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Finding You

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This fast-paced romantic drama/comedy sets itself up within the first fifteen minutes. Does it feel like you’ve seen what you need to see in that time? Kind of.

Within the first three minutes, New Yorker Finley Sinclair (played by Rose Reid) has unsuccessfully auditioned for a prestigious music school, suggests she’d better start over, and is on a plane abroad. Within the first five, we’ve had a cheesy line from bad-boy movie star, Beckett Rush (played by Jedidiah Goodacre). She’s ‘seen the headlines’, she ‘knows his type’.

Beckett is starring in a weird Lord of the Rings rip-off, and, ironically, is blasted by the director (Tom Everett Scott) for taking a more ‘subtle approach’ in hisacting style. The female lead in the blockbuster being filmed is a total airhead (Katherine McNamara), of course, and Beckett looks pensive. He’s obviously looking for something more, and the down-to-Earth New Yorker has got to be the one.

Finley starts her classes, and in Irish Studies, each student is asked to spend twenty hours with a senior citizen. But alas, her assigned ‘senior’ is a ‘crazy witch’ (Vanessa Redgrave)! Finley needs this grade to get into music school, so they are going to be friends whether this crazy witch likes it or not! She’s given a ‘good on you, lass’ when the nurse asks if she entered the witch’s room without permission. It’s uncomfortable.

Beckett shows Finley around Ireland because ‘you never know what’ll happen tomorrow’. They’d better take a chance on love! Unfortunately, neither character is quite likeable enough to really root for them.

Beckett asks Finley to the local dance and the scenes that follow are lively. Nice shots of the harbour, fairy lights littering the pier, and Finley gets down on the fiddle with a group of local musicians. It’s fun, and it does improve slightly from here.

Without giving too much away, everything turns out alright. There are plot points aplenty, but if you miss half the film, don’t fret. Look, it’s a little (or a lot) too packed with poorly-written cliches but if you’re after a mood-booster and love a soapie, you might enjoy it.

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Out in the Open

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Intemperie, the Spanish name for Out in the Open, means ‘outdoors’ or ‘the elements’ in English, and these translations precisely describe the look of the film. Nearly the entire running time is spent in the hot, arid landscape of Andalucía – so rarely does the action venture indoors that it seems alien to even be ‘in’ a room. In fact, the occasional time spent away from the elements takes place mostly inside wells, caves or roofless huts. It’s as though the director, Benito Zambrano, is averse to conventional housing. Nevertheless, the depiction of the Southern Spanish savanna is one of the many highlights of Out in the Open. The cinematography by Pau Esteve Birba is amazing, the sweeping pans and intimate close-ups equally affecting.

Zambrano, with writers Pablo and Daniel Remón, won a Goya for best adapted screenplay (from the Jesús Carrasco novel) and the script is laden with themes of guilt and forgiveness, as seen through the lens of post-war, Francoist Spain. The first shot is of a boy running through the fields, shortly followed by scenes of farm hands chasing a hare during a harvest. The excitement is cut short, and the foreshadowing begins, when the foreman shoots said animal dead. Luis Callejo plays this bastion of landed power with ugly menace.

The runaway boy, or Niño, is played with incredible maturity by Jaime López, and as the film progresses, we gradually learn what it is he’s running from. Early on in his flight, he tries to steal food from a wandering shepherd, the Moor, and after initial mistrust on both sides, they begin to warm to one another. Luis Tosar is gruff and resigned as the Moor, an ex-soldier whose default setting appears to be practical nonchalance, and he has a nice line in aphorisms – “You don’t need to buy a village to burn it down. You just need fire and guts. But with fire and guts, you may get smoke in the head.”

The pace is just about perfect, there’s no baggage, and the set-pieces are extremely well handled. One confrontation at a well around the end of the first act is a properly satisfying sequence, tense and bloody, with a clever call-back to a throwaway line from the foreman about the boy’s marksmanship. Another scene at another well involving a desperate disabled war-veteran is full of edge and pathos. And the climax is suitably rewarding with an added gesture from the Moor to Niño that will most likely set him on the path to a rosier future than he might have been afforded earlier in the piece. When the Moor tells him that children ‘can’t be held responsible for the actions of men’, it’s tempting to read this last line as a kind of catch-all apology for the crimes and transgressions of the past.

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The Man in the Hat

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The unnamed titular character of ‘The Man in the Hat’ witnesses a possible crime and flees the scene in his Fiat 500, while five goons chase him in their Citroen Dyane.

However, this languid car chase serves as the inciting incident for a blissful travelogue of French countryside. Almost entirely bereft of dialogue, this physical comedy is wholly crowded with incident, as the protagonist (Ciaran Hinds) encounters various eccentric characters in unusual situations. As a range of distinct figures frequently re-appear, the presence of the man in the hat seems to have an uplifting effect on them.

For example, a character credited as Damp Man (Stephen Dillane) is perpetually wet and despondent to a suicidal extent. However, each time the man in the hat meets him, Damp Man’s mood gradually becomes more jovial, as well as his clothes drier. In this way, visual cues and mise-en-scene symbolise a shifting atmosphere of positivity and the effect of kindness from strangers.

These vignettes provide a Fellini-esque sensibility, as the film canvasses aspects of European culture through evocative landscapes, as well as scenes of bull-fighting and enjoying local cuisines. Meanwhile, amusing moments are interspersed – such as mistaken identity, spilling food and losing a shoe – all of which instil an unpredictability to the film that enlivens the experience. Not only this, lively musical interludes steer the film’s atmosphere, as jazz bands on the street bring people together and furnish affection and kindliness.

Of course, these disparate scenes are all connected through the prism of the man in the hat, as Hinds utilises facial expressions alone to communicate emotions and feelings. In a performance reminiscent of Mr. Bean, Hinds is adept at conveying a clumsiness in compromising situations, as wide-open eyes scream across his face, but he also showcases affability through a gentle smile as acts of generosity from him and strangers typify the film.

The Man in the Hat lives in a shadow of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton with its silent movie slapstick, but glows in the warmth of the French countryside. As each character exudes a big-hearted generosity, a soft tenderness underlies the smile-inducing humour of the film.

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Resident Evil Village

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

2017’s Resident Evil VII was a bold reinvention for Capcom’s long-lived spookshow series. Changing the action to a first person perspective, and delivering a story that felt like an even more demented riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other hillbilly horrors, the game was a tense, engaging triumph. Naturally, excitement for a potential sequel was high and now Resident Evil Village (VIIIage – geddit?) has arrived and despite minor flaws, it’s pretty bloody good.

Resident Evil Village puts you back in the shoes of VII’s protagonist, and man voted Most Likely to Injure His Hands Constantly, Ethan Winters. After the events of VII, Ethan has managed to make a better life with his missus, Mia, and infant daughter Rose. That is until his world is shattered, his daughter flogged, and he finds himself wandering the Transylvanian vistas of a very unpleasant European village.

What follows, in a lot of ways, feels like a bigger budgeted remake of VII. You’ve got a demented family, multiple members of which you’ll have to face in unique encounters, and a central mystery to decipher before it’s too late. The difference, other than the more gothic aesthetic, is in terms of scale. Instead of sickening Louisiana swampland, Ethan will be trekking across icy European environments, imposing castles, hideous dungeons. Instead of facing endless mouldy blokes, you’ll come across werewolves, leathery undead acolytes, bug ladies, cyborgs and, of course, an enormous sheila the internet is super thirsty for. It’s a huge array of foes, and it’s great to see such enemy variety.

Of course, having so many enemies means Village is more focused on combat than the previous entry. And, one wonderful sequence where you’re disarmed aside, this is absolutely an action-based experience. It’s Aliens, not Alien, which is great if you’re up for it, but disappointing if you were hoping Capcom would continue leaning towards more psychological horror.

Resident Evil Village is more of a carnival ghost train than a nuanced horror yarn, but it’s so effectively realised – and consistently tense throughout – that you can’t help but get swept up in the wild story, creepy atmosphere and surprisingly emotionally resonant conclusion. If you like your horror of the “balls to the wall” variety, you’d be an idiot to miss out on this Village.

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The Perfect Candidate

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In 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour was met with resounding acclaim after her debut Wadjda, became the first feature film directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia. She has since found consistent work around the world, across various cultures, with the inherent oppressions of womanhood serving as the thematic skewer lancing her entire oeuvre. Her most recent film, The Perfect Candidate, is no exception.

The film follows Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a resolute doctor working in rural Saudi Arabia, who is exasperated by the flooded roads leading to her hospital, and local politicians’ lack of efforts to fund the necessary aid. In a culture deaf to the voices of women, Maryam decides she must run for office as the town’s first ever female candidate, much to the scandalisation of her family, friends and society as a whole.

It is a film wherein most of the drama comes from Maryam’s struggle against her inflexible environment, where change is met with such reluctance that by the end of the story, the fruits of her endeavours are hardly perceptible. This is where a lot of the power comes from in this film, as our habits of barracking for the underdog, for justice and for necessary change are aroused by our protagonist’s unyielding resolve. And yet, while the plot’s ties with Al-Mansour’s own experiences in subverting tradition are hard to ignore, we are granted little insight into Maryam’s internal conflicts.

When a film opts to leave these private realms unpenetrated, it can be explained by either one of two approaches: subtlety or laziness. Too often Al-Mansour’s efforts more closely resemble the latter; as we feel the film is too invested in the character to keep at a remote, Bressonian distance; but at the same time, isn’t aloof enough to pique the audience’s intrigue.

While you may feel the boundaries of your comfort zone briefly breached – through the often incomprehensible societal values – here, you’ll find familiarity swiftly embracing you, as the film proves itself riskless in both its construction and overall message. The gender oppression of Saudi society are effectively communicated, however, neither a hopeful nor pessimistic view is offered. That said, such neutrality can often pack a punch of its own, but in the case of The Perfect Candidate, the obstinacy of Saudi society, combined with Al-Mansour’s infirm and indecisive assessment of it, too invested in the character to keep at a remote, Bressonian distance; but at the same time, isn’t aloof enough to pique the audience’s intrigue.results in a generally stagnant film.

Further, the modesty of Al-Mansour’s aesthetics, a trademark throughout her career, again contributes to this sense of safeness, rather than controlled restraint, ensuring that The Perfect Candidate will fade quickly from memory.

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The Goya Murders

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The machinations of the serial killer have long been fertile ground for filmmakers, but the quality of the final product can vary greatly. For every Zodiac or Se7en, there’s also The Goya Murders (or El Asesino de los Caprichos), which starts with a reasonably sound premise – a killer is poisoning his (usually well off) victims and recreating scenes from Goya prints as deathly exhibits. Imagine the murder scenes in Se7en but with less gore and more artistry.

Investigating these murders are Madrid detectives, Carmen Cobos and Eva González, played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Aura Garrido, and though the actors are fine, they have the writing to overcome. Their characters are broadly painted, there’s not a lot of light and shade here.

Carmen immediately takes against her younger partner for no apparent reason. Eva is a fun-loving, karaoke singing, happy mother-of-two, while Carmen drinks from a hip flask and drives erratically. At one point a fellow officer tells Carmen that her ‘bad cop’ routine is too much. Thanks for the nudge.

But the plot has to take most of the blame. It’s incoherent and vapid with obvious telegraphing – the camera lingers on one character, which is enough to solve the whodunit angle, yet confusingly, later the same thing happens to another character with no resulting pay-off. There are threads that start to develop and are then dismissed summarily. Carmen is removed from the case after a personal error of judgement but is then brought back within 10 minutes of screen time. Even more curiously, in one of the most promising ideas in the script, a high level obstruction of justice is uncovered, and then completely sidelined, never to be revisited. It could even be argued that the motive of the killer, the mechanism driving the whole plot, borders on complete irrationality.

The most egregious misstep is the ending. There’s a gruesome incident in the stereotypical final confrontation and then a short coda that serves no clear purpose. In fact, only the fade to black indicates that the movie is over. Very odd. The writer, Ángela Armero has mostly written for Spanish TV, so perhaps this story could have been better served over a run of episodes.

The Madrid streets scenes are well shot and the director, Gerardo Herrero, has a lot of experience as both a producer and director, but he really should have made some sense of this. The Goya Murders is a film that hangs its constituent parts together with no visible cohesion, leaving the viewer to try to imagine the reasoning behind everything or, more likely, to dismiss it as a waste of ninety minutes.

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Nier Replicant

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Nier: Automata was one of the best games of 2017. A genre-straddling, fourth wall breaking, bullgoose loony trek through a robotic dreamscape that was at turns funny, sad, thought-provoking and jaw-droppingly odd. Polished gameplay, memorable locations, quality writing and unforgettable characters combined to create something truly unique.

Except, that’s not entirely true. See, Automata’s “uniqueness” was more due to the fact that it was the next evolution of an equally nuts – although in different ways – title from the same director, Yoko Taro, called Nier (or Nier Gestalt in some territories), which dropped in 2010.

The game did not do spectacularly, but it did manage to gather a loyal cult following, which helped Automata’s release no end. So, the good people at Cavia and Square Enix have dusted off Nier, prettied it up, added some new gear and released it as Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… so, uh, we’re just going to call it Nier Replicant.

Nier Replicant is the story of a brother and sister. The sister is Yonah, the brother is the player-named main character. In the beginning, you’ll look for a cure for Yonah’s disease, go on a bunch of fetch quests, fight shadowy ghosts called Shades and get into various shenanigans. Typical video game gear.

Then the game takes a hard left turn, and it never quite stops turning. Automata did similar things, but Replicant’s wild narrative shifts are no less engaging just because they’re expected. This is genuinely surprising, subversive stuff (that we will absolutely not spoil), and for fans of narratives that explore lofty concepts, and take risks, this can be thrilling.

That said, the gameplay is a little less accomplished than Automata. Even upgraded from 2010 standards, there are clunky elements here and for newbies to the series, Automata is definitely the superior option, mechanically speaking.

However, if you were one of the people who stumbled across Automata and were blown away by its wild twists and turns, you might want to give Replicant a spin. It’s a surreal, engaging, surprisingly emotional yarn that packs a wallop, even when some of its technical shortcomings make it feel a little dated.

Not quite the equal of Automata, it’s still something of a Nier masterpiece.

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American author Gore Vidal once famously joked that Hollywood actors were “little men but big heads”. That came to mind when seeing Gael Garcia Bernal in this strange mixed gerne film from Chile. Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries), who was once so beautiful, has mellowed into a middle-aged man. He is still distinguished, but there is a sort of weariness about him, at least in this film. Perhaps it is the way he plays it.

He is Gaston, the partner of the eponymous Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). Both he and Ema are involved in the world of modern dance, and they have been in an uneasy relationship for many years. When we join them, their most harmonious years are behind them, and there is both pain and pathos in seeing how they manage that familiar end game. They try for an open marriage, but they have closed their hearts.

Ema is piece of work it has to be said. Di Girolamo plays her ramped up to the max. With her dyed hair and punky clothes, she turns heads wherever she goes, and she knows it. In the beginning of the film, we gather that the couple has given up on their adopted son Polo. This has left a hole in Ema’s life that she tries to fill with manic energy and lots of drugs and casual sex. Being in a bohemian milieu, there is no shortage of participants that want to hook up with her and feed off her energy.

Gaston regards all this with an ironic stoniness. He even makes it plain to Ema that he knows she is trying to hurt him to assuage her own pain. He seems to have lost all respect for her dancing too and, in one memorable scene, he lays into her verbally about that. Her dancing, as shown here, isn’t that good. It consists of the sort of flash mob group gyrations that you get in every other pop video from the 1980s onwards. Maybe that is part of the point. If Ema and her troop were really talented as opposed to merely manically committed, then her creative career might have been more fulfilling. Mind you, Ema comes across as so madly egocentric that we can’t decide if she can tell whether she is overcompensating or is just unaware.

The director of this uneven effort is the esteemed Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain. He made the rather interesting film No (2012) about the manipulation of politics and the populace via advertising in his home country. That was an oblique and memorable take on things. This film has some of that originality/oddity but somehow it lacks the intuitive flare. We never really get to know the characters that make up this enclave of a Chilean city (here Valparaiso). Part of the problem is that it is hard to like the characters enough, and their necessarily repetitive and stuck lives are not easy to stay with for nearly two hours.

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Cliff Walkers

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

To lovers of art cinema, the career of Chinese master Zhang Yimou might seem a puzzle, if not a disappointment. Yimou burst on the international scene in the early 1990s with his artful small scale humanist dramas. Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Road Home (1999) were all arthouse successes. These films often worked with a small canvas and concentrated on the struggle of the isolated or disadvantaged individual in a way that could resonate with audiences across the world. The films combined a superb visual style with great scripts and believable performances.

Yimou has continued to make films (he has made 30+ so far) but both his focus and scale have evolved. In recent times, he has made epic films that showcase the confidence of the new China. Hero (2002) was one such example. The subsequent effort The Great Wall (2016) (which starred Matt Damon no less) was a critical and commercial disappointment. Still, it would be unnecessarily narrow to proceed only from the Western assumption that Yimou had sold out. Each film has to be taken on its own merits.

This new one is an intricate historical spy drama. It is set in Manchukuo in Northern China in the 1930s. The invading Japanese have set up a puppet regime there. The setup of the film is that four undercover agents have to parachute in behind enemy lines to try and conduct a guerrilla style mission. To make maters nice and complicated, their chances have been compromised from the beginning by a double agent hell bent on sabotaging them.

The film opens with a breathtaking and kinetic sequence in which the heroes drop into a wintery forest through the swirling snow. Yimou has the chops to bring off scenes like this so well and the whole look of the film – from the vintage cars to the 1930s décor – suggests a big budget.

There are problems however, that no amount of technique and lavishness can paper over. Spy plots, with their endless double crosses and secret rendezvous and coded assignations, are fun for a bit, but here they accumulate in a way which is both overloaded and hard to continue to care about.

Yimou throws everything at the project but often with a sense of diminishing returns and, at two hours, the film feels pretty bloated. He is perhaps aping American cinema values but big and brash isn’t always best. And, as with so much Hollywood fare, a thinly-disguised patriotism soon obtrudes. It is sort of smuggled in but audiences will see through it, and whether you sense the taint of propaganda or not, it cannot make us like the film.

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My Name is Gulpilil

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

In the opening shot, we watch who we presume to be the titular Gulpilil walk down a featureless dirt road — his beanpole legs carrying him away from us at an entrancingly slow pace… Then suddenly, out from behind him, and to our mystification, emerges an emu who walks at a similarly leisurely cadence to Gulpilil, and whose mode of transport also happens to be a pair of pencil-thin legs. It is an image of nature’s inevitable divergence from the path of man, but one which also reminds us of their inseverable bond — a bond never more profound and complex than in the life of Gulpilil.

In 1969, David Gulpilil’s hunting skills, tribal dancing and undeniable charisma caught the eye of British director Nicolas Roeg, who was scouting a lead actor for his upcoming film, Walkabout. Following Roeg’s masterful capture of said charisma, and the film’s consequent success, Gulpilil rose to international stardom. From that point on, he was a man of two realms: the western and the tribal.

Here, director Molly Reynolds (Another Country) shows us the final chapter of Gulpilil’s life: he has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the doctors’ forecasts are far from promising. As made evident from the aforementioned opening, Reynolds (like us, like Roeg, and like so many subsequent casting agents) appreciates the magnetic virtue of her subject. On countless occasions, she gifts us with these unhurried and intimate holds on Gulpilil’s face, whose indecipherable expression we never tire of.

As the film wades through the gloomy stints at sterile hospital wards, we concurrently skate through his life, from his rapid rise to celebrity, through his steady career, and into his twilight years when he succumbed to a number of vices. In this way, the film magically works as one might expect a mind would when confronted with its own mortality, reminiscing on the happier years, while ruing over the irretrievable ones. This is all tied together with a masterful sound design, which is able to melt these seemingly infusible phases together, altogether forming a rich yet endlessly complex character.

All throughout, Reynolds exhibits a noble devotion to the truth, just as a true documentarian should, as the film always shows the necessary restraint for such a modest farewell as this: Gulpilil’s fight against cancer isn’t dramatised, his past misdemeanours are neither defended nor absolved, and his enfeebled body and mind is presented with little subterfuge — whittled by its vices.

While the film centres around a man who throughout his adult life has been torn between two worlds, the story is more so focused on his preparations to depart from both realms — and to do so with redeeming humility.

My Name is Gulpilil is produced by Molly Reynolds, David Gulpilil, Rolf De Heer and Peter Djigirr.

Photo by Miles Rowland