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1985 (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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Advertising executive Adrian (Corey Michael Smith, Gotham, Carol) returns to his childhood home in small town Texas for the first time in three years. Having left home as soon as he was able to, Adrian finds himself distanced from his conservative parents. Dale (Michael Chiklis), Adrian’s deeply repressed father, is uncertain how to communicate with his adult son, while his mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), hopes he will finally start a relationship with his long-time female childhood friend Carly (Jamie Chung).

Adrian’s strongest family bond is with younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), who has clearly missed his elder brother’s presence. Still a teenage student, Andrew is forced to live under the fundamentalist Christian values of his parents, he sneaks Madonna cassettes into his Walkman, listening to pop music against the religious advice of the family’s pastor. Unbeknown to everybody Adrian is living with two secrets; he is gay and is HIV positive.

Set in the early years of the AIDS crisis, when people living with HIV frequently faced stigma and some found themselves ostracised by their families, 1985 captures something of the tragedy and pain of the era, the politics and cultural effect of which are still felt today.

This powerful, moving drama is beautifully shot on 16mm black and white film, and thanks to its careful use of tone and texture, as well as long, slow takes, it allows the protagonists’ actions to unfold on the screen with a sense of genuine poignance. The cast deliver strong performances which lends a depth to the work.

In some respects, the black and white style plays to a different era of cinema, where stories unfold with a natural pace, but the film is not simply indie-cinema nostalgia, and the cinematography, alongside the minimal score, evoke a simple and direct form of communication. Deeply moving, 1985 is a film with a quiet effective power.

 
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Five Feet Apart

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Even for a medium as inherently manipulative as cinema, the recent young adult takeover of terminal romance (AKA sick-lit) pushes that boundary more than most. While it has given audiences some solid features like The Fault In Our Stars – the film that kickstarted the trend in earnest – that is still in spite of storytelling that is almost begging the audience to start tearing up. The latest in this trend, Five Feet Apart, isn’t annoying because it is manipulative. It’s annoying because it feels stuck between trying to wring honest engagement out of the proceedings, and just dovetailing the typical clichés of the genre.

For what works about this production, one needn’t look further than the main couple. While Cole Sprouse as the reclusive bad boy love interest is a little too on-the-nose as far as teenaged pandering is concerned, Haley Lu Richardson more than picks up the slack with a performance that demands empathy and entirely warrants it. Bonus points for having a main character with OCD and not completely adhering to wizened stereotyping about the condition, something followed with the story’s approach to the focal-point condition: Cystic fibrosis.

While most films in this genre are fixated with tying themselves to literary classics to give themselves a sense of importance, this film is more interested in the hard facts about the condition itself. And as a result, when it’s not highlighting the endearing cuteness of the main couple, it’s giving facts about CF, living with it and the paradoxical situation it puts people in. The one group of people that best understand what they’re going through (other people with CF) are the ones that they absolutely need to keep their distance from.

It emphasises the need for tactile contact, even in the face of worsening health, and by film’s end, it turns that need into something universal that goes beyond the diagnosis. This ends up declaring what defines sick-lit as a sub-genre: highlighting the romantic trials of the sick to give sentimental advice to the healthy. Manipulative as hell, but for the most part, it works.

However, for every moment that feels sincere, there’s another that adheres to the sick-lit doctrine. The near-endless montages set to sterilised dream-pop, the fear of character death as an impetus to feel something, not to mention the schmaltzpocalypse that is the entire third act, where any intention of emotional integrity goes right out the window; it’s still trying to push through a fog of familiarity to make any of it stick.

What results from all this is a film that highlights some of the best and some of the worst that the sub-genre has to offer. Its heart is in the right place, but its brain runs from it by the time we reach the third act. It’s still worth checking out, even if only to see Haley Lu Richardson stake her claim as an actress to keep an eye on, but it’d be easier to recommend if there was more consistency here.

 
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The Man Who Feels No Pain

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This frenzied mish-mash of Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner and comic book origin tale is told with an eye towards western cinematic sensibilities and an affectionate reverence of filmic pop culture.

It follows the travails of Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, son of Indian screen star Bhagyashree), a young man with a rare disorder that also proves very handy: he has a congenital insensitivity to pain. His ailments also include a requirement for constant hydration, which necessitates wearing a backpack that stores a ready supply of water, though it tends to run dry at inopportune moments, meaning Surya has to come up with creative ways to imbibe H2O.

Throughout his formative years, Surya exists on a diet of Kung Fu and action movies and he teaches himself martial arts moves so that he can dispense vengeance on the gang that robbed his mother when he was a young baby, killing her in the process. Surya is always at the side of his best friend and childhood crush Supri (Radhika Madan), whose father is a violent drunk, forcing Surya to teach him some knuckle-sandwich infused home truths, ultimately putting Supri’s father in the hospital.

As a young man, Surya yearns to meet his idol, a one-legged martial arts guru named Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), and after meeting him, Surya soon encounters his scenery-chewing evil twin, Jimmy (also played by Gulshan Devaiah). Soon, the adult Surya and Supri must fight the fight of their lives, defending themselves against henchman and street scum alike as Surya struggles to realise his childhood dream of being an unstoppable, karate-chopping, leg-sweeping, force for justice on the streets of Mumbai.

At times it’s so tight you’d think Edgar Wright was sneaking into the edit room, at other times the sequences are languid and baggy. That said, the overwhelming sense of joy and fun that Vasan Bala is having here – name-checking his Hollywood influences and designing inventive and crazy fight sequences – is contagious (though the amount of scenes depicting children being beaten is positively Dickensian). Street locations are brightly decorated and colourfully lensed and the soundtrack is tacky and sweet, making this slice of Bollywood geekdom a ton of fun. The running time, as you would expect, is over two hours but the reward is in the journey and there’s lots of fun to be had in this alternately goofy, melodramatic and surreal chop-sock-rom-com.

 
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Devil May Cry 5

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Video games, as a medium, have evolved so far beyond their earliest forms. What once existed as a brief diversion, an amusing gimmick, has now attained levels of sophistication impossible to have imagined even a couple of decades ago. Titles like God of War (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/god-of-war-2/) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/red-dead-redemption-2/) have raised the storytelling bar so high, legitimising video games as an art form capable of nuance, pathos and depth. All that being said… sometimes it’s fun to just beat the shit out of a bunch of demons, hey. Sometimes it feels good to unleash colourful carnage on deserving foes and look good while doing so. Devil May Cry 5 scratches that particular itch like an itch-scratching pro.

Devil May Cry 5 is the latest installment in the strange but stylish series from the good people at Capcom. Although the series was rebooted with DmC: Devil May Cry in 2013, this is a direct sequel to Devil May Cry 4 which dropped in 2008. Confused? Of course you are, but to be honest, familiarity with the series is an optional extra at this stage. Because what Devil May Cry is about, and has always been about, is spectacular action, and oh good (Dark) Lord does this game deliver.

Practically, you’ll be playing as one of three rotating characters. There’s Nero, the arrogant youngster with interchangeable arm attachments; Dante, the classic demon slayer with sword and guns; and V – the lanky, tattooed emo newbie – who can’t actually fight himself but commands a demonic bird, big cat and enormous golem. He also reads poetry to amp up his dark powers and no, we’re not even joking. These three characters have vastly different play styles, unlockable skills and alternate weapons. Even completionists are going to have a hard time experiencing every single trick of the trade during a single playthrough, which is where Devil May Cry 5’s “Son of Sparda” mode comes in handy, basically the title’s version of NG+.

This trio of unlikely friends travel through a pretty ordinary story, that time jumps a little too much for its own good, but essentially the narrative is a delivery system for action scenes. And the action is buttery, fast-paced, exciting, visually spectacular and original. The sheer feeling of unbridled glee as you tear a motorbike in half and smack fools as Dante, or ride your own rocket arm as Nero or leap atop your golem and curb stomp some evil, is genuinely wonderful. After a slew of excellent, but deliberately-paced story-based games, it’s a rare joy to just shut up and fight.

Devil May Cry 5 is, quite simply, a fantastic action game. The story is threadbare, the dialogue frequently appalling, and geez it would have been nice to have a playable female character along with all the NPC eye candy, hey Capcom? But all those concerns will evaporate like a demon’s freshly-slaughtered corpse when the aggressive metal cranks up and the next pulse-pounding blue begins. Slick, gorgeous and utterly addictive, Devil May Cry 5 is a terrific ball-tearing action extravaganza of ultraviolence and chaos and one not to be missed.

 
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Pluck (A Film Not Really About Chicken)

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Ad pitch: Mugabe sits in his empty palatial dining room reminiscing about the friends he’s lost. Friends such as Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. As the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days reaches its crescendo, we’re reminded that no one should have to eat alone. The product? Nando’s 6 pack meal deal, obviously.

This is one of the many near knuckle marketing campaigns headed by the chicken restaurant that’s seen them become one of the most well-known brands in South Africa. The documentary Pluck compiles a selection of their best and worst campaigns in order to paint an alternative political history of the country, whilst those behind the brand talk about the real-world events that shape their creativity.

Let’s be honest, any documentary that focuses solely on a company’s legacy – particularly one which they’ve given their blessing to – is in danger of being indulgent from the beginning. Thankfully, Pluck manages to fall on the right side of back-slapping. Created in 1987, the Johannesburg franchise dropped into a political landscape that was – and still is – deeply complicated. Poking fun at the establishment wasn’t just a way to get noticed. For many at Nando’s it was about defusing tension. And if they sell a bit of peri peri sauce, then so much the better. In fact, one creative remembers that he got so involved in holding a mirror up to the society that they realised three ads into their campaign that they hadn’t actually mentioned any of the products they were selling.

Amidst the lampooning and caricatures, Pluck reminds the viewer of what could be at stake. Whilst Nando’s copped its fair share of viewer complaints, with ads involving blind people and, at one point, a certain Uruguayan rugby team trying to stay alive, they could also incur the wrath of the politicians that they mocked. The aforementioned Mugabe ad resulted in threats of violence and death being aimed at staff in Zimbabwe, whilst the then leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema took great offence to being portrayed as a literal political puppet, going so far as to demand a face to face apology.

Naturally, everything is a product of its time and some adverts will likely raise a quizzical eyebrow with their attitudes towards gender. In particular, it’s hard to fully rally for the ad exec who claims the stereotypically camp gay couple used in his campaign was championed by his LGBT friends who were just thankful for the representation. Thankfully, other talking heads are more candid when it comes to their company’s more problematic moments.

While its message of laughter is the best medicine and everyone is equal in the eyes of comedy is nothing ground-breaking, as an independent documentary, Pluck indeed wins for its approach to one of history’s more splintered political arenas.

 
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Pimped

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Can a film work when all of its characters are wholly unlikeable? It’s a dilemma that co-writer/director, David Barker, bravely toys with in his feature debut, Pimped. With a very small cast of characters made up of the unpleasant, the misogynistic, the snobbish, the cruel, and the unhinged, Barker truly backs himself up against the wall. Thankfully, he carries a few vital cinematic weapons: his themes are creepily prescient; his dialogue (co-penned with Lou Mentor) has a pruriently compelling quality; the locations are alluringly shot by talented DOP, Josh Flavell; the music is dynamic and original; and the cast is across-the-board excellent. The a-hole quotient undeniably strains the friendship, but Pimped remains a stylishly subversive treat…a bon-bon spiked with ground glass.

Lewis (a mind bogglingly smarmy Benedict Samuel) and Kenneth (Robin Goldsworthy nails the creepy-rich-best-friend trope with smashing bravado) are housemates with a taste for the debauched and amoral. When they target the loopy Sarah (a fragile but steely Ella Scott Lynch) – who is trailed by her alter ego, Rachel (also played by Lynch, but in an ugly black wig), with whom she actively and verbally debates the rights and wrongs of life – for an unpleasant sexual tryst, they get much, much more than they bargained for, and the bodily fluids really start to flow.

Mirroring low budget minor classics like Bound and Diabolique, the winningly titled Pimped has a real strut about it. Barker obviously knows that he can write and shoot, and he easily rises above his minimal budget. It’s a modest film with limited locations and a very small cast, but there’s an undeniable air of rumpled class about the film. The talented and charismatic Benedict Samuel (The Walking Dead, Gotham, Secret City) and Ella Scott Lynch (Love Child, The Code) are obviously major names-on-the-rise, and they add immeasurably to the sense of punchiness. It’s dark and nasty, but Pimped will continue to bang around inside your head long after the last evil deed has been done.

 
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Trials Rising

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The Trials games are weird, narky little titles that absolutely should not work and yet somehow, against all odds, do. The premise is thus: you’re a little 2D bloke (or lady) and you ride a motorbike through increasingly evil courses involving the need for speed, precision, stunt skills and nerves of steel. The tracks get harder and more elaborate and the player gets sweaty and more frustrated, until you either run out of tracks (unlikely) or rage quit (extremely likely).

And yet despite obviously being a lower budget title, with 2D courses and occasional moments of graphical glitching, Trials games are utterly compelling. Trials Rising, the latest incarnation, is no exception to the rule and in fact features some of the cleverest, most devious and darkly diabolical courses in the series’ history. You’ll cackle with laughter as your manage to just survive an insane jump leaping through fire, you’ll punch the couch in spit-flecked frustration as a second later you’re coat-hangered by the lip of a ramp you hadn’t previously been aware of. You’ll repeat the courses over and over again, trying to shave precious seconds off your best time, and why? Because the real metagame of any Trials title is beating your mate’s high score.

Ironically, Trials Rising’s biggest problem is the opposite of most AAA games. As a critic one gets wretchedly tired of reviewing yet another tentpole title that doesn’t revolutionise or even vaguely evolve the core gameplay or mechanics, yet Trials Rising has done that and, uh… it’s not great. See, the way you unlock new tracks in previous Trials games was by getting better and better scores on existing tracks, which unlocks new areas. While that mechanic still exists here, to some degree, the main method of unlocking involves grinding random tracks that have new objectives like “30 back flips” or “finish in under a minute”. This sort of randomised content would be fine if it was optional, but it rather steals the thunder – and indeed the whole joy of progression – from previous games.

Other additions to the formula like online multiplayer and the ability to do tracks with your mates are fun, if inessential, but the progression system is a real bummer and feels antithetical to the precision and discipline required to “git gud” at these games.

Ultimately Trials Rising remains a worthy addition to a somewhat niche series, and features some of the most clever, wonderfully torturous tracks in the masochistic series’ history. However a new, frankly baffling, progression system steals the game’s thunder in a confounding fashion. Well worth a squiz for veterans and newbies alike, however, particularly if you have a group of competitive friends whose tears you wish to drink like salty, salty wine.

 
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The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others

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In 1963 South Africa, seven men were charged and put on trial for over 200 counts of sabotage with the intent to ‘ferment violent revolution’. Their names were: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and future president of the country Nelson Mandela. The trial was condemned by a branch of the United Nations and led to international sanctions.

The documentary The State Against Mandela and the Others is well aware that for many this trial is perhaps most famous for being the one that put Mandela in prison for nearly 30 years. Describing the rest of the group as ‘the others’ in its own title, the film is a tongue in cheek dig at this public knowledge, whilst also clearing a pathway to understanding who these other men were.

Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte sit down with those who were accused, and still alive, to talk about their lives before they fought apartheid and their thoughts and feelings during the court case itself. Those no longer present are represented by family members, such as Winnie Mandela, who cast light on how the men’s actions reverberated through their wives and children. Their conversations are frank and often charming, with the men still possessing the same sharpness they displayed in court.

Rather than simply being a series of talking heads, however, The State Against Mandela and the Others uses the 256 hours of court recordings to tell the men’s story through animation. Through surprisingly clear audio, we hear every word, cough and gavel slam as the men come under the scrutiny of chief prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar. Faced with the death penalty, the seven men used their time on trial to highlight their cause and it’s clearly frustrating for Yutar as they weave around the questions hurled at them.

Often surreal in its depictions of its ‘cast members’ – Yutar is portrayed as a giant Bela Lugosi type who glides into frame – the animation allows the men’s words to run loose into landscapes made up of shapes and patterns as well as more traditional means of depicting the story. It all becomes rather hypnotic and yet, manages to both bolster and distract from the words spoken.

A shortcoming of the film arrives in the condensing of the court audio. Whilst there’s perhaps no call to hear every single second of the trial, there is a thought at the back of the mind that Champeaux and Porte’s approach to the Rivonia trial could be best suited as a mini-series, allowing the story and its protagonists a chance to breathe. Instead of hurtling – understandably due to time constraints – to the end. This is a mild criticism perhaps that’s more a testament to what is happening on screen and the desire to know more.

With a heavy subject given a light touch via animation, The State Against Mandela and the Others is an interesting take on an important chapter in apartheid history.

 
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Hal

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Hal

The late Hal Ashby was one of the great powerhouse directors of the 1970s, though he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman. He was a looser, more eccentric figure than those cinematic titans, but his output during that famously freewheeling decade is nothing short of stunning, with his seven key career works – The Landlord, Harold And Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home and Being There – among the best films of the era. Wildly anti-authoritarian, raggedly eloquent, utterly self-possessed, truly independent, and with a deep, deep fondness for medicinal herbs, Hal Ashby was an equally fascinating figure off-screen, and this beautifully realised documentary portrait from director, Amy Scott, is a true revelation. It’s heartbreaking, insightful, moving, authentic, hilariously funny, and wonderfully entertaining…just like Hal Ashby’s movies themselves.

Featuring interviews with Ashby’s colleagues and collaborators (Robert Towne, Robert C. Jones, Cat Stevens), cast members (the likes of Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Lou Gossett Jr., and Lee Grant – all in candid form – make this a very starry affair), and modern day acolytes (a literal who’s who of hip American cinema: David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Allison Anders, Adam Mackay, Alexander Payne), Hal captures all aspects of Ashby as a filmmaker and figureheads. There are great on-set anecdotes and teriffic stories aplenty, while the presence of Ashby himself is skilfully recreated via archival audio interviews and personal letters passionately read by actor, Ben Foster. Things get far more personal via emotional interviews with Ashby’s estranged daughter (like many men of his generation, he was no candidate for father-of-the-year), his ex-partners, and director and close friend, Norman Jewison, who gave Ashby his start in the industry as an editor.

While Ashby’s negligible 1980s output (Second-Hand Hearts, The Slugger’s Wife, Lookin’ To Get Out and The Rolling Stones lukewarm concert film, Let’s Spend The Night Together) is disappointingly glossed over completely in the space of literally one minute, the ignominies that he endured on his last feature film, 8 Million Ways To Die (on which he experienced constant and undue interference, amongst other indignities), are detailed in all their abject miserableness. With Ashby’s death from cancer soon after, it’s a sad end to what begins as a story filled with hope and raging brio, but as most of Ashby’s films themselves so lucidly demonstrate, happy endings are rare. Bittersweetness is often the best that you can get, and the insightful and affectionate Hal has it in spades.

 
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Swimming With Men

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Deep in mid-life crisis, vaguely unlikeable accountant Eric (Rob Brydon) walks out on his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) when she is elected to the local council, primarily because he thinks she’s having an affair. At his local pool, he finds solace with a group of other mostly middle-aged men who have formed a synchronised swimming team. Eric uses his aquatic and maths skills to help the amateurs perform various moves and with the subsequent help of pool attendant Susan (Charlotte Riley), who happens to be a synchronised swimmer, the eight men decide to enter the championships in Milan.

The underwater scenes, and the depiction of the movements of the men in the swimming pool, are the film’s strong points, one sequence showing Eric sitting alone on the depths of the pool’s bottom suggests that deeper existential themes could be at play. However, any genuine reflection on middle-aged-men is rapidly dismissed from the narrative through an almost instant depiction of male bonding thanks to a brief comic reference to ‘Fight Club’ (one of their rules is “no one talks about Swim Club”). The film sketches the men through meagre backstories, but these are brief and offer little insight into ‘masculinity in crisis’. Meanwhile, the two women lack any depth in this already shallow male world.

The film becomes most awkward when our protagonists face their opponents, the Swedish team, resulting in largely unfunny jokes and a predictable subplot (little Britain never seemed so little, and it’s hard not to want to make a Brexit analogy). All of which seems like a missed opportunity, especially when considering the film has roots in the true story the Swedish men’s synchronised swimming team documented in Dylan Williams’ (credited as executive producer here) Men Who Swim (2010).

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this film is knowing that the strong ensemble cast (which alongside Brydon, Horrocks, and Riley, features talented actors Rupert Graves, Adeel Akhtar and Jim Carter) can deliver so much more than this.