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

In urban Japan, there is a particular bathhouse. By day, it functions just like any other, a communal space for the unwashed masses to cleanse themselves. But by night, it becomes a Grand Guignol, where mobsters execute and dispose of bodies, turned to ashes in the water heater. ‘Business as usual’ takes on a whole new meaning in director/writer/editor Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature, and if this is his first step into cinema, he has a bright future ahead.

The matter-of-factness of the setting and main character Kazuhiko’s place within it gives the film a certain Scorsese-esque tinge, where the normality of such grotesque actions gives way to its own brand of quiet terror. The visuals make it a point not to linger on the blood spray for too long, treating it as routinely as the characters themselves.

Kazuhiko, a Tokyo University graduate who hasn’t managed to hold down a full-time job yet, finds himself venturing deeper and deeper into the bathhouse’s hidden utilisation, but it only briefly serves as a shock to the system. Beyond that, it becomes simply part of the job description, as he cleans up the blood and corpses before the day customers arrive.

It serves partly as casual horror, but it also gives way to a certain gallows humour. Watching Kazuhiko converse with his co-workers and his family, whether it’s talking around the specifics of his work or getting into the simple mechanics of why certain people meet their end at his workplace, it’s difficult not to notice the absurdity of the situation. It also potentially leads to cries of “why is he still there?”, but that turns into another avenue of dread, one far closer to home.

The truly messed-up part of this premise is that, even removed from its violent specifics, it’s a scenario that is all-too-frequent in the workforce across the board. The more a given employee knows about who they work for, the more likely they are to find certain… discrepancies. The people and groups that the work helps keep funded, the actions made to keep the work coming in and out, the blind eyes that get turned whenever something unsavoury pops up that may jeopardise the business; you don’t have to look far to find this going on right under people’s noses.

And much like Kazuhiko, most can’t afford to argue with it. Money is the oil that keeps the machinery moving, and since all humans need sustenance, lodging and a place to be made useful, rejection of the nitty gritty of the system is a luxury outside of the working-class tax bracket. Wrestling with one’s conscience to gather the funds needed to live is a sad state of affairs, but it’s reality. A reality that can be altered, but only through a possession of will, determination, and a willingness to change the system. That’s the weirdest part of all this: for as bleak as it is for its majority of screen time, it also contains a great big ball of optimism by story’s end.

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Choir Girl

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In this drama from filmmaker John Fraser – marking his feature-length debut – we follow a lonely photographer down the dark alleys of Melbourne and through the glitzy world of the media. That photographer is Eugene (Peter Flaherty); a nondescript man who you could quickly lose in a crowd. Something which seems to work in his favour as Eugene likes to take pictures of the social decay he sees daily while looking after his invalid father (Roger Ward).

Drug taking, crime and prostitution all feature heavily in his work. It’s a turn off to the magazines he sends them to, but Eugene believes everything he shoots is in the public interest. When he witnesses 15-year-old sex worker, Josephine (Sarah Timm), being assaulted by her pimp, the mild-mannered photographer decides to intervene. And in doing so, puts both of their lives in danger.

Like a certain Todd Phillips’ comic book joint that came out recently, Choir Girl feels somewhat indebted to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. As Travis Bickle became obsessed with the adolescent Iris, so too does Eugene with Josephine. It’s an uneasy relationship to watch develop. Sure, Eugene wants to help her out of her current situation, but is he doing it because he can get more photos out of her? The waters are muddied by the introduction of Josephine’s pimp, Daddy (Jack Bond) and Eugene’s magazine editor, Polly (Krista Vendy). To toss out a cliché, both characters are fundamentally different sides of the same coin; encouraging Eugene and Josephine to plunge further into the depths than they had been initially.

Shot in beautiful black and white, this is by no means a jovial film, and you’ll taste every bit of grit it force-feeds you in the first act, but once Daddy offers Eugene the opportunity to buy Josephine off him it all becomes tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Eugene effectively becomes the young girl’s pimp, protecting her from clients as she continues the trade that he’s been trying to save her from. Meanwhile, while Polly appears to be concerned for everyone’s welfare, it’s hard not to see the dollar signs in her eyes. And that’s where Choir Girl starts its bumpy road towards denouement, despite some excellent performances. Flaherty, in particular, does a lot of heavy lifting.

Films like Nil By Mouth or Romper Stomper show that tales of redemption don’t need to be as clean-cut as we’d like, or even have a happy ending. Choir Girl makes good on that philosophy and then some. This is a brutal film to watch, and Fraser has no intentions of making you comfortable throughout its duration. There will undoubtedly be some who find all its nihilism more numbing than shocking. Like exploitation, Choir Girl piles on the tragedy until you’re almost drowning in it and a highly aggressive sexual assault in the final act will undoubtedly put a nail in the coffin for many.

There’s no doubt about it, Choir Girl pulls no punches, and its arms must be heavy from holding up a mirror to modern society for so long, but in doing so, it does itself the disservice of potentially alienating the audience.

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Moonless Dawn

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

“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.

Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.

Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.

The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.

In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.

Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.

But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.

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The Sky is Pink

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

At one point in writer/director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink, a distraught mother (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) ties her personal wish tag onto a communal wishing tree, reminding the fates that her ailing daughter’s name is Aisha – ‘she who lives’. Aisha’s life is shown as a constant struggle from birth since she has inherited SCID – a rare disorder which makes her susceptible to life threatening infections.

The film is based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary (Zaira Wasim) – an author and motivational speaker, who died at the age of 18 from complications caused by a bone marrow transplant. Bose’s previous film Margarita with a Straw (2014) was also about adapting to chronic illness, parents who strive to establish normalcy, and the effects of grief. The rosy titles of these films are a nod to her positive treatment of depressing material. Both films are dedicated to Bose’s own son, Ishan, who died in a car accident at the age of 16.

The lead actors – Zaira Wasim, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar are all primarily connected with the Hindi commercial film industry (Bollywood), as is the musical composer Pritam. This film, however, is indie in its orientation. The treatment of the songs is modern and understated. Vignettes of family life, celebration or romance are montaged to appear quite natural (as opposed to choreographed and staged). The mise en scene is natural although it extends to glamorous realism when the family’s wealth increases.

Although Priyanka Chopra Jonas gives a grounded performance, it is difficult to disassociate her from the diva of her filmography. Farhan Akhtar as Aisha’s father disappears more convincingly into his role. Zaira Wasim is the soul of the film even though it is primarily focused on Aisha’s parents, who facilitate her beautiful albeit short, life.

In both the Sky is Pink and Margarita with a Straw the main characters are well off financially. This makes it easier for the filmmakers to concentrate on emotions, since day-to-day economic survival isn’t an issue[i] and life enhancing trips abroad are an option. In their poorer days, the parents are unable to afford their daughter’s treatment but that obstacle is quite simply, and perhaps too conveniently, surmounted. Emotional trajectories are salient with lots of chronological breaks covering a 25-year period – juxtaposing scenes of Aisha’s dark, empty bed in the present with shots of the parents’ sunny love affair; the trauma of treatment with the joys of family life.

The narrator is Aisha who, as a motivational coach, is not sorry for herself, for her family or for us. (‘We all have to die some time.’) The narration, written by award winning Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky Donor, Piku) and Nilesh Maniyar, capture a wry humor which, combined with Bose’s innate understanding of adolescence, make for an endearing character. The film does get melodramatic towards the end but relative to other Hindi films, it’s not overly sentimental given the real-life material.

A team of non-Indian producers is credited which points to the fact that the film is targeting festivals and an international audience. Aisha’s brother (Rohit Saraf) is not given enough attention to justify his many brief appearances. The songs – although pleasant, just add unnecessarily to the film’s length. A tighter edit and perhaps a little less fragmentation might have made it the film it wants to be.



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Don’t Be Nice

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

Slam poetry’s aim to communicate the hardships experienced by the marginalised, comprising of one-part confronting lyricism and one-part performance, becomes defanged thanks to a competitive poetry circuit whose round-robin nature resembles The Masked Singer. With no Lindsay Lohan or obscure Australian pop-star hidden beneath a mask in sight, this competitive world of slam poetry is explored in the honest-yet-doughy documentary Don’t Be Nice.

The film follows the journey of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team – a team comprised entirely of people of colour – in the lead up to the 2016 National Poetry Slam. The National Poetry Slam offers entrants more than just a soapbox to discuss inequality. For the competitors, it provides the opportunity to perform in front of large crowds and an entry point into the entertainment business.

Vulnerability is part of the game, with each competitor digging deep into their traumatic past to convey a confronting look at the current climate. It is not enough for these participants to say how they feel; they must bleed for it.

From ideation to fruition, director Max Powers invites the viewer to witness the creative process for these artists. For these vanguard poets, it is a journey that is equal parts rewarding as it is frustrating, with the fruit of their labour put under constant scrutiny by their coach.

Their handling of critique, whether destructive or constructive, allows Don’t Be Nice to introduce a discussion on criticism culture. To the detriment of the film, this theme is not explored further with the documentary unable to draw a satisfying point-of-view on the matter.

Don’t Be Nice is unafraid to question the legitimacy of its practice, with members of The Bowery Slam Poetry Team questioning those who ‘write good poetry’ with those who ‘write to win competitions.’ This question of artistic integrity versus crowd-pleasing is explored with thorough concern and demonstrates deep thinking on behalf of the filmmakers who remain committed to upholding the sanctity of slam poetry.

This degree of complex thinking is most evident in the slam poets’ performances, with each participant using every opportunity on-screen to leave an impression. They are performers who use words and expressions to provoke strong emotions; their everyday fears coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement being some of the prevalent themes in their work.

Slam poetry is an art-form that draws its intense power through a frenzy of provocative right-hooks that speak to the human experience. It is when the filmmakers decide to incorporate visual elements, the output having the same quality as a YouTube video, where Don’t be Nice breaks its neck trying to enhance the medium. It becomes an indie effort wanting to turn mainstream that ultimately clashes with the underground nature of slam poetry.

All sizzle and little pop, Don’t Be Nice offers a fascinating yet unfocused glimpse into the world of competitive slam poetry.

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JK Rock

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

The latest from director Shunji Muguruma (Shadow Kids, Oh! My! God! Kamisama kara no okuimono) is a tune made up of familiar notes. A trio of high school girls form a band and, when discovering that their favourite hot spot, Tero’s Rock Café is at risk of closing down, they enter a band competition to raise the money needed to keep it open. The trio are mentored by Jyo, a former musician who felt he missed his chance at stardom while his former bandmate raked in the glory, learning to rock again through the youthful energy of his proteges.

Of course, like the best music in the genre, cliché is part of what makes it work. The music itself, courtesy of Koji Endo strikes a heartful chord through its simplicity, allowing the infectiousness of both the tunes and the performance thereof to flow in and out of the frequently melodramatic narrative. It’s almost unfair how catchy the music is, making ‘humming the baseline’ into less of a suggestion and more of a foregone conclusion.

While Kaori Tanimoto’s scripting toys around with the tropes of the genre, which makes for an uneasy but ultimately successful blend of the expected and the unexpected, the real shining moments come from the framing. Between the teenaged band Drop Doll, Jyo and his experiences as part of JoKers, and café owner Tero’s own past history as a musician, the story essentially contains three generations of musos. The vigorousness of the teenagers just starting out, the brooding on what could have been from Jyo, and the nostalgic satisfaction of Tero that he ever got to play at all. Between these three is the blueprint through which all rock and roll resonates.

Rock and roll is a driving force in pop culture for a reason, and whether you’re from the land of the rising sun or the house of the rising sun, the shared experience remains.

JK Rock may be held back somewhat by its familiarity, but the delivery and frenzied glee makes for a very fun feature. Watching these musicians put their heart and soul into their playing, it’s hard not to get lost in the euphoria of it all, and if film is meant to make an audience feel more than anything else, you’re most certainly going to get that here.

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Daniel Isn’t Real

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

Imaginary friends and horror movies go together like beer and pizza, wine and cheese or pingers and threesomes, they’re just a great match. You can trace an arc through genre history, from The Exorcist (1973) to The Shining (1980) to more modern gear like The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014), and more examples that we simply don’t have the time and space to get into. Something about the notion of a child having a relationship with someone or something only they can see is inherently fascinating, and more than a little creepy. Daniel Isn’t Real, from the wonderfully named director Adam Egypt Mortimer, brings a fresh take to the idea, and delivers an effective, thrilling horror movie to boot.

Daniel Isn’t Real focuses on Luke (Miles Robbins), a pleasant but troubled young man, who is finding the stress of college and helping care for his mentally ill mum, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterton) is all a bit too much. Just when he reaches what appears to be his breaking point, his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) steps back into the picture, all grown up and ready to help Luke be all that he can be. But after a honeymoon period where Daniel helps Luke with relationships and standing up for himself, his suggestions become demands, and he begins to get possessive and violent.

The film succeeds on two levels. Firstly, the script is a cracker, digging into a rich vein exploring mental illness, masculine identity and the idea of artistic inspiration as a kind of madness. Secondly, the performances from everyone, but particularly Robbins and Schwarzenegger (and yes, that’s Arnie’s kid), are very good indeed. Luke’s dorky twitchiness pairs beautifully with Daniel’s almost sensual arrogance, making their relationship the black beating heart of the flick. Mary Stuart Masterton also brings the goods as Luke’s mum, portraying a character who is fascinatingly bowed but unbroken by the demons of her mind. Ironically, the dissection of real world themes is so deftly handled, it’s almost a pity when the horror arrives in earnest, although that too is skillfully executed, if occasionally a tad familiar.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a low budget horror flick with a lot on its mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always utterly compelling, it’s a reminder that genre films don’t need to be empty-headed regurgitations and that supernatural themes can resonate with more grounded concepts. If that sounds like your jam, check it out and bring some friends, both real and imaginary.

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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Inspired by the real-life story of strippers who exploited wall street bankers, the female-helmed caper, Hustlers takes a unique look at a world that up until now has predominantly been seen through a male lens. Its director and screenwriter Lorena Scafaria treats the strip club here like any other workplace, with its competitive nature (including dressing room banter) and hierarchy of power (sleazy managers and bitchy co-workers).

Constance Wu plays Destiny – a single mother struggling to survive while looking after her ailing Grandmother. She then meets the magnetic Ramona (a never better Jennifer Lopez) – a seasoned dancer in control of her sexuality and business – and learns how to make the most of their circumstances.

Until the recession hits and ruins everything… with Scafaria paying impressive pop culture attention and detail to 2008, most aptly through an amusing meta-cameo from Usher Raymond, a known regular on the strip club circuit in his heyday. As a means of survival and formidable form of revenge, the entrepreneurial women hatch a plan to quite literally steal their power back by drugging some truly unsympathetic characters (including the omnipresent Frank Whaley) and taking their credit cards for a ride.

From here on, we navigate through a collection of scams and escapades that, though humorous, quickly become tiresome. Scafaria employs a style that occasionally feels reminiscent of Scorsese flicks like Goodfellas and Casino, but is let down by repeating the same edit patterns and format when moving from the bar to the strip club to (eventually) an apartment.

Based on a New York Magazine article, the script noticeably loses its momentum and direction in the second half. As with most true-crime stories, it was only time before issues of morality (and the law) caught up with the eponymous hustlers – though the police, for that matter, are so poorly represented that they might as well be sitting behind their desks eating doughnuts.

But there’s no denying the chemistry between its two leading ladies – from their first interaction where the maternal Ramona keeps Destiny warm under her massive fur coat, their friendship feels believable and genuine across the story’s 7-year drip-fed structure.

Unfortunately, less can be said for their thinly written protégés, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, who round out their expansive team of scam artists. Julia Stiles is another such casualty – shelved with an unimaginative journalist role that is integral only to the film’s framing narrative.

Elevated by Wu and Lopez, Hustlers is fun when it wants to be – succeeding more as an insightful drama about female camaraderie than a thorough meditation on gender politics and empowerment.

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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Wizard of Oz is a timeless adventure whose message of optimism speaks as relevantly today as it had in 1939, and it has stood the test of time like no other film before it.

Owing to its success is the ingénue Dorothy; a role made famous by actress-singer Judy Garland. An extraordinarily talented actress whose sunny, all-American public persona hid a lifetime of abuse brought about by a misogynistic Hollywood system.

Garland’s efforts to re-establish her dimming spotlight in 1960s London are at the centre of Judy and are brought to life by a mesmerising performance from Renée Zellweger.

Perceived as unreliable by the once adoring eyes of the American public, Garland relocates to London due to a looming custody battle and a desire to provide her kids with a degree of normalcy never received during her own childhood. The seeds of neglect festering since childhood haunt Garland into her forties, with Judy director Rupert Goold profoundly interjecting scenes involving her mistreatment as a child-star to show how her grief manifested into adulthood.

Garland’s fame is driven by both her talent on-screen and her exploits off-screen. Relying on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol to calm her anxieties, Garland’s severe emotional fragility is matched by her emaciated physicality; right or wrong, it is an appearance which Zellweger commits to achieving.

As reliant as Garland was with silencing her demons through substance, so too was she infamous for seeking out relationships as temporary relief – falling just as quickly in love as she did out of it.

Goold never fails to miss an opportunity to make a pointed message about inequality and uses Garland’s life to draw parallels with today’s #metoo climate. It proves an earnest attempt to remain current but too often winds up removing the viewer from the film due to its blatant application. He is guiltiest of this when introducing themes of homophobia into an already busy film and giving nothing but lean scraps for supporting characters to chew on.

The retro set-design and inspired costuming allow Judy to do a respectable job in transporting the viewer back to the 1960s. This ultimately enables production design to convey history, with the looming rise of hippiedom and Beatlemania correlating with Garland’s dissipating stardom.

There is much to be said about Zellweger’s performance saving Judy from the doldrums of mediocrity. From her sharp-wit to her captivating charm over a crowd, Zellweger (who showed she had singing chops in Chicago) manages to masterfully embody Garland’s electrifying-show-stopper performance style. Zellweger’s ability to capture not just the razzle and dazzle of Garland, but emote her heartbreaking struggle with profound levels of vulnerability, enables the actress to slide into the role as comfortably as Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slippers.

It is easy to look back on the lives of actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood with a sentimental gaze. Where the likes of My Week with Marilyn and Stan & Ollie delivered similar sagas about the fall of stars from yesteryear, Judy acknowledges the troubling experiences of a Hollywood icon in an engrossing and timely biopic spearheaded by a transcendent Zellweger performance.

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

The Soska Sisters, comprising Canadian identical twins Jen and Sylvia, have been notably absent from genre filmmaking for a little while. Certainly, they directed the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 in 2014, but their last original work was body modification-infused, Katherine Isabelle starrer, American Mary in 2012. It’s fitting that their return is a remake of a work by another bonkers Canadian, David Cronenberg and his 1977 body horror Rabid.

To be blunt, Rabid is far from Cronenberg’s best work, making it perfect for the remake treatment and the Soskas rise to the challenge, bringing their comic book-esque sensibility to the proceedings to mostly positive results.

Rabid tells the tale of Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a timid woman who has issues about her appearance and seems unable to break into the world of fashion design. After Rose gets into a terrible accident, she is hideously disfigured, and pretty much thinks her life is over until Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) offers to give her a radical treatment, on the house.

Post operation Rose looks and feels fantastic, imbued with a fresh face, new found confidence… and a new hunger that seems impossible to sate. From there Rabid kicks off in splattery style, featuring a bunch of engaging gore and body horror moments that will likely have all but the most hardy audience members squirming.

It should be noted the Soska Sisters are not trying to ape Cronenberg’s style at all. Whereas Dave’s vision was icy and slowburn and full of slow building menace, the Soskas’ take is more like an adult comic book. All the characters are broad and just this side of camp, with muscular hunks, heavily accented fashion designers, bitchy models and scientists that feel one stiff drink away from cackling at the heavens, roaring, “it’s aliiiiiiive!” Cronenberg’s stubby armpit stinger has been replaced with a lengthy, whipping pit-tentacle and the overall story is generally bigger and goofier, although in a mostly entertaining way.

Ultimately, Rabid is a solid, engaging horror remake with an unapologetically over-the-top tone that slips frequently from the visceral to the farcical and back again. If you can forgive the occasional ropey moments where the Soskas bite off just a little more than they can chew, and you like your movies with a bit of body horror, you’ll likely find yourself foaming at the mouth over Rabid.