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

Set in Blacktown, Western Sydney, Benefited follows disparate tales of desperate youths living in modern Australia. Binding the tales together is Dity, played by the film’s writer/director Clare McCann, a 20 something who has fallen pregnant to her abusive partner, Ray (Ryan Bown). McCann plays with time as she bounces her audience back and forth to different points in their lives from first kiss to first brutal assault. Elsewhere, 15-year-old thief Will (Cristian Borello) struggles to connect with his half sister and finds solace in drugs and burglary.

This a thoroughly bleak film which doesn’t pull its punches, and with good reason. As proven by the film’s closing text, Benefited wants to paint a picture of domestic violence without the Hollywood lacquer painted over it. Ray doesn’t come into Dity’s life twirling his moustache and looking menacingly at the camera. He woos her after a festival; he defends her against her drunken stepfather. It’s the little things he does after this that are troubling, so slight that you wouldn’t notice. Even being the first to say ‘I love you’ is merely a ploy to control Dity.  It’s the mundanity of the things he does, that McCann writes about, which underlines the domestic terror her protagonist is in.

Elsewhere, perhaps less successfully, McCann tackles the state of Australia’s social benefits system; painting a world of grey cubicles peopled by apathetic office workers. Having managed to give Ray several layers, it’s a shame to see people Dity encounters on the dole as nothing more than pantomime villains, something to push Dity on a downward spiral.

A sad and down spirited film, Benefited might not be Australia’s answer to I, Daniel Blake, but it is the kind of film that can burst a few misconceptions people have about domestic violence.

Available now on Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, Prime Video, Fetch TV

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The Boys: Season 2

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The Boys comic book series, by writer Garth Ennis, seemed destined never to be adapted for the small screen. Unlike some of his other works that include Preacher, Hitman and Punisher MAX, The Boys was simply too violent, too misanthropic and, frankly, too disgusting. The ultra-controversial series ran from 2006-2012 and in that time pretty much managed to offend everyone on earth, with its mixture of profane humour, savage superhero satire and bloody ultraviolence. It was also, it has to be said, daks-browningly hilarious and like much of Ennis’ work, contained a lot of heart, particularly in its excellent conclusion. It’s pleasing then, not to mention surprising, that The Boys has ended up being the best representation of Ennis’ work thus far – certainly much better than the ungainly Preacher adaptation – and while it plays fast and loose with the comics, it captures Ennis’ subversive spirit shockingly well.

The Boys season two (with a third already confirmed!) picks up where we left off in the previous season. The Boys are on the run, Butcher (Karl Urban) is nowhere to be found and Homelander (Antony Starr) continues to be an absolute mad bastard with the power of a living god. Super powered terrorists (aka “super villains”) are popping up all over the world and The Seven have a new member in the form of Stormfront (Aya Cash), whose sly wit masks the fact that her powers might even match those of Homelander himself. Meanwhile, poor wee Hughie (Jack Quaid) has to try and keep his troubled relationship with Annie January (Erin Moriarty) aka Starlight alive. Oh, and Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) takes centre stage, setting up a conflict that starts nasty and only gets bloodier from there.

Season two continues to do the things you loved about the first. The superhero satire is back, Karl Urban’s accent – that somehow makes him sound like he’s from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously – makes a triumphant return and the gore that made you chuckle guiltily the first time around is enthusiastically prolific. Episode three, in particular, really showcases the bloody best this series has to offer, with a mixture of slapstick, eye popping gore and the kind of language that is likely to make people who use words like “problematic” come down with the vapours. It’s business as usual, certainly, but business is good and for fans of Ennis or subversive pisstakery in general, The Boys is an absolute treat.

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Edge of Extinction

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Is it too hyperbolic to say that post-apocalyptic movies are particularly timely these days? At the very least, the five-car pile-up of real-world events of the past several months have given audiences worldwide a taste for the worst case scenario on the screen, either as a form of doomsday prep by seeing how others handle that situation or just as a reminder that things haven’t gotten quite that bad yet. But given how the isolated nature of our current predicament has resulted in quite a bit of socially-distant malaise, there’s an argument to be made that this film represents the modern apocalypse better than most. It isn’t an argument in the film’s favour, though.

A very WalkingDead-sans-zombies take on the ravaged wasteland in the wake of World War III, this film likewise relies on its characters to keep things interesting. But what we primarily get are a collection of people that are definitely abrasive, but not in a particularly engaging way.

It holds the central idea that collaboration and unity is needed to rebuild or even just to survive, a common conceit for the genre, but it constantly shows this by highlighting those who vehemently reject that idea. The hunters, the cannibals, the scavengers; the people who grab any resource they can find, whether it be food, lodging or breeding stock.

It’s like a monochromatic wash of nihilistic misanthropy, made drearier by the more-than-frequent wonky line reads from the actors. Admittedly, most of the cast do well enough with their nameless characters, but none of them manage to imbue their roles with the life needed to make them engaging. It begs for an Alex Garland to balance out the displays of self-destruction with an understanding that that is only one piece of the larger human puzzle, instead going for a Purge­-ian simplicity that makes all the characters feel like ciphers.

But even that could’ve been suitable, as the actions of dangerous individuals is usually the reason why the apocalypse happens in the first place. And with how adequately staged and filmed this wasteland is, it might’ve made for a decent yarn. But at over-two-hours, there truly isn’t enough narrative content to make this feel like it deserves that much time to make its point. Even ignoring how plain the characters can get, what happens to them as far as plot and even the decent fight scenes don’t fill out the innards to an acceptable level.

Calling this outright ‘bad’ would be doing it a mild disservice, as it shows enough skill at film craft to pass the bar. But in a way, being this dull to sit through might be an even worse indictment, as the urge to fall asleep in the midst of all this bloodshed is way too strong to make this feel like a journey worth taking. Audiences shouldn’t be able to look from their screens to their windows, and think the latter shows a more entertaining end of the world.

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One Man and His Shoes

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Netflix’s Michael Jordan/ Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance covered similar terrain as this documentary by filmmaker Yemi Bamiro. One Man and His Shoes explores the relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike and how together they created a third entity: Michael Jordan the brand.

Nike reaped the benefits of a shrewd decision to forge product sponsorship deals with young college basketball players (including a young Michael Jordan) that would foster a brand loyalty that would (ideally) extend into the player’s NBA career. That led to Michael Jordan as a rookie player, making a deal with Nike that comprised of various royalties and profit participations that were largely uncapped when the deal was made. The insane sales that followed took Nike by surprise and remade Jordan as a sporting icon, not to mention a billionaire. When first released, the original Air Jordan Nikes were quickly banned by the NBA because they weren’t white, so wearing them courtside meant Michael Jordan incurred a fine. The fine was happily covered by Nike, who benefitted massively from the publicity and subsequently sold a million pairs of Air Jordan shoes that year.

On the face of it, the documentary threatens to be a corporate hand job on the virtues of capitalism and the glory of Nike, but it’s undeniably fascinating to learn how a corporation found a way to occupy a significant amount of real estate in popular culture.

The fascinating ‘happy accident’ of Nike marketing executives seeing Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It was instrumental. In that film, Spike Lee portrays Mars Blackmon, a man devoted to his Air Jordan shoes, he even wears them during sex. Nike executives saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and asked Lee to direct a number of distinctive Air Jordan commercials, (with Lee starring alongside Jordan as the character of Mars) leading to a style and artistry in creating the ads that would go on to further cement Nike (and Air Jordans) as more of a cultural icon than a brand.

Nike’s ad campaigns and deliberate under-supply creates a demand that has succeeded in making the shoes a sought-after commodity, a status symbol. Collectors across the globe are interviewed, some with million-dollar collections.

The most compelling part of the documentary is when it calls into question the negative effects of the ‘Cult of Nike’ and in particular the criticisms that have been levelled at Michael Jordan: his disinterest in taking a stand on social and racial issues affecting young black Americans (while he and Nike are happy to take their money) and, in particular, the awful phenomenon of young people being killed solely for their ‘Jordans’.

Overall, it’s an examination of how popular culture can be hijacked and hacked, how humans can be manipulated into associating athletic ability, competitive success, self-worth, desire and esteem – with a shoe.

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Anthology movies: The Adderall of cinema. A chance to essentially watch several films in one sitting, but with a caveat that there’s no guarantee for consistency within. And coming from six French directors, for most of whom this is their directorial debut, there’s also a chance that this could turn into a glorified sizzle reel for their future careers.

Bit of a shame that the film peaks right at the start with ‘The Call Of Death’ and ‘The Beast’, and not just because they are easily the most straight-faced of the bunch. The former plays out like a proto-Black Mirror episode as filtered through Tales From The Crypt (although, admittedly, that last comparison is true for pretty much everything here), acting as allegory for social media while sticking to decidedly lower-fi tech than that would imply. And with ‘The Beast’, we get a simple but effective ‘who’s the real monster’ parable that manages to get a lot done with very little, both in run time and in dialogue. Directors Nathalie Epoque and Fabien Chombart respectively can pat themselves on the back.

For the rest of it, though, it takes a very sudden dip into less-serious territory, from ‘Return Of The Lizardmen’ playing out like a found-footage version of Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with the same level of conspiratorial lunacy; ‘A Hell Of A Bargain’ hinging on awkward puppet work (director Alexis Wawerka has done some makeup work for Uwe Boll in the past and it shows), and ‘The Eye Of Taal’ somehow delivering another anthology within an anthology. It admittedly looks nice in its highly French New Wave stylings, but after what preceded it, it’s not enough to pick things back up.

It probably doesn’t help that we get the bare minimum as far as tying all of these together. Aside from a possible motif involving cell phones, the only thing connecting all of this is the requisite wraparound segment involving Delicatessen’s Jean-Claude Dreyfus telling these stories to a blogger he caught taking selfies in his graveyard. By design, it’s not meant to do much more than be the sinew for the shorts, but even as sinew, it doesn’t leave much of an impression. And that’s without getting into the Urban Gothic-ass conclusion, which is a serious thud.

As a whole, this is basically a third of a good movie, the bulk of which opens the film, and because it lacks a real throughline like Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories or Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it doesn’t leave much of an impact. Individually, it can range from sombre to kitsch triumphant, but rather than the fun kind of kitsch, it just makes for material that not even a sudden appearance from the legendary Linnea Quigley can salvage it. Even the good parts aren’t good enough to override what comes next.

Available now on Prime Video

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Insert Coin

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

Mortal Kombat, Narc and NBA Jam, all famous titles in the world of arcade video games and part of the focus in director Joshua Tsui’s excellent documentary, Insert Coin. 

The action follows the journey in chapters of gaming manufacturer Midway, chock full of interviews with the pioneers of this legendary company. Midway was one of the first in the field to use live-action capture techniques, where real footage is shot in a studio and converted into pixelated imagery for video games. It was also the ‘punk rock’ gaming company where shock and awe tactics were used in the battle for arcade domination against the other big players, Gottlieb and Bally, famous for pinball machines like Ace High and Twilight Zone.

Narc started the ball rolling for Midway, designed by legendary developer Eugene Jarvis, extensively interviewed for the film. It was one of the first ultra-violent video games and a frequent target of parental criticism of the video game industry. The object is to arrest and kill drug offenders, confiscate their money and drugs, and defeat “Mr Big”. Narc became the first billion-dollar arcade game in the USA taking over from the likes of Donkey Kong and Pacman.

Mortal Kombat was another major hit for the company. Its use of comical violence, where a player could, among other things, rip an opponent’s head off while also removing their spine, horrified members of the public and ended up seeing company executives face up to a Government regulator intent on banning the game, which only fuelled the public’s salacious appetite and sales continued to go through the roof.

After graduating from film school, Tsui spent several formative years working for Midway as a game developer, eventually coming up with such titles as Fight Night and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Having inside knowledge and remaining acquainted with his work colleagues, Tsui realised that an important story could be told about the early days of gaming; Insert Coin becoming his first film.

Tsui conducts the interviews on his own, a personal approach eliciting candid, often hilarious responses from his subjects. Anecdotes explain how the game based on Terminator II starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, directed by James Cameron was created; director Paul Anderson discusses how the film based on the game for Mortal Kombat came about. Archival footage has rock stars Aerosmith in motion capture sessions for Revolution X.

With its use of interviews and archival footage, Insert Coin is reminiscent of Australian documentary masterpiece Not Quite Hollywood. It’s a fascinating look at the history of gaming, and entertaining even if you’ve never sunk a video basket or mowed down a pixelated drug dealer.

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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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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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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.