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Monster Hunter World: Iceborne

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Monster Hunter: World was released in 2018 to a stunning amount of success, critically and commercially. The notoriously fiddly Japanese franchise has always enjoyed a sort of niche fame, but for the first time ever, general audiences were coming to the party. Now, this is often the point where good games go off the rails, as the need to satisfy a wider market dilutes what made the IP special in the first place. Happily, this proved not to be the case with MHW, and the title retained its notorious difficulty and staggering depth of RPG elements, while adding relatively easy online functionality and many quality-of-life improvements. Now the first major expansion is here, Iceborne, and it brings a lot to the party, and it’s all pretty bloody great.

Iceborne continues the cheerful, but ultimately inconsequential, Monster Hunter: World story and introduces a new (and better designed) hub called Seliana and enormous exploration area, Hoarfrost Reach. As the name suggests, the Reach is an icy environment which necessitates winter clothes and hot drinks to prevent stamina depletion. As expected, it also means a shitload of new monsters are available to hunt, kill, and craft new weapons and armour from their various bitties. It’s basically Monster Hunter business as usual, with a new Master Rank difficulty and a few new moves added to each weapon. Oh, and you can use your slinger as a grappling hook now, to fly over and weaken parts of the monster you’re battling. While individually these changes and additions don’t feel like much, when combined it feels like you’re playing the best version of this game thus far.

Of course, once the main story is complete, Iceborne is all about the endgame and grinding for better armour, weapons and decorations. This is a game, after all, where fights can go for 45 minutes+ and even after all that time, end in failure. That aspect of the franchise hasn’t been diluted at all, and it’s something that won’t be for everyone. Finding the best builds for specific fights, joining them up to take on increasingly powerful enemies and carving new weapons to experiment with, is just as engaging – and pleasingly logical – as always and if you enjoyed that in MHW, it’s even better here. That said, Iceborne is a lot better with capable friends to help you. Certainly, you can request help from randoms, but nothing beats the sense of well-oiled camaraderie, as you best genuinely arseholey creatures like the returning Tigrex or the blade-tailed Glavenus.

Ultimately, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is a massive, involving and game-changing expansion to one of 2018’s best games. It’s something of a niche proposition, so do your research before you make the leap to make sure it’s your jam, but fans of challenging, methodical, satisfying and strategic combat should be on this like Scoutflies on monster shit.

 
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Ne Zha

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

The best kind of cinematic underdog stories are the ones that go beyond the borders of a cinema screen. A debut feature for its director Jiaozi and his animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon, with nary a name-brand actor in sight, Ne Zha has already become one of the biggest commercial successes for a China-born animated film.

Of course, in the era of Avatar and Disney-helmed tentpoles, monetary gains can only push a feature so far. Good thing, then, that this is the kind of production that outright demands that kind of audience pull.

For an East Asian product, the visuals are all kinds of American influenced. It has the round bounciness of Dreamworks (and, let’s be honest, the same sophomoric sense of humour in places), the lighting effects and facial expressions of Disney/Pixar, and the energetic finesse of Laika.

However, rather than feeling like a hodge-podge of familiar elements in a cynical attempt at international notoriety, all of these elements come together astoundingly well.

Everything from the quieter moments of the titular Ne zha kicking around a jianzi, to the action scenes that make Kung Fu Panda look like a test run, are rendered in stylised but highly effective fashion, making every second feel like a glorious panorama unto itself.

As for the story, it taps into regional shenmo storytelling (basically stories to do with gods and demons fighting each other) to tell the tale of Ne Zha, a child born from a demonic seed that is doomed to die at three years old from a divine lightning blast. Wielding mischievous child for all its worth, Lü Yanting imbues the title character with vibrant energy, while also selling the more emotional moments with uncanny poignancy.

And opposite him, we have Han Mao as the dragon prince Ao Bing, whose destiny is tied directly to Ne Zha, leading them both on a path that could see their world and themselves destroyed. It’s quite impressive that, even with very little dialogue, the animation is just that damn good that Ao Bing makes for the most emotionally intense character in this entire affair.

In-between the fight scenes, the jaw-dropping visuals, the familial drama and the occasional spurt of potty humour, it is at its heart a story about fate in a world where mortals rub shoulders with beings of ultimate power. It follows a similar line of thought as Eli Craig’s Little Evil in how it examines the notion of a demonic child meant to be the end of everything, and asks a simple question: Says who? It breaks down the idea of predetermined fate and turns its own cheekiness into a showing of strength and heaven-shaking defiance.

Through the use of familiar ideas and narrative tropes, both foreign and domestic, Ne Zha spins a yarn about prejudice – the mountains it creates and the sheer personal power that can shift them into the sea. And with how far Jiaozi came to create this, it’s hard not to think that he’s shattered a few mountains for himself.

 
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The Kitchen

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Every few years, a film like Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition or David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence pops up as a friendly reminder that comic books aren’t just the realm of spandex-clad symbols of justice. And with the latest from writer and now-director Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton, Blood Father), we seem to be getting a more feminist take on organised crime. Or, rather, that’s what this could have been if it had enough of an idea about what it was trying to be in the first place.

The leading cast is at once perfectly placed and yet criminally underutilised. Melissa McCarthy is respectably playing against type, but when her one mood is pouting and being on the verge of tears, one longs for a more “I’ll play your heart like a fucking accordion” delivery.

Same goes for Elisabeth Moss, who’s been deserving of better material for a long time but is let down by how the adaptation shifts her character around. What was once a hardened and vicious character is here shown as a victim at the hands of men, who ends up clinging to yet another man in order to get her vengeance.

The only one here who actually works for the entirety of the film is Haddish, who throws unabashed moxie in everyone’s faces, resulting in a role that is both the closest to the source material and yet its most evident diversion [her character was not in the comic].

While Berloff and DOP Maryse Alberti’s efforts allow for cool ‘70s-era visuals, the tone never manages to find its groove. For a story involving extortion, murder and a garbage truck full of dismembered body parts, this is way too sanitised to really do its own genre any justice. It attempts emphasis on the femininity of our leads in how they do business, putting a maternal spin on the idea of protection rackets, but all that manages to do is make the whole effort inexorably bland.

And that’s without factoring in that it is an adaptation of a DC Vertigo comic, an imprint as revered for its mature, mystically-tinged storytelling as it is for its high-concept revamping of disregarded characters from the DC canon. This is the same line that took a pulp-era crime-fighter in Sandman and turned him into the abstract embodiment of the concept of dreaming itself.

The source material, and by extension this film, follows that same approach of retooling underutilised characters. It takes one of the more classically left-behind archetypes in the crime genre, the mob wife, and gives her a chance to shine without being tied directly to a male lead. In the era of Widows and Ocean’s 8, this comic being turned into a movie makes all kinds of sense.

Shame that that goodwill doesn’t extend to the finished product, where it feels like the pieces are in place to deliver a solid story, but none of them are given the space, the framing, or the grit to truly take form.

 
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The Farewell

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Some families live out their lives with various secrets. Some are undone by them. Lulu Wang’s real-life inspired The Farewell starts by telling us the film is “based on an actual lie”.

Burgeoning Chinese-American writer Billi (rapper, comedienne, actor Awkwafina, Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians) lives in Brooklyn, still close to and in daily contact with her beloved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who lives in Changchun, China.

Whilst Billi left her birthplace at age 6 to emigrate with her parents, her dear grandma, (referred to as Nai Nai in Mandarin), remains a vital and constant role model in her life. Through Skype and other technologies, Billi can be continuously connected to her Nai Nai.

Concerned with everything that happens in her grandmother’s existence, Billi is alarmed to find that the elderly woman is diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer, and all family members have been told – except the patient themselves – her Nai Nai. This is custom for Billi’s family in China.

Despite having less than 4 months to live, according to Chinese tradition, informing the sick of their diagnosis only hastens their demise.

For the first time in 25 years, everyone in the extended family journeys to China to send off the adored matriarch, using the pretence of a suddenly announced marriage between Billi’s uncle Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who he has been dating for three months.

This is the drawn-from-experience premise which underpins The Farewell, the autobiographical sophomore feature from Chinese-American filmmaker Wang (Posthumous).

Packed with personal details from Wang’s experience emigrating to America with Chinese parents – such as a true anecdote involving being given a community piano to practice on arrival, The Farewell finds a balance between the fictionalisation of its scenario and the vividness of Wang’s experience. (The director’s actual great-aunt, Hong Lu, plays herself in the production.)

Conjuring an intimate and delicate atmosphere which largely doesn’t feel forced or laboured, the film swings effectively between broad comedy and earnestly quiet moments.

Billi’s complex experience of revisiting her homeland is deftly captured by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano and production designer Yong Ok Lee – placing viewers at the centre of Billi’s return home – and director Wang’s memories. Billi’s apprehension and delight of seeing her maternal grandmother – in her home country, where she hadn’t stepped foot in years – under unexpected, and false circumstances, is one of the film’s many delights.

An authentic take on family, memory and identity, The Farewell is ultimately a sensitive and well-honed portrait of coming to grips with cultural identity.

 
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IT Chapter Two

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

2017’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It, by director Andy Muschietti, was an enormous box office hit and at the time of writing is the most successful horror movie ever made. Based on King’s gargantuan monster-mashing masterpiece, the wise decision was made to split the novel into two parts (the damn thing is over 1,300 pages) with It telling the tale of the Losers’ Club as kids and It Chapter Two finishing the yarn 27 years later, with our plucky heroes in their 40s.

Translating the adult parts of the book was always going to be tough, as even the most ardent King fan will likely agree that the children’s chapters are more effective. See, the titular beastie at the heart of It is an ancient shape-shifting, cosmic horror that takes on the form of your worst nightmares. So, for kids, it can be a leper, a scary painting come to life, or a zombified relative. However, adults have different fears entirely, and how do you effectively manifest as a grownup, horror like mortgage repayments, prostate exams or indifferent spouses? Muschietti opts to take Chapter Two in a quite different direction, and while it’s not as elegant as the prequel, it’s effective for the most part.

So, 27 years have passed since It aka Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) was defeated by the youthful Losers’ Club. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the only Loser not to leave the town of Derry, so it’s up to him to contact Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), when it becomes clear the beastie is back and up to its old tricks.

Most of the group go to Derry, albeit with much reluctance, and their mystically-wiped memories return and the terror along with it. For much of the film, we’re with the various Losers as they try to piece together their past, and work out a way to defeat It. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain both nail their respective roles, and have the most effective journeys in terms of both thematic richness and onscreen horror. In terms of nailing the character, however, Bill Hader absolutely owns Richie Tozier, bringing a hilarious, sweary fatalism to Trashmouth’s glib banter and surprising depth in the back half. James Ransone is at times a wonderful Eddie, however he’s saddled with a couple of sequences that are tonally bizarre, feeling like something from a goofy splatter comedy, which makes his arc a little inconsistent. And, of course, hats off to Bill Skarsgard who once again makes a delightfully bent Pennywise/It, dripping with drool and wall-eyed lunacy, and genuinely fascinating to watch.

Storywise, It Chapter Two is a strange beast. Most of King’s cosmic weirdness was left out of the previous film, which gives this chapter a lot more of the expositional heavy lifting. Ancient rituals, cosmic origins and backstory aplenty are explored to varying degrees of success, leading to a final confrontation that’s pleasingly surreal and emotionally resonant.

Whereas It felt like more of a typical modern horror flick – replete with an overreliance on jump scares and VERY LOUD NOISES – this one hews closer to the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, with hallucinatory elements and a premium placed on conquering personal demons as much as the many gibbering, goggling monsters on show.

Muschietti can be a blunt, unsubtle instrument at times and the script by Annabelle scribe Gary Dauberman isn’t exactly overladen with nuance, however there’s an enthusiasm and willingness to swing for the fences that makes It Chapter Two a messier but more ambitious creation.

After a wonky start, It Chapter Two tells an engaging tale that never feels like it drags, despite its supersized runtime. As an adaptation it follows the spirit, if not the letter, of the book more closely than its predecessor and while it’s never quite as crowd-pleasingly charming, it takes a deeper dive into the psyche of its characters. Bloody, surreal and at times confounding, It Chapter Two is an ambitious slice of cosmic horror bolstered by strong performances, enthusiastic direction and a fantastic (in all sense of the word) monster.

Perhaps in another 27 years we’ll get an even more faithful, ten part adaptation through whatever platform we consume media on, but in the meantime this one here? It’s pretty bloody good.

 

 
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End of the Century

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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.

 
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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan

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2015’s Until Dawn from developer Supermassive Games was an ambitious attempt to create the experience of a trashy horror movie in which you, the player, could influence and change the outcome. Featuring a stunning performance from Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), gorgeous visuals and a lively and inventive story, it was a surprise hit that spawned a VR spin-off and prequel. 2019 ushers in the next major project from Supermassive, The Dark Pictures Anthology project, where a series of standalone genre efforts will try to recapture that Until Dawn magic. Man of Medan is first cab off the rank and while it certainly has its charms, it lacks the lunatic thrills of its predecessor.

Aside from an extremely effective prologue set during WWII, Man of Medan is a contemporary tale about four Americans who hire a boat to go diving in a submerged wreck, hoping for adventure or gold. What they find, instead, are vicious pirates, bad weather and a huge, rusting hulk of an abandoned ship… that might just be haunted.

The concept of a ghost ship lost at sea is wonderful, and for its first half Man of Medan is extremely effective and atmospheric. Voice and motion capture performances are stellar, and the moody lighting, graphics and audio are top notch from the get-go. However, around the back half, and we’ll keep it vague here to avoid spoilers, a twist occurs that desperately undermines the narrative to such a degree that it never really recovers.

Until Dawn also featured a divisive twist, but it was in keeping with similar genre efforts, whereas Man of Medan’s game changer feels like it’s been lifted from an Uncharted sequel. This means that no matter which ending you get – or how many of the cast you manage to keep alive – the proceedings feel extremely anticlimactic.

On the plus side, Man of Medan is still enjoyable, and the addition of a co-op mode adds a new layer of intrigue, further enhancing the feeling of an interactive movie. You’ll certainly be engaged through the 4-6 hours it takes to complete a playthrough, but the achingly deflating (and frankly predictable) twist in the back section pretty much ensures that you won’t be making multiple runs.

The good news is the next Dark Pictures entry, Little Hope, looks fantastic so hopefully the project will get back on track in 2020. However, it has to be said, Man of Medan doesn’t quite live up to its supermassive potential.

 
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The Longest Shot

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

The Longest Shot is a Chinese-Australian co-production shot largely in Melbourne, using the historic locales of that city as stand ins for French Concession, a section of Beijing which, from 1849 until 1943, was governed and controlled by a foreign power (there was also a considerably larger International Concession).

Inside this country within a country, power dynamics are constantly shifting, particularly between Chinese gangsters vying for influence and power.

When world-weary hired killer Zhao (Wang Zhiwen) is asked to off two local gangsters, the Irish interloper Pee (Chris Downs) and Bobo (Xu Yajun), who are enmeshed in an escalating street war that’s bad for everyone’s business, Zhao is hesitant to agree. He’s racked with Parkinson’s and has all but given away that life.

Zhao’s keen to repay old favours, make some sweet bank and tie up loose ends so he pulls on the tough-guy pants and steams on in for some old-school wet work. He drafts in Russian friend Luc (Konstantin Konewhoff) to help, though both men fear the multi-sided gang war that could explode.

So, between the scheming local gangsters, Brother Wang (Jack Kao) and Du (Lee LiChun) and corrupt French Concession official Commander Fouquet (Fabien Lucciarini), every devious gangster plots their respective enemy’s demise, unaware that there’s equally nefarious plans set against their own fiefdoms.

The Raymond Chandler style, Rube-Goldberg plotting, with multiple bad guys and multiple schemes, requires scene after scene of gangsters talking in rooms, feeling like the filmmakers had more than a little of the Coen Bros. masterpiece Miller’s Crossing in their crosshairs as a tonal target for the look and feel they were going for.

The film hits its stride on several occasions and the more seasoned cast members really engage with solid, charismatic performances and some claret splattered action sequences. The almost OCD level of sub-plot exposition eventually subsides and the film rattles along at a clip after the first hour, though the amount of plot machinations needed to move the character pieces around the chessboard means way less character development and that’s to the film’s detriment.

Crisp, colourful, elegant and very art deco, it lacks the authenticity of similar fare, such as Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad (set in a similar period) but it’s a handsomely mounted production nonetheless, featuring grand locations with that requisite sense of opulence.

 
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Delfin

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Sitting as the cusp of adulthood – the age where the burning flame of passion is blown out by the cold winds of life – is titular Argentinian schoolboy Delfin (Valentino Catania). A boy who unlike others his age dreaming of becoming astronauts, firefighters or whatever the modern age equivalent of Jackie Chan is, remains driven by his desire to play the French horn in this charming depiction of youth optimism.

Deceptively small in stakes, Delfin asks big questions surrounding economic inequality. If Delfin, a go-getter who relies on his ingenuity to get going, were allowed the same opportunities as those with greater financial standing, what great things could he achieve?

It is not only the modesty of Delfin’s dreams that differ to others in his small, Argentinian town. Here is a boy who must support his father (portrayed ambivalently by Cristian Salguero), a man who asks his son to lie about his whereabouts to debt-collecting thugs and to work as a delivery boy before school as a secondary source of income. His every day is riddled by experiences foreign to his classmates and captured with a deliberate sense of twee that has audiences standing ringside in Delfin’s corner.

Director Gaspar Scheuer extracts the innocence of childhood in Catania’s stoic-yet-endearing performance. Delfin’s journey to try out for a local children’s orchestra is emblematic of the inequality granted to children of disadvantaged upbringings. Delfin’s neglect is softened by the quaintness of his picturesque, Argentinian surroundings; where ocean blue skies stretch across a vast horizon and the library-esque silence of the town is broken only by the dulcet tones of a make-shift French horn Delfin has constructed in lieu of owning the instrument.

He is not a boy, not yet a man (sorry Britney). ‘Eleven soon to be twelve’, Delfin responds when asked his age. He shows interest in girls but remains shy. He plays music without receiving taunts from fellow classmates. He is at the awkward age of childhood that borders on maturity. His creative pursuits are not only hampered from a financial perspective but also the lack of respect he receives from adults because of his age.

Delfin refuses to wallow in sorrow or make excuses for the hardships he encounters. Far from it. Rolling with the punches, he is limited only by his own inability to make things happen (and makes things happen he does) in this endearing, underdog odyssey that speaks to the absence of opportunity of the working class.

 
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Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock

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Making docos can be tough, and more often than not, they’re absolute labours of love, made by true believers with a passion for their subject that defies all obstacles. Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock shapes up as exactly that, as director, writer, editor, producer and cinematographer, Shaun Katz (in his feature debut), crafts an insightful, insouciant, probing and wildly entertaining tale of artistic defiance and record company ruthlessness featuring a whole host of bands that most people probably haven’t heard of. That doesn’t mean that these bands aren’t great (hell, no!), but it certainly makes the doco a tougher sell, and an obviously deeply personal endeavour. Thankfully, we all get to enjoy it too.

Utilising gritty, punky, fanzine-style graphics; furious, from-the-crowd live footage; time-smeared vintage music clips; and wall-to-wall talking head interviews (in which just about everyone, honest to god, is an MVP…but special praise be to Fishbone’s Walter A. Kibby, Monster Magnet’s David Wyndorf and Dig’s Matt Tecu), Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock tracks the ragged cohort of bands that formed in the late eighties as an antidote to the mainstream (“Prince, Janet Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna…you know, just pure shit,” sneers alt legend, Steve Albini), and then ended up getting signed to major labels in the nineties when “alternative” became a buzzword thanks to the breakthrough of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The fact that bands like Cop Shoot Cop, Sugartooth, Helmet, The Jesus Lizard and Corrosion Of Conformity were a little too left of field to ever make it in the same way as the aforementioned rock titans obviously eluded the major label record companies in their feverish desire to sign the next big thing. And then when the record-sales-by-the-truckload failed to materialise, the bands – despite their obvious artistic merit – were cruelly consigned to the scrapheap.

Though some of what transpires in Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock is hardly new (bands torn apart by drugs and betrayal; the freakish ability of record companies to lie to their artists, and then brutally exploit them), it’s depicted in such a fresh, honest and gutsy way that it feels like you’re actually witnessing it for the first time. At times endearingly lo-fi (many artists are interviewed in what look like very, very shambolic places of residence, while Quicksand’s Walter Schreifels chats away in a sunny park, as a sunbather obliviously checks herself out in a mirror behind him in the distance), Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock manages an amazing feat: it tells a story that you probably didn’t know that you needed to hear, but now that you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it. This is a rock doco of the first, fiery, funny order. It also resurrects Scatterbrain’s classic “Don’t Call Me Dude”, and for that, we should all offer sincere and heartfelt thanks.

Underground Inc.: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Rock screens at The Sydney Underground Film Festival on September 13 at 8:30pm. For ticketing and venue information, click here.