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Martha: A Picture Story

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Martha Cooper is best known for Subway Art, the groundbreaking 1984 book on which she collaborated with Henry Chalfont. There’s a paradox in this, because when she was first photographing the work of New York City’s graffiti artists it was widely dismissed as vandalism, and now that it’s appreciated (by both critics and the public) the walls and trains of the Big Apple are relatively bare.

But subway graffiti is only one of many objects of her fascination, as this engaging documentary makes abundantly clear. Born in Baltimore, she had a stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, began her photographic career at the New York Post and moved on to National Geographic. Over the ensuing decades she’s focussed her lens on hip-hop, street life and urban folk culture in its myriad forms, tattoos in Japan, latter-day graffitists in Germany …  The unifying theme, as an admirer puts it, has been “people rising above their environment in one way or another”. That and an apparent cheerful disregard for danger and personal risk.

Martha Cooper comes across here as a likeably strong, self-contained and independent individual, who doesn’t care about posterity – “I’ll be dead” – and who refers modestly to taking rather than making photos because subject matter is the key. But therein lies her brilliance: having the ‘eye’ for a vibrant and photogenic subject, and always at a crucially opportune moment. At 76 she’s still quite a trooper, and this film – a visual document of visual documents – is an interesting testament to the massive archive she’s accrued in a lifetime of restless creative energy and observation.

 
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Siblings of the Cape

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

Not every film is meant to make an audience feel good. Some of the greatest moments in cinema history are the result of putting a stone into the viewer’s stomach, making them connect with a fictional story so viscerally that they feel melancholy or even anger. The distinction between a ‘good’ depressing film and a bad one is all down to intent and presentation: is there a reason why it wants to get that kind of reaction from the viewer? Is it a worthy invitation for empathy or is it simply inflicting misery for its own sake? Siblings Of The Cape, in no uncertain terms, fits into the latter category.

It’s the story of life below Japan’s poverty line through the eyes of a pair of siblings, the physically-disabled Yoshio (Yûya Matsuura) and the intellectually-disabled Mariko (Misa Wada). It aims for a Larry Clark/Harmony Korine style griminess to show how dire their living situation is, eg. the two of them resorting to eating tissues out of the garbage just to fill their stomachs. However, much like Clark and Korine, rather than saying anything of note about their class situation and/or what it makes people resort to, this is far more content to just wallow in its own misery.

As a last resort, in order to pay the bills, Yoshio literally pimps out his own sister for money. His developmentally-challenged, dependent-on-others, questionable-whether-she-can-even-consent-in-the-first-place sister. This is what makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative. Disabled sex workers are indeed a thing, and the over-simplistic argument of ‘disability = unable to consent’ is a complicated issue. But one deserving of more thought and actual understanding than anything found here.

There’s a scene where Yoshio gets accosted by other pimps, put into a wooden box and forced to watch his sister have sex with a john. That is this movie.

Aside from stimming around the house and engaging in sex work, Mariko has no agency. No real character of her own other than the label of ‘mentally disabled’. The film starts with her being both locked inside her own house and chained to the wall so she doesn’t leave, and it only gets worse from there. The only mercy given to her by the filmmakers is that, when we get to the scene with faeces-throwing (another disability stereotype given lip service here), it’s Yoshio doing it.

If there was a tangible point to this celluloid misery, it may have resulted in a visceral reaction. Instead, rather than feeling anything towards the characters, it only engenders resentment against the filmmakers who thought any of this was a good idea. It is manipulative bile without a point, and it makes one pine for the safe, reliable days of Freddy Got Fingered as far as depictions of sexually-active disabled people go.

 
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Mirrors of Diaspora

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

In the mid-Seventies, a group of young Iraqi artists – Arabs and Kurds – left their country to continue studies in the art academies of Rome and Florence. Things changed dramatically for the worse in the Eighties, and it became too dangerous for them to return.  It still is, and this documentary looks at their art, what they’ve done since, how they look at the world, and what it’s like to be in ‘voluntary’ exile from your homeland.

All the artists here have been successful to a greater or lesser extent, and have felt welcomed in their various adopted countries – Italy, Holland and Sweden – so this is not exclusively the litany of woe we might expect. But there are, inevitably, some sad elements, stories and observations. One of them admits, in fact, that he rarely paints these days precisely because of all the destruction in the Middle East, while another has created an installation in memory of his brother who was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

And then there is Kadhum Al Dakhail, resident in Sweden, who observes that blood-spattered reality is in a sense already a form of graphic ‘artwork’ which it would be superfluous to depict, so he tends to concentrate on less visceral subject matter.  Dutch-based artist Afifa Aleiby specialises in (beautiful) monumental art and representational paintings… Sculptor Fuad Azziz, in Florence, makes striking flat ‘two-dimensional’ figures, as well as illustrating children’s books … The eloquent Resmi Al Kafaji combines Iraqi and Italian memories by showing how the Tuscan hills resemble a woman in robes…  And there are snippets from a couple of theatrical performance pieces.

Mirrors Of Diaspora has a few moments of tedium, and could safely have been pruned a little. But it’s worth seeing – preferably on the big screen – and for the most part it’s illuminating.

 

 
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The Outbreak

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

While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, it engages because of the character groundwork laid out in the first act.

A man runs through the snowy wilderness, protected from the cold by the furs on his back. Looking like the very definition of worst for wear, he stumbles into a river before vomiting blood. As far as openings go, it’s certainly one to make you sit up and take notice. It’s also a bit misleading to what The Outbreak is about. Titled Vongozero in its native Russia and based on the book of the same name by Yana Vagner, The Outbreak is less apocalyptic tale and more family-based drama. Think Stephen King’s The Stand but with fewer allegories about God and The Devil.

Set in modern-day Moscow, everyday man Sergei (Kirill Käro) is coming out of a bitter break up with his ex, Ira (Maryana Spivak) – who dangles their son over him like a prize – whilst maintaining a new relationship with his former therapist, Anna (Viktoriya Isakova) and her autistic son, Misha (Eldar Kalimulin). Meanwhile, businessman Lyonya (Aleksandr Robak) is struggling to keep control of his alcoholic and bitter daughter, Polina (Viktoriya Agalakova).

On its own, there’s enough quality melodrama for the audience to dine out on here for months. When Sergei and Lyonya bring their families together for a ‘friendly’ meal, the scene is brilliantly staged as a pantomime of polite small talk masking the disdain certain diners have for each other. It seems obvious that to avoid all future tension, everyone should stay away from each other, but then there’s the superflu that’s running through the country. A virus that sees the government denying all knowledge while simultaneously shutting down schools with children and staff still inside.

While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, The Outbreak engages because of the groundwork laid out in the first act. Having successfully set up the dynamics of this array of backbiters and genuinely good people, the narrative sees Sergei and his two families, along with Lyonya and his, having to work together as Moscow turns into a plague pit and mysterious armed men attack their homes.

Escaping to the countryside by car, director Pavel Kostomarov manages through the tight confines of their transport to crank up the tension and paranoia that comes with this new diseased territory. Before all this though, Kostomarov teases the oncoming plague in a way that makes it all the more surprising when it finally arrives at Sergei’s doorstep. Things happen in the background; news reports are cut off, and ‘drunk’ people stumble out into traffic. Hidden in their own disputes, the end of the world almost sneaks by our characters.

Perhaps the biggest issue with The Outbreak is the advert that’s tagged onto the end of the film’s cliffhanger finale. Like The First Purge, the film concludes with a promotion of the television series adaptation which presumably continues the adventures of our band of not so merry brothers. It’s certainly not as egregious as The Devil Inside, which ended with a plea to visit a now defunct website, but you may feel a little cheated that you’re not going to be getting any resolution any time soon. That said, what is on show has certainly done its part and shows great promise for future instalments.

 
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Screwdriver

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

This is both a tense film and a rather understated one, with those apparent contradictions exemplified in its subdued and troubled protagonist. The immediate trigger for his distress is an incident in 2002 when a friend of Palestinian youth Ziad (Ziad Bakri) is fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. Shortly afterwards, a passenger in Ziad’s car responds by also shooting someone at random. Ziad takes the fall for his friends, and spends the next fifteen years in prison, where he evidently does it even tougher than we might assume. What happens after his release – and his complex but bottled-up feelings about it – are the meat of the matter in this involving story.

Adjusting to a changed outside world is one of Ziad’s challenges, but of course the sense of disorientation engendered by things like Facebook and a greater range of coffee pale into utter insignificance next to his deeper alienation. Traumatised, haunted by his past and unable to sleep at night, Ziad is unwilling – or possibly unable – to talk about it when approached by a well-intentioned female documentary maker. Nor he can he relate to his family, the friends who welcome him as a returning hero or the exigencies of holding down a job. In one of his less taciturn and more evocative moments, he describes himself as feeling “out of my skin”.

Screwdriver is an intelligently conceived and sustained mood piece, which manages to show the universal in the personal without – for the most part anyway – being an overt propaganda vehicle. (One character even says that such films “only make people feel sorry for us”.) And it’s got that rare virtue, a terrific ending.

 
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Code Vein

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s iconic series, has become so ubiquitous and influential in the realm of video games it basically changed the industry. These days there’s a “[Something] Souls” for everyone. Prefer Lovecraft and monsters to knights and dragons? Well, it’s Bloodborne for you. Dig on scifi? Well, friend, The Surge series beckons. How about a samurai aesthetic? There’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice just waiting for your twitchy digits. And now we have Code Vein, which could easily be pitched as “Anime Souls” or, if you’re feeling feisty, “Dark Souls for weeaboos!”

Set in an apocalyptic, attractively cel-shaded future, Code Vein tells a story that is somehow both undercooked and bafflingly convoluted. Your player-created-character wakes to find themselves bludgeoned by leaden slabs of exposition, before being given control and instructions to find blood beads and fight monsters. Happily, once the NPCs stop banging on, the actual gameplay itself is much more comprehensible. It essentially involves you killing monsters, collecting better armour and weapons and learning new skills in the various classes you can summon at will. The amount of in-menu faffing you can get up to in this game is astonishing, and fans of deep diving RPG management will be in absolute fiddly heaven. On the downside, while the combat apes many of the best aspects of Dark Souls, it lacks that fine touch, that necessary precision, that sets the title apart. That said, Code Vein is a much easier proposition, giving you a choice of AI partners who are actually pretty useful in combat and can be tweaked to suit your play style.

Your biggest barrier to enjoying Code Vein, however, will hugely depend on your tolerance for anime nonsense. If you’re a fan of giggly vampire schoolgirls, metrosexual cheekboney blokes with perplexing hair and endless monologues that feel like beat poetry read by someone suffering from recent cranial trauma, you’re in for a treat. However, if you’re a wee bit anime agnostic… you might not get the charm. Within the opening minutes of Code Vein, a scantily clad lady – with boobs so big they jiggle when she frowns – appears, and talks at you at length, rarely getting anywhere near a coherent thought. Pay close attention to this moment, because variations of it will appear throughout your 30ish hour playthrough.

Code Vein is a strange, imaginative and frustrating proposition. It’s mostly fun, and certainly delivers an engaging world, but if a little more attention had been paid to combat precision – and a little extra work done on the story and dialogue – it could have been a legitimate classic. As it is, the mixture of baffling lore, stilted dialogue, boobtacular fanservice and item management will likely appeal to a very niche crowd who, admittedly, will embrace it like their brand new waifu.

 
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Zombieland: Double Tap

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

It’s been ten years since the first Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer’s slight-but-fun directorial debut, and the world hasn’t exactly been crying out for a sequel. Don’t get us wrong, the original is a cute flick, but the realm of popular culture isn’t hurting for a lack of zombie comedies these days. The best zombie comedies are about something. Shaun of the Dead (arguably the king of the subgenre) was a story about taking responsibility and maturing, that just happened to take place during a zombie apocalypse. Peter Jackson’s Braindead was a story about a man learning to embrace love and stand up to his domineering mum, who eventually manifests as a gigantic, undead monster. Zombieland: Double Tap, like the original Zombieland, is about… four extremely charming actors pissfarting about in the land of the dead, which isn’t a lot to chew on.

Zombieland: Double Tap joins the foursome of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) after another stunning opening credits sequence set to a Metallica song (“Master of Puppets”, this time). After they take over the White House as their new home base, the group falls into a rut. Little Rock is a young woman now and wants some friends her own age, and after Columbus proposes to the notoriously commitment-phobic Wichita, the sisters decide to head off on their own. Naturally things go tits up and Little Rock goes missing, so it’s up to the gang – with new character Madison (Zoey Deutch) – to save her, quip and kill a shitload of zombies.

So many elements of Zombieland: Double Tap shouldn’t work. The story is essentially a slightly remixed retread of the original, the characters are basically learning the same lessons they did a decade ago and on paper Madison’s dumb, giggling blonde schtick should be the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Yet, here’s the twist: Zombieland: Double Tap is actually a whole lot of fun. The script is clever and knowing, the leads are as charming as always, and new addition Zoey Deutch commits so fully to her cartoonish role, she ends up being one of the highlights of the film. Combine that with a sensible runtime of 93 minutes, a capable support role from the always welcome Rosario Dawson and some cheerfully creative zombie kills, and you’ve got a recipe for a brisk and fun time at the movies.

Zombieland: Double Tap isn’t dripping with subtext, depth or nuance, but it knows exactly what it needs to be. And although it’s a sequel the world wasn’t crying out for, it’s probably one those in the mood for amiable, charming nonsense will devour.

 
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Maiden

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Maiden looks at the Whitbread Round the World Race (now named the Volvo Race) – a grueling male-dominated 9-month regatta. The documentary pays particular attention to the historic 1989-90 competition, notable for having the inclusion of the first all-female team.

The ‘Maiden’ in the title refers to the name of the 58-foot ocean racing yacht, skippered at the time by the valiant 26-year old British sailor Tracy Edwards. Through an array of Super-8 home videos we learn of her troubled childhood, including an abusive stepfather, disappointed mother and eventual migration/escape to Greece, where Tracy meets a group of like-minded fellow expats and talks her way into jobs on charter boats and yachts.

It is during this period of her life that Tracy learns of the Whitbread race but is met with rampant sexism and misogynistic remarks such as “Girls are for screwing when we get into port” when making enquiries to get involved. Her persistence eventually leads to a job as a cook on one of the 15 competing boats in the 1985-86 race and despite being treated like a servant, Tracy uses the experience to gain invaluable insights into sailing and the ocean. Returning to dry land, she sets out to form her own female crew and break into the old boys’ competition.

But the road is not an easy one – over several years, Tracy is met with numerus challenges and obstacles such as anxiety, financial detriments and sponsorship issues; eventually garnering the help of the King of Jordan. A flawed character by her own admission, Tracy has spent the majority of her life running away from something, be it her own responsibilities and failures.

The Maiden team are also met with biased press and patronising men who believe the women are doomed to fail, given the physical and emotional demands of the race – “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” reiterates Tracy.

Directed by Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), the documentary effectively captures all 33,000 nautical miles of the journey – juxtaposing nostalgic archival footage with present-day articulate interviews. Tracy’s teammates and rivals (male journalists and yachtsmen) are all interesting characters who bring individualised and passionate context to what is effectively a rousing story about an indomitable woman.

Near-mutiny and near-death experiences abound, while we also learn of Tracy’s (often laborious) leadership and persistence throughout the different legs of the race, which take the ladies from Southampton to Uruguay, New Zealand and beyond.

A thrilling documentary about dreams and equality, Maiden also serves as an inspiring portrait of a remarkable woman (and group of women) that went against the tide and pioneered the sport of ocean racing.

 

 
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Slam

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

“Mother, they cannot silence my tongue”. Such are the opening words of a young Muslim-Australian poet Ameena at a Western Sydney slam poetry reading. This is the starting point for Partho Sen-Gupta’s engaging drama-thriller. Ameena (Danielle Horvat), is a talented young woman driven by her passion and by her anger at marginalisation and non-acceptance.

When she suddenly disappears, this drags her whole family and community into a state of defensive anxiety. In particular, it affects her older brother Ricky (previously known as Tariq, played by Adam Bakri). He has an ‘Anglo’ wife Sally (Rebecca Breeds), and he seems to have settled for an identity compromise and a sometimes-reluctant decision to blend in. Like all good immigrants, he translates between the two worlds and tries his best to reassure his devastated mother.

Also drawn into the action is policewoman Joanne Hendricks (Rachael Blake) who carries a certain sadness from the loss of a close family member and who can identify, perhaps too much, with Ricky’s situation. Sen-Gupta doesn’t want to concentrate upon the crime and thriller elements, although the film is occasionally slowed down by scenes that are police-procedural. More central is the characters’ sense of rootlessness and longing and displacement.

The events of Ameena’s disappearance and the grinding lack of any real progress (all played out against the somewhat relentlessly-flagged Islamophobic media background) frays Ricky’s marriage. He begins to doubt whether social acceptance and harmony will ever return. At one point, a character tells him that he should be grateful because “Australia has been good to you”, but we can see this is an ambivalent truth, if not actually an insensitive accusation.

As with the director’s previous film, Sunrise (2014), the hero’s journey is a tormented one. We cannot but feel for Ricky’s plight, but it is not always easy to be in his company. Bakri (who was so good in the arthouse hit Omar (2013)) doesn’t have that much dialogue and is here required to communicate his character’s narrative mostly through his facial expressions. Still, the message that ethnocentrism blights aspects of contemporary Australia comes across loud and clear.

 
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Blue Hour

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

The trappings of independent cinema transcend cultural boundaries. The emphasis on intimate character studies, minor narrative setup that feels like an excuse for the characters to be highlighted, keyboard-centric soundtrack that sounds like it was written for ads playing in the background of pharmacies – even for the uninitiated in Japanese cinema, what appears in writer/director Yuko Hakota’s debut feature should still ring familiar. As much as all of this may sound like backhanded statements, Blue Hour does make for good drama, although one wishes that it carried just a little more emotional heft.

Centred on Kaho’s Sunada, a 30-something commercial director working in Tokyo, Blue Hour serves explores antisocial tendencies in the more literal sense: people who actively avoid other people. Between Kaho and Eun-Kyung Shim’s frequent moments of people-watching, their bonding over homemade comic books, and the numerous iterations of self-centred humanity, this all carries a certain Daniel Clowes social distance quality. Only it replaces Clowes’ plain-faced misanthropy with copious amounts of self-loathing, with Sunada claiming that she is doing everyone a service for not having to deal with her.

The way that relationships form the self, ends up containing the bulk of the narrative, as we see Sunada’s connection (or lack thereof) to others. Her strained relationship to her husband, her chalk-meets-cheese dynamic opposite Eun-Kyung Shim’s Kiyoura, her hesitant connection to her parents and grandmother, even down to her experiences with animals and insects. It echoes certain greener sentiments about how healthy connections to wildlife can lead to a more empathetic relation to living things as a whole, a trait that Sunada is shown to be lacking initially given her unsettling childhood recollections.

As backed by Ryuto Kondo’s sterile yet warm cinematography, Daisuke Imai’s editing that helps bring the intentionally jarring nature of the pacing to the forefront, and the combined efforts of Nao Matsuzaki and alt-rock group Shikanoichizoku on the soundtrack, Blue Hour is the story of a woman essentially growing out of her self-imposed shell and reconnecting with those around her. Again, it shares traits with Western indie dramas, looking like something Lena Dunham could eye for a remake, and part of that comes with the low-key emotional wavelength that some may have difficulty adjusting to.

But beyond that, this still makes for a resonate depiction of social isolation and 30-something ennui. Despite its main catch-call of tackiness is life, it resolutely avoids dipping too far into cliché and the production values are as far removed from being tacky as you can get.