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Maria By Callas

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Maria Callas was a superstar before the word existed. Unfortunately, her success came at a huge personal cost, and that’s the sad theme at the core of this documentary, which is drawn directly from her letters, TV interviews (especially one with David Frost), home movies and unpublished memoirs.

Born in New York City, but stuck in Greece during WWII, Callas owed her singing career –but also her deep regrets – to an extremely pushy mother and later an equally domineering husband.

She made no bones about the fact that she would gladly have swapped her vocation for the joys of motherhood and a happy private life. She was also deeply traumatised by the fickleness and cruelty of some of the media, who ‘lynched’ her over her failure to complete a concert performance in Milan. (Never mind that the poor woman had bronchitis!) And then there was her long and complicated relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who of course eventually married Jackie Kennedy.

Maria By Callas is unquestionably well made, and was exhaustively and meticulously researched. Some of the footage is fascinating, notably the brief scenes from the making of Pasolini’s Medea, in which she starred and acted. The catch is that the doco – being so subjective – is not quite satisfying in terms of giving a fully-rounded portrait of its subject, and we’re not always entirely sure what to take at face value. On the plus side, given her technically phenomenal voice, the footage of her singing will be thrilling to people who aren’t impervious to the charms of opera.

 
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Night Comes On

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Pitch: A freshly released inmate stalks across state on the hunt for the man that killed their mother. It has the workings of a bombastic noir helmed by Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) or S. Craig Zahler (Dragged Across Concrete). In actuality, it’s the bare bones of Jordana Spiro’s heart bruising Night Comes On.

Teenager Angel (Dominique Fishback, who can currently be seen in George Tillman Jnr’s The Hate U Give) has been released from juvenile prison, supposedly under the wing of her girlfriend. In reality, Angel skips out on her parole officer in order to find and kill her father. No longer knowing where he lives, she fishes her ten-year-old sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), out of her foster home in the hopes that she’ll show her where to go.

Life leading up to, and including prison, has numbed Angel, who will passively hand over the body to a sleazy adult in exchange for a gun. Abby, however, despite her surroundings and blue language, still has a child’s desire for love and adventure. Unaware of Angel’s thirst for revenge, she’s just happy to have her big sister back in her life and play with any stranger she meets on a bus.

Spiro, alongside co-writer Angelica Nwandu, doesn’t settle for easy emotions, as the two girls – and we really must remember they are children – search for their father. Despite moments of light poking through the darkness, there’s never the feeling that a walk on the beach or a big hug and kiss is going to resolve everything. Largely, because Angel appears to get in her own way; best summarised by the scene where Abby has her first period and, despite her attempts to mother her, Angel manages to ruin a shared experience by spitting out a one liner presumably inherited from her father.

Not that you should go into Night Comes On thinking it’s another chapter in the despair porn genre, where the audience is asked to wallow in sadness under the pretence of art. Angel is broken and whilst temptation comes to ease her off the path she’s chosen, she knows exactly what she must do. Fishback’s performance ensures we completely understand her urges, but still want to shelter her from harm, nonetheless. Equally, Hall gives a brilliant performance in a film whose plot, like Tillman Jnr’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, asks a lot of its youngest star.

Perhaps where Night Comes On comes apart is in its final moments when, after taking the long way home, it seems to wrap itself up all too quickly. There’s a conversation that needs to be allowed to play out longer, a moment that could be teased out more, a resolution that might not land for everyone. But then, it could be argued, this reflects the journey of Angel herself. She has set out to achieve one thing and one thing only, and she can’t expect everyone to like every decision she makes.

Moody without crashing into despair, with strong performances from the leads, Night Comes On is a tough but rewarding watch.

 
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Believer

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Imagine Dragons front man Dan Reynolds was born into the Mormon Church and was raised believing that homosexuality was a sin and therefore an impediment to reaching the afterlife.

As a result of this doctrine, the suicide rate amongst young gay Mormons has been escalating over the last decade, calling into question the condemnation of gay women and men by the Mormon Church, who, once they come out, are expected to live celibate because the Mormon Church believes it’s OK to be gay, you just can’t ever act on those feelings.

When Dan Reynolds is written to, by numerous fans of his music, many tell stories of being gay and Mormon and struggling to survive within the LDS Church. Reynolds sets about organising a rock concert in Orem, Utah called Loveloud, that’ll spotlight the issue. He invites the participation of the lead singer of the band Neon Trees, Tyler Glenn, who’s also a Mormon and was excommunicated from the church for being gay.

Focusing on the lead up to the Loveloud festival, Reynolds promotes the concert on local radio and discusses his concerns about the local opposition to organising and staging the concert, as he awaits an official response from The Mormon Church regarding the event and moving forward, whether it would be open to altering its doctrine on the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals.

This is a fairly earnest documentary and Reynolds’ heart seems in the right place, but there’s a deodorised sheen to the treatment of the topic, most likely because it’s clearly targeted at Mormons, so it doesn’t seek to offend anyone who is in the LDS Church. Being largely non-confrontational and just focusing on Reynolds, who is a recognisable Mormon-friendly face, it feels odd then, when Tyler Glenn’s story (which seems to strike more succinctly at the heart of the documentary’s themes) shows someone who is way more invested in the issue, having experienced excommunication from the Mormon Church. Additionally, Reynolds’ wife, Aja Volkman, discusses her conversion to Mormonism in order to marry Reynolds (something that resulted in a number of her gay friends boycotting their wedding).

One wonders, why aren’t these people a larger part of this documentary? Why is a wealthy straight, white rock star selling the urgency of this gay rights issue, while people with actual ‘skin in the game’ aren’t?  Granted, that’s a cheap shot because ultimately Reynolds acted on his sense of moral justice and did something, anything, in order to raise awareness of the issue. It’s enjoyable on that level, though ultimately it feels awkward how mawkish the film plays at certain times, like the anodyne slick of the Hillsong Channel or an ethereal Coldplay concert that won’t ever end.

That said, it’s undeniable that every fight for rights needs an ally, and it’s admirable that he’s intervening on an issue that Dan Reynolds can bring some awareness to.

 
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Rafiki

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Within the busy urban sprawl on the edges of Nairobi, Kenya (in an area known as ‘The Slopes’), Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) cruises on her skateboard through candy-coloured streets as children play on bikes, street-side cafés serve soda to local clientele and the bustling neighbourhood bristles with an energy of possibility, where anything could happen at any time.

A tomboy with no female friends, Kena whiles away her days playing soccer and cruising the streets with the affable Blacksta (Neville Masati) who sees Kena as ‘one of the boys’ and never seems to clock that she really isn’t into guys. Kena’s mother Mercy (Nini Wacera) is divorced from her father John (Jimmy Gathu), who is a shopkeeper in ‘The Slopes’ and is currently campaigning in upcoming local elections. Mercy is initially pleased by the fact that Kena has started spending time with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), hoping that her tomboy daughter is positively affected by the exposure to the upper-class, day-glo dread-locked girl who also just happens to be the daughter of John’s election campaign rival.

Director Wanuri Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Bass adapted a short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, and the film never shies away from depicting the rampant homophobia that’s endemic in Africa. So, the stakes are definitely high for the couple, though their relationship might just as well be enclosed in a bubble of giddy elation; while there’s a danger in their secret being discovered, we’re also swept up in their romance. It’s on this hinge that the film hangs, and the two co-leads are really effective and engaging.

The storytelling itself is fairly perfunctory but the message is vital and Kahiu’s artistic flourishes are vibrant and at times, visually fabulous, such as the Do The Right Thing inspired depictions of the colourful characters within ‘The Slopes’ as well as an almost bio-luminescent, black-light disco sequence.

Homosexuality is still a criminal offence in Kenya and accordingly, Rafiki was banned for its positive depiction of being gay, which is ultimately something that lends the film an added sense of glorious defiance, as it sticks its middle finger up at the government.

 
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Resident Evil 2

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Resident Evil 2, the game, was first released in 1998 and it blew audiences away. Although the previous installment had successfully introduced the concept of “survival horror” in 1996, part two honed the formula to a razor’s edge, delivering an experience that was scary, smart and absolutely absorbing. For those of us old enough to have been alive in that era, RE2 was a staggering achievement and managed to penetrate the ubiquitous haze of bong smoke and neglect to make an indelible impact on young psyches.

That being said, 1998 was a long-arse time ago, and time is least kind to video games. As the Resident Evil series lurched onwards it left those early entries behind, peaking recently with the somewhat divisive-but-brilliant Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/resident-evil-vii-biohazard/) which was a welcome return to pure survival horror. Still, when Capcom announced its Resident Evil 2 remaster it was hard not to get excited – but is it possible to twice catch horrific lightning in a bottle?

One thing we should get out of the way is that this isn’t an HD remaster but rather a full remake. The original RE2 featured static shots, clunky controls and graphics that were spectacular at the time but now look retina-damagingly awful. Although the game has been remastered for various systems over the years, presentation-wise it’s always looked… quaint. 2019’s Resident Evil 2 rebuilds the game from the ground up, putting the perspective in the RE4 over-the-shoulder view with a continuous camera that follows you around, not breaking for loading screens between every area. This is a welcome addition and makes the game play as smooth and immersive as your (lying) memories of the original.

Add to that, graphics as sharp and slick as any other modern release, replete with drippy, oozing zombies, genuinely scary, toothy monsters and character animations that make you actually feel for the other human characters – particularly when so many of them are viciously dispatched.

Actually, we’d be remiss not to mention the zombies at this point. In 1998, zombies seemed an amazingly fresh foe, having barely penetrated the cultural zeitgeist. In 2019, they’re basically a default option for most media, so how to make them scary again? RE2 adds a sense of unpredictability to the mix. The only way to permanently dispatch these ambulatory corpses is by destroying the head. You can do this using heavy weapons or grenades, however the zombies far outnumber your bullets so you simply don’t have the resources to kill them all. Therefore, you’ll need to leave some of the ghastly creatures lying around as potential jump scares, because they might rise at any moment (even if you’ve plugged ten rounds into their slack-jawed skulls) which adds a level of tension to an already scary game. See, Resident Evil 2 isn’t about killing all the monsters, it’s about surviving, solving the puzzles and escaping. It’s Capcom’s classic formula of puzzle solving under duress and it is edge-of-your-seat stuff, all the way through.

In 2019, video games pride themselves on being massive; the idea that more is more. Resident Evil 2 believes that to be a crock of shit, providing four of five medium sized areas to explore but you’ll know them like the back of your hand by the time the credits roll. The game also employs a map that really helps navigation, showing areas in red until you’ve solved the puzzles and collected all the loot in that area – whereupon it turns blue. This is a wonderful addition but much needed, especially as the game progresses and the character known as the Tyrant steps into view, providing a genuinely scary, seemingly invincible foe who dogs your steps like the STDemon from It Follows, and leaps out when you least expect it.

In terms of negatives, RE2 can be frustrating on occasion, particularly during boss fights where the lack of a dodge button would have been appreciated. And certainly, for some folks, the Tyrant is going to be a massive pain in the arse – although he does force you to think on your feet, which can be exhilarating. These are minor quibbles, however, in an overall experience that somehow keeps what was great about the original intact, while updating some of the wonkier aspects, like puzzles, voice acting and overall presentation.

Ultimately, Resident Evil 2 (2019) is everything a video game remake should be. It’s absolutely stunning to look at and a tense joy to play, paying nostalgic homage while improving nearly every aspect of the original. It’s scary, smart and absolutely absorbing – just like it was back in hazy 1998 – but with added levels of gore and unpredictability that will keep even series veterans on their toes. If you’ve never experienced the stories of Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield as they explore a bizarre, avant garde police station in the middle of zombie-infested Racoon City, now is absolutely the best time to do so. And hell, even if you have, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake is the best ever version of that iconic story.

 
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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

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Plane combat games are something of a rarity in this wretched year of 2019. Back in the olden days, when the PlayStation or PS2 reigned supreme in the lounge rooms of many, they were a dime a dozen with the best contender being the Ace Combat series. This frequently bizarre mix of unnecessarily convoluted storytelling paired with surprisingly detailed plane combat was a pleasing bit of airborne escapism. Then, for some reason, much like the western in cinema – the genre fell out of favour. Happily, it appears that the dark flightless time is over, as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is here and it’s pretty bloody good, for the most part.

Ace Combat 7 is set in the same alternate earth as the previous games in the series and follows on from the events of Ace Combat 4 and 5. If you can’t remember those events, don’t stress, as the war between Erusea and Usea is just as overcooked and daft as previous entries and you can, and probably should, take it with several heaping handfuls of salt. In short, war has broken out and you, “Trigger”, will need to put missiles aplenty into your enemies. The story is actually truly bizarre, even by Ace Combat standards, because the character you play is a total non event until about halfway through the game and a far more interesting character – imprisoned mechanic Avril Mead – is the one narrating the shenanigans… and yet you can’t play as her. It’s a bizarre, and very clunky, storytelling device that doesn’t really work. However, that’s not the draw here.

What really matters in Ace Combat 7 is what happens in the air and for the most part the game is a triumph of giddy dog fights, bombing runs and set pieces set in vicious storms. It’s actually quite a tough game all told, with some missions featuring ridiculously short timers and insta-fail objectives that may have you punching the couch in frustration (sorry, couch). However, if you listen carefully to the mission objectives, and make sure you have a decent variety of planes taken from the unlockable trees, you should eventually triumph over the game’s 20 missions.

The game also features a robust VR mode and an online multiplayer mode, which is a nice value add and sure to have VR owners dusting off their tech. Ultimately, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is more of the same from the series, for good and ill. It’s fast-paced, frenetic, frustrating and full of fun – if you can get past the baffling narrative conceits and occasionally enraging difficulty spikes. And hell, it’s been a while since you’ve taken to the skies so fire up and go right into the danger zone!

 
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The Mule

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When we first meet Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), he is riding high on a wave of self-congratulation, having won a coveted horticulture award, and is charming his friends and co-workers. In fact, he’s so busy being boozy and gregarious he misses his own daughter’s wedding.

A decade and change later, Earl’s fortunes have turned, with his flower business becoming the latest victim of that gawdang internet. At age 90, Earl finds that he wants to make amends with his family but lacks the funds to help with the wedding of his granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). As luck would have it, a rather sketchy gentleman approaches Earl and makes an offer: a fat chunk of cash to simply drive a package across state lines, what could be easier? Earl accepts and (somewhat) unwittingly becomes a 90-year-old drug mule.

The Mule is Clint Eastwood’s 38th film as a director (the acting count is closer to 70) and it’s a powerfully weird bit of business. Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, Clint plays Earl as an amiable chap out of synch with the rest of the world but perfectly content to go along with the changes. He is mildly amused by a bikie gang of lesbians, bourgeois African Americans, useless young people and cartel affiliated Mexicans, but treats everyone with a warmth and tenderness that makes him a likable, albeit deeply flawed character. Clint’s performance genuinely embraces his true age of 88, and he looks doddering and frail, as he never has before.

The support cast are worthy, with Bradley Cooper and Dianne Wiest offering strong showings as an ambitious DEA agent and Earl’s ex-wife, respectively. However, this is unmistakably Clint’s show, and The Mule plays out as part old man wish-fulfillment fantasy and part amiable cinematic victory lap. Tonally, it’s all over the shop, with comedy and tragedy squeezed occasionally uncomfortably close, but there’s a charm to the piece and some wry, knowing observations about the current state of America that ring true and offer surprising nuance.

Ultimately, The Mule isn’t the near masterpiece of a film like Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) but it is an engaging, often shambolic and pleasingly odd journey that will likely win you over with its kooky charms.

 
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Silvana

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

Born in Lithuania, raised in Sweden by a Syrian father, rapper Silvana Imam has a lot to say about her roots, her gender and her sex. She’s a queer voice trying to be heard in a genre more likely to lean towards misogyny and violence, and when we first meet her in Silvana, it looks like Sweden is ready to listen.

Directed by Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring, and Christina Tsiobanelis, the documentary follows Imam over three years as she copes with fame and finds love. Dropping in on her in 2013, Imam’s new single has hit number one on the charts and she’s practically bouncing off the walls. The rapper appears to relish the opportunity to get her message out there and is unafraid to admit that she enjoys the recognition. To be fair, it’s not like she initially hides herself from the adulation; stalking around Sweden in an oversized black hoodie and clutching a megaphone, both emblazoned with her name and logo.

This, we soon realise, is just surface level Imam; the documentary’s directors quickly cracking through this layer to show us what runs underneath the posturing, and a large part of it sees Imam utterly head over heels in love with fellow musician, Beatrice Eli. Imam doesn’t hide her affection for the singer, whose music tackles the same themes with a pop music coating, and the filmmakers capture gorgeous glimpses of Imam watching her from a far. These moments will resonate with anyone who has been in love and it makes it all the more heart-warming to watch their fledgling romance become Europe’s answer to Jay Z and Beyoncé. Eli cuts through Imam’s pretence, and gleefully shows off her partner’s softer side for the camera.

Mixed into the music and romance are flashes of Imam’s life growing up with conservative parents. Knowing she liked girls from a very young age, Imam experimented with wanting to be a boy called Eric. Something which the rest of the family went with for some time. The documentary follows Imam on a trip to Lithuania to visit her mum, where the performer must hide her sexuality and relationship for fear of some kind of retaliation on her mother. The most sobering moment comes when Imam meets a priest who, following a long diatribe about why women are basically just necks for men (no, we don’t get it either), reprimands her for her musical themes.

It’s all fascinating to watch unfold, but there’s so much going on in Silvana that, at times, the documentary picks up threads only to forget about them later on. For example, Imam’s burnout from her sudden rise to fame is only touched upon in a montage that doesn’t really add anything to the discussion on mental health, even though that appears to be the aim.

However, with so many different facets to Imam it could be argued that focusing too closely on one or two would do a disservice to the artistic talent as a whole. With that in mind, think of Silvana as more of a living, breathing portrait than a documentary.

 
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Dragon Ball Super: Broly

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

The latest feature-length instalment of one of the most ubiquitous, beloved and memeable anime franchises out there, Broly is basically a best-of-both-worlds situation. It takes the endearingly goofy tone of Battle of Gods and the large-scale action chops of Resurrection ‘F’ and combines them in a way that retains all of the positives and burns away most of the negatives.

The sense of humour on display here is so on-point, it’s staggering. Not since the legendary DBZ Abridged series has this material been able to generate this many belly laughs, largely thanks to Sean Schemmel as the ever-loving goofball Goku and Jason Douglas as Beerus, the destroyer god who just wants to nap without being interrupted. It’s all character-derived stuff, leaning less on the BoG slapstick, and through that, it turns out effective as well as melding well with the more action-oriented moments.

When it comes time for Goku and the eponymous Broly to start throwing down (the bulk of the film is that fight), it results in glorious displays of widespread destruction. The intensity and high-flash line work in the animation is on the same tier as Asura’s Wrath, right down to the amount of terrain-scorching that goes on; looking like the result of two gods brawling with each other. It can get quite hectic in places and admittedly a little difficult to entirely make out, but between the raw strength at work and the adaptability of the fighters involved, it makes for well-earned chaos.

It even features solid dramatic touches connected to Broly’s character. Shown through an impressively-nimble flashback sequence, which gives plentiful background history for the characters and story at large, he is depicted as a rather tragic antagonist. Born with immeasurable power, exiled out of jealousy and raised to exact revenge, Broly’s first official entry into the franchise sets him up as the yang to Goku’s yin.

Both are exceptionally powerful, both were sent away from their home planet, and both have a natural tendency for friendship rather than aggression. But because of their different upbringing, what we get is a rather point-blank depiction of the classic ‘nature vs. nurture’ dilemma, showing how Broly being raised as a weapon of vendetta turned him into a psychologically-scarred and damaged soul. It adds an unexpected touch of unease to the action scenes, knowing that Broly was pushed into them by intents other than his own. It’s kind of sad in its own way.

Considering this and the previous films exist out of a potential need for creator Akira Toriyama to redeem his own franchise after the baffling Westernisation of Dragon Ball: Evolution, this represents the absolute accomplishment of that goal. A very funny, very thrilling and even occasionally moving effort that gives the long-time fans more of what they love, and a sufficient entry point for newcomers to get in on the fun.

Photo credit: ©BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA ©2018 DRAGON BALL SUPER THE MOVIE PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

 
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Arctic

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Survival dramas are at their best when the protagonist is smart about their choices, pre-empting possible dangers and demonstrably resourceful in the face of them. This storytelling tenet is on full display in filmmaker Joe Penna’s debut drama.

As the film opens, we find plane crash survivor Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the icy tundra and some weeks into his ordeal. A massive S.O.S sign carved deep into the snow, he tends to fishing-lines dangling through ice holes and places the fish he’s caught into a storage chest buried in the snow. Having already established the bare necessities, Overgård spends his days hand cranking a dynamo that powers a transmitter, hoping like hell for a rescue.

Through a series of events, Overgård witnesses a helicopter crashing nearby in high winds. When he reaches the wreckage, he finds a sole survivor: a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradôttir) who he pulls from the wreckage unconscious, but alive. Overgård tends to her wounds, then sets about examining maps from the downed helicopter to find the nearest base or place of rescue.

Revitalised with a sense of purpose and determination, Overgård lashes the wounded woman to a rescue toboggin, wraps her for the cold, then sets out into the white, towing her barely conscious body on an epic walk across the bitterly cold and windswept ice.

Virtually dialogue free, the dramatic heavy lifting is handled predominantly by Mads Mikkelsen’s weathered face. Pain, desperation, empathy, elation, sorrow; it’s all writ large within the lines of Mikkelsen’s hypnotic noggin.

Filmed in Iceland over 19 days, director Joe Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison originally set the story on Mars, rewriting it for a real-world scenario after the success of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

The simplification of the story and plotting frees the film, liberating it from laborious exposition. We know so little about Overgård, it serves to heighten the audience experience because we’re forced to fill in the gaps ourselves as to who we think this man is, based solely on his actions.

Mikkelsen has called the film’s production ’the hardest of his career’ and he stuns with an effortlessly magnetic performance. The quiet stoicism of the film, its lack of theatrics and showy set-pieces, set it apart from most films of this ilk, akin to a Robert Bresson film in its stark minimalism and use of purely visual cinematic storytelling.

Director Joe Penna was a YouTube viral sensation back in the early days of the video platform. In the years since, he’s channelled his internet fame into making short films. This transition to feature directing shows a confident and deft directorial style, that eschews short-changing the audience by taking dramatic shortcuts and instead favours F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that ‘character is plot’, focusing on the minutiae of survival and the humanity that can be found in desperation, wordlessly fleshing out characters through action and ordeal.

Captivating stuff.