid advert for the practice; the camera lingers on PowerPoints and graphics in her lectures, souring the au natural feeling of the overall documentary.

Is that a cynical note to take away from the whole thing? Perhaps. However, it doesn’t distract too much from Baghai’s direction and camerawork. Seriously, it needs to be seen at the highest definition. Bosch’s story, too, is one of reclamation and rebuilding. She was dealt a miserable hand, and she managed to rise above it. Given the current state of affairs, you can’t begrudge anybody for trying to find their place in the world and successfully doing so. More power to her and others like her.

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