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Comedy, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week, True Story Leave a Comment

Inspired by true events, this buddy comedy turned crime caper follows two women’s unintentional rise to the top of a criminal empire built on fraud, theft, and extreme couponing.

House of Lies, Veronica Mars, and The Good Place co-stars Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste team up for their fourth collaboration, this time as Connie Kaminski and Jojo Johnson, frustrated suburbanites who take their love for saving pennies a step too far and find themselves running a nation-wide grocery store coupon scam which somehow nets them over $40 million dollars.

It’s the kind of story that you read in the headlines and think “they should make a movie out of that”. The concept is entertaining enough — two friends feeling so desperately undervalued in their everyday lives that they accidentally mastermind their way into a life of crime — but while writer/director husband and wife duo Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet (Beneath the Harvest Sky) have a strong background in drama, they seem hesitant to touch too deeply on any kind of emotion or social commentary; downgrading issues like Connie’s failed pregnancy to throwaway scene-filler, and instead favouring cheap gags about the consequences of regular bowel movements during a stakeout.

The easy, well-established chemistry between Bell and Howell-Baptiste does wonders in keeping the audience’s attention from wandering. There’s a relaxed, natural flow to their banter that contrasts perfectly with the irritable sparring of the film’s other duo, Paul Walter Hauser’s uptight, rule-abiding loss prevention officer, determined to bring Jojo and Connie down for their crimes, and Vice Vaughn, the long-suffering but surprisingly warm-hearted USPS investigator.

Unfortunately, despite the amusing premise and the best efforts of a likable cast, the film remains fun but ultimately forgettable.

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Birds of Paradise

Home, Prime Video, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Making a name for yourself in the ballet world takes talent, sacrifice, determination, and — if the current trend of dance films is to be believed — no small amount of backstabbing and manipulation. To top it off, no story about ballet dancers is complete without shots of bleeding, calloused feet or a knowing nod to the strict diet and exercise regimes that their bodies are forced to endure. On this at least, Birds of Paradise surely delivers.

Ballerinas are “warriors of pain”, says Marine (Kristine Froseth), the former star pupil at the Opéra National de Paris’ school of ballet. After time away to grieve her beloved brother’s suicide, Marine returns to school to find both her place at the top and her boyfriend usurped by former friend and rival Gia (Eva Lomby), and the private room she’d slept in since she was eight years old, now housing a roommate in the form of Kate (Diana Silvers), an awkward and inexperienced American scholarship student.

With a set up like that, you could be forgiven in thinking this will be another Centre Stage, following the melodrama of teenagers in a boarding school: love, loss and life lessons all interspersed with captivating dance numbers.

What director Sarah Adina Smith (Buster’s Mal Heart) offers us instead is more akin to a high school production of Black Swan. The twists are darker and far more cruel than a simple rivalry over the cutest boy in class. Working together with Buster’s Mal Heart cinematographer Shaheen Seth, there’s an ethereal, dreamlike quality to the world Smith builds, almost surreal at times, with the threatening air of something nightmarish pushing at the edges.

For a film about ballerinas, the dance numbers are brief and unremarkable. Perhaps a cast of professional dancers would have made things more authentic, but for all the characters insist that dancing is their life, there is very little passion in their performances. In saying that, both Froseth and Silvers are captivating in their roles as sometimes rivals/sometimes best friends/sometimes something more. Their charged relationship is the true core of the film, and both leads bring a depth of emotion to their characters’ obsessive competitiveness that is otherwise lacking.

The story is based on Young Adult author A.K. Small’s debut novel, Bright Burning Stars, but the transition from book to screen does leave audiences with the feeling that there was more being said between the lines that was lost in translation. Characters that might have been more fleshed out on the page become distorted caricatures, their motivations barely touched on, all which leads to an anti-climactic final act that is sadly formulaic and unfulfilling.

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A Sexplanation

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

Alex Liu’s A Sexplanation is a documentary about a topic that most of us can not define or are comfortable talking about, yet it is something we encounter every day. A Sexplanation is a documentary about sex. It is a film that questions everything we think we know about the subject and aims to get us to talk more openly about it.

Liu’s film explores how we learned about sex, what we were taught about sex, and what we don’t know about sex. It is often awkward and uncomfortable and that is exactly the point; sex is something that each of us encounters so often and is such an important part of our lives, and to not be comfortable with talking about it to others can be potentially damaging to our health.

Liu introduces this topic through his own personal struggles with sex and sexuality, which left him on the brink of suicide. And because he is so open about his own experiences, he manages to break down some of these awkward and uncomfortable barriers we put up when dealing with these conversations.

We see scenes where Liu gets personal with his family about sex, asking them how their sex life is, and whether they knew he was masturbating as a child. It is uncomfortable to watch, and you spend the whole time awaiting something terrible, except it never comes. We are left wondering if it really is that simple and are forced to question whether we have been open enough with our loved ones about sex.

Liu directs, produces, co-writes, co-edits and is essentially the main character of the film. His awkward responses and genuine nervousness ground the film and give us someone to follow. He also brings a much-needed comedic presence to the screen, inviting us to participate in the conversation by making it light-hearted. Without him, the film would be far too uncomfortable to watch.

Balanced with Liu’s personal stories are an array of different perspectives from experts, plus Liu’s friends, random people in the street, a politician and even a priest. The film does well in providing lots of different perspectives and not judging them or having an agenda. We can see the film’s primary aim is to educate people about these issues, rather than tell them what to think.

In this way, we are forced to come to our own decisions and to consider these topics deeply, which is something most of us haven’t done before.

The camerawork is personal, and makes the audience feel like we are a part of these conversations. The film is also complimented by a small amount of animation which helps illustrate emotions and the things that people are saying.

A Sexplanation is a documentary that successfully engages its viewer in conversations about porn, sex, masturbating and sexuality in a way that is entertaining and enlightening.

More about A Sexplanation here.

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The Tree Remembers《還有一些樹》

Asian Cinema, Documentary, Film Festival, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

We begin with the indigenous Orang Asli, a Malayan tribe whose history has been a story of unfortunate repetition: unceasing repression and regular retreats into the shadows of the Jungle.

Nowadays, only a handful of their ancestors remain, and it is via these few survivors that we’re provided detailed accounts of their generational struggle against deforestation and general lack of recognition.

Then we switch to a new and totally unrelated example of Malaysian subjugation, the 1969 513 Incident, wherein similarly journalistic accounts from survivors are delivered in sit-down interviews.

We wonder whether the entire film will follow this pattern of episodic examples of disparate injustices inflicted by the vague yet forbidding Malaysian government oppressor; we wonder when some form of story will be introduced, or whether this will all be a retrospective observation of the past…

After some time, we come to understand that hindsight is where we shall remain; that there is no real link between the two events, besides its common antagonist and general air of injustice.

On the rare occasion, there are modest attempts at creating some kind of atmosphere to reinforce or validate the recounts of the interviewees, but for the most part, the ‘mood dept.’ was seemingly a casualty of the film’s modest budget.

In this way, much of the film feels unfurnished and lacking in any trace of artistic expression. We’re consequently left with a film unsure of itself, as though it cannot commit to a sensation — other than pity — that it wants to provoke in the audience.

This gives the overall impression that the film’s sole intention is that the audience remembers a forgotten moment of history — mind you, this of course is a totally worthy motive, but when executed without any conviction, it can, ironically, have the opposite of the desired effect: an unmemorable film.

As a consequence, the film bears the mundane air of a high-school history class.

Ironically, what’s described as unfurnished filmmaking does not, in this instance, translate to authenticity, as it might for a similarly-toned Al Jazeera history doco (which are in themselves very informative programs, but that said, are under no illusions that they belong on festival circuits), nor does it endow the film with the air of authority of a minimalist film. In the case of The Tree Remembers (as is the case with most minimalist things; sterile, white-clad cafes, for instance), unfurnished means both uninspired and indecisive.

But then, the film suddenly redeems itself (to an insufficient yet pleasant extent) in the last 10 minutes, as one of the 513 survivors declares that only the trees are witnesses — finally uniting the two stories with the beautiful proverb, ‘what the axe forgets, the tree remembers’. Of course, we now understand that deforestation of the Orang Asli land is a perfect metaphor for the erasure of our memory.

This, however, is not only delivered too late in the piece, but with way too much subtlety; especially for those unfamiliar with the proverb in the first place.

The way in which these two threads came together was resemblant of a neat, Hollywood, last-minute knot; leading us to ask ourselves why they didn’t tie it together earlier, with some simple interweaving, or even through a humble plait?! The answer, we contend, is because the idea only arrived in the editing room, when all the filming was done — which is to say, too late. Maybe, it will have more of an impact in Malaysia or other nearby countries (Taiwan, for instance, where the film is streaming in the national festival), where the proverb is more well known.

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Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, short film, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

There is a distinct sense of politically charged awareness and anxiety, which hangs over Taiwanese romance, Butterflies, set sometime in the near future.

In this setting, the island country has been occupied and taken over by an oppressive regime and turned into a province of this empire.

Within this Orwellian situation, a young woman, Yu (Han Ning) is accused of conspiring against the incumbent ruling power and hiding her treasonous family, who refuse to obey and comply with the new administration.

After escaping from the clutches of the authorities that have detained her, Yu attempts to find Lien (Yu Pei Jen), a plastic surgeon who can change her appearance and aid her in escaping the totalitarian state.

The desire for freedom and free-will however, renders Yu vulnerable to and desperate for help and a safe harbour. She is ultimately seduced by the charm and charisma of Lien, who represents hope and love. However, things are not as ideal as they may seem…

So begins this 43-minute Taiwanese dystopian film, set in Taipei.

Interestingly, the film is not directed by a Taiwanese-born filmmaker, but by Spanish (Catalan) expat and Taiwan-based director Albert Ventura.

Nonetheless, it is a movie informed by, and with distinct parallels, to Taiwan’s past and present. Although this story is told from an outsider’s view, the two characters reflect the past, dark days of the Taiwanese White Terror period (May 1949 – July 1987) and its modern-day challenges. There are echoes of the political angst of current and past Taiwan, and the horrors faced, in Yu and Lien’s search for freedom – this is a country which only came out of martial law in 1987 yet faces threats to its acceptance and adoption of democracy and its freedom.

The burgeoning relationship between its two characters nods to hope of a free and independent future for Taiwan, whilst the dire and difficult climate they’re caught within acknowledges the past the country has faced – and its subsequent legacy.

Despite the challenges faced by its two characters and the diabolic political state they and those in the film find themselves in, the film is optimistic for Taiwan’s future.

Butterflies recognises this upside – as well as charts the precarious road ahead.

This is one sci-fi fans and genre buffs will enjoy.

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My Missing Valentine

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

Life for Yang Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee) has always moved at a different pace to those around her. When she was young, she was always going too fast, just off by a few seconds with those around her; jumping the starting gun in races, laughing too early at jokes in the cinema, Hsiao-Chi is never quite in synch with the world around her.

At the age of thirty, she is working in a Taipei post office lamenting that she hasn’t yet found her place in the world. Specifically, she lacks any romantic attachment, so when the handsome Liu Wen-Sen (Duncan Lai) comes into her quotidian world she is quickly swept off her feet by the handsome and attentive man and for the first time finds herself with plans for Valentine’s Day.

In reality, Hsiao-Chi’s world is anything but normal. Waking up on what she believes to be Valentine’s Day, she finds that she has missed the day completely. All she knows is that the day didn’t happen to her and for some mysterious reason she is sunburnt.

Soon, she finds a picture of herself at a beach that she can’t remember posing for, and decides with the help of an anthropomorphic dream gecko to go in search of her missing day, which may also lead her to her missing valentine and perhaps even her missing father who years ago went out for tofu pudding and never returned.

A Tai (Liu Kuan-Ting) has also lived a life that is out of synch with the rest of the world. For him, he’s always a few seconds behind. He works as a bus driver and every day comes to Hsiao-Chi’s counter to mail a letter. The reason for his interest in her becomes clear as the film progresses – they once shared time together as children after an accident placed them both in hospital and he has been pining for her ever since.

Hsiao-Chi’s missing day becomes A Tai’s extra day, and the bus driver is given a chance to finally spend some time with the object of his affection.

Writer/director Yu-Hsun Chen has crafted a whimsical fantasy world where the rules of logic don’t apply. The missing/extra day is the crux of a narrative that suggests that love ignores rules, including, it would seem, the rules of conscious choice. Whilst the film is cloaked as a heartfelt romantic comedy there is something a little off with the choices behind the premise. The film espouses “Love yourself because someone out there loves you,” but what if that someone is a person you only half remember as a childhood friend who takes to essentially stalking you for years and through the strange missing/extra day takes you on an adventure only he is conscious for?

My Missing Valentine is at heart good-natured and plays around with the conventions of romantic comedy to the extent that the slightly disturbing undercurrent of the film can be dismissed up to a point. Patty Lee is charming in the lead role and the quirkiness of the film papers over what could be viewed as a darker level of viewership.

Perhaps, it is best to just experience the oddball world Yu-Hsun Chen has created on a surface level and not go too deep into the philosophical connotations that it presents. If you’re prepared to just go along for the ride, My Missing Valentine is an interesting and sometimes delightful film that wears its heart on its absurdist sleeve.

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Tropical Fish

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

The first time we meet our protagonist in the film Tropical Fish, he is in the middle of a dream. He fantasises about going up to a girl at a bus stop and handing her a note. A fitting introduction to our main character, who prefers to act inside his head rather than in reality, and a fitting beginning for a story that feels as if it is also the imaginary creation of our protagonist.

Chen Yu-Hsun paints a vivid picture of our creative main character Liu through colourful dream sequences as well as his depiction of youthful nights at the arcade in which the boy secretly shares a cigarette with his best friend. Liu is a detached young boy, and with an extremely important exam coming up that could decide his future, reality is beginning to intrude on his fantasy world.

A few days before the exam, Liu is kidnapped in the process of trying to save another boy. The kidnappers claim that they will hold the two boys until a ransom has been paid by Liu’s father. But when the man behind the whole kidnapping operation dies, it leaves Liu and the kidnapped boy in the hands of the dead man’s good-hearted sidekick, Ah Ching (Lin Cheng-Sheng).

The film begins to lean into absurd humour as Ah Ching and his family treat the two boys like their own. The boys eat with them, go swimming, go out on the boat and are given help with study. The whole family assures Liu that they will have him back for the exam, comedically stressing the importance of this school test.

The whole plot feels like a scenario that a child has created in order to get out of doing something. In this case, Liu has created a far-fetched narrative to help him get out of doing the exam. We see television footage of news presenters and scenes with Liu’s parents where they all worry about whether he will be back in time to sit the exam. The reactions of other people mirror what Liu thinks they care about the most.

In Taiwan, the joint entrance exam decides whether kids will be able to get into high school and university. Chen Yu-Hsun seemingly pokes fun at the absurd importance placed on this one test.

Liu fits right in with Ah Ching’s family. He treats the other kidnapped boy like a brother, falls in love with one of the girls in the family and we see him begin to hope he can be stuck with the family for as long as possible.

Each character in the family is an individual and brings their own comedic value to the story. The film does a great job at making the viewer feel a part of this family as well. It does seem to lag as it begins to follow unrelated threads and ideas during the second act. But it certainly manages to steer back on track for the finale.

The film is about childhood and the conflict between imagination and reality. It often shows the beauty of the former and the unforgiving nature of the latter. After being so caught up in the whimsical story, we are literally shocked back to reality. The film reminds us of how much value imagination holds and teaches us to never let go of it; no matter how hard reality tries to take it away from us.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Home, Musical, Prime Video, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

On his sixteenth birthday, Jamie New (Max Harwood) wakes up in the same boring council flat in the same boring town in the same boring life. But boring is not a word you could ever use to describe Jamie New. He dreams of a life on stage, but not as a pop idol or a YouTuber like his classmates all long to be. Jamie’s got his sights set on the spotlight: Jamie’s going to be a drag queen.

Inspired by true events, this adaptation of Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells’ smash hit musical follows Jamie as he defies the bullies and the disbelievers and walks his own path — and he does it all wearing six-inch heels.

There’s a level of charisma and magnetism required to headline a film like this, and newcomer Max Harwood is more than up for the challenge. Jamie is Harwood’s film debut and much like the character he embodies, he steps into the spotlight without hesitation.

Having Jonathan Butterell as director is an added boon: Butterell not only directed the stage version of Jamie on the West End but he’s also a notable choreographer. His eye for movement and staging ensures Jamie dazzles just as brightly on the screen as he does beneath the theatre’s spotlight.

The soundtrack is upbeat and joyful, each number a showstopper, but none more so than “This Was Me”, written specifically for the film. The song is a collaboration between Richard E. Grant (as the once great drag queen Loco Chanel), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson. New additions to beloved musicals can be a dangerous gamble — the ultimately forgettable “Suddenly” from 2012’s Les Misérables comes to mind — but this brilliantly ‘80s-esque ballad plays over Loco Chanel’s old home movies, giving Jamie some insight into queer history; the victories and the struggles, the love and the loss; all those sacrifices that paved the way to let Jamie live out loud the way so, so many who came before him never could.

Occasional heartache aside, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at its core a truly optimistic and uplifting film, something we could definitely see more often from LGBTQIA+ cinema. A warm-hearted, occasionally cheesy celebration of queer culture, of friendship, of love and of family — be it the family you’re born with or the family you chose for yourself along the way.

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Wonderful Paradise

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

As we know, comedy can be culture-specific. And, what’s more, filmmakers partly rely on their audiences being cued into the satire by seeing the film working against widely-understood unspoken assumptions. On the other hand, in an age of globalisation, all the cultures are somewhat merged. Such musings come to mind when faced with this almost incomprehensible Japanese romp.

It starts with the protagonist Shuji (Seiko Ito), who is in the process of moving out of his large house which he can no longer afford. His kids are not that impressed with the decision, but they are also not that happy anyway, as previously the parents had divorced.

At this point, for no apparent reason, the ex-wife/mother swans into the plot. En route, she crashes into the two removalists heading to the house so that the three arrivals immediately start an argument on Shuji’s doorstep.

Another layer of farce is added when Shuji’s daughter Akiko (Kaho Minami) decides to put out a tweet telling anyone who is on the app that there is a big one-off party at the house. All and sundry arrive in waves, with each batch of guests being more outrageous than the other. Another large contingent arrives with a couple of gay men who have decided to hold their wedding at the party. Oh, and I did we mention the aging lecherous grandad who dies and comes back to life to make mischief with the various guests? You get the idea.

This is one of the films in the long-standing Sydney Underground Film Festival, whose programme always contains a loose assortment of weird underground gems. The festival’s audience understands that and usually enters into the spirit of things.  However, it is hard to judge a film like this on its own terms when half the point is that we are consuming it through the lens of delighted bafflement. This film is indeed bat shit crazy, and for some that will be a compliment.

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Ninja Badass

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

Ninja Badass is as wild and unrestrained as its unkempt protagonist, Rex. The film contains a bit of everything, from action to comedy to gore; it’s violent, experimental and explicit.

It’s about a dude and his mission to save ‘hot chicks’ whilst developing his ninja skills. The plot goes places and has structural integrity even if it isn’t original, with love interests, bad guys, and friendship in the mix. What is original is the way that the characters are portrayed and how the film is shot and produced.

The self-consciously exaggerated performances, the ridiculousness of the supernatural elements (including a flying foot), all play a part in the ordered absurdity. It’s like an extended YouTube skit in some respects, with the obviously fake wigs, digital blood, and ordinary costuming.

The micro-budget film is appropriately shot in an approachable, set-less, suburban backdrop. The unrealistic CGI is not out of place within the overall satire.

All that said, there is a skill to the way writer/director/star Ryan Harrison has told the story, and in the process upended and turned on its head, notions of the serious filmmaker. Despite the OTT nature of the film, there is actual drama and humour here, helped by the filmmaker’s experience making trailers for Marvel and Disney! It would be interesting to see should he choose to make something more conventional in the future.

As it is, though, if you are looking for a quality acting showcase, this film is not for you. But, if you’re after something that will challenge notions of traditional cinema (or good taste), or inspiration as an amateur filmmaker, or a film that gives the bird to social niceties and puts onscreen things that you can’t unsee, Ninja Badass might be for you.