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Untouchable

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As the lawyers for disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein keep managing to push back his long awaited sexual assault trial – the latest postponement sees the trial commencing in January next year – a smart documentary by British filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane continues to remind us why Weinstein managed to escape incrimination for so long.

Together with his brother Bob, their Miramax film company achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in the late ‘80s when they would became one of the most influential producers in the American film industry thanks to a string of hits with sex, lies and videotape, My Left Foot and Cinema Paradiso.

While Bob kept a back seat, Harvey became a self-styled visionary and mogul. And, ultimately, a bully and a monster.

In his own words, we hear Weinstein describing himself as “the sheriff of this shit-ass fucking town” before putting a journalist in a head-lock on the streets of Manhattan – witnessed by about 100 paparazzi and press.

The fact that said pictures were never published anywhere proves his words to be true.

He owned the town.

But that was then, and this is now, and his years as an alleged sexual predator have given birth to an emboldened #MeToo generation of women who refuse to be silenced anymore.

Weinstein’s fortunes came crashing down under a barrage of allegations – harassment, blackmail, sexual assault, rape – published in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine in October 2017.

Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the documentary’s title is a nod to how Weinstein literally made himself untouchable and was able to bury his unsavoury private life for so long.

Macfarlane’s documentary answers a lot of those questions based on the testimony of former employees, investigative journalists and the courageous female prosecutors.

Untouchable avoids #MeToo’s most famous accusers like Asia Argento or Rose McGowan, focusing on lesser publicised victims Rosanna Arquette, Paz de la Huerta, Caitlin Dulaney and Erika Rosenbaum.

Macfarlane – a former BAFTA nominee for her titles Breaking up with the Joneses (2006) and One Deadly Weekend in America (2017) – also interviews key journalists Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Ken Auletta.

Their testimony is compelling and also shows the audience how Weinstein escaped prosecution for more than three decades by using lawyers to pay off his victims who, in turn, signed non-disclosure agreements. He furthermore hired Black Cube, an expensive private investigation company ran by former Mossad operatives.

Financed by Weinstein’s deep pockets, Black Cube spied on his accusers and hunted down photographs of his victims – looking happy in Weinstein’s company at glamorous parties – to cynically be used as evidence to refute their claims.

Almost as traumatised as his victims are former employees – like Zelda Perkins – who could no longer stay on his payroll after learning the truth. Perkins even outlines how legally binding non-disclosure agreements meant that his victims couldn’t even reveal his abuse to their therapists for fear of retribution.

As early as 1998, one victim was paid US$250,000 in return for her silence while, at the same time, Weinstein was feted as a genius for producing The Piano, Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love.

Since 2017, more than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape. Untouchable reminds us that nobody can escape the truth forever.

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Birds of Passage

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In essence, all gangster stories are morality tales. The will to power is always undercut by the corrosive force of greed and, while it is exhilarating on the way up, the gangs always fall into power struggles and end up killing each other. Many of these tropes are there in one form of another in this intriguing film from Colombian filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, but they are given a fresh twist so that the work emerges as a brand-new hybrid.

It is set in a village in Columbia in the 1970s. The protagonist Rapayet (a sympathetic performance from Jose Acosta) wants to marry a local girl, but her guardian Ursula (Carmina Martinez), who enjoys some matriarchal and shamanistic power in the village, opposes the union. The local tribe of the Wayuu people have important traditions to uphold. Rapayet must raise an impossible dowry to gain his prize.

All this coincides with the realisation among the Wayuu that the locally grown marijuana is worth money. A corrupting amount as it turns out. They start by selling a bit to the visiting hippyish American Peace Corps workers but soon they are trekking through the foothills with donkeys laden with sacks of it. From there they go to four-wheel drives, and eventually to light planes. It is easy to see how this escalation could happen (and the film is based partly on fact).

All the while, gangsterism and internecine violence grows inside their community like cancer. Interestingly, the film does not linger on the violence or relish it. Instead, we see sad aftermaths of gangland massacres and reprisals that focus us on the waste of human life.

The filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have created a visually arresting (it has already won acclaim and prizes). A few years ago, they made the little-seen but superb arthouse pic Embrace of the Serpent. That too was a mesmerising blend of anthropology and mystery. The term magical realism is applied – often lazily – to many cultural products of Latin and South America. Actually, this is slightly different, but it shares a similar storytelling purpose; to make the everyday strange by contrasting the co-existing perceptions of different and parallel life worlds.

The filmmakers use the tension between the tribe’s traditional views and the emerging narco capitalism to ground a recognisably human story. It is a skilful blend and it produces a haunting tale that will linger in the mind.

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Strange but True

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Teen-thriller Strange but True spends a hefty amount of time focusing on separated parents – portrayed by Greg Kinnear and Amy Ryan – entertaining the idea that their deceased son Ronnie (Connor Jessup), who had died five years earlier, somehow had his sperm cryogenically preserved and inseminated into his now pregnant girlfriend Melissa (Margaret Qualley of Once Upon in Hollywood fame).

To describe Strange but True as having an absurd premise would be to give the film undeserved credit. An adaptation of John Searles’ 2004 novel of the same name, Strange but True is a film so invested in being received as an introspective on grief that it neglects any sense of mystery or suspense from its peculiar plot.

The film’s attempt at crafting a suspenseful third-act, involving the inane man-hunt of Love, Simon star Nick Robinson, is where this shortcoming is most prevalent. The revelation of the dead-son-sperm-extraction mystery requires no need to watch with bated breath, with Strange but True approaching the same bizarre, and excessively dark depths as The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow’s 2017 drama starring Naomi Watts).

There is some enjoyment to be had with the film, with Strange but True’s bonkers premise reaching a no-holds-barred, Bold and the Beautiful meets Passions-esque level of bat-shit crazy antics.

Bad-good in a good-bad way, screenwriter Eric Garcia’s dialogue is cringey to the utmost degree. Highlights include, but are not limited to, Ryan’s grieving mother referring to Kinnear’s ex-husband as a ‘regular bullshit factory’ and Ryan telling Kinnear’s new partner to stick a palm tree up her ‘perfectly bleached asshole’. Ryan lashes out to the point of turning every conversation into an argument, with director Rowan Athale confusing aggression with complexity in what culminates as one of many attempts by Strange but True to create a complicated character.

Athale matches the ridiculousness of the dialogue with over-the-top performances. The fine calibre of actors do all the right things but are let down by a director with a penchant for melodrama. Unnecessary subplots, including resentment towards former library co-workers, meetings with a psychic that accepts Visa or Mastercard, and the redundant mystery behind Nick Robinson’s character’s broken leg, reduce the film’s serious vibe.

Efforts to be perceived as noir feel more akin to Twilight, with the monochromatic cinematography, grey skies and opening scene – replace the young man running with a deer and you have a dead-ringer – resembling Stephenie Meyer more than David Fincher.

A teen thriller stripped entirely of complexity and sense, Strange but True manages to deliver an entertaining and harmless flick that shoots for the same psychological heights as Gone Girl but ends up hitting 13 Reasons Why levels of melodrama.

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Happy Sad Man

Australian, Documentary, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Cinema is going through a metamorphosis in terms of how it portrays male vulnerability on-screen. Going (if not gone) are the days of the hardened loner being rewarded with a personal breakthrough, in depictions that suggest grief and inner-turmoil are a self-development tool akin to a Tony Robbins conference. For many men, it is not a trope but a deep-seated issue that requires professional treatment.

Director Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven) intimately explores this subject matter in a series of interviews with a variety of men suffering from mental illness in the compassionately told Aussie documentary Happy Sad Man.

Inspired by her friendship with John, a larrikin and self-described ‘first hippie’ on the South East Coast of NSW, Bailey investigates modern masculinity from a grass-roots angle. In particular, she explores a culture of shame felt by men who do not express their emotions; a feat which the filmmakers interrogate with a respectful touch.

Bailey remains empathetic to the hardships of the men being interviewed. The diversity of the subjects – from inner-city progressives to bush folk – provides a relatively comprehensive scope of the issues at large, with the opportunity to explore the experiences of men of colour should a sequel be in the pipeline.

Happy Sad Man glosses over the history behind male toxicity. A smart move keeping the film focused on treatment and not causation. Bailey pushes an agenda of openness and discussion, with the struggles of the interviewees – depression, bipolar, mania, psychosis, suicide – providing an authentic account of the dangers of emotional suppression.

Bailey’s own narration interjects throughout the film, allowing the Director to digest the weight of the subject matter brought on by deeply-personal responses from interviewees. Too easily, this could have detracted, however, Bailey proves an ambitious director that remains laser-focused. Her commitment for betterment imbues Happy Sad Man with an optimistic tone that overpowers any self-serving misinterpretations.

The interviewees are just as dedicated as Bailey in raising awareness of male mental health. ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ and ‘no pain going to the doctor’ some of the many insightful statements spoken throughout Happy Sad Man. It is a film that finds power in giving the compassionate men a platform to offer relatable guidance that doesn’t come across as a PSA. For these men, a large portion of their lives is spent maintaining a balance somewhere between happy and sad, with their treatment (called their ‘recipe’) being put on offer to viewers as a message of solidarity.

Masculinity has taught men to bottle up their emotions so tightly that it proves difficult to re-open. Many films now present progressive attitudes, with recent releases Ad Astra and Good Boys challenging conventions of modern masculinity by highlighting the danger in apathy. Filmmakers should continue to challenge these constructs, with Happy Sad Man delivering genuinely powerful moments that exist as a hand of outreach.

Photo by Shannon Glasson

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The Eulogy

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

Geoffrey Tozer was a child prodigy – he was playing Mozart at three and creating his own music at seven – who went on to become a phenomenally gifted and internationally acclaimed classical pianist. (Some say a genius.) He also died alone and destitute in 2009, aged only 54. This doco is an attempt to discover exactly what went wrong.

The title comes from Paul Keating’s searing speech at Tozer’s memorial service. Keating was a great admirer of Tozer’s talent, and a major (governmental) benefactor; he agreed to re-enact his speech – in which he slammed those who he believed treated Tozer shamefully – for the doco.

The tragic story is explored in a way that’s both nuanced and impassioned. It’s also both simple and complex, because key elements include a ‘stage’ mother who drove the young boy to excel… the Tall Poppy Syndrome… an ill-fated relationship… Tozer’s own utter lack of worldliness… alcohol abuse and unreliability…   the alleged abandonment of the man by the musical establishment (arguably the biggest factor of all)… and much more besides.

Most of the interviewees are highly eloquent. That includes the late conductor and educator Richard Gill, who completed his own involvement in the project during his final months. One of the highlights is, incidentally, the inspired and delightfully aesthetically pleasing use of animated graphics.

Keating claimed at one point in his eulogy that the way Tozer was overlooked by Melbourne and Sydney orchestras was “a case example of bitchiness and preciousness within the Australian arts”. Speaking of case examples, this film is one of how to make a fascinating, balanced and very moving documentary.

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Joker

comic bok, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The superhero genre, while often entertaining and crowd-pleasing, can feel a little unambitious at times. Even hardcore fans will likely agree that once a formula is set, it’s adhered to, with very little room for inspiration or subversion. However, every now and then a superhero flick comes along with a little more on its mind. Notable examples include The Dark Knight (2008) and Logan (2017), and now we can add Joker to that list, although not without a couple of qualifications.

Joker tells the tragic tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a spindly, twitchy loner who lives with his sick mum, Penny (Frances Conroy) and is attempting to break into the world of standup comedy. Naturally nothing much goes according to plan for Arthur, and the film traces a dark downward spiral showcasing how an ordinary, unassuming man eventually becomes the Crown Prince of Crime aka The Joker.

To be clear, Joker is an origin story only in the broadest terms. Director Todd Phillips has already gone on record telling media outlets that this incarnation of the iconic baddie is a one-off and we’ll never see them battling Batman while attempting to poison Gotham’s water supply. Consequently, the script is much more focused on the slowburn breakdown of an unfortunate who has fallen through the cracks and seeks solace in delusion. Honestly, the script, co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is a tad blunt which might be more of a problem if not for the film’s clear selling point: Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning turn in the titular role.

To say Joaquin nails the role is an outrageous understatement, because he delivers a pitch perfect turn, at times vulnerable, manic, tortured and afraid, his body twisting and contorting in a bony dance that’s all elbows, bruised skin and teeth. The sheer sense of discomfort and unease that Phoenix manages to convey, particularly in a relatively mainstream comic book movie, is staggering. Every second he’s on screen is fascinating to watch, so much so that you’ll likely forgive the occasionally by-the-numbers nature of the script.

Todd Phillips’ direction is slick and effective, with numerous visual references and homages to the early works of Scorcese, in particular Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), the latter of which is further reinforced by the casting of Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin. Gotham, also, looks and sounds like New York during the garbage strike of the 1970s, lending the piece a grimy, abandoned feel, seething with vermin and potential violence.

On the downside, Joker does pull some of its punches. Sure, it may reference Taxi Driver, but ultimately this is a property from DC Films and Warner Bros, so if you’re expecting something truly transgressive, you’ve come to the wrong place. And hey, if you want Taxi Driver, go watch Taxi Driver! It’s a great flick and you can probably pick it up for under a tenner these days.

Joker works within the rigid framework of a superhero (or in this case supervillain) movie, because while it may not push the boundaries of cinema in general, it certainly widens the barriers inherent to this specific genre. Paired with a performance that should have the Academy hurling handfuls of Oscars at Joaquin like mad bastards, Joker delivers one of the more haunting and unique comic book movie experiences in years.

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The Surge 2

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The Surge, from developers Deck13 Interactive came out in 2017, and carved a bloody, biomechanical niche as “scifi Dark Souls”. This slightly reductive description was, nonetheless, broadly accurate and the title performed well enough to justify a sequel. Well, The Surge 2 is here and while it’s not a spectacular masterpiece that addresses all the shortcomings of its predecessor, it’s still a pretty damn solid effort and shows improvement on most fronts.

The Surge 2 puts you in the boots of a survivor in Jericho City, a sprawling metropolis that is suffering in the aftermath of a bizarre surge that has rendered much of the population bugshit crazy; both human, robotic and combinations of the two. The only way to survive is to fight and the only way to fight is to upgrade. This entails ripping the limbs off your enemies and using their mech enhancements to build up your own armour and weapons, all the better for improving your chances of living just a little longer. The concept of a bonfire (in this case a Medbay) where you can reset and upgrade, but also respawn all the non-boss enemies, returns and while it remains derivative of FromSoftware’s most iconic title, it’s executed well enough to justify its existence.

The plot is a little more epic in scope this time around, although it’s mainly delivered through wooden NPC dialogue, and frankly, isn’t much chop. What does work, however, is the way levels loop back on themselves, with densely packed, smallish areas being home to all manner of secrets and shortcuts. Combat, too, feels more fluid this time around and while it’s not immune from jankiness, there’s a pleasing rhythm to the way the various weapons work and a surprising amount of potential build diversity.

Playing The Surge 2, and indeed the previous Surge title, feels a bit like watching a lower budgeted genre flick that’s rough around the edges but has a decent script and a bunch of good ideas. More specifically, 1995’s underrated cult hit Screamers, which is also about robots getting a bit too handsy with us fleshbags. The special effects/graphics are a bit shonky, the acting/voice acting is a tad stiff but the ideas shine strong and, if you’re a fan of the aesthetic, you’ll likely have a grand old, limb-tearing time on the mean streets of Jericho City.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark began life as a popular children’s book by Alvin Scwartz and, while it never made much of a cultural impact in Australia, it was hugely popular in the United States and beyond. A mixture of folklore, classical literature and urban legends informed the writing of the short stories, and made an indelible impact on generations of impressionable youngsters. A film adaptation seemed a gimme, and with Guillermo Del Toro writing the screen story and producing, not to mention talented director Andre Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) at the helm, Scary Stories was shaping up to be a genre classic for a younger audience. So why then is the result just sort of… there?

Scary Stories tells the ambitious, and frankly convoluted, story of three teens, Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) who run afoul of a bully on Halloween night and end up trapped in the local haunted house. There they discover a book full of scary stories and unwittingly unleash a curse that will soon have their friends and family starring in real life versions of manifested tales.

Scary Stories comes alive when it’s adapting mostly effective twists on the well-worn vignettes the book is famous for, however, the overlong, needlessly complicated investigation by the kids around these moments really makes the film drag.

Set, for some reason, in 1968, the investigation sections have the look and tone of a more mature, adult genre flick, yet the scare scenes are undoubtedly skewed for slightly morbid tweens. The end result is a weird disconnect, where the set ups are slower and more considered and the pay-offs goofy and relatively lightweight.

Øvredal’s direction is just as moody and tense as his other work, but it seems ill-suited to this material and the sequences that rely heavily on CGI, particularly a notorious moment involving spiders, just don’t land. That said, the final third features effective staging and genuinely gruesome imagery, but it’s just a little late in the runtime to save it.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark suffers from an identity crisis and never seems to relax into what type of movie it wants to be. The perky scares are dragged down by the leaden drama, and it’s hard to imagine any but the most patient of youngsters freaking out over this rather drab and listless spookshow.

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Borderlands 3

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The original Borderlands (2009) was an engaging cel-shaded looter shooter with an original premise and a unique sense of identity, playing out as sort of a Mad Max variant, stuffed with pop culture references. Borderlands 2 (2012), arguably the best in the series, followed and honed the premise, but added characters you actually care about and a fantastic villain in the form of smarmy sociopath Handsome Jack. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) followed and felt like a bit of a step back, although still fun, and then Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15) proved there was a place in the wastes of Pandora for a little depth, nuance and, most shocking of all, legitimate pathos.

It’s no surprise, then, that anticipation has been so high for the latest entry, Borderlands 3, and now that it’s finally here we can reveal the result is… pretty damn fun.

Borderlands 3 introduces four brand spanking new playable characters. There’s Moze the Gunner, with a D.Va-style summonable mech, Amara the Siren, who hits and quips hard, FL4K the Beastmaster, a bloodthirsty AI who can use animal friends, and Zane the Operative, an Irish assassin with a range of clever tricks.

All the characters have extensive skill trees and lots of potential for build diversity, and most styles of play can be accommodated. This deadly foursome are thrust into a typically insane adventure, featuring returning Borderlands characters and brand new baddies, The Calypso Twins – basically homicidal streamers.

There was a real opportunity here for Borderlands 3 to continue Tales from the Borderlands’ trend and offer a deeper, more clever narrative. Sadly, this is completely squandered on a very by-the-numbers plot that ranges from forgettable to downright annoying. Every single character SCREAMS, seemingly constantly, and the ubiquitous fourth wall breaking can become a real grind, particularly in the game’s final third which is protracted beyond reason.

Borderlands 3 is like watching Deadpool if every single character was Deadpool and shouting their dialogue for 30 hours. It’s… not ideal.

On the plus side, Borderlands 3 has honed its shooting to a delightful degree. Gone are the floaty physics from games’ past, with a more Destiny-like feel to the boom sticks, with satisfying feedback and a meaty heft to the weapons. Being that most of the game will be running around equipping new guns, this is exactly what Gearbox Software needed to get right and it does so with much alacrity. Graphics, too, have been polished and while the cel-shaded look is never going to reach retina-stroking levels, it’s engaging and visually distinct from other games on the market.

The same, however, cannot be said for all the technical aspects, as frequent pop-in, lag, glitches and bugs galore plague Bordy to a worrying degree. This occurred mainly while playing with friends, but even solo there are a lot of rough edges here. No doubt these niggling issues will be addressed in coming patches, but it’s worth noting the launch of this title hasn’t been the pearler 2K Games was likely hoping for.

Ultimately, Borderlands 3 is fun. It’s fun despite the aggressively noisy voice acting, despite the frequent glitches and terrible UI and despite the overlong, unambitious story. It is, quite simply, an absolute hoot to team up with your mates and shoot mad bastards in the face holes and flog their guns. The technical issues will likely be improved, the story and voice acting will not, and if you’re okay with that, then Borderlands 3’s blistering ballistic thrills are probably a good fit.

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The Souvenir

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Subjectiveness is the mark of all great artwork. It is a trait that draws from the experience of the individual to create a personal connection with the piece. It can be provocative, mundane, or in the case of 2019 drama The Souvenir, provide an introspective look into an abusive relationship; where one half observes sadness and the other half sees determination.

Living an existence mostly free of hardships, afforded to her by her privileged upbringing, young film school-student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) dreams of a life abound in art and culture.

Her relationship with the much-senior art enthusiast Anthony (Tom Burke) grants the budding filmmaker access to a world filled with art galleries and invitations to dinner parties featuring Britain’s cultural elite.

With these lavish experiences comes all of the debauchery associated with the art scene. The result culminating in a troubling lifestyle that threatens to derail the ambitious Julie from her dream of becoming a filmmaker.

The Souvenir is poignant in its approach, detailing the complex and confusing happenings of Julie and Anthony’s toxic relationship. Julie’s forgiving and generous nature becomes Anthony’s opportunity to exploit her both financially and emotionally. Anthony’s beguiling demeanour buries deep-seated destructive tendencies and is something which director-writer Joanna Hogg captures with a haunting intensity.

Hogg displays an unhurried sense of exploration in her filmmaking style. A style which focuses on being contemplative, ambience focused (the mute-coloured set design is first class) and applying literary sensibilities to scene transitions.

Hogg invests heavily in the establishment of Julie and Anthony’s relationship to the point of being ponderous. The Souvenir requires the audience to sit patiently and observe Julie and Anthony’s relationship as though it were a static painting in a gallery. It showcases Hogg’s bold commitment to authenticity yet comes at the expense of dramatic stakes for the first half of the film.

Hogg does come through with the goods in the later part of The Souvenir, building to an emotional walloping that compensates for the film’s extended setup. She demonstrates an impressive understanding of catharsis, both raw and powerful, that may likely spark conversation about the Writer Director this awards season.

Swinton Byrne demonstrates a maturity beyond her years, capturing the innocent curiosity of a young adult looking for connection. She exhibits a hardened shell brought about by a taxing relationship, in a similar fashion to Carey Mulligan’s performance in An Education.

Burke delivers an astoundingly subdued performance, bringing to life an irredeemable character with just as many attractive qualities as he does abusive. He is charming and controlling, vulnerable yet untrustworthy, and a dangerous influence on the impressionable Julie.

Tilda Swinton, who is Byrne’s mother in the film and in real life, rounds out the remaining principal cast. Her appearances – often used as a mode of financial support to Julie – come in short supply yet never fail to leave an impression.

With its artistic sensibilities coupled with dilatory pacing that verges on indulgent, The Souvenir is a divisive piece of filmmaking that will prove a slog for mainstream audiences. For others looking for an impeccably acted albeit slow-burning take on young-adulthood, The Souvenir – like the title implies – will be a stunning keepsake.

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