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Hot Mess

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

Australia is busting at the seams with talented young filmmakers creating content for TV and the web, all off their own steam, and with seemingly little financial reward. Though high quality material is abundant, much of this work fails to break through into the mainstream, which is, to put it mildly, a damn shame. Hopefully, the utterly delightful comedy, Hot Mess, will buck the trend and capture hearts on the large scale that it truly deserves.

Written and directed by Lucy Coleman (whose web series, On The Fringe, is online now), this thoroughly contemporary tale of love, desperation, and misplaced priorities has the smarts and savvy to make its non-existent budget an instant non-problem, and even a strange kind of strength.

At the centre of this finely judged piece of comedic economy is 25-year-old Loz (Sarah Gaul is an absolute revelation here, expertly navigating a difficult but truly loveable character who bounces all over the emotional map), a burgeoning writer who seems intent on sabotaging her own success. Hotly touted to be awarded with a coveted writer-in-residence gig at a theatre run by the no-nonsense Greg (a nice turn from Sydney acting school godfather, Terry Serio), the talented Loz constantly jeopardises her chances by coming up with increasingly graphic and confronting feminist-minded material. Harangued by her concerned and disapproving mum (well played by Zoe Carides), the hopelessly adrift Loz sees an anchor in Dave (the gifted and charismatic Marshall Campbell), a nice guy who might just be the answer to her romantic dreams. Unless he’s not…

Cleanly but imaginatively shot by DOP, Jay Grant, and boasting a just-right musical score by Jack Hambling and Tom O’Dea, Hot Mess really sings when it comes to performance and script. Lucy Coleman’s dialogue is loopily of-the-moment, but it never feels cloying or contrived. Her characters speak like smart, thoughtful young people do in “real life”, and the creation of such pitch-perfect dialogue is no mean feat indeed. It’s helped to no end by the actors speaking it, all of whom ring and sing with wit and authenticity. Effortlessly current but undeniably timeless, Hot Mess is a warm and wonderful work from a very exciting new voice in Australian comedy.

 
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Defend, Conserve, Protect

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the most highly visible (we’ve all seen someone on the street wearing one of their promotional hoodies, right?) and instantly effective environmental protective organisations in the world. Founded by Paul Watson – who was ousted from Greenpeace because his approach was too confrontational for the appropriately titled environmental activist group – Sea Shepherd has used various seagoing vessels to obstruct the Japanese whale trade via direct and often aggressive methods. Unsurprisingly, they are a highly divisive player on the environmental protection scene.

This crowd-funded, Australian-produced documentary from director, Stephen Amis (whose diverse resume includes everything from the Shane Jacobson-led comedy, The BBQ, to the schlock-action of The 25th Reich), however, is unapologetically in Sea Shepherd’s corner. With a ragged sense of urgency, the film takes viewers on-board Sea Shepherd’s various vessels as they set out into the icy waters of Antarctica to way-lay a phalanx of Japanese whaling ships on their way to harpoon as many Minke whales as they can.

With different types of ships with catchy names (including the Brigitte Bardot and the Steve Irwin) and flashy paint jobs, the small Sea Shepherd flotilla is almost like an environmental version of The Thunderbirds, heroically crewed by its own version of the Tracy brothers. Committed and charismatic, the likeable likes of Captains Peter Hammarstedt and Luis Manuel De Pinho put their lives on the line as they bump their vessels up against the much larger (and utterly horrific) Japanese factory ships, which are basically blood-stained aquatic abattoirs equipped with high powered water cannons.

The footage is high-intensity and gripping, while on-screen interviews with iconic figurehead Paul Watson provide context about Sea Shepherd. Sequences featuring Dan Aykroyd as the collective voice of the Minke whales, however, are far less effective and largely superfluous. It’s in Sea Shepherd’s sense of commitment, passion and daring that the exciting and compelling Defend, Conserve, Protect finds its best footing, playing out more like a seafaring adventure tale than an environmental doco.

Previews of Defend, Conserve, Protect are being held in June – find out where it’s playing by clicking here. A general release will then follow from July 25, 2019.

 
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Here Comes Hell

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

Screened at Sydney Film Festival, in the Freak Me Out program strand, Here Comes Hell is a genre mash-up debut feature effort from UK Director Jack McHenry and co-writer Alice Sidgwick. Having worked on music videos and short films before this, McHenry shows confidence in his style. His previous short film, Dungeon of Vampire Nazis showcases his crew’s filmmaking style and passion for cinema, which also shines through in Here Comes Hell.

Hell does a great job of capturing an early cinema aesthetic by paying homage to classic filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle. From the opening shot, the mood is set, when the audience is greeted by a man talking directly to camera and introducing the film. To top it off, it’s also filmed in black and white and presented in the boxed 4:3 format.

This film knows exactly what it is and uses all the classic tropes of ‘50s B movies while mashing it with other genre film styles. The actors crank their performances up to 11 and at no point are they, or the film, afraid to be cheesy. The accents are hammy and over the top, just like the performances. If you can imagine a ’50s B movie classic with the slapstick gore of Evil Dead, this is what Here Comes Hell delivers.

The plot is familiar and simple, an old haunted manor house with a group of young people playing around with the occult and opening up a gateway to hell. There are plenty of laughs and scares, as the guests have to put down their wine glasses and pick up weapons with every man (and woman) for themselves in a fight to make it out alive before dawn.

Even though the runtime is short, it does take what feels like a very long time to get into full swing. Like two completely different movies, for the first 35 minutes you’re watching a social drama and for the rest it’s a 1980s horror flick, complete with one liners and crash zooms. The film becomes more entertaining once the gates of hell have been opened but before that there isn’t enough to cling to; the film would have benefited from spending the first act fleshing out characters, and there are plot points that are hinted at but never fully explored, such as the intertwined past relationships between the guests.

Mixing practical and visual effects to achieve a look that is both pleasing to fans of genre and general audiences, the filmmakers have made their modest budget work, and the passion behind the project shows on screen.

With its cheesy dialogue, hammy accents and stereotypical characters, Here Comes Hell does everything short of wink directly to camera. It’s refreshing when a director knows the ins and outs of the genre he’s trying to recreate, and McHenry shows a lot of promise with his obvious love for cinema and knowledge of its clichés and techniques. Parody films usually have a paper-thin premise and a style that is not unique, but Here Comes Hell is thankfully one of the exceptions.

 
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Under the Silver Lake

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In 2014, director David Robert Mitchell thrilled the world with clever indie horror flick, It Follows. The film’s elegant premise – a sexually transmitted demon – combined with tense direction and a Carpenter-esque score by Disasterpeace made the film a legitimate hit and raised anticipation for his next flick. Said film, Under the Silver Lake, is about to hit our shores for a limited cinema release and the result is… odd, sporadically engaging but not entirely successful.

Under the Silver Lake follows the antics of shiftless slacker, Sam (Andrew Garfield) who spends his days finding conspiracy theories in popular culture, not paying his rent and getting laid with almost surreal frequency. The story, such as it is, kicks off when Sam’s sexy neighbour, Sarah (Riley Keough) vanishes after the pair spend a flirtatious evening together getting baked and watching old movies. Sam investigates what he believes is a layered conspiracy, shambolically moving through Los Angeles uncovering quirky shenanigans such as B-list celebrity prostitutes, a dog killer, ethereal emo bands, the Homeless King (David Yow) and a renowned billionaire whose death hides even further secrets.

The concept of a slacker investigator isn’t a bad one, it was used to great effect in The Big Lebowski (1998) and to slightly less stellar results in Inherent Vice (2014). The problem with Under the Silver Lake’s Sam is that he’s just a bit of a non-event. Pleasant but utterly passive, we’re never entirely sure why he’s doing what he does, which makes him a frustrating protagonist. Also, the film clocks in at a confounding 139 minutes (!) which is way too protracted a runtime for a tale with little or no narrative thread. That’s not to say there aren’t solid moments here; despite his thin character Andrew Garfield does a lot with the little he’s given. Plus, some of the subplots are intriguing, particularly during the story’s third act, but there’s so much extraneous filler you’ll likely find yourself exhausted by the sheer volume of quirk.

David Robert Mitchell’s direction remains solid, stylish and effective, however Under the Silver Lake is let down by surprisingly sloppy writing and a general lack of focus. The end result is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories with some wonderful ideas but far too much bloat, practically screaming for a more judicious editor to take a run at the material. Ultimately, Under the Silver Lake is fun at times, but too uneven and woolly to recommend without qualification. Still, if you’re in the mood for something loose, amiable and mostly charming, there are worse ways to spend the day.

 
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The Wandering Chef

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

The Wandering Chef is the kind of left-field, ethereal pleasure only found at film festivals: a documentary on a chef who roams the country, monk-like in his devotion to the search for rare ingredients. Less an exhibition of culinary pyrotechnics, this is more an expression of food as an experience, rooted in culture and tradition.

The subject, Im Jiho, is also a fascinating and compelling individual. Implicit in his solitary journeys is a rejection of modern society and contentment with loneliness unusual in Korea’s collective culture; yet he is also emotionally vulnerable and generous-hearted. The film transports him from rural Korea to international cooking shows and back again, but you get the sense Im is most in his element engaging in earthy banter with other Koreans – usually elderly – on folk remedies. One of the film’s pleasures is watching him get excited about an obscure wild herb and list its medicinal properties, and the scene in which he debates whether moss can or cannot be eaten is a highlight. Im’s vocation draws him close to forgotten, timeless lifestyles: the weather-beaten haenyeo (female divers) of Jeju, and a grandfather hauling stones on his back to a mountainside home. This is as much an ode to Korea’s wild landscapes, with casually stunning cinematography to match, as it is a cooking documentary.

One would have been perfectly happy for The Wandering Chef to be a visual encyclopedia on Korean cuisine and ingredients. However, first-time director Hye Ryeong Park, who filmed the documentary over the span of several years, chooses to push the material in a more narrative direction. The film gravitates increasingly towards Im’s friendship with an elderly lady and her husband, treating it as a quasi-redemptive arc. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is deeply touching, and adds depth to Im as a character. It’s just that everything else comes to feel increasingly peripheral, and out of place structurally.

While not quite the out-and-out masterpiece it had the potential to be, The Wandering Chef is still a terrific heart-warmer, captivating in its detail, and a reminder that all the world’s great cuisines are the accumulation of informal knowledge and folk tradition.

 
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Never Look Away

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After following his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Lives of Others with the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie infamous flop The Tourist, Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck returns to soaring form with Never Look Away – a drama spanning three eras of German history through the eyes of Kurt Barnert, a character based on the acclaimed artist Gerard Richter.

Opening in 1937 Dresden, the 6-year-old Kurt visits Joseph Goebbels’ Degenerate Art exhibition with his freethinking Aunt Elisabeth; played by Saskia Rosendahl in a short but affecting performance. She advises him to “never look away” from horror or beauty because both contain elements of truth. When Elisabeth shows signs of mental health issues, she is taken away to be ‘sterilised’ by the horrifying Nazi Euthanasia program – a tragedy that will have a profound and latent effect on Kurt and his artistic aspirations.

We then follow Kurt’s (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) career arc through Nazism, the Second World War and Communist occupancy in Germany. It also details his romance with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) – a relationship resented by her father (Sebastian Koch) who harbours an unforgivable crime.

Koch, who featured in The Lives of Others, is brilliant as Professor Seeband, a revered physician who refers to his daughter’s boyfriend as being not of “the genetic material I want for our descendants”. His nuances of behaviour are captured so well that you can feel his hatred for Kurt emanating from the screen.

Although a familiarity with Gerard Richter is not necessary, it does bring interesting weight to the film. Donnersmarck was inspired by an investigative article on Richter and the true nature of his photorealistic painting period and mysterious ‘blurring’ technique. After meeting with the artist over the course of several months and forming a friendship, he came up with the eventual script for Never Look Away. Richter has since gone on to publicly disown the film for grossly distorting his biography. Which is rather appropriate, given that the film’s German title translates to “Work Without Author”.

Despite his subject’s disapproval, Donnersmarck’s 189-minute film covers substantial moral ground and addresses a totalitarian society whereby people, even monsters, reinvent themselves to assimilate into its changing landscape and ideologies. This is what permeates Kurt’s journey, as he moves from socialist realism in East Germany to modern art in West Germany and begins to channel repressed memories and generations of trauma into his work.

Praise must also go out to Caleb Deschanel’s gorgeous Oscar-nominated cinematography; from POV shots of a young Kurt trying to obscure traumatising sights with his hand, to a flowing single take through the avant-garde Kunstakademie Academy in Düsseldorf.

Regardless of whether you take on board the parallels to Richter’s life (Donnersmarck has recently remarked that the film is perhaps ‘for everyone except him’), the irony of the film’s title is that you’ll be glued to the screen throughout its epic running time.

Never Look Away stands as both a stirring historical drama and meditation on creativity and art, flanked by outstanding direction and intimate performances.

 
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A Dog Called Money

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

Two-time Mercury Award-winning musician PJ Harvey is an artist less interested in producing hard-bodied rock’n’roll anthems than she is addressing the plight of those living without privilege.

To draw parallels in Harvey’s career with Bob Dylan would misinterpret her bold lyricism as being songs of protest – a notion that Harvey would sooner shake off than she would rest on her shoulders like a guitar strap.

A Dog Called Money documents Harvey as an artist now, and follows her journey ‘collecting lyrics’ for her 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project.

The journey, which takes her to the streets of Afghanistan and Washington DC, highlights a political discourse through its documentation of the negative impact western influence – mainly American – has on the quality of life of people throughout the world.

It is here where director Seamus Murphy harmoniously intertwines footage of Harvey’s experiences on the streets with her work in the recording studio; allowing Harvey to demonstrate her musical virtuoso by translating the mood of the people into lyrics and sound.

Witnessing Harvey as an artist at work is spellbinding. Pundits in the film, fortunate enough to watch Harvey create music, are left captivated as she intricately weaves profound lyrics with beautiful tones that are delicately ethereal yet brutally haunting.

There is a fine line trodden in A Dog Called Money’s exploitation of misfortune, with Harvey being the first to acknowledge her own privilege standing in expensive sandals in a house recently occupied by people who had to flee. Murphy is effective in his ability to establish Harvey’s intentions as not being commercially motivated, allowing the musician’s unassuming demeanour to carry through in front of the lens and not present her actions as something colonial.

Capturing the humanity of people living in war-torn and impoverished areas, A Dog Called Money is a conscientious and raw documentary that verges on visual album.

A Dog Called Money is also playing at the Revelation Film Festival Perth in July.

 
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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

When the first X-Men movie came out back in the ancient year of 2000, it made a decent case for its own existence and, by extension, the existence of big budget superhero movies in general (which were outliers at the time). It was followed up by a superior sequel three years later, X-Men 2, and we officially had an X-Men franchise! There have been ups and downs along the way – with X-Men: First Class (2011) representing a peak, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) very much a trough – but overall the series has been solid.

Not quite at the level of Marvel Studios’ output, mind you, but respectable nonetheless. But with 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (a decent entry), the whole box and dice was reset due to some time travel shenanigans, and the series really hasn’t known where to go next. 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse did very little to steer the franchise in a fresh new direction, and now we have X-Men: Dark Phoenix to act as a sort of end point for the entire series. So, does it work? Yeah, nah, hey. Yeah, nah.

The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most revered comic book runs in X-Men’s printed history. It involves an alien force, epic battles and personal sacrifice that spans many issues and remains an iconic story arc. It was first attempted in X-Men: The Last Stand to frankly woeful results, but since Days Of Future Past essentially rebooted the continuity, first-time director (but longtime X-Men franchise producer and screenwriter) Simon Kinberg decided that he’d have another bash. The best thing that can be said about Dark Phoenix is that it’s absolutely better than The Last Stand. That, however, is a very low bar to clear.

Dark Phoenix tells a very truncated version of the saga, that has Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbing what appears to be a solar flare during a rescue mission in space. It soon becomes clear that something has changed Jean, and she manifests power at levels that cause Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) to become increasingly concerned. Add to this a weird alien conspiracy led by one-note villain Vuk (Jessica Chastain), and you’ve got 114 minutes of, well… adequate entertainment.

The problem with Dark Phoenix isn’t that it’s bad, although it is at times, it’s just terribly uninvolving. The reason that audiences were so moved during Avengers: Endgame was because they’d earned the big emotional moments, the pay-offs that felt like logical conclusions to the films that had come before. Dark Phoenix feels like it comes out of nowhere and exists solely to give everyone involved a chance to do the saga one more time, and consequently it’s all weightless.

Sophie Turner did lovely work on Game Of Thrones, but continues to be miscast as Jean Grey. James McAvoy tries admirably but is hamstrung by a truly wonky script, and Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are quite simply wasted.

Ultimately, X-Men: Dark Phoenix just isn’t very good. Flat direction, a weak script and uninvolved performances are livened occasionally by decent action in the third act, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. If this is indeed the final X-Men film, the series has gone out with a whimper, and it’s hard to imagine even wanting this particular phoenix to rise from these drab, listless ashes.

 
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Tolkien

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“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence.”

With these words from the legendary storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien, the existence of this particular biopic feels… off. It fits in with the standard modern depiction of creative minds, winding imagination and history together to depict an artist on the brink of something that they have to create, if only to settle their own demons. Biography that treats art as allegory for the artist. Knowing that the Tolkien estate has disavowed this film, this feels like it’s already on an uphill trudge to justify itself as an art work. Even without having seen the film for themselves, the estate might have a point in not approving this.

But while the approval of the man himself will never be known, it helps that this film does a certain degree of justice to his legacy and his work. Embodied with idealistic fervour by Nicholas Hoult, his performance combined with the scripting convey a lot of what makes Tolkien such a beloved writer: His willingness to bond rather than break off from others, his intuition when it came to the power of art, and of course, his masterful understanding of language that would form a crucial foundation in his literary universe.

This is somewhat to the film’s detriment, since the story spends an almost overindulgent amount of time discussing linguistics and the written word, overshadowing a lot of the other aspects, including Tolkien’s connection to his faith. Of course, it’s difficult to get too annoyed about that, since the scenes that dive head-long into the mechanics of language make for quite enthralling dialogue. Crafting artificial languages is one of the trickier aspects of narrative worldbuilding, something that Tolkien remains one of the few true masters of, so highlighting one of the key elements that made him truly extraordinary feels apt.

As for the visuals, director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) and frequent collaborator Lasse Frank as cinematographer leave traces of the works we all know throughout the film, almost as if they’re dreams being filtered through the camera lens.

This results in a fair bit of direct visual reference to Peter Jackson’s adaptations (as well as retroactive ribbing of the length of said adaptations), but for the most part, it manages to maintain its own aesthetic identity without leaning too hard on the audience’s nostalgia. From the dusky haze of fire on the front line in France to the regal opulence of a tea room, it does just enough to not be completely overshadowed by the deliciously quippy dialogue.

The depiction we get of Tolkien is that of a warrior poet, one who had to work his way through everyone else’s preconceptions about him and the potential of his art. It may serve as the latest biopic in a trend, but for those who appreciate his work, the creative process, or even just the nature of language, it gets the job done.

 
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The Kleptocrats

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Did you know The Wolf of Wall Street was funded by Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund? The Kleptocrats wants to make sure you never forget. This documentary on the ongoing, messy saga of 1MDB, the scheme that brought down Malaysia’s government and was so corrupt it could have made Hun Sen blush, is cleverly structured like a heist: the yellow titles even mimic Wolf of Wall Street.

The film is the product of years of investigative reporting by a motley crew of journalists, US Department of Justice lawsuits and persistent discontent from the Malaysian population. It must be the first film to lasso together the seemingly disparate worlds of the Hollywood entertainment industry and Southeast Asian crony politics. On the style front, it’s tremendously entertaining, flitting between the Cannes Film Festival and million-dollar Vegas parties (“I thought he was like Malaysian royalty, whatever that means,” drawls one entertainment promoter), and dominated by giddy overhead shots of New York and Kuala Lumpur.

A glance at the careers of directors Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking reveals much of their previous work has been on documenting white-collar crime, from jewellery theft to art fraud. The Kleptocrats glimmers on a surface level of personalities and intertextuality: it doesn’t have a lot of depth or thoroughness on a forensic level. An obvious drawback of that approach is that it privileges the voices of the investigative reporters who pursued and broke the story. The Malaysia material is touristy, with a few talking heads around the edges; virtually the only non-political voice comes from a student driven towards activism, and her presence is so fleeting as to feel like an afterthought. And who is Malaysia’s disgraced former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and what drove him? The film doesn’t offer any answers, even though it scores an interview with his brother, who you’d expect to be able to provide at least a few pointers.

Still, this is a story amply worthy of cinematic treatment, the outrageousness of the conspiracy outdone only by the clichéd way in which it was perpetrated.