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Below

Australian, Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Slow-motion, skull-cracking violence sets the scene for Below, inspired by Ian Wilding’s award-winning play of the same name. Wilding’s screenplay shifts the action from a mining town to a slightly dystopian outback immigration detention centre run by the evil guards from Newhaven Border Solutions, no doubt privatised out by the Australian Government. Dark web con-artist Dougie (Ryan Corr) finds himself working there to repay a debt to his Scottish stepfather and detention centre guard Terry (an almost unrecognisable Anthony LaPaglia), after an online bribery scam he sets up under the moniker ‘Dreadnought’ goes south.  

Detainees faced with little to no chance of freedom are microchipped and numbered. Self-harm becomes the norm, so to flatten the curve inmates, or their extended family members, are threatened with a trip to ‘the cage’ as punishment. Curve flattened, Terry and his cohorts reinvent the cage as a fight club for their captives. Ever the shyster, Dougie revitalises his Dreadnought persona and offers a live stream of the fights to voyeurs on the dark web. When champion fighter Azad (great work from Phoenix Raei) cops a shiv to the throat, Dougie’s conscience kicks in and he must find a way to help Azad’s orphaned little sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell) escape to a new life of freedom in Australia.

Skilfully directed by Maziar Lahooti on his first feature-length film, Below paints a pitch-black comic portrait around the horrors of Australian immigration detention. At one point Dougie exclaims ‘every day in here is like a holocaust movie’, he wants out, so sets up another pay per view fight, this time between detainee ‘King Ciggy’ (Robert Rabiah) and three double-ended dildo wielding female MMA fighters (Deanna Cooney, Lee-Ann Temnyk, Shimain Osbourne).

Performances are inventive and energetic, with Corr and LaPaglia excellent and Morgana O’Reilly as detainee guard Michelle hilarious. Director of photography Michael McDermott adds another character to the film with his footage of the foreboding detention centre.

Below‘s darkly comic undertones don’t shy away from the nightmare existence of a people locked away in a system designed to break them. Lahooti’s film, while bleak, shines a light on Australia’s moral compass and when those ethics are questioned, we’re left with a glimmer of hope.

 
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Morgana

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

Morgana Muses isn’t like other porn stars. In her mid-50s, the Sydney-born pornographer looks more like a cheerful great aunt or hipper-than-usual nanna, rather than the creator/star of numerous works of feminist porn with titles like Labia of Love and Ladies and the Tramp. The first time we see her, Morgana is chatting amicably with co-directors Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess about the best way to bury her in a shallow bush grave. Sure, it’s for a photoshoot, but it swiftly becomes clear that like its subject, Morgana isn’t like other documentaries.

Morgana tells an extraordinary story, the tale of a woman who found herself in a loveless marriage, alienated from friends and family and – after the inevitable divorce – decided to end her life. However, a final encounter with a sex worker, a sensual swan song of sorts, reinvigorated Morgana and after she discovered such a thing as “feminist porn” existed, the newly erotically emancipated diva decided to try her hand at creating some of her own. What follows is a story of love, loss, acceptance, the power of creativity and the often corrosive nature of mental illness. For even when Morgana’s DIY sex flicks have her travelling to Berlin film festivals and beyond, depression lurks in the dark corners of her mind.

Creativity and mental illness aren’t exactly new topics for documentaries, however where Morgana differs from most are the strange, art film-esque interludes used to illustrate the narration. Moody shots of Morgana’s eye staring from within a too-small house or lying in ashes painted with darkness, give the documentary an ethereal vibe, a dreamlike quality that’s more David Lynch than Michael Moore. Striking imagery and Morgana’s own words tell the story, in lieu of intrusive narration, which works for the most part. However, it would have been nice to see a little more of the shooting and distribution of the porn, with a deeper focus on the challenges of marketing such a niche product in a relatively isolated market like Australia.

Overall, Morgana is a great success. A poetic, moving, life-affirming yarn extolling the virtues of sex positivity and self expression. While the subject matter may cause discomfort to some, there’s a cheerful, inclusive universality to the piece and an impressive sense of style that will appeal to art wankers as much as the more literal kind. Much like its subject matter, Morgana is an engaging Aussie original and a film not to be missed.

 
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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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Higher Love

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

The title of this raw, fly on the wall doco from inner city America is from Steve Winwood’s much-covered song of the same name. In that song’s first verse, there is the following proposition” “There must be a higher love (..) without it life would be wasted time”. Not especially original sentiments, but not just a cliché either. The protagonists in this film are definitely getting wasted, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t glimpse the sheer uselessness of their current habits. In fact, it is when this truth flashes momentarily and brightly that we get the greatest pangs of sympathy.

It is set in a district called Camden. It is in New Jersey, but one could also suppose that it could be set in any number of poor, mostly black, run-down neighbourhoods in dozens of cities in the US.

We are flung more or less in the middle of it, with young woman Nani preparing a fix and then shooting up and drifting off. She has a partner, Daryl who was raised by a single (junkie) mother and who now has eight children of his own. He loves Nani. When she gets pregnant and, despites herself, can’t stop using, he begs her to break away and come with him to a better place.

The idea of generational disadvantage is openly discussed here, along with the ineluctability that guarantees the circularity and entrapment. The always-relevant, but recently near-universal Black Lives Matter movement cannot help but be in the viewer’s mind. Given that they alternate between heroin, crack and fentanyl, the scandalous epidemic of prescription opiates is also very much part of the picture.

Watching people get high on camera is not exactly edifying, and whatever negative glamour there is in drug taking for the crowd doing it, it is massively outweighed by the obvious sadness of the spectacle when you take in its full biographical meaning. More or less everyone in their immediate circle is either using or trying to stop. Everyone seems powerless or defeated in a way. As indicated, they all know it is a shit way of life but, unsurprisingly, they are sort of past caring. That is, after all, what the drugs are for; to dull the pain.

Director Hasan Oswald does take us up close and personal and that is part of the ‘appeal’ of the film. Its unedited rawness doubles for authenticity. He also refuses to editorialise or wag his finger. They know they are trapped, and it would be patronising to suggest otherwise.

Also, the film doesn’t go for easy answers, just as these are not available in real life. That said, despite small vistas of hope, we are stuck with the fact that this is quite a depressing watch.

 
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Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week 1 Comment

Filmmaker Fernando Solanas once said of his documentary film Memoria del saqueo that, “it aspires to prove that another world is possible.” Mark Street’s documentary film Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture, aspires to do the same. Or rather, it follows the work of a man – artist, William Kelly – who aspires to do the same.

In simple terms, it’s a documentary about Kelly. But it delves much deeper than that by exploring the relationship between art and activism; or, perhaps more to the point, between art and human consciousness; and subsequently, consciousness and the proclivity of our species to create war and commit acts of violence. It’s about creation versus destruction; it’s about the idea that art can deconstruct cognitive dissonance and transform ignorance and egoism, facilitating a deeper and more empathic view of the world around us.

The film focuses, in episodic increments, on the development of Kelly’s work, titled Peace or War/The Big Picture, which was displayed at the State Library of Victoria in 2016. Kelly’s interactions with people, places and ideas engender new artistic components of The Big Picture and we watch as this conglomerate work expands over time until its completion. Each new visual element of the work is brought to life by the use of a simple, elegant animation style.

Can Art Stop A Bullet was filmed on five continents and features appearances by painter John Keane, photographer Nick Ut, performance artist Rama Mani, philosopher A. C. Grayling, actor Martin Sheen, and many others.

While touching on esoteric and philosophical topics, the film remains clear and easy to understand. This is a film for everyone interested in the future of humanity; everyone who has asked themselves why war and conflict have been perpetually with us throughout recorded history. It’s an important, highly relevant documentary which is a worthy companion to Kelly’s The Big Picture and reminds us that there are people out there – many of them – who care passionately this subject.

Is it naïve to believe that art can potentially impact the actualisation of war and violence? William Kelly certainly doesn’t think so.

 
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The Rise of the Synths

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

The chic 2019 documentary film The Rise of the Synths, written and directed by Iván Castell, takes viewers on a deep dive into a sub-genre of electronic music and the artists devoted to it. In it, Castell traverses the world to explore the origins and influences of Synthwave.

Guiding us on this journey is ‘The Synth Rider’ – some sort of mysterious loner figure from the future who navigates time driving a DeLorean in the desert. Charting his mythical quest, we occasionally hear (and see) narration from iconic filmmaker and composer John Carpenter.

Played by journalist and musician Rubén Martínez, ‘The Synth Rider’ is a tattooed tough guy. His mission is to uncover the origins of a worldwide grassroots music scene known as Synthwave, which is described as an irresistible blend of modern electronic compositions infused with ‘80s pop culture nostalgia. The film explores the origins and growth of this electronic music genre, charting its rise in popularity from the underground online music scene to its recent mainstream exposure following use in retro-themed soundtracks, notably the 2011 film Drive (directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn), and more recently the television series Stranger Things. In fact, Drive is frequently named as a catalyst, a defining moment for many of the musicians.

The film skips all over the globe, dropping into Nantes, Paris and Grenoble, as well as New York, Toronto and Antwerp, to conduct numerous interviews with both established and upcoming Synthwave artists. The conversations explore their respective sources of inspiration, which range from early electronic pioneers such as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream to a collective love of 1980s films and video games. The musicians are described as people that have abandoned the simplicity and limitations of pop music and are going for something more emotional, more atmospheric.

The doc does a good job of explaining how and why these specific sounds and iconic imagery hold such an alluring appeal. One of the most interesting things about this documentary is its nostalgia. The artists speak reverently about the ‘80s as if they’re intimately familiar with the decade, but most acknowledge they were not even born then.

One artist named OGRE Sound even describes having one foot in the past, one foot in the future and opining that what exists in the middle is Synthwave.

“The eighties were a less cynical time, a magical decade for film,” muses a member of the trio Gunship whole roasting marshmallows over an outdoor fire.

Carpenter relates his personal experiences, “as a guy starting out on the periphery of the film industry, making low-budget movies, I learned to do everything myself, including making the music for my films.”

He explains how others working with computers and electronics had come up with a computer that you could play; the first music synthesiser. “That gave someone like me an orchestra and sound effects,” says Carpenter.

Creating a moody atmosphere thanks to some stylish footage of glittering cityscapes and dark warehouses, as well as the pulsing soundtrack, we see interviews with the artists and composers in their homes or in gorgeous natural or urban locales, all over the world.

Some of the artists wistfully recall meeting up on Myspace groups and forming a collective of alternative music makers. Several of the musicians embrace their underground status and do not show their faces during the interviews.

The doco tracks how synth sounds fell out of fashion in the ‘90s with the emergence of the grunge sound. People grew weary of the abundant use of the DX-7 synthesiser sound in songs, in movies and commercials. Acknowledging the influence of metal and rock, one French composer named Perturbator remarks on how Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor “basically made fucking around with sequencers and drum machines cool again” in the ‘90s.

Then comes the Retrowave movement, when people start making music on personal computers on a wider scale and experimenting with sounds, which proved a lot cheaper and therefore more accessible than synthethiser-driven music. “To have synthesisers you needed money, gear, a studio…” Computers permitted the democratisation of music making. “Everything changed. We could make music in our bedroom,” recalls a French duo.

The old soundtrack of a new generation—The Rise of the Synths is both a documentary and a time travel capsule about the Synthwave Scene.

Artists featuring in the film include:

Carpenter Brut

Gunship

Perturbator

Electric Youth

The Midnight

NINA

Power Glove

Dance with the Dead

Robert Parker

Waveshaper

OGRE Sound

Miami Nights 1984

Valerie Collective (College, Maethelvin)

Lazerhawk

80’s Stallone

John Bergin

MPM Soundtracks

Night Crawler

Scandroid

Mecha Maiko

 
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Hamtramck, USA

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Hamtramck [pronounced Hamtram-ick], a small town near Detroit, Michigan is a melting pot of ethnicities; over twenty cultural backgrounds make up the diverse population and the multi-ethnic city prides itself on its mantra “The world in two square miles”.

This wasn’t always the case, as historically it thrived thanks to Polish Catholic immigrants drawn to the industrial boom of America. In the late 1990s, Bangladeshi and Yemeni Muslim immigrants revitalised this post industrialist city. Hamtramck’s become the first majority Muslim city in the good ole’ US of A, much to the chagrin of some locals. It’s also the first city to allow the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast five times a day. With local council elections looming, candidates face challenges and opportunities within each community, including their own.

Karen Majewski, Hamtramck’s Mayor is Polish. Majewski’s the first woman from a long line of Poles who’ve been in the mayoral role before her. She’s going for a fourth term and has to again convince the local constituents that she’s the one for the job. Her opponents, Mohammed Hassan and Asm ‘Kamal’ Raman want change which, they believe, can only happen with one of them at the helm. Fadel Al Marsoumi and Ian Perotta are young progressives with sound ideas and quiet confidence, they’re both running as city council candidates and through them we see what the future for the city, and indeed the USA, could be.

Producer/Directors Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri’s documentary showcases the vibrant life, celebrations and culture of the city’s inhabitants; it also highlights the political divisions. As the local election nears, problems arise – with so many factions it’s hard to unite locals into a cohesive community, and convincing them to vote is an uphill battle.

While the film attempts to showcase a sense of intercultural understanding and community respect, most of the townfolk appear to remain within their own ethnic communities, shining a powerful spotlight on a divided city and a country with a long battle for solidarity ahead.

 
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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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The Plastic House

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

South Australian filmmaker Allison Chhorn’s Cambodian heritage is a major influence in her work; her documentary After Years explored the ‘silences and memory’ of Cambodian migrant families around the world. Her latest work The Plastic House, a 46-minute piece of experimental docu-fiction follows a similar trajectory, slowly unfolding a meditation examining family and identity.

A lone figure tends to a greenhouse after the death of her parents, completing simple tasks, planting, propagating and watering. We follow the journey of the crops, as they grow taller through, rain, thunder and wind until harvest. The plastic sheets of the greenhouse fall into disrepair, before being restored for the next season.

“I learnt a lot about building the film language of The Plastic House and trying to mimic the meditative experience of working in a greenhouse; by using long takes and sound design made up of natural sounds recorded on location,” says Chhorn.

The film is almost entirely without dialogue. In silence and the natural sounds of wind and rain, we can still feel the love for family and care in the work being done.

The Plastic House, filmed over four years entirely by Chhorn on her family farm in South Australia, is a reflection on the ordinariness of life, the simplicity of planting, tending, persistence and decay until the cycle begins again.