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Camino Skies

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The idea of pilgrimage, of walking to holy sites in the hope of expiating one’s sins, goes back to the Middle Ages. In one sense it is Catholic in as much as it originates pre-Reformation. It should perhaps have atrophied along with Mummers Plays and Ducking Stools. Therefore, you could say, there is something to be explained about the continuing cult of doing this 450-mile hike across Northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago (the way of Saint James). Is there something mysterious and personally epiphanic that persists in this ancient custom? Or is it really just a triumph of tourist ‘re-packaging’; inspiration-lite for the modern identity-obsessed, globalised age?

In Fergus Grady and Noel Smythe’s modest documentary such questions are deliberately not delved into. Instead, we follow a few people from New Zealand and other countries who have decided to do the big slog. They are ‘randoms’ in the modern parlance, and the filmmakers sensibly don’t make any great claims for them being especially interesting or unusual. Although some aspects of their histories and biographies are interesting and even moving. People are interesting. The film would just implode if that wasn’t the case. In a way they are ‘everyman’ and that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise to which so many nameless people have committed themselves over so many centuries.

The problem for the film though is not just in this dilemma (how much do these people want to show of their inner life? How much will be revealed just by the camera crew tagging along?), but also how to make a largely ‘interior’ journey interesting. Otherwise it becomes like a giant reality TV show – Ninja Warrior in the hills – with them as ‘contestants’ to which we cannot but assign tropes or stereotypes; the plucky overweight one, the frail old lady with arthritis, the unbearably mock-profound euro tourist. The focus on these particular people – let’s not call them pilgrims – has to carry the main load. In fact, they are listed in the credits under the cast heading.

As noted, the filmmakers eschew any attempt to situate the Way as a phenomenon, either historically or sociologically or theologically. Nor do they want it to dissolve into some scenery-displaying travel show. The wide shots are actually kept to a minimum. And sweeping, inspiring music is mostly sidelined in favour of a few touches of Spanish folk.

Looked at coldly, this is just 80 minutes of people tramping along a road, but somehow the film works (at least in places) despite itself. Perhaps there is a little bit of pilgrim in all of us.

 
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Who You Think I Am

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This French drama could not be described as a straight romance, nor quite as a thriller but it has elements of both. Based on a recent popular French novel, it explores the very contemporary phenomenon of online dating and the temptations to fake or polish one’s online self. The fact that it stars the indefatigable Juliet Binoche (still a plausible romantic lead at 55) is bound to give its initial box office a boost.

Here, Binoche moves beyond her sometimes-glassy demeanour to show a fuller range of emotion. Her character is not entirely sympathetic (see below) but she holds our attention throughout.

The mushrooming of social media inside modern life (here with le Facebook as the French know it) is cropping up more and more in films these days, as it more or less has to if they want to inhabit the zeitgeist. The origins of this aspect of the web are rooted in the apparently universal desire to share all, and this can intersect (often dangerously) with the need to connect intimately. If we stop and think about it, intimacy is something that can only take root if we are fully honest, but when it is so easy to project a false or idealised image, that honesty is often fatally undermined.

This is the dilemma that eventually grows like a cancer inside the life of Claire (Binoche). She is a middle-aged separated woman who is still able to attract much younger men. Soon she starts to flirt online with twenty-something Alex (Francois Civil). She can’t help herself really when she borrows some photos of a younger woman to entice her new prospect. Of course, the poet’s adage hovers over this decision; “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”.

One of the problems with showing this new world is that so many scenes are essentially static, with us just looking at someone typing into their phone or computer. Perhaps the director could have opened it out more, or balanced this with more dynamic interactive scenes.

The excellent Charles Berling is a bit wasted in his underwritten role as Claire’s ex, and Claire’s relationship with the obligatory analyst (played largely unsympathetically by Nicole Garcia) become routinised.

It is important to our enjoyment of the film (directed by a man incidentally, who previously directed 2008’s Mark of an Angel, which has, coincidentally, been remade into the Australian film Angel of Mine, premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August) that we don’t judge Claire too harshly. She is insecure or prone to being narcissistic, but who isn’t today, at least a little? She could also be seen as forced into an impossible position by a youth-obsessed culture. Perhaps we can agree that she didn’t set out to hurt anybody. However, as Gustav Flaubert understood (in that seminal French work Madame Bovary), fate is both merciless and without rancour once the mechanism has been tripped. Claire is neither pure victim nor heroine, but she is recognisably human in her folly.

 
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The White Crow

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No film ends up being about just one thing. Whether a director sets out to capture the life of a single person or an entire planet, the culture wrapped around both the artist and the art end up influencing the final product. Hell, half the fun of watching movies is reading the material between the lines that the filmmakers themselves may not be aware is on the page.

Today’s offering, the latest from master thespian-turned-filmmaker Ralph Fiennes, is ostensibly a biopic about Russian danseur Rudolf Nureyev but is also a look at the political and cultural climate around him. Unfortunately for Fiennes, the latter ends up overshadowing the former, much to the production’s detriment.

The depiction we get of Nureyev, as captured by newcomer Oleg Ivenko, is one of frustrating inconsistency. His background as a dancer lets him glide across the stage when he’s called to do so, but backstage, his position in a story supposedly all about him feels in flux. He fluctuates between rebellious selfishness and wide-eyed wonder, wanting to see as much of the world as he can, when he isn’t actively trying to avoid talking to anyone. In greater hands, this could have worked as showing character depth and complexity, but what we ultimately get is a big switch being thrown, with what we learn about the artist different to what we learn about the art.

This is where things get rather disappointing as, in contrast to the film’s impact as biography, its musings on the nature of art make for quite enticing viewing. Meshing the French attitude towards all things sexual with a traveller’s point-of-view in wanting to experience all art possible, it creates a mood for Nureyev’s journey beyond the Iron Curtain as one of voyeuristic admiration.

Mike Eley’s camera work and Barney Pilling’s editing enforce comparisons between different forms of art, from paintings to sculptures to mosaics to songs to the human body itself. Maybe that’s what attracted Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adéle Exarchopoulos to the project: Fiennes actually pulled off comparing nude bodies to sculptures without turning it into exploitative softcore fit for late-night SBS.

And when added to the Soviet influence within the story, cementing Nureyev’s eventual defection not as political but as personal in reaction to the KGB’s attempts to stifle his exploration, it makes for a very rich atmosphere that the core story winds up letting down. Where that gets weirder is with David Hare’s scripting, containing numerous pleas to focus on the story and the emotion behind it, rather than the technique with which it is presented. The exact opposite of what makes this film worth sitting through.

It still makes its point as a work of art, one that insists on the appreciation of other works in turn, and it furthers Fiennes’ aesthetic behind the camera. But in the end, it feels like being in a restaurant where the salad has more flavour than the steak it’s been paired with.

 
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The Lion King

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Even the most Disney agnostic of cinema audiences are likely familiar with The Lion King. The 1994 animated feature remains one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved works, and is a masterclass in storytelling, style and emotion. That’s not a bad effort for what essentially amounts to Hamlet retold with some songs and cartoon carnivores. Since Disney seems intent on turning all of their animated features into “live action” concerns, it was inevitable that we’d get to this mane event, and the studio seemingly failure-proofed it. First up, director Jon Favreau – the bloke who directed the surprisingly solid live action The Jungle Book in 2016 – helms the piece. Follow that up with a staggeringly excellent voice cast that includes Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and freakin’ James Earl Jones and you’ve got a sure winner on your hands, right? So why is the end product so weirdly flat?

For those not in the know, The Lion King tells the tale of Simba (JF McCrary/Donald Glover), a young cub who leaves the Pridelands – the domain over which he is destined to one day rule – after the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Not realising he has been manipulated by his jealous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into believing Mufasa’s death was his fault, Simba slinks off in disgrace and becomes a shiftless hippie with Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner). You can probably guess where it goes from there, and to be honest there’s nothing really wrong with the story; it worked in 1994 and it works now. No, The Lion King just feels… off. The animation, while competent and slick, never manages to graze very far outside The Uncanny Valley, and it’s difficult to connect emotionally with furry animal friends who look just a bit too stiff and dead-eyed to be credulous.

Worse still is when the animals, who all look borderline photorealistic, burst into song, which feels more like an acid trip gone horribly wrong while watching a David Attenborough doco than a joyous expression of musical exposition. It’s not all bad, mind you, Pumbaa and Timon manage to inject a little fun into the proceedings and James Earl Jones’ vocal delivery has lost none of its gravitas. And yet, for all of the many positives attached to this project, it just doesn’t take off and consequently feels like an overlong slog through the savanna. Maybe kids will find something to latch onto here, but most of the adults attending will sadly not be feeling the love tonight.

 
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The Shanghai Job

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Known as S.M.A.R.T Chase in the Chinese market, The Shanghai Job is a British-Chinese co-produced thriller that sees Orlando Bloom shirk off the shackles of popular franchises – see Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of The Rings – in order to reshape himself as bonafide action hero.

Bloom stars as grizzled security agent, Danny Stratton, who has been living at the bottom of a bottle in Shanghai since his last job, a year ago, saw him lose a valuable painting to a gang of professional thieves. For reasons unknown, Danny and his team are given one last chance to redeem their reputation by escorting a valuable artefact from one destination to another. Wouldn’t you Adam and Eve though? The same gang turn up to relieve him of said item, leaving Danny to work quickly to save what’s left of his expiring reputation.

Largely known for his TV work, director Charles Martin (Skins, Being Human) has put together a solid if somewhat silly action piece that sees Bloom charging around barking at people like Jason Statham whilst sporting the bleached hair of a Buffy-era James Marsters. He’s joined in his sprint across the city by a team of fellow security agents, including Full Contact’s Simon Yam. Riffing off the relationships within the Fast and Furious franchise, each member brings their one personality trait to the table that manages to both compliment and aggravate the others in the group. A quick shout out to the dubious Ding Dong (Leo Wu) who spends a large part of the film following a girl using his drone; his cutesy puppy eyes failing to cover the slightly creepy invasion of privacy.

Moving on… Whilst The Shanghai Job is nowhere near to being of the same quality as later instalments of the aforementioned franchise, it does give an indication of the direction the series could be taken should the higher ups wish to pursue it. The acting is definitely a mixed bag, but Bloom seems to be relishing the opportunity to do his own stunts and get his teeth into something a bit grittier.

Perhaps The Shanghai Job’s biggest issue is pacing and an over-reliance on the cliched. Seemingly realising that the S.M.A.R.T. team are running out of breath, screenwriter Kevin Bernhardt (John Rambo) throws in a damsel in distress into the third act which also sees a literal game of catch added to the mix. Presumably because everyone got tired of punching each other.

Derivative of a number of recent actioners, including John Wick, The Shanghai Job is certain to find its niche with a select few. And if all involved are willing to return and embrace the hyper-realistic absurdity of it all, there’s potential for more fun ahead in future installments.

 
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Her Smell

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Alex Ross Perry’s new film Her Smell presents a story that is familiar, but injects it with a unique sense of realism, resulting in a marriage between the cynical and effervescent joy.

The film follows Becky Something, a fading indie darling who is a member of Something She (think Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill). Becky is going through various substance abuse problems and this causes her to isolate the people around her. While the plot is derivative and may remind audiences of past biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody, the film does inject originality into this tired format. While there are traces of melodrama and silliness, the film relies on realistic dialogue, unique editing and handheld camera movements to make the events organic.

Regular Ross Perry collaborator Elisabeth Moss gives an outstanding performance in the lead role. She balances the mental and physical challenges, with most of the tension in the drama coming from her character alone. While her character can be unlikable at points, the script is smart enough to have moments of realisation and raw emotion to keep you with her on the journey. Agyness Deyn who plays Marielle Hell, is the yin to Becky’s yang, and despite this aspect being engaging, the characters could have been developed further and this would have made the finale more earned.

What is successful are the themes concerning mental abuse, change and forgiveness, which audiences will relate to, and the true emotional power of the film comes from these explorations through character. Admittedly, these themes are most evident in longer scenes, which allows the audience to absorb the atmosphere; however, it also causes notable pacing problems. This issue is especially jarring in the first half, but once you’re equipped for Ross Perry’s unique approach to the drama and actors, as the film goes along, these issues become less apparent.

Her Smell is a solid entry into Alex Ross Perry’s filmography (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, Golden Exits). If you like rock ‘n’ roll themed films with a dash of heart, then you’ll find much to appreciate.

 
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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

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Having worked on over a thousand films as a writer, producer or director, French pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s achievements are one for the history books.

Yet you will never find her name published in any of them.

Present at the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, Guy-Blaché’s absence from the annals of filmmaking is explored with vivid intrigue in documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

Be Natural explores how Guy-Blaché became absconded from history through limitations of outdated technology in preserving her films and from her experiences working in an industry riddled with patriarchy and sexism.

Guy-Blaché’s belief that film could be used for more than documenting real-life created the template for all films with a narrative structure that have followed. There is an expression of authenticity in her work that carried through not just in the performances she drew from actors but in her creation of material that bravely addressed at-the-time taboo topics such as inequality. Guy-Blaché’s modesty did not detract from her ingenuity, with the filmmaker helping introduce colour, sound and special effects to cinema during a time when films were dark, silent and static.

Be Natural’s willingness to invite the audience in on the mystery behind Guy-Blaché’s deletion from history is alluring, resulting in a compelling watch that adds appeal to dry subject matter relating to film-preservation and archiving.

Director Pamela B. Green presents Guy-Blaché’s fighting-spirit through archival footage – allowing Guy-Blaché to showcase her intelligent and likeable personality. This is given more credence in recounts of her life through the admiring eyes of her daughter Simone, Francophile narrator Jodie Foster and in interviews with present-day Hollywood filmmakers shocked by Guy-Blaché’s lack of profile.

Green uses motion and graphics (which she has built a career on) throughout Be Natural to create a work that is accessible to the public and not just appealing to academics.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché exists as a testament to an industry clamouring for the equal treatment of women through the gaze of an innovator that fought a large part of her life to be recognised.

 
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Crawl

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Alexandre Aja’s first real impact on the world of cinema was 2003’s High Tension, a visceral nail-biting thriller (saddled with a desperately stupid ending) that was part of the so-called New French Extremity movement. Since then, Aja’s output has been a little uneven. There have been good moments like 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes remake, and 2010’s Piranha 3D was a lot of gory, goofy fun, however 2013’s Horns was a bit of a mess. Crawl seeks to make Aja’s name synonymous with solid genre gear once again and does a pretty decent job of it, actually.

Crawl tells the tale of Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario), an aspiring professional swimmer with severe, mostly unexpressed, issues with her father, Dave (Barry Pepper). After being unable to contact her father, Haley pays him a visit in the old family home during a severe hurricane. She finds her dad trapped in the basement by a vicious alligator or two, and the pair must work together to avoid being a tasty treat for the toothy mongrels. And that’s it, the entire premise. It’s nothing if not efficient.

Crawl hews closely to the “female protagonist with family issues vs beastly nature” template set by films like The Shallows, and while it’s not quite as solid as that flick, it’s an enjoyable swampy romp. Kaya Scodelario is an agreeable enough heroine and Barry Pepper is always a welcome presence, however it’s the increasingly silly/awesome set pieces that are the star of the show. Aja’s knack for setting up stylishly cruel sequences is on full display here, and as the water rises so do the stakes, leading to a balls-to-the-wheel climax that whimsically disregards any sense of credulity whatsoever and is all the more enjoyable for it.

At its core, Crawl is 87 minutes of lean, tense suspense with lashings of gore and frequent human stupidity. It does everything it claims on the tin and not a skerrick more, and armed with that knowledge it can be a lot of fun.

 
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Stuber

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With its LA-set storyline and throwback to ‘80s era action films like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs., Stuber is an irreverent, entertaining comedy, orchestrated by director Michael Dowse.

We follow Dave Bautista’s Vic Manning, a detective obsessed with detaining the drug kingpin (The Raid’s Iwo Kuwais) that killed his partner. After receiving a tip on his nemesis’s whereabouts, the hot-headed Vic ropes an unwilling Uber driver called Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) into his chaotic investigation and personal vendetta.

Though never reaching the heights of characters like Riggs and Murtaugh, Vic and Stu make a likeable enough duo. Like their cinematic peers, the combination of quick-fire dialogue (“you’re built for justice. I’m built for brunch”) and antagonistic interplay raises enough smiles, capitalising on Nanjiani’s goofiness and Bautista’s brute force. It’s also a delight to see the latter embrace his comedic talent, after a number of scene-stealing turns as MCU’s Drax the Destroyer.

Unfortunately for Kuwais’s bleached-hair bad guy, the story gives him very little to work with. In a similar vein to Mile 22’s frantic fight scenes, the Indonesian’s extraordinary martial arts talents are badly showcased here; a real shame given his brawls with ex-MMA fighter and wrestler Bautista. The once ubiquitous Mira Sorvino also phones in her performance as Vic’s generic and suspicious police captain.

A couple of serviceable subplots involving Nanjiani’s unrequited love interest (Glow’s Betty Gilpin) and Bautista’s neglected daughter (Santa Clarita Diet’s Natalie Morales) are lost amidst the film’s kinetic storyline. Dropping the two oddball leads in increasingly violent and silly situations, such as a chase through a Sriracha sauce factory or shootout in a veterinary clinic (John Woo doves included). In perhaps the film’s funniest scene, set at Stu’s sporting goods store, Dowse gets to drop in slapstick comedy reminiscent of his underrated sports feature, Goon.

In terms of buddy-cop films, Stuber adds little flavour to the formula. But as a mindless action/comedy vehicle, the pairing of Bautista and Nanjiani injects enough life and laughs to keep this extended Uber commercial going.

 
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Black ’47

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Though birthed in America, the western genre has been a seasoned traveller over the years, galloping its way into territory as distant as Italy (courtesy of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and co), Denmark (Kristian Levring’s The Salvation), New Zealand (Geoff Murphy’s Utu certainly flirts with the genre) and Australia (The Proposition still stands as a great western to rival much US output). With the absolutely cracking Black ’47, the western has now made its way to Ireland, and the results are stunning, as the film deals strongly in familiar genre tropes, Irish history, and blistering social comment.

When young Irish soldier Feeney (Australian actor, James Frecheville, best known for Animal Kingdom, gives an impressively intense and highly physical performance here) returns home from serving the crown in Afghanistan, he finds his home destroyed, with the nation in the violent grip of The Great Famine, which rained down starvation, death, disease and corruption between 1945 and 1949. With his family torn apart by unfeeling landlords and oppressive English forces, Feeney – an experienced fighter now equipped with exotically effective Afghan weapons – sets out for revenge. On his trail are his former military colleague, Hannah (the ever reliable Hugo Weaving is in fine form), and pompous English officer, Pope (Freddie Fox).

While on the surface functioning as a straight-ahead western actioner (Frecheville’s hard-charging killing machine Feeney is almost cut from the same cloth from which Rambo was constructed), Black ’47 really burns brightly in its fierce, uncompromising depiction of Ireland suffering under English rule. It’s exciting, entertaining, and utterly gripping, but Black ’47 is also a defiant, heartfelt piece of protest cinema.