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The Orphanage

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Afghan director and writer Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage sees a mixed fantasy and realism story of living in Kabul before the fade of Soviet communist rule in 1989. Sadat’s second feature in a five-part series, picks up from 2016’s Wolf & Sheep.

Young Quodratollah Qadiri is Qodrat again, now fifteen years old and living on the streets. The first shot opens of him sleeping in an abandoned car. When he rises, there’s not much to do except sell key chains and black-market movie tickets for Bollywood movies to get by.

But enjoyment is found, and though Qodrat is pensive by nature, the radiating joy of his face as he soaks up the brash sights and sounds of an Urdu musical number in 1988’s Shahenshah in a Kabul theatre transforms him. It’s an elated spectacle, watching an audience of grown men join in with him, jumping out of their seats to dance and clap, which paves the way into a neat transition of the next scene.

Caught peddling in the town square, Qodrat is chased and taken in by the cops and driven to a Russian-run orphanage with several other boys. Here, he finds structure and established hierarchies integral to institutionalised life. Russian classes, powerplay punch-ups, teenage chats of restlessness and lust, all stretch out over time in the school rooms, corridors and bunk bedrooms. Strong friendships also develop and a bonding trip in the summer to Moscow sees some light-hearted fun and casual Russian proselytization.

Anwar Hashimi, a friend of Sadat’s, whose unpublished memoirs inspired the story, features as the orphanage supervisor. His presence and performance is comforting, firm and kind.

The stand-out scenes are the kind of cheesy but cool dream sequences of Bollywood-type musical numbers channelled by Qodrat’s imagination, because escapism rules in life during wartime, especially in a country now on the brink of shifting political forces.

After a war-blurred ten years, a changing of the guard is coming and Afghanistan will see a new kind of turmoil. After USSR withdrawal and the imminence of Islamist mujahedeen control, what happens to Qodrat and his chums leaves an uneasy feeling when warlord commanders enter the city and the annals of history ultimately tells us the rest.

 
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Kairos

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Danny is a young gymnast born with Down Syndrome. He regularly attends workshops run by RUCKUS, a real-life Sydney-based disability performance troupe, and he wants retired boxer and gym owner John to teach him how to fight.

On the surface, this feels like your everyday underdog boxing drama, albeit with the same casting ideas that went into Crispin Glover’s What Is It? Of course, directly comparing this to that is doing this film a serious disservice, as the diverse casting is not just an attempt to shock the audience, it also ends up adding to a film that outright demands a place among the year’s best efforts.

The nucleus of the story is Chris Bunton as Danny and Jerome Pride as John, whose protégé-mentor relationship reveals some unexpected chuckles early on. It’s not every day you see a working friendship build off the back of one knocking the other out cold. It taps into familiar sports tropes, but just under the surface, Kairos reveals something quite different. Over time, as the secret that ties them together gets closer and closer to breaking, their connection turns into an example of what life while disabled ultimately looks like.

With Audrey O’Connor as Danny’s on-again-off-again love interest and Digby Webster as Danny’s scene-stealing brother-in-tow, the film knows how to walk the walk in telling a story about disability with the right amount of empathy. To that end, the way it shows Danny’s reality, his interactions with others, and the alternating levels of condescension and sheer dicketry he puts up with day-to-day hit, really close to home.

Disability acceptance may have gotten better in leaps and bounds, to the point where the highest-grossing Aussie film of the year features a prominent character with Down Syndrome, but there is still a lot to be done.

But beyond the boxing drama, the domestic arguments, and the thankfully healthy sense of humour on offer, this film is at its best when it gets nice and cerebral. The depiction of Danny’s psychology is all kinds of heart-breaking, showing him emotionally distancing himself from others with Down’s, trying to fit into ‘normal’ society with disappointing results, and basically wishing that he wasn’t the way he is. And when even those around him, who are supposed to be in his corner, are also the ones letting him down the most, it can be hard not to get choked up at how much this promising young man has to deal with. “I’m surprised he’s so high-functioning” is a line that should strike a nerve with anyone out there with – or who helps take care of someone with – a disability.

Part sports drama, part domestic comedy, and all oneiric masterpiece, Kairos is the kind of film that needs to exist. It handles the basics of its genres very smoothly, and when it goes full visual storytelling, it manages to articulate a lot of the intricacies of the disabled experience, to the point where this has the potential to do a lot of good.

 
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Orange Days

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The politics of orange farming in Iran is fleshed out in Orange Days, a realistic drama that slow-burns in modest style. Scenes are stripped back, the stars dressed down and long looks of consternation add to the sheer grit of tough work in the cold terrain of a northern province.

Aban (Hediyeh Tehrani) gives a mesmeric performance as a former seasonal labourer who has worked her way up to subcontractor role to run an all-female crew in the all-male world of orange produce. She beats out the male competition, the very men she worked under, and gets the big job of clearing an entire orchard in as little as ten days with a crew of thirty women.

It’s tough work putting oranges into barrels up against an awful boss, a smarmy competitor, striking workers, powerplay and underhanded machinations while the men wait in the wings to watch her fall. But Aban is determined, so much so, she risks her house and marriage.

She wheels and deals with a cool, no-nonsense defiance and as much as gender often plays into expectations about character, it’s interesting to see a woman ignite hellfire in a man’s world where a feminist arc isn’t evident. She’s simply a woman who needs to keep her crew together as she solemnly juggles multiple hurdles and hold-ups. Her unravelling marriage to Majid, in a quiet, nuanced performance by Ali Mosaffa, a young woman with a baby and another with addiction problems, provide important subplots.

From a background of documentary, director Arash Lahooti’s feature length directorial debut captures a relentless world of hard labour and financial despair with a woman at the centre who risks all to prove she can do it.

 
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Portrait of A Lady on Fire

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In previous eras, women were not expected to become great painters and they were often systematically kept away from career opportunities in such fields. We will never know how many fine artists were lost through this exclusion. In this subtle and sensuous French art movie, the passions and the longings of an 18th Century woman painter are delicately explored. Director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood), who also wrote the screenplay, shows great skill and empathy in bringing out both the sensibility of the period and the complex nature of attachment and thwarted desire.

We open with the heroine, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) setting out in a boat destined for a remote island where she will receive a strange commission. When the box containing a precious blank canvas goes overboard, she dives after it neatly demonstrating her life and death commitment to her craft.

On the island, she meets a Comtesse (veteran Italian actor Valeria Golino) who is in the process of arranging a marriage for her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The never-seen suitor requires a portrait of his intended bride and Marianne is there to paint it.

Immediately she realises that Heloise does not want to be painted, in fact she seems distinctly uneasy about the whole arranged/proposed marriage. Slowly Marianne coaxes her into posing.

As the portrait sittings progress, interspersed with long walks on the beach, Heloise goes from sullen to coquettish. We begin to wonder if there is something more between the two women.

Supporting their friendship is young maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who, in a different way, also suffers from isolation and a dissatisfaction with a woman’s lot. When the Comtesse goes away to further the marriage negotiations, she leaves Heloise and Marianne with an ultimatum that they must get the portrait finished by her return.

Sciamma approaches her main themes quietly, even obliquely. The film is slow, sometimes languorous, but this suits the slow-burning attraction that is kindled between the women. This is decidedly a women’s film, focusing almost exclusively on female feelings (the men are a distant source of demands or problems). The word smouldering is usually reserved for bodice-ripping romances, but here it is, le mot just.

 
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African Violet

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For some, the thought of living with and taking care of an ex-husband — let alone a frail one — is the last thing on their minds, while for Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed), it’s nothing short of acceptable. That’s at least the general concept behind Mona Zandi Haghighi’s African Violet, but in its 93 minutes, the apparatus of the film never holds and crackles under ambiguous plotting and minimal coherency.

Haghighi has seemingly become so fixed on creating a tumultuous love triangle, whilst gradually hinting at troubled marital issues and the wider strain these issues have on those around us. The former makes for interesting back-and-forths, but the latter never holds firm and borders on cliché, and does not really say much about what this strange and sudden arrangement means.

That arrangement being Shokoo’s decision to bring and take care of ex-husband Fereydoun (Reza Babak), whose former friend Reza (Saeed Aghakhani) happens to be the current husband of Shokoo. Shokoo is perhaps the character with the most humanity in this small community and it is through her that most of the cause and effect chains in the film are divulged — one of which includes a vague subplot involving the absence of a young girl who leaves the country and her own mother.

Motherhood is also the most prevalent theme in the film, and the strands of nurture and care that it encompasses form the heart of Shokoo’s character. Sure, her situation is a bit more challenging and might not be as easy to identify with for Western audiences, but her shared involvement in the matters of those around her and her very gentle demeanour make Shookoo a very likeable protagonist and one worth sympathising with.

It is also worth mentioning that the film has great spatial awareness and makes the most of the setting of Shokoo and Reza’s house to further the levels of awkwardness that the film relies on to heighten the unnaturalness of the situation. There is also a heavy dependence on tight framing in the house and how it keeps the main trio so involved with each other —intimacy and the lack of freedom is paramount to savouring the interactions here.

In hindsight, if one wanted to see a subversive marital film that is complimented by riveting performances and offers an introspective look at the strenuous nature of marriage and divorce, this wouldn’t be the film to watch. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story offers the aforementioned whilst also keeping a central focus on how we love and how much we love.

That said, African Violet is an unfamiliar story and quite an unnatural story for people based in the West, but it is wholesome and shares universal values that most can connect with.

 
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Finke: There & Back

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

Dylan River’s documentary chronicling the Finke Desert Race, an off road, multi terrain two-day race for bikes, cars, buggies and quads through desert country from Alice Springs to the small Aputula (Finke) community, is as awe-inspiring and endearing a tale of heartbreak and the bone-shattering quest for racing glory to come down the pike in quite a while.

The treacherous route on the bone-dry Finke river bed, that stretches hundreds of kilometres out of Alice Springs, is a two day event that comprises of two race sections, one day spent racing one direction, pitching tents, drinking (a lot), staying the night and then doing the race back to Alice the next day.

Four-wheeled vehicles race first, followed by the motor bikes. Hundreds compete for the sake of adventure and for the ability to tell the story that they completed the insane race, though there are professional bike riders in it for the win.

We’re introduced to the KTM team rider David Walsh, an Alice Springs local. Yamaha sponsored bike racer Daymon Stokie is something of the underdog in the event, though he’s also a local. There are a number of other riders who we follow in the gruelling race, one in particular is Isaac Elliott, who attempted the race some years earlier only to hit a tree and break his spine, leaving him a paraplegic.

Isaac’s intention is to finally finish the race, so he enlists a mechanic friend in Alice Springs who welds a frame onto the bike to cradle Isaac’s legs, so he can straddle and ride a bike and hopefully even finish. While he does this, he’ll be shadowed by two friends on motor bikes, who’ll ensure he’s helped whenever he needs it.

It’s the sheer lunacy of the venture and Isaac’s bloody-minded grit, to strap himself to a bike and potentially face further bodily damage in an effort to get closure, that haunts him daily, that is not just deeply aspirational but also extremely moving.

Bearing many similarities to the documentary TT3D: Closer to the Edge , which featured similarly obsessed, crazy-brave riders who compete in the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race, an equally treacherous race where the riders and their families understand that injury and loss of life is part of a competitive rider’s lot. Where the Isle of Man racers compete to be dubbed King of the Mountain, the Finke riders compete for the moniker King of the Desert.

The cinematography in Finke: There & Back is stunning, with aerial photography taking full advantage of the desert locations and the outback’s wide-open vistas. This is a documentary that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available.

Narrated by renowned revhead Eric Bana, Finke: There & Back documents that most quintessential Australian trait: the ability to shrug-off the most crushing, soul-destroying and difficult tasks with a joke, a laugh and an ice cold beer.

 
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Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

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Star Wars is a dominant force at the box office, particularly since the Disney acquisition of 2012. Oh sure, there have been some disappointments where a film only made a ludicrous amount of money as opposed to an unholy chunk of change – take a bow, Solo – but ultimately the tale set in a galaxy far, far away is doing fine. So, it has to be asked, where are the video games?

Back in the day, Star Wars video games rained from the heavens. You couldn’t get away from them! And while the quality varied, there were a shitload of options to choose from. Lately, the pickings have been slim. Star Wars: Battlefront in 2015 and its sequel, Star Wars: Battlefront II have been the main entries in recent times and if you don’t like online multiplayer shooters and want, instead, to focus on a single player story-driven adventure… Tough titty, Padawan. That all changes with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a single player adventure that succeeds in a number of key areas, but could use further training in others.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order puts you in the scuffed boots of Cal Kestis, space ranga and Jedi on the run. Ever since Order 66 (where Palpatine attempted to exterminate the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith), life has been tough for the few remaining Jedi, and Cal has to live like a normal person, hiding his abilities and connection with the Force. Everything changes when the Empire finally tracks him down and he must team up with former Jedi Knight, Cere Junda and affable ship captain Greez Dritus. The trio travel from planet to planet, with Cal attempting to regain his powers, solve a larger mystery and defeat the forces aligned against him.

In practical terms, Fallen Order plays a bit like a combination of Uncharted and Dark Souls. Cal arrives at a new area, explores a bunch, gains XP, creates shortcuts and will eventually fight a boss. If he dies, he spawns back at the last meditation point (the bonfire analogue) and needs to retrieve his lost XP from his murderer. Oh, and all the enemies have respawned in the meantime.

There’s no story rationalisation for this mechanic and it feels very bolted on, as if developers Respawn Entertainment just said, ‘hey, Dark Souls is cool, let’s do that too’, and never thought about it any harder than that.

The problem with the comparison is that, FromSoftware’s games have precision, nuance and strategy baked onto the combat. Fallen Order’s combat is very janky and imprecise, often leading to cheap deaths or unearned victories. You do get used to it over time, and the lightsaber battles certainly look cool, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Honestly, the Uncharted side of things isn’t all that much better, with the jumping and wall-running feeling a little loose and imprecise as well, which can sap some of the joy from the game’s big setpieces.

So, ultimately, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is going to require you meeting it halfway. Can you forgive the combat jank, the stiff controls and the frequent bugs (particularly on the PS4 Pro)? Can you look past the dozen minor annoyances and drink in the engaging, if unspectacular, story? Are you so starved for Star Wars video game content that ‘pretty good’ is good enough? If the answer is yes, then you’ll likely really dig Fallen Order. For the rest of us, it’s a decent Star Wars adventure that feels like it could have used another six months in development to truly be a new hope.

 
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The Addams Family

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In a time where an opulent ice-Queen with a penchant for show-tunes threatens to dominate the holiday box-office, Universal Pictures’ modestly grim and surprisingly sweet reboot of The Addams Family stands out across a slew of family-friendly movies like a goth student in a school class photo.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, of Sausage Party fame, bring the Addams family and their twisted sense of humour out of the crypt and into the twenty-first century.

The film follows the Addams’ and their contact with a neighbouring town, known as Assimilation, who are hell-bent on removing the supernatural family from their perfectly manicured community. The figurehead of Assimilation is a ruthless interior designer named Margaux, portrayed with devilish moxie by Allison Janney. The ‘humans being bigger monsters than the actual monsters’ yada-yada is a trope as old as Dracula, but does not prove a downer on The Addams Family due to the film’s well-natured intentions.

Running in tandem to the central story are side-plots involving the Addams children; both Wednesday (a wonderfully macabre Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (no stranger to strange things Finn Wolfhard) tackling separate coming-of-age issues.

Wednesday’s desire to expand her horizons outside of her haunted residence disappoint her mother Morticia (Charlize Theron), who fears her daughter will be targeted by humans as a monster the same way she had been. On the other hand, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) helps Pugsley prepare for his upcoming Mazurka, a ceremony of sorts that will propel the boy into adulthood.

The film does a solid job converging all stories, though follows a trend from a studio that continues to develop episodic-like narratives in their family films (see A Secret Life of Pets 2). It is a trend that borders on becoming convoluted and perhaps better suited to an opt-out platform like Netflix. Vernon and Tiernan do fall guilty of introducing underdeveloped points, including the harmful effects of social media and bullying, and end up half-heartedly abandoning these notions in favour of balancing side-plots. The result skims from both stories so they may both co-exist in the film’s scant runtime.

The filmmakers are conscious of the adults in the room and pepper The Addams Family with a continuous stream of light-hearted quips that play to the family’s obliviousness. The film’s efforts to balance out deeper themes – concerning growing-up and celebrating individuality – with amusing gaffes, strikes the right tonal balance for a film with a family-friendly, finger-snapping sitcom history. This comedic responsibility extends to the tremendous cast of supporting actors, including Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Jenifer Lewis and Tituss Burgess.

Despite a history of live-action film, sitcom and 2D animated adaptations, there is an inherent freshness with The Addams Family’s introduction into the CG world. Giant trees, a murderous house, a playful pet lion: all of which come to life with eerie thrill while remaining faithful in style to the source material.

Yes, the film does bear a striking resemblance to the work of Genndy Tartakovsky a la Hotel Transylvania. Not just in visual style but in themes regarding belonging and embracing difference. Regardless, The Addams Family upholds the legacy of an endearing property with distinction and ought to inspire a renaissance in CG adaptations of spooky IP (looking at you Casper).

 
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Where’s My Roy Cohn?

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The murkier American politics gets, the more we seek to discern conspiracy theories about men behind the scenes and secret skulduggery. Not to deny, of course, that each jaw-dropping revelation will make us tend toward this view even more. And they just keep coming. Impeachment hearings anyone?

In Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about lawyer Roy Cohn we have the story of a quintessential fixer and man on the make. Cohn grew up in New York under the cruel-care of his mother Dora who seemed to combine the fatal mix of coldness and pushy Jewish mother syndrome. Roy never felt he was good enough, and yet he was obviously fiercely bright. By the time he was in his twenties he was cosying up to the bellicose Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was while cutting his teeth in those now-reviled HUAC hearings that Cohn learned the basic lesson. When you are in the wrong, re-double your attack.

Throughout his long career spanning law and politics-by-default, he was proud of never backing down. In what the film suggests is over-compensation, Cohn tries over and over to show that he is tougher than the toughest. The many talking heads in the film all testify to his inflated and boastful sense of being a kingmaker or puppeteer of the powerful.

Then there is the complexity of his sexual orientation which comes to feature heavily in the latter part of the film. Not content with being the classic “self-hating Jew” (as the film puts it), Cohn was also aggressively persecuting gays despite his own homosexuality. After all, it was a smokescreen tactic that worked for J. Edgar Hoover.

It can be dangerous to buy into the mythmaking of a man like this but Tyrnauer doesn’t have to strain the argument too much when it comes to listing who he sought out. Cohn saw how powerful the Mafia were and he thought they would make loyal and cashed-up clients. They did. He also saw a potential ally in the rise of a self-serving young tycoon called Donald Trump. Sure enough, he helped young Donald along the way. In fact, the film’s title comes from that connection. When running out of dodgy advisors and legal shysters, Trump is supposed to have complained/asked “where’s my Roy Cohn?”.

The film suffers to some extent from having such an unsympathetic subject – and the attempts to humanise him only serve to make his actual behaviour seem venaler. It is, however, timely enough, and fascinating in a reptilian kind of way.

 
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A Boy Called Sailboat

Australian, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Pay close enough attention to the soundtrack in American drama-comedy film A Boy Called Sailboat and you will be serenaded with the sounds of well-known tunes beautifully adapted into mariachi.

Powerful church anthems, blues-rock classics, Mexican folk; no genre escapes the Grigoryan brothers’ quaint and subdued score. But perhaps the most transportive of their covers is the adaption of children’s nursery rhyme ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’; its inclusion capturing the beauty of childhood wonder in a likeable film that embraces diversity.

Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), a seven-year-old boy of Hispanic background, resides in an unbearably hot desert town on the brink of desertion. His soul-stirring performance of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ for his hospital ridden ‘Abuela’ (grandmother in Spanish), succeeds in forging a relationship between the community and Sailboat’s otherwise marginalised family.

Sailboat’s determination to perform in-person for his Abuela sets in motion his quirky mission to learn the ins-and-outs of music. He does this while navigating the struggles of a disadvantaged, albeit loving, family whose house is literally held-up by an inward sticking beam.

Told with an offbeat sense of humour familiar to films based in small rural towns, the difficulties of Sailboat’s family – including his tough-looking but caring father (Noel Gugliemi) and reclusive mother (Elizabeth De Razzo) – talk to present-day racial tensions which threaten to divide America.

Australian director Cameron Nugent, who has worked predominantly as an actor in shows including Round the Twist, Blue Heelers and City Homicide, musters up an endearing tale carried off the back of Sanchez’s performance. The benevolent way Sailboat demystifies the complexities of life as a series of proverbs, expressed in the film’s narration, handed down to him by his Abuela, is where the film gathers its glowing charm.

It is not unusual for Sailboat and his friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), a soccer-obsessed boy that never blinks, to wander through the town and engage with adults and strangers. The exchanges include conversations with JK Simmons (who despite featuring prevalently in the film’s marketing appears fleetingly), a deeply southern car salesman. It is quite confronting in 2019 to see such interactions, with Nugent taking necessary precautions to mitigate viewer worry. He, unfortunately, does not always succeed.

Nugent expresses optimism for the future through the unifying and prodigious talents of Sailboat – highlighting Hispanic excellence and the sweet grace of inclusion. Only when Nugent feels the need to flex his creative chops, complicating scenes to the point of exposing the film’s wires, does A Boy Called Sailboat lose steam.

Regardless, there is much to be admired about Nugent’s charming tale about family, culture, and inclusion. Just don’t expect a lot of JK Simmons.