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The Peanut Butter Falcon

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Disability is a tricky subject to tackle in any regard, even more so in the realms of fiction. The long-running cliché of abled-actors-taking-on-disabled-roles-almost-guaranteed-industry-award-winners is a cliché for a reason, epitomising the still-recurring treatment of those with a disability in the popular consciousness.

For the longest time, characters with disability populated middle-of-the-road weepies that, rather than try and speak truth to the experience and what it’s like to live within it, exist primarily to give abled audiences an open chance for cheap ‘inspiration’, a moment to reconsider their own lives through the most voyeuristic lens there is.

There will always be some that break away from the pack, though. Mary And Max would be one. Last year’s Kairos is another. And this film joins that shortlist.

Written around the filmmakers’ own relationship with budding actor Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is as much southern-fried contemplation as it is reworking of classic American fiction. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’ script plays around with age-old Mark Twainian tropes, making for a remarkable recontextualisation.

Gottsagen’s aspiring wrestler captures the pure innocence of Huck, while Shia LaBeouf takes time away from multimedia plagiarism and existence as a living meme to give a surprisingly strong performance as a loner fisherman, whose quick-thinking echoes Tom Sawyer’s street-smarts.

And along with adept performances from Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and even rapper Yelawolf in the supporting cast, the main trio is closed out with Dakota Johnson as Zack’s carer, the Widow Douglas of the story, whose concern comes not from piety but from being part of the abled consensus.

Of course, this being one-to-one allegory would’ve been too easy, and the film’s reworking of the classic tale of vagabonds and their friction against what can charitably be called ‘civilization’, shows incredibly clarity. It takes the original themes of struggling to fit in with society and refocuses it through Gottsagen and LaBeouf characters, showing how the lives of the disabled and the wage slaves represent a sizeable amount of modern-day alienation.

In LaBeouf’s Tyler, the struggle to work and live can be sabotaged by those who think a shared suffering is reason enough to continue inflicting it on others, as shown through John Hawkes’ Duncan. And in Zack, it’s how even the most well-meaning of people can still be part of the same system that demeans and ultimate infantilises the disabled.

Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor may refrain from using the word ‘retard’, but that doesn’t make her any less guilty of holding Zack back as much as those who use it in earnest, an unfortunately common notion that rarely gets brought up in the larger conversation.

It’s a parable on the outsider, with a lot of healthy rumination of disability in the mix, but like the best efforts, it doesn’t make a big show of ‘daring to talk about it’. The Peanut Butter Falcon appeals for empathy and the humanity that exists in all, regardless of health, wealth or racial label, and rather than just telling everyone it’s doing so, it makes a greater impact by showing it.

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Ashburn Waters

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A group of errant youths drinking and carousing at a remote campground are stalked by a malevolent evil, and have to fight for their lives. No, this is not a reboot of Friday The 13th, or indeed of any of the kill-scene-check-list films that staggered around in its bloody, frivolous wake. This is Ashburn Waters, an Aussie take on the slasher genre that skitters in on a tiny budget and lots of independent spirit. The debut feature of David Pether, it thankfully avoids most of the ugly pitfalls of its US counterparts, cutting the gleeful sadism and instead injecting a little mysticism and a taste of the supernatural into proceedings.

Still stinging after a nasty relationship breakup, Brett (Kyal Scott) is convinced by his buddy Binns (Andrew Lowe) to join up with their old high school crew for a camping trip over the Easter weekend. Unfortunately, Brett’s bitchy, cheating ex, Scout (Jade Prechelt), is also coming along, with a new boyfriend in tow. The considerably sweeter Cassie (Maia Rose Michaels) provides a more pleasant distraction, but when the bodies start to mount up, romance is quickly put on the backburner.

Unlike many, many other directors who have tackled the slasher genre, writer/director David Pether knows that you’ve got to care at least a little bit about who gets killed, and sensibly makes his characters a fairly likeable lot, with Kyal Scott and Maia Rose Michaels particularly appealing in the lead roles. The identity of the stalking killer is also a refreshing change from the usual psychosexual knife wielder, and gives Ashburn Waters a real sense of difference. While the budget occasionally hurts, and the tone is a little uncertain, this Aussie underdog boasts more than enough bite.

Ashburn Waters will screen on February 5 in Melbourne and will be followed by a Q&A with writer/director David Pether. For all venue and ticketing information, click here.

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The Leunig Fragments

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

A French poet once said, “there is another life, but it is inside this one”. That could describe the way of being of Australian illustrator and cartoonist Michael Leunig perfectly. Now, finally we have a documentary about his life and work called, revealingly enough, The Leunig Fragments. We are never going to get the whole guy, he is too contradictory and fractured for that.

Documentarian Kasimir Burgess (who made the fictional feature Fell to great acclaim back in 2014) has taken nearly three years to get this in the can and, though he is patient with Leunig, you can feel touches of exasperation. It is not that the great cartoonist is not helpful, in fact there are endless face to face conversations in which he tries to explain his thoughts and processes. Most of the film is made up of this with several of his cartoons and animations thrown in. Like many artists, Leunig is quite fascinated by what art is and where inspiration comes from, but he is also deeply suspicious of exposing too much to the light in case it shrivels and dies.

Also, Leunig is pretty much a ‘national treasure’, and so it is not hard to find other people in the media to be sympathetic talking heads. ABC Radio broadcaster Phillip Adams points out that no one stays the course for decades unless they really have something to say and care about being heard. Adams neatly nails Leunig’s sly apparently-innocent approach as ‘weaponised whimsy’. Indeed, the best of Leunig can be uniquely memorable. Like the Canadian cartoonist Gary Larson, everyone has their favourite Leunig, and his drawings adorn middle class fridges throughout the land. On occasions, he can stand in for the conscience of a nation.

That said, he has made the occasional misstep in his long career and felt the pain of rejection.  His sometimes ill-judged gags about LGBTI issues saw him recently fall on the wrong side of cancel culture. The film implicitly alludes to the fact that Leunig’s is a Boomer sensibility. Up and coming entertainers definitely don’t feel that they need to treat him with kid gloves or reverence.

The film also circles around the fact of his sometimes strained personal relations. Only one member of his semi-estranged family takes part in the film. Leunig worries away at this a bit, but then he worries about a lot of things. He also notices a lot of things that other people don’t notice they have noticed. He has a poet’s eye for detail, and he is primarily concerned with what he calls the ‘felt life’. He also prizes simplicity and being true to oneself (he is Christian in a quirky kind of way). But, for such a determinedly simple man he is decidedly complex.

Ultimately it is not a matter of forgiving or condemning the man or his art; that would be to fall into a very modern form of judgementalism. Though the film is slightly unsatisfactory in some ways, it nevertheless has a fascinating person at its centre. In the end artists care about their art and, yes, they contain multitudes.

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The Rescue

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

The Rescue is the capper of what can be considered a thematic trilogy for Chinese director Dante Lam, following up Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea, all fictionalised showcases for the men and women who make the public service personnel of the country. Mekong featured the police force, Red Sea had the Navy, and now Rescue shows members of the China Rescue and Salvage arm of the Ministry Of Transportation. It’s a great big blockbuster feature, but what makes this truly remarkable isn’t what it gets right. Rather, it’s what it gets right that rationally should not work in the first place.

This film looks amazing, to the point where it ends up showing up the Hollywood standard at its own bombastic game. The visual effects work courtesy of Digital Domain and Scanline VFX, who regularly work on Marvel efforts, hit a nice stylistic balance which makes clear why they’re going with CGI to begin with, but without its use being too conspicuous and/or distracting. From the opening oil rig rescue to the nail-biting finale, it all bursts onto the screen. To say nothing of the mind-blowing cinematography from Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Forbidden Kingdom), who utilises multiple points-of-view and incredibly fluid movement to keep every moment engaging. Even on the rescuers’ down time.

Because all work and no play makes for dull cliché, we end up following these heroes in their personal lives as well, primarily Eddie Peng’s Gao Qian, and it’s here where the perplexing part comes in. Going from the intense action scenes to Gao’s son playing romantic matchmaker (that’s a trope that really should have been left in the ‘90s) is the kind of tonal whiplash that usually comes from Bollywood productions, and the effect is about the same.

Hell, the more comedic and even emotional scenes not involving life-saving are so unashamedly goofy, that whiplash can feel all too literal at times. No doubt, the cheesy Western localisation doesn’t help, as kung-fu-style dubbing may be sensible given the visual energy, but still gives this an almost-lotiony sheen.

And yet, even those moments still work. It may feel like being pulled from one emotional reaction to another by the ankles, but it results in a solid hit every time, whether it’s the gut punch from the more tear-jerking moments or just the cheesy grinning at how precious things can get, particularly between Gao and his son. Between the humour and the emergency workers as superheroes, this is basically Playing With Fire done right.

The production values let the caped moments shine like wildfires, and the humanity of their civilian identities may be silly (okay, definitely silly), but it’s a likeable kind of silly. The kind that only works in the realm of blockbuster cinema, where the need to please crowds in droves overrides any semblance of self-awareness and just lets movies be fun. And for the rest of 2020, this is where the ‘fun’ benchmark will sit.

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Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A group of people are stuck in a confined space, suspended in an environment that they can’t survive, while some manner of mysterious force lays in wait outside. Bread-and-butter isolation thrills, the kind that is bare minimum for genre filmmaking and a framework that really needs all the spice it can get to stand out amongst its crowded competition. And to the credit of director William Eubank (Love, The Signal), all the right ingredients seem to be on-hand to make for a cool film.

For sheer atmosphere, Underwater looks and sounds pretty damn good. The production design hits a weird sci-fi middle-ground where it feels appropriate techy, but without tying it down to a specific timeframe, be it contemporary or that of a theoretical future. The overwhelmingly murky visuals courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (6 Underground, A Cure For Wellness) combine with the effective sound design, giving the ocean depths a suitably otherworldly vibe, adding to the occasional musings on how humanity may have dug too deep and awoken something dangerous.

Screenwriters Brian Duffield (Jane Got A Gun, The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) bring a reasonable amount of thematic chew to the narrative. Allusions to Alice In Wonderland, a reiteration of the need to work together that itself lives deep down in the genre’s DNA, a sideways justification for its comic relief where even the cheesiest shit is palatable in the face of unrelenting fear; it’s alright on paper, but something got lost in translation from paper to actors’ mouths.

Pretty much everyone here has a healthy pedigree for being watchable through sheer personality, but the director seems to have taken that for granted because they aren’t given much to do. All that emphasis on atmosphere means that characterisation ends up falling by the wayside, as the bulk of the cast feel like throwaways. The only exceptions to that are K-Stew in the lead, who is basically coasting on her brewing resurgence in the popular consciousness, Vincent Cassel as every captain of a sinking ship you’ve ever seen before, and T.J. Miller as one of the more tone-deaf embodiments of comic relief in recent memory. Even with the film’s own admissions of the quality of his quips, they still don’t register as intended.

So, everyone on-board is in the right place, and there’s a vein of originality that could give this seemingly-tired narrative a fresh twist. Then why is this so bloody boring? It should not be possible to make K-Stew v. Cthulhu dull to sit through, but these guys seem to have managed it. Not that it’s completely Dude-awful or anything, but it still feels like a selection of the best ingredients getting warmed-over in the microwave. Not even mixed or arranged in any particular way; just thrown in haphazardly. This can only be recommended if your affinity for any of the actors is that strong that you’ll watch them in anything.

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Viva The Underdogs

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

There’s something universally appealing about an underdog story. Of seeing a group of unlikely characters achieve goals far beyond their humble beginnings, or limited opportunities. It doesn’t get much more underdoggy than Parkway Drive, a band formed in 2003 by a bunch of self described “surf rats” from Byron Bay. The band, comprising Ben Gordon, Luke Kilpatrick, Jeff Ling, Winston McCall and Jia O’Connor, play a sort of hybrid of metal and hardcore – unashamedly designed for maximum mosh pit mayhem – that has taken them from some of Australia’s less salubrious venues to headling the biggest metal concert in the world, Wacken Open Air.

Viva the Underdogs is a feature-length hybrid of documentary and concert movie, showing glimpses of the unlikely journey as well as some of the trials and tribulations faced by this self-managed band on their way to international success. It’s a pleasing mix of triumph, adversity and even comedy, with the continuing failure of a molotov cocktail onstage gag feeling almost Spinal Tap-esque in its absurdity. Another moment, where all the power in the venue goes out during a Hollywood gig is utterly devastating, although the band do their best to rally and make the most of interacting with their fans. Sure, sometimes the boys in the band are farting, swearing gronks, but they genuinely give a shit about their fans and audience enjoyment, and that’s hard not to like.

Viva the Underdogs is a love letter to fans of Parkway Drive, and those folks will make up the bulk of the audience for the one night only cinema release on January 22. However there’s an undeniable appeal to the whole venture, even in its unashamedly earnest moments, and there’s something quite delightful about hearing Aussie accents ring out during a massive international concert, saying “danke, danke, danke” before ripping into another shredding number. Probably not for the unconverted, but for fans of Parkway and Aussie metal in general, Viva the Underdogs will be a noisy treat.

Find out where the film is playing near you, here:

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Bad Boys For Life

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It has been seventeen years since Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II exploded onto screens in a shower of broken glass, ricocheting bullets and a cheerful disregard for human life. And while you’d be hard pressed to find many people to say it was a ‘good’ movie, it was iconic and deeply unusual in fascinating ways. Even if you didn’t like the movie, it was hard to deny its impact on mainstream action cinema, best epitomised by Edgar Wright’s charming love letter to the genre, Hot Fuzz (2007). Well, since it’s 2020 and no film franchise gets to stay dead for long, here comes Bad Boys for Life and it’s… about what you’d expect, really.

Bad Boys for Life reintroduces our ageing buddy cops, Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), with the latter becoming a grandfather in the opening minutes of the film. Marcus reckons this is a sign that the bad boys should slow down, but Mike is sticking with the mantra “we ride together, we die together”. He almost gets the chance to do so, after being gunned down by the mysterious Armando Armas Tapia (Jacob Scipio) at the behest of his bad arse mum, Isabel (Kate del Castillo). A few bullets can’t keep Mike down for long, so he needs to recover, get Marcus back on board and defeat this new threat that seems somehow familiar…

The biggest change from the usual Bad Boys formula is the lack of Michael Bay as director (although he does have a moderately amusing cameo). This time Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah take the helm and the result feels very in keeping with action movies in 2020. The script by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan also ticks a lot of modern action movie boxes: ageing protagonists, earnest monologues about the importance of family, extremely predictable plot twists and a bunch of disparate narrative threads that are clearly setting up potential future sequels and/or spin-off movies.

Will Smith is, as always, a charming and likable presence and his natural chemistry with Martin Lawrence (who is really trying hard here, bless his heart) is the highlight of the film. Less successful are the new mother and son villain team, whose motivations and behaviour are frequently baffling, and the movie somehow contains a worse one-liner than “you forgot your boarding pass” from the original Bad Boys (1995). The action, while certainly more coherent than pretty much anything Michael Bay has ever done, is also pretty lacklustre and devoid of inspiration. Which, honestly, is a statement that could be applied to the entire exercise.

Bad Boys for Life is a film no one was really asking for, but if you’re able to get over that hurdle, you might enjoy the cheerful camaraderie of the leads and the consistently adequate action scenes. If, however, you’d rather not sit through yet another attempt to reanimate an old franchise for future exploitation, you’re better off riding and dying somewhere else entirely.

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family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

With the world having just recovered from the disturbing hyper-sexualised feline imagery seen in Cats, there is a collective sigh of relief at the impressive visuals exhibited in CGI adventure-film Dolittle.

Unfortunately, that might be where the excitement stops for parents who endure this superficial retelling.

In an unexpected turn from director Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker responsible for heavy dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, Dolittle offers a closer to the source material adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of children’s novels.

Robert Downey Jr. takes the mantle of the titular physician who can walk, talk, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

When first on-screen, the audience is greeted by a dishevelled Dolittle rocking a mop of hair and beard so intense that he looks somewhere between a prehistoric caveman and an inner city barista.

Turning his back on humankind following a great tragedy, Dolittle finds solace in isolation. He retreats from the world by locking the doors of Dolittle manor; a picturesque animal sanctuary filled with gadgets, gizmos and giraffes.

Through Dolittle’s eyes, people pose the greatest threat to animals, with the gifted doctor taking umbrage with hunting, sharing his indignation with reformed-hunter and newly appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett), and forming a close-knit bond with a slew of animals which he can communicate with.

Forced into solving the case of the poisoned Queen of England (Jessie Buckley in a lifeless role), Downey Jr. and the menagerie of animals must trail the high seas and rescue an antidote from the mysterious Eden Tree; an artefact located somewhere in the ocean.

The gang faces many threats during their swashbuckling ship-trip, the likes of which include facing a gold tooth tiger with familial issues (Ralph Fiennes), the return of a jealous rival (Michael Sheen), and a rugged pirate with a score to settle (Antonio Banderas). Dolittle’s adventure may take place on the ocean, but (wait for it) the real journey starts from within, as Dolittle begins to connect back to humanity.

The camera momentarily shivers when transitioning from animal to English, making for a modestly smooth, albeit absurd, language changeover. Downey Jr. goes all-in on the horseplay. He wobbles through the film displaying a range of emotions that verges on space-headed to bittersweet. The retired Iron Man does all this while attempting to impersonate a Scottish accent; aiming for Mrs Doubtfire but winds up being a shakier British accent than the one he displayed in Sherlock Holmes.

The film’s high concept approach to storytelling remains considerate to the families that will be spending their holidays in the cinema. Gaghan risks not over-stirring the pot and uses the antics of these peculiar creatures – the likes including an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), a sock wearing ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a dude-bro polar bear (John Cena), a no-nonsense parrot (Emma Thompson), and a spectacles-wearing pooch (Tom Holland) – to create a stream of mild chuckles throughout the film’s 100-minute length.

Alas, the spectacle required to keep Dolittle afloat is never fully realised. Gaghan proves unwilling to go over-the-top in the stakes department; a sign of a studio lacking confidence in a product whose ongoing release pushbacks now finds it setting sail into the doldrums of January cinema-going. The message of compassion at the centre of the film never fully forms. Instead, RDJ channels sad eyes through his emotive baby-blues before being interrupted by an animal making an unimaginative joke about doing animal things.

The VFX team do an impeccable job bringing the animals to life; however, the film’s lowbrow sense of humour reduces the elegance of the visuals. Outside of the occasional crack of laughter, probably delivered through a cringe-inducing pun that will have every father in the cinema reciting it back to his kids at home, Dolittle will do little for the adults in the room. That said, littlies should take to the variety of bumbling creatures and their monkey-business.

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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The revelation that Fox News had covered-up a culture of predatory behaviour resulted in the right-wing broadcast juggernaut becoming the 6 o’clock news headline.

With the explosive drama Bombshell, director Jay Roach (a long way from his Austin Powers roots) turns his attention to championing the women responsible for bringing down Roger Ailes (John Lithgow); the former CEO of Fox News who was fired for sexual misconduct.

The 2016 Presidential Campaign would prove career-defining for Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) – perhaps just not in the way the lawyer-turned-political-pundit would have liked for it to have been.

Contentious dealings with then soon-to-be-Republican-nominee-turned-President Donald Trump, would prove one of two battles endured by Kelly in her well-documented struggle with gender inequality.

Kelly’s relationship with Ailes, a man of great influence who commanded as much admiration as disgust, signifies the mistreatment experienced by women in the workforce. Ailes abuses his position of power to force female employees into compromising situations. The extent of this abuse was both manipulative and physical.

Legal proceedings against Ailes, led by the recently fired Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson (a soft-spoken but tough as nails Nicole Kidman), unearths the silent suffering of women employed at Fox News. Their mistreatment begging the question: how can a high-profile operation like Fox News, an organisation who at the time wore the moniker of being ‘fair and balanced’ like a second skin, could tolerate and protect toxic individuals like Ailes?

The crisscrossing of storylines, transposing from the hardships faced by Kelly with Trump and the women of Fox with Ailes, is handled with a considered touch by Roach. That said, Roach does not abstain from making political digs at the Republican party, with Bombshell hanging so sharply left that it begins to u-turn. The Trumbo director impeccably folds the various narrative strands into one another, with the ultimate effect that Bombshell’s slice of Fox News history is a microcosm for the world at large.

However comical and light the film attempts to be, as though to signify the relative ease whereby misconduct is shrugged off, Bombshell proves unflinching when portraying the traumatic experiences of harassment in the workplace. The horrifying effect coming into full bloom when Kayla, an ambitious recruit with dreams of becoming a news anchor (glowingly portrayed by Margot Robbie), encounters Ailes in arguably the year’s most confronting scene.

All cast members featured in Bombshell deliver outstanding performances, with Theron’s transformation into Kelly eerily perfect. The actor’s likeable portrayal of Kelly, allowing the audience to empathise with the troubling character, has not been without controversy. Roach undoubtedly refrains from depicting Kelly in a negative light; opting to humanise instead of demonise. By doing so, Roach keeps the focus on Kelly’s struggle, which in turn respectfully acknowledges the difficult process of speaking-up.

Roach stands amongst a new wave of reformed-comedy-directors-turned-satirists (hello Adam McKay; the script here is by The Big Short’s Charles Randolph) looking to use their engaging chops to inspire change. With Bombshell, Roach succeeds in delivering a powerful exploration of gender-politics that is bookended by dominant performances from Robbie and Theron.

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End of the Century

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

A 40-something Argentine man meanders around a coastal town, exploring the sights of Barcelona. While the cinematography (by Bernat Mestres) is sparkling and gorgeous, what it’s capturing – solo tourism – is fairly mundane viewing for the first fifteen or so minutes of this meditative film.

He notices another man on the beach, but fails to make contact until he spots him on the street below his rented apartment and asks him up for a drink. They acknowledge that they saw each other on the beach earlier. “It’s like a chess game, right?” opines bearded Ocho (Juan Barberini), adding, “I looked for you on Grindr.” Javi (Ramon Pujol) is not on Grindr… Turns out he lives in Berlin and is in town for work while Ocho lives in New York. A holiday romance starts to blossom fairly rapidly; these guys are not shy about acknowledging and acting on their mutual attraction.

The two men are slim and attractive, so there’s plenty of eye candy and casual sex. We learn that Ocho has very recently broken up with his long-term (20-year) boyfriend in order to explore the pure freedom of singleton status while Javi is recently married and a parent. They compare notes on the pros and cons of relationships. Their mildly philosophical discussions about life and maturing are pleasant. Abruptly, we flash back twenty years as it’s revealed that they have met in this city before…

The film’s title refers to their past encounter, at the turn of the century, and the flashback sequence illustrates two men who were in very different places in their lives.

There’s a pleasing aspect to a conversation that offers the perspective of nostalgia, as they recall what they learned about each other all those years ago. Writer/director Lucio Castro even indulges in a flight of fancy, imagining a different and rosier future for the pair.

End of the Century aims to be a meditation on life and aging, on the hopes and dreams of youth and the lonely reality of twenty years down the track. An “impression of (one’s) experience,” as one character muses. That’s about the sum of it. Fin de siglo is the film’s original title.