View Post

To Olivia

Biopic, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The death of a child is a horrific contemplation, and any film trying to capture the true complexity of emotions that parents will go through, may ring slightly hollow due to the unique experience that is grief. To Olivia tries that feat by centring on children’s author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, actor Patricia Neal (Keely Hawes), who try to come to terms with the death of their daughter. Olivia, the eldest of three at the time, died at the age of 7 from encephalitis due to measles.

At the time, according to the film, both parents were both languishing in their careers. Dahl is licking his wounds after his latest book, James and the Giant Peach, fails to excite the nation’s youth. Meanwhile, Neal, fearing her best days are behind her, finds herself morphing into a housewife designed only to act as a buffer when Dahl’s temper gets the better of him.

Director and co-writer John Hay (There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble) doesn’t shy from showing how tumultuous the couple’s marriage is. Doting on their children during the day, at night the two retreat to separate ends of the house to drink.

When the tragic eventually happens, Dahl seeks refuge in his despair, refusing to even utter Olivia’s name anymore. Stifled from any way to share her grief, Neal is seen languishing in her sadness with only a postman’s kind word allowing her any kind of release.

Despite a final act change of view, To Olivia very much keeps Dahl front and centre. We follow him drearily pottering around his makeshift office at the end of the garden, where he’s trying to write the next great novel. During these moments, he’s accompanied by the spirit of his younger self, who barks chapter numbers at him while staring with huge saucer eyes. This addition of Dahl’s school uniformed muse is superfluous, adding nothing and resolving less. Additionally, Dahl’s problematic behaviour, including antisemitism and misogyny, is brushed under the carpet to give us a more digestible, grieving author that we can relate to.

It becomes even more bemusing when you realise the source material for To Olivia is Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography about Neal titled An Unquiet Life. As the film progresses, it feels like Neal has become a side character in her own life story and the film begins to feel glib. Particularly when the film paints the parents’ grief with such broad strokes it seems to suggest that they simply funneled their emotions into their careers, got successful and were never sad again.

It just doesn’t gel from a storytelling point of view. Discovering that Dahl became a champion for vaccinations in his later life through some text before the end credits, suggests there was more to explore in the film. As too does a meeting between the couple and the Archbishop of Canterbury, brilliantly played by Geoffrey Palmer in his final role, which could have been used as a springboard to dissect Dahl’s dismantling of his religious beliefs.

Overall, To Olivia is a slight film that uses CGI birds to make metaphors about grief that simply do not fly. Despite its best intentions, it just doesn’t engage the audience enough.

View Post

Nowhere Special

Drama, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s the adage that the greatest tragedy for a parent is having to bury their own child. For window cleaner John (James Norton), that time has come much sooner than he was expecting in Nowhere Special, from director Umberto Pasolini (Still Life).

Already in poor health when we meet him, single father John’s focus is ensuring that his four-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Lamont) is cared for properly when he’s gone. This need comes at a cost though as, for John, there’s simply no family that could properly raise his son the way he wants.

At times, the film goes to show that John is right in his concerns, as he visits different foster families with his social worker. There’s the family whose patriarch tries to dissuade Michael’s love of dogs by recalling tales of being attacked by them as a postie. Perhaps the most egregious is the couple for whom Michael would be nothing more than a solvent to close the ever-widening gap in a loveless marriage.

However, Pasolini also goes to great pains to show that John is so determined to ensure everything is perfect for Michael that he doesn’t see the potential in others that the social workers do. So worried is John about Michael that he can’t even bring himself to tell his son that he is dying. When Michael stumbles across a dead bug in the park, a more mawkish film would use this as the moment for John to get his demise out in the open. Instead, the dutiful father skirts round the issue.

It is, of course, impossible for John to keep everything from his son and Nowhere Special knows this. That doesn’t stop you from wishing that John could have it all before he goes. It’s made clear from the start that there will be no third act deus ex machina to save John, so in a way – like the more fantastical Cargo directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke – the audience can only hope that time doesn’t run out too soon.

As the increasingly ailing father, Norton brings a tender yet stoic performance to the film. Despite becoming frustrated with what he sees as a failing system, he channels that energy into loving his son; reading him bedtime stories, playing in the park and deseeding grapes.

The only real example of John’s anger bubbling to the surface is in a deeply satisfying scene wherein he takes eggy revenge on an irate customer.

It would be churlish not acknowledge the young Lamont, who holds his own in the film’s heartbreaking scenes.

Nowhere Special, despite its narrative, still manages to warm your heart in a way that is unexpected. It is a bittersweet portrait of not just fatherhood, but of caring for our loved ones in general, and doing everything to ensure we are there for them in life and death.

View Post

Blind Ambition

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

There is a line uttered in Blind Ambition, the new documentary from Robert Coe and Warwick Ross (Red Obsession), that resonates deeply in these current times: ‘Some of the most profoundly developed and incredibly wonderful minds don’t fit where we think they belong.’ It’s a call to reconsider our privilege and how we think about others outside of our social circles, demographic and country.

Blind Ambition tells the story of four Zimbabwean refugees, working as sommeliers in Cape Town. Pardon Taguzu, Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese and Tinashe Nyamudoka fled Mugabe’s regime to seek better lives, and it would have surprised them were they to know that several years later, they would end up representing their old country in a wine tasting contest.

Strip away the vino and Blind Ambition is essentially a sports film at its core. Raising enough funds to fly out to France, the film follows the quartet as they build up their tastebuds and perfect their already exhaustible knowledge of the grape. They even have a coach, Denis, who prides himself on being abrasive to everyone he meets and who is also very deaf; a bit of an issue in a contest where teams must whisper answers to each other for fear their competitors may hear. Come the day of the big match, it’s clear that Denis’ unconventional leadership is exasperating the four Zimbabweans.

Blind Ambition is more than simply an alcoholic Cool Runnings. While this underdog tale is uplifting, it also explores immigration and the many hurdles the men, and many like them, have faced to end up where they are. Coe and Ross give the documentary room to let its subjects tell their stories without wading into the waters of inspiration porn. The film doesn’t want you to pity them, it wants you to recognise immigrants as human beings. Not the faceless mass of resource drainers certain shades of politicians and media moguls would like you to think them as.

A warm, touching and often funny film, whether you know your difference between a Merlot and a Pinot Noir or not, Blind Ambition offers insight into a world that many of us will not have witnessed.

View Post

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story

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

With its pitch-black comedy and almost salacious peeks behind the Hollywood curtain, Sunset Boulevard is the very definition of a cinematic classic. Directed by Billy Wilder, this tale of murder, sex and monkey funerals has a whip smart script filled with delicious dialogue and an iconic central performance by Gloria Swanson. As Norma Desmond, a silent film star wishing to make her big return in the talkies, Swanson dominates every scene she’s in.

Swanson was offered numerous roles after her Oscar nominated performance, but she turned most of them down saying they were simply Desmond knockoffs. Ironic then that a few years later, Swanson would come up with her next big project: Boulevard!, a musical based on Sunset Boulevard and starring Swanson as, ahem, Norma Desmond. Take that, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who tackled another icon of Hollywood in Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, Boulevard! literally digs through archive footage, letters, and interviews to reconstruct the pre-production that went into the musical that never happened. Perhaps the biggest find in Schwarz’ film is an interview with actor Richard Wyler, AKA Richard Stapler, recorded long before his death. Wyler/Stapler talks about his life with then-boyfriend, Dickson Hughes, and how the two were hired by Swanson to write the music and lyrics for Boulevard!

Was Swanson right to pin all her hopes on these two rosy cheeked men who had never written a Broadway musical before? The jury is still out on that. Like Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, you’re never truly going to get a full picture of what the artists intended, with Swanson singing her heart out to a tape recorder, while Hughes diligently tickles the ivories. However, turning Desmond’s diatribe about the superfluous nature of talkies into a jaunty, knee slapper called Talk! Talk! Talk! is certainly a headscratcher.

Schwarz offers up obvious parallels between Sunset Boulevard and Swanson’s relationship with Stapler and Hughes. Swanson is said to have fallen for the chiselled charms of Stapler and like her alter-ego, was keen to get to know her muse a little more intimately. Elsewhere, a baby chick killed by Swanson, stepping on it with a stiletto, is given the same emotional send off by the threesome as Desmond’s chimpanzee. Things get even more meta when, in the ‘90s, Dickson Hughes decides to write a play about writing the musical, where, as a man in his 60s, he ended up playing his younger self!

Writing like this suggests that Boulevard! is merely a knockabout documentary with a big focus on the tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic. However, Schwarz also stays focused on his three subjects long after the musical is mothballed. In particular, he explores Stapler’s life after he leaves Hughes. Picking up some success in a few spaghetti westerns, Stapler rebrands himself as a tough, ornery actor who eats gravel for breakfast and is a danger to the ladies. However, it’s never clear how successful he was at hiding his truth from himself. Even Stapler’s second (!) wife admits that their marriage was more a friendship than anything else.

At only 80 minutes, Boulevard! is not a deep dive into queer Hollywood, but what is on show is engaging enough. Schwarz never belittles or derides his subjects. It’s clear that he has no interest in spoofing Swanson’s desire for one more bite of the cherry. Instead, he dusts their legends off and puts them on a pedestal, allowing them to stay in the consciousness of all those wonderful people out there in the dark.

View Post

India Sweets and Spices

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

India Sweets and Spices is a gentle comedy drama that takes a side eyed glance at family politics on a macro level, while touching upon Indian politics on a micro level.

Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) is a passionate, all As student at UCLA, who has been successfully balancing her studies with her party lifestyle. Arriving back at home in New Jersey for the summer, she hopes to spend it chilling in the family pool, but her parents, Ranjit (Adil Hussain) and Sheila (Manisha Koirala), have other ideas. Most of which largely focus around keeping up with the neighbours.

Each Saturday, members of Ranjit and Sheila’s social circle take it in turn to host an evening of refined chat, whiskey, and sumptuous food. For Alia and her friends, however, the evening is nothing more than an opportunity to show off who has the most wealth and trade gossip like it were currency.

When Alia meets the rather dashing Varun (Rish Shah), she invites his entire family to attend her parents’ next shindig in the hopes of getting a little closer to him. An act of horniness manages to pick at the thread of everything Alia has come to believe about her family. Not least because Varun’s mum, Bhairavi Dutta (Deepti Gupta), went to university with Sheila many moons ago, opening up a can of feelings that the well-to-do Sheila has spent years trying to supress. Oh, and there’s also the issue of our protagonist finding her father copping with someone that’s not mother.

Narratively speaking, India Sweets and Spices is a simple affair, as Alia discovers that for all their wealth, her parents have long been trying to keep up appearances ever since they moved to America. The discovery that your mum was a wild-eyed youth before she became a buttoned-down real housewife of New Jersey feels a touch derivative and chances are you’ll have seen this play out in other films.  However, there are times when the film circles in on intersectional class. When Bhairavi and her family accept Alia’s party invite, it is clear that their working-class roots are an affront to the many attending, who feel that, sure, running a corner shop is work, but it’s not going to get you rich, is it? Through Varun, Malik gives voice to the many who are perhaps watching Alia and wondering how she feels so hard done by when she’s driving a BMW everywhere and having her credit card regularly paid off by her parents. “I’m not superficial,” retorts Alia, when faced with her own privileges. “I watch documentaries!”

Everything comes to a head in the film’s final party, as Malik gleefully allows everyone’s prejudices and gossiping to boil over in a scene that sees all attendees flapping their tongues after having bitten them for so long. It’s one of the film’s strongest scenes and it’s clear that everyone is having a ball.

Although not perfect, this bright and breezy feminist tale about a mother and daughter has enough heart going for it that you can forgive enough of its foibles – such as a horrendous photoshopped McGuffin that threatens to tear you out of the film every time it crops up – that you’ll finish it with a satisfied smile on your face.

View Post

The Skin of Others

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

The Skin of Others, directed by Tom Murray (Love in Our Own Time), is many things at once. It’s a history lesson on the white settlers’ impact on Indigenous land. It’s an overview of Australia’s part in World War 1. It also serves as the last film of Balang (Tom E.) Lewis (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; The Proposition).

Ultimately, though, it is a visual essay about Indigenous Australian activist and World War I veteran Douglas Grant, played by Lewis in reconstructions. As a young boy, Grant was taken in by a white Scottish family after his own parents were slaughtered; the details of which appear to be nebulous, but suffice to say, are not great regardless of which narrator takes up the reins in the film. Grant is given a ‘better life’ by his adoptive parents, described as intellectual, a dab hand at taxidermy and a keen bagpiper.

Grant would go on to live an extraordinary and short life, including enlisting in the ANZACs and rising to the rank of Sergeant, before being demoted because it wouldn’t be the best image to have an Aboriginal man in charge of white blokes. The latter half of Grant’s life was filled with tragedy and prejudice. Before he died, a newspaper wrote an obituary that painted this human being as an experiment to bring modern sensibilities to a ‘savage’ past. Even in death, it appears, Grant couldn’t be granted the same dignities as a white man in passing.

Murray admits there is no one way to tackle the life of a man whose legend has been lost to time. Indeed, as part of the many talking heads in the documentary, the director interviews another filmmaker who sees Grant’s life as fodder for a big screen biopic. Murray’s approach is smaller in scale, but large in heart.

Using a mixed medium of animation, reconstructions and radio broadcasts from the time, Murray tackles not only Grant’s life but, in doing so, unearths stories that remind the audience of white Australia’s atrocities.

Not all of the filmmakers’ narrative choices work. Allowing talking heads to talk over each other as part of a full screen mosaic distances the audience from what each person is trying to say. However, this is overshadowed by other choices, such as displaying a series of children’s drawings depicting a firsthand account of the Frontier Wars. Seeing the violence filtered through a child’s eyes is sobering.

Lewis, for his part, throws himself into the role of Grant. His enthusiasm is palpable, seemingly enthused by the opportunity, among others, to adopt a Scottish brogue to be a more believable Grant. Lewis’ discussions with Murray add to the narrative of Grant’s life, with both Director and Actor dissecting what it means to be Aboriginal now and then.

It’s clear that there is more to cover of Grant’s life than the film can show and perhaps somewhere there’s even more to digest of Murray and Lewis’ discussions. However, what is on screen is not only a fascinating journey of a man of important historical context, but also a celebration of an actor gone too soon.

View Post

United Skates (Brisbane International Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

For many, memories of skating rinks extend to gliding precariously around a well varnished floor to the sounds of the Top 40, whilst keeping one eye out for faster, bigger kids wanting to push you over. United Skates, the award-winning documentary from Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, will happily shatter your preconceived notions of what it is to skate.

Through the two filmmakers, we’re introduced to the concept of Adults Nights, evenings – often turning into mornings – where friends, family and strangers in the African American community get together and show off their moves. And what moves they are! Brown and Winkler capture truly spectacular acts, from ‘simple’ backwards skating through to numerous backflips and landing in the splits. That last one is called the nutcracker for obvious reasons.

However, it’s not all about watching annoyingly talented skaters, United Skates also highlights several issues that perhaps you wouldn’t imagine would be connected to this fun-loving world. Whilst skating is popular in the African American community, others are turning away. The land on which these rinks lie is being re-zoned to make way for wholesale stores who can afford the huge upturn in rent. One talking head within the film predicts that three rinks close in America every month. And as each one closes, it takes with it a community. In one of the film’s more emotional scenes, we witness the last night of one such rink, its patrons spilling out at the end of the night mourning as if having lost a friend. For some, this was a place where they went with their parents and where they took their children. This is history. If you didn’t think a documentary about roller-skating could make cry, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

From here, United Skates branches off into fascinating discussions which loop back to four wheels on shoes, such as the birth of hip hop, where Salt n Peppa, Dr Dre and Queen Latifah all made their names in rink-based gigs. The documentary’s more elderly subjects discuss their part in the civil rights movement and how their peaceful demonstrations simply to be allowed to skate with white people were met with fists thrown by surly, swastika carrying idiots. All of which sounds painfully relevant.

This brief dip into history may not satisfy those looking for more facts, but it does add weight to the stories of those we meet in the present day; highlighting why the skating rink is more than just a place to pass a pleasant afternoon. People like Felicia, who sees the rink as a way to keep her children off the streets. United Skates only touches upon why the rinks are being closed, but its insinuations are loud.

United Skates is an emotional film that will boil the blood. However, it is also a joyful celebration of a subculture many of us will not be familiar with.

Also playing at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney, between October 9 – 14, 2018




View Post

Short Distance

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With the internet, social media apps and video calls, technology is certainly making it feel like the world is getting smaller. For those who are in long distance relationships, however, it can feel like the complete opposite. Marking his feature length debut, filmmaker Nic Barker explores the effects of a long distance relationship in this romantic drama.

Over the course of its brisk 60 minutes, Short Distance follows three couples whose relationship DNA has been altered by geography. Sensing his Queensland girlfriend is set to leave him, Max (Christopher Kay) sets up a romantic weekend when she comes to visit Melbourne. Meanwhile, Belinda (Gabrielle Savrone) seeks something hot and heavy when her partner’s constant travelling for work leaves her cold. Finally, and in perhaps one of the strongest tales in this trilogy, a young couple, played by Calista Fooks and Sam Macdonald, count down the hours until one of them must leave for greener pastures of employment in Perth. All of the tales will resonate with someone, but this last scenario manages to capture that bitter sweetness of two people plastering on brave faces when all they want to do is cry. Yeah, it gets emotional, people.

There’s a softness to Barker’s direction which does not mean he isn’t trying. Rather, it gives the film a dreamlike quality that adds to the suggestion that some of our lovers are sleepwalking through the motions in the hopes of maintaining the status quo. Waxing lyrical about trust, honesty and commitment, Barker’s screenplay is strong and shows off his background in short films; his short, Pint, having received a fair amount of praise.

Boiled down to their narrative bones, the three tales perhaps wouldn’t work indivually as features. However, mixed together and connected by a handful of characters, Short Distance successfully captures a snapshot of modern romance.

Watch Short Distance here for free.