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The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful

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This is a rare and perversely kind of cherishable film: one that attempts to slather its shortcomings in preposterously overreaching style. The setting is Taiwan in the bad old 1980s, when an eerily perfect family with their finger in every honey pot conspire to ram through a crooked land deal. Then murder intervenes. And family revelations. And a blind minstrel, to deliver said revelations in a Greek chorus-type approach to narration.

Fault director Yang Ya-che, perhaps, for turning a conceivably interesting puzzle of a story into a murky and incomprehensible wreck. Don’t fault him, though, for lack of ambition: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful may be batshit crazy, but it does craziness elegantly. The overwhelming impression is that Yang cared not in the slightest for the twistiness of his script nor its nods at political context, and instead treated this as a chamber piece, a hothouse to push his stylistic impulses to the extreme. What this looks like in practice is the crispness of Jiang Wen circa Let the Bullets Fly, mixed with the over-the-top formal precision of Park Chan-wook, particularly in its would-be risqué ‘sexiness.’ There are even hints of Kim Ki-young, in the unabashedly florid treatment of its female-centred material. Yang has a fine visual sense as director: the meticulousness of the colour and set design are stunning, and the cinematography is hard to fault. The dialogue is a sophisticated melange of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Japanese, suggesting a depth and complexity never delivered upon. Sporadically, these elements result in such a good scene that it adds to the disappointment that the film never coalesces, or begins to make sense.

As for the actors: the three superb female leads struggle against the thinness of their roles. Kara Hui, a Hong Kong action star in the ’80s, commands authority as the demented matriarch. Wu Ke-xi, fresh from her transnational indie film collaborations with Myanmar-Taiwanese director Midi Z, turns in a delirious performance that articulates her character’s neuroticism; and Vicky Chen’s star continues to rise.

This is ostensibly a family tragedy, but its post-modern remove leaves it with little meaningful to say about family. Character development is neglected across the board. In execution, it’s messy and misguided, but The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful at least delivers two hours of unfiltered opulence.

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Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Whitney Houston was a phenomenally successful recording artist and live performer. But, as has become ever clearer in the years since her untimely death at the age of 48, she was not remotely happy.  Small wonder too, given that many of the people with whom she was surrounded were exploitative, disloyal and self-serving. This well-made and ingeniously edited documentary, the second in as many years, supplies some harrowing new examples – including alleged sexual abuse – of just how tragic the reality was behind the public myth.

Houston’s mother Cissy was of course a singer too, and arguably a better one. As a parent she could be pushy, and an unpleasant disciplinarian, but her shortcomings are easily matched by those of Whitney’s father John, who notoriously attempted to sue his megastar daughter for $100 million.

Very few people, in fact, emerge well from this film, and that includes most of the onscreen interviewees, few of whom made any attempt to arrest Houston’s decline into substance-abusing emaciation. (No one, it seems, wants to derail a gravy train if they’re a passenger.) The fall from ostensible grace is particularly spectacular given the singer’s early innocent image, and background in gospel music and religiosity. And Whitney is unfortunately not the only hapless figure in this sorry saga; her own daughter Bobbi Kristina had a short and blighted existence.

You don’t need to like Whitney Houston’s music to find this doco interesting. (Although the quorum of live concert footage will add to its appeal if you are.) It’s a very sad personal story, and pretty absorbing on that level.

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The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra

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The peaceful kingdom of Ramthep has been invaded by the armies of Asura. Ott, the son of a resistance leader, is trained in the martial art of muay thai and dispatched to deliver the magical weapon 9 Satra to the prince of Ramthep. On his way he encounters numerous dangers, as well as new allies in the form of a pirate girl, a good-hearted Asura defector, and the mischievous monkey prince.

When looking around the global animation industry from here in Australia, a few specific countries stand out above the crowd. The USA, of course, dominates thanks to its enormous production and marketing budgets. Japan makes a strong play via the large teenage audience for anime. Arthouse audiences get their fair share of French animation via festivals and home video. One of the countries that really hasn’t made a successful play on a global stage is Thailand, although that is not for a lack of trying. The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra is the latest attempt, and one that stands a reasonable chance of finding a local audience. Produced on a US$8 million budget, and developed over four years, it is a mainstream-friendly fantasy adventure with a distinctive Thai flavour and a healthy dashing of drama and humour. More importantly, it recognises and understands its target market. Fans of popular anime including Dragonball Z and One Piece should find a lot of appeal here: it’s a simple story with plenty of action and an aggressive pace.

Given the film’s comparatively small budget, a smart decision has been made to keep the characters and settings stylised and simple. It is a strategy that works, giving 9 Satra an aesthetic that is bold and effective. The story is a familiar one, but in this case the archetypes work. The production team have clearly worked hard to develop a mainstream animated fantasy and to a large extent that effort has paid off. It also comes to Australia with an English language dub. While the animation purists may bristle at the loss of original dialogue and subtitles, it does open the film’s appeal to its target audience. It’s a solid dub which works perfectly well.

The choice in angles and editing is dynamic and lively, but also frustrates. One of 9 Satra’s highlights should be its martial arts, which appear to be unexpectedly realistic and effective, but the directors’ choice to employ rapid-fire editing and whirling cinematography obscures the combat more than it showcases it. It is a sadly missed opportunity, one that would have provided the film with an obvious point of difference to set it out from the crowd.

There are three questions any reviewer must ask of a film: what is the filmmaker attempting to do, do they succeed, and is the film good? In regards to the first two questions, directors Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, and Nat Yoswatananont have definitely succeeded: this is a broad slice of populist entertainment that tells a Thai story in a Hollywood fashion, covering all expected story beats like a comforting blanket. As for the last question: the film is solidly entertaining rather than exceptional, but for its target market of action-crazy and fantasy-loving 8-15 year-olds it is definitely worth a look.

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The Gospel According to Andre

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People make documentaries about all sorts of people and all sorts of worlds. What is really important, is that you pick something, or someone, that has an interesting story to tell. Director Kate Novack has at least passed one of these tests. Her somewhat overly-admiring film centres on the American fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley. To say that Andre is larger than life would be to state the obvious, but he does rather effortlessly own that cliché. For starters he is enormously tall. Though slim in his youth, he has now bulked up and his habit of wearing giant cloaks increases this impression. In full regalia he looks like one of those Marx Brothers style gags where two people hide inside the one coat. You half expect someone smaller to leap out and surprise you.

The film selectively tells his life, more or less, in sequence and without too much editorialising. It is all him just being himself on screen intercut with luminaries of fashion relishing stories of being his friend. We learn that he was born in humble (but not dirt poor) circumstances in the Deep South and brought up with a strict sense of decorum by his church-going grandma. In those days, the attendees of the black churches would put on their Sunday best to go to worship, so little Andre got an early sense of how to turn yourself out nicely. He makes his way to The Big Apple and becomes a fashion journalist, eventually writing for Vogue.

His is a very long career and, along the way, he hangs out with Warhol, gets mentored by fashion editor Diana Vreeland and is still going when Anna Wintour takes over Vogue.

He is quite engaging company and it is clear that he is thoughtful and likeable. He can also hold court but not in a boring way. He comes across as an aesthete with dignity.

The problem is that, as a film it is all a bit conflict-less. More or less everyone is reverential about him and whatever bust ups he might have had in this catty world are tastefully swept away. Andre’s sexual preferences do not need to be focused upon either, but he does vouchsafe that he never found the lifelong companion that some of his male fashion friends (like Tom Ford) did.

There is one sequence where he recalls the shocking racist comments and attitudes that he occasionally had to harden himself against (being called Queen Kong for example), but this is very much under-explored. What we are left with is just Andre as an icon being seen in all the best places and enthusing about various outfits and Haute Couture designers. It is, it must be said, a slightly rarefied world.

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It does seem like a watershed; the world pre, and post, Trump. The brute fact of his being in the White House means that every American documentary seems to have an elephant in the room. Whether it is just a momentary aberration, or the harbinger of a dangerous, global, anti-democratic lurch towards ‘strong leaders’ and authoritarian populism is too early to tell. However, this peon to the liberal supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg does end with this conundrum. Now, more than ever, we need the checks and balances to come into play. In the last few years she has consistently had to be a dissenter on the Supreme Court decisions as more and more regressive laws are adjudicated upon.

Ginsberg is indeed a remarkable person. She is a tiny Jewish lady with a great legal mind who trailblazed all her life to get more gender balance into the male dominated world. Today, at 85, she is something of a national treasure for liberals in America and nerdy female law graduates have even made social media memes and tee-shirts featuring her. In a nod to the rap generation they have dubbed her ‘Notorious RBG’, an epithet she finds highly amusing. The film gives us a potted life history as well as interview footage with the redoubtable Associate Justice of the Supreme Court herself, but it is a pretty straightforwardly told. She was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. Her mother was strict but kind.

Ginsberg tells us that she instilled two values in her: to be a ‘lady’ (i.e. to be temperate and treat people with equanimity) and to be of independent mind. This, and her marriage to the highly understanding and fully supportive partner, Marty carried her far. It is a portrait of a marriage as well as of her life and times. She admits that Marty was unusual among men of his generation in putting his career second and moving home to facilitate hers. He also learned to cook, thereby relieving her of this inessential skill. As her grown up children jokingly testify, their mum is still a terrible cook.

The film doesn’t need to do very much to trick up its subject and nor are there any skeletons in the cupboard. Once Ginsberg got to an Ivy League law school her ferocious work ethic and her sharp mind did the rest. In an era when women were still discriminated against in statutes as well as in social practice the principle that all citizens should be equal under the law gave her a lifelong orientation. Test case by test case she set about dismantling legal barriers to gender (and other) inequalities.

The problem for the film is not just that the narrative only runs in one direction, it is more that few seem to have a bad word to say about her. This is partly about the choices of the filmmakers, of course. Apart from some contemporary Alt-right sound bites in the opening sequence nothing else balances the hagiography. A collage of historical stills and lots of talking heads later, we come to the inevitable conclusion that Ginsberg set a lot of things to right. It is saved somewhat by the fact that she is a sprightly and nimble interviewee. Even there, though, she is too politic and circumspect to really dump on the dinosaurs that opposed her along the way.

As mentioned, we come right up to the Trump era. She did come out and speak publicly against the prospect of Trump coming to power (and was chastised for doing so) but it took something as egregious as that election to get her to do so. For decades she far preferred to win her battles with stealth and reason.

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Jirga (CinefestOZ)

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After all the military and colonial interventions in Afghanistan over the centuries, one thing we can conclude is that the place is not easily subjugated. That doesn’t seem to have stopped various countries having a go. The problem is that the more you try to suppress a movement the more it hardens up. The Taliban have not disbanded or lost influence. Australia of course is implicated at a national level in this conundrum as we still have some presence there.

This is the backdrop to Benjamin Gilmour’s remarkable little film which has just played in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is also in competition at the upcoming CinefestOZ in WA.

Gilmour travelled in the country and mixed with both local people and Aussie soldiers. The heart of his screenplay was going to be about a soldier serving in Afghanistan who had shot a civilian and who had later traveled back to somehow make amends with the family of the victim. Gilmour cast the actor Sam Smith in the lead role.

They then went to make the film on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is where the story of the film rather overtakes the film itself. Whilst they were filming, the crew was receiving rumours that ‘various groups’ were none too happy about the project. This then escalated to death threats and the possibilities of IEDs being planted in the caves where they were shooting. Standing on the stage at the SFF for a Q&A, the director seemed quite relaxed about this in retrospect, but it clearly wasn’t a joke at the time. For those interested, Gilmour has just written a bestselling paperback about the making of the film called Cameras and Kalashnikovs.

The film itself is short and effective. Some will find it a moving anti-war piece. The look of the film is quite arresting; the large dusty vistas are contrasted with urgent hand-held, up-close action sequences. The acting and the plot have to take a back seat somewhat, but given that they had to improvise some of the story and sequences under extreme pressure this is understandable.

As noted, this film has a very particular provenance. To say that the back story is more interesting than the film would be dismissive. However, when the back story is this interesting and integral, it is more the case that they can work together.

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Mary Shelley

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Daughter to a renowned feminist icon, lover to at least one legendary poet and companion to more, world traveler, mother of modern science fiction and horror, and sometimes tragic heroine of her own epic life – there’s a lot to be said about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the new movie which bears her name tries to say it all. Unfortunately, not to much effect.

Directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour from a script by Australian writer Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley traces the writer’s life from young adulthood when the then Mary Godwin left her father, William Godwin’s (Stephen Dillane) home, to her first meeting with her paramour, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a self styled “radical poet” who here entertains notions of class equality while racking up massive debts supporting an extravagant lifestyle.

Decamping for Europe just ahead of his creditors, Percy, Mary and her sister, Claire Claremont (an underused Bel Powley) fetch up at the Geneva manse of Lord Byron (a playful Tom Sturridge, who looks like he should be playing bass for Kirin J. Callinan) where, one rainy day, a ghost story contest is proposed… and we all know what happens then (or you should. Read a bloody book).

The back half of the film deals with Mary’s struggles to get the book published under her own name, which holds some interest – the entrenched misogyny of the time meant that the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously with a foreword by Percy, with many believing him the actual author. But even so, the hurdles Mary faces here all seem relatively minor (even the death of her infant child, and it’s kind of amazing that such an event can feel so undramatic).

The whole thing feels rather bloodless, which is some kind of achievement in a film filled with ostensibly lusty Romantics and dealing with the creation of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. The more complex, prickly and potentially problematic aspects of the Shelleys and their contemporaries are largely sanded smooth. Byron still comes across as a douche, but the film can’t even really bring itself to blame Percy for his abandoned first wife’s suicide, really just clearing her out of the way to forward his fated romance with Mary.

The whole thing  feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a remarkably sexless film, which is incredible given that Mary (to be fair, apocryphally) shagged Percy on her mother’s headstone. Any suggestions of homosexuality are faint enough to be nigh-invisible – we just get Percy and Byron retiring to the drawing room, nudge nudge wink wink, from time to time. At least loony old Ken Russell’s Gothic fucks.

For all that, even a by the numbers biopic would not be without its charms, but al-Mansour makes some bafflingly bad staging choices that drastically undercut several key moments. The most unforgivable is a climactic intimate, passionate, private conversation between the Shelleys that is rendered quite absurd when you realise that just out of frame are a dozen or so stuffy, middle-aged literature fans waiting to discuss Frankenstein who are probably getting quite embarrassed by the couple’s overheated tête-à-tête.

Mary Shelley isn’t a disaster, but it is a disappointment. There’s a good movie to be made about the life of the literary giant, but we haven’t seen it yet.

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Show Dogs

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You know when you used to go to the video rental store, and browse the shelves, and every so often you’d come across a film that seemed so ludicrous you’d wonder, who would ever fund this? This is one of those films – but not in a good way.

 Show Dogs stars Will Arnett (The LEGO Batman Movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Arrested Development) and Ludacris (the Fast and Furious franchise) as FBI agent Frank and NYPD police dog Max, who must team up and go undercover at a prestigious Las Vegas dog show in order to prevent the sale of a kidnapped baby panda. And this premise is meant to be funny because…? Anyone? Will Arnett’s character hates dogs? Max is a lone wolf of a dog who doesn’t like working with others? And they’re meant to come together in the end and learn a valuable lesson about friendship?

Show Dogs is one of the laziest, most mediocre children’s films to hit theatres in a long time; its forced conceit of dog shows being a front for illegal animal trade takes advantage of the outdated notion that if you slap a bunch of cute animals and silly set pieces together, young children will automatically be entertained. Its script is made up entirely of boring stereotypes; one-dimensional characters; formulaic plot twists; obviously telegraphed, moustache twirling big-bads (not the fun kind), and the worst puns heard in a long time. It has terrible CGI for the animals, and the human actors are all phoning it in – especially Will Arnett, whose character is luckily meant to be a grump, as it hides the dead look behind his eyes. This film is the very definition of a slap-dash effort that looks like it was made in 2006.

And yet, Show Dogs thinks it’s reviving the talking dog genre, that it’s being tongue-in-cheek when it’s really got all four feet in its mouth instead. It references other dog movies throughout – like Lady and the Tramp and Turner and Hooch – and whilst this has the effect of reminding you of better dog movies, surely this move means it thinks it’s in the same league? It’s not, in case you were wondering. This is the kind of movie that LITERALLY SAYS that no one goes to see talking dog movies anymore. It’s that tone-deaf.

If you have kids, please know that kids are smarter than this, or at least be aspirational on their behalves. Go see something else.

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Skate Kitchen (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Skate Kitchen might just be 2018’s feminist answer to the dude-heavy culture of skating. It’s been three years since Crystal Moselle’s debut, The Wolfpack, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, scoring the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. This time Moselle returns to the big screen with a semi-biographical drama about an untainted underground New York City through the eyes of very-relatable teen skater girls, which was also screened at Sundance.

The film follows protagonist Camille (Rachel Vinberg, founding Skate Kitchen member), an introverted suburban teen from Long Island, who befriends an all-female posse of skateboarders from New York City’s Lower East Side. Despite her mother’s wishes for her to leave the life of skating behind, she runs away to be with her new friends, and although a tad clichéd – a daughter wanting to escape from her controlling mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and her traditional ways – there is much solace in Camille’s journey, as she earns full credibility with the crew and slowly comes out of her shell.

When the all-girl skater group welcomes Camille with open arms, she is suddenly immersed in a world of full of unapologetic youth; smoking weed, drinking, and just hanging out with friends. Camille soon finds a close friend in Janay (Ardeila Lovelace) who offers her a roof over her head, but it’s not long before she also finds comfort in another, Devon (Jaden Smith), a co-worker and member of the rival all-male skate crew. It’s quite refreshing to see Devon celebrate Camille’s talent as he follows her with a camera, carving up the streets of the Lower East Side. Typically, their skater girl-meets-skater boy ‘friendship’ is frowned upon and tension ensues within the girl-crew. This leaves Camille back at square one. The irony is that the mother she ran away from is now the very person she’s running back to, which can be a relatable aspect of the film for a young audience.

While Skate Kitchen combines the elements of a typical feel-good, coming of age hangout movie, the film is so much more than that. It’s a rare insight into what might possibly be the unheard youth of America; a rare representation of race, sexual preference and embracing those moments you have before adulthood. Additionally it’s a film to be congratulated for its strong representation and empowering female roles.

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American Animals (Revelation Film Festival)

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Fear of mediocrity is what drives the action in American Animals, the new documentary/crime caper hybrid from writer and director Bart Layton (Imposter). Crucially, the four young men at the core of the story don’t need to commit the crime they set their hands to – they just want to, because their current quite comfortable lives don’t exactly jibe with the luxury and adventure to which they feel entitled. That’s a pretty terrible reason for resolving to rob the library at Transylvania University in Kentucky of a number of rare and valuable books, including a first edition of  John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, but awful choices can certainly make for awfully compelling cinema.

As in Imposter, which told the remarkable true story of a French conman who successfully impersonated a missing Texan teen, American Animals blurs the lines between factual and fictional filmmaking. The four co-conspirators are played by actors for most of the action – Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson – but the actual perpetrators are present as interview subjects, commenting on the action and occasionally providing an ironic counterpoint to what the film presents as the “true” events.

That’s only one metatextual conceit of many. The four youths, steeped in pop culture, see their crime as a Soderbergh-esque caper, or at worst a bloodless Tarantino riff. The reality is much more traumatic, of course, but these are laughably inept crooks we’ve got here, who begin their campaign by Googling “How to plan a heist” and proceed to pile misconception upon ignorance as events unfold, at one point making an abortive attempt to lift their prize disguised as old men. The tension comes not from wondering if things will go wrong, but when – in the context of the story we know these guys are doomed to failure, we just don’t know exactly how or how much collateral damage they’ll do in the process.

Yet while the known facts of the case are a matter of record, the precise truth of what happened remains elusive, thanks to contradictory interview answers from the actual participants. Warren Lipka (played in the reenactment scenes by Evan Peters) comes across as a particularly slippery customer, the film heavily implying that he engineered the whole scheme for his own amusement. Lipka himself denies this, of course, and we’re left to make up our own minds about him and his motives. There’s more than a hint of empty nihilism here, and at one point Lipka seems shocked at his own lack of remorse. This fascination with the hollowness at the core of its characters is what elevates American Animals above the run of the mill, resulting in a film that is hilarious and engaging, but more than a little disturbing, too.