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Lucky

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Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a cantankerous 90 year old living alone in a small New Mexican town. He spends his days watching game shows, doing crosswords and visiting the local diner and bar, where he waxes existential with his friend Howard (David Lynch), the bar’s owner Elaine (Beth Grant) and her boyfriend Paulie (James Darren)…and that’s pretty much it. However, actor John Carroll Lynch’s debut directorial effort doesn’t feel as scattershot as the plotless nature of the story may suggest, anchored as it is by a phenomenal final performance by Harry Dean Stanton.

From opening shot to final credits, Lucky is Stanton’s show. So much so, that there are times the character he is playing blurs into the real life actor’s mannerisms. Director Lynch pulls the film way back to stay right out of the way of Stanton’s performance but also reinforcing it through the quietly beautiful cinematography and a couple of dream sequences which only enrich Lucky’s character and his world weariness. Lucky does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he judge or push his opinions on anyone. A World War II vet, he’s seen the worst humanity can do to each other and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Yet his outlook is atheistic and existential, that from darkness we come and to darkness we return, yet there is no maudlin fixation on the meaninglessness of life; one must find meaning, even in the smallest things.

It cannot be stated enough that Stanton is absolutely remarkable in this film. Every nuance and tick is imbued with the great cinematic history of one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. Comparisons to his most iconic role in Paris, Texas immediately come to mind, only this is Travis 30 years on, still wandering the desert. He must have known this would be one of his final films; there is knowingness to his portrayal of Lucky, of a man awaiting the inevitable, and smiling while he does so. Anyone familiar with the man and his work will not be able to hold back the wave of emotion that his quietly powerful performance will engender.

While Stanton’s performance is the core of Lucky (he is in every scene), he has been surrounded by an equally talented group of character actors, plus his old buddy David Lynch. The famous director plays a very “Lynchian” character, a man beside himself at the loss of his tortoise. There is a scene where he recounts his relationship to his beloved pet which is beautifully played and almost steals the spotlight for a brief moment, but only opens the door for the deeply affecting final scenes.

Lucky may lack a traditional plot and it (purposefully) meanders from scene to scene, but it is all pulled together by Stanton. There is an elegiac quality to the film which makes for a deeply emotional response to the actor’s performance, but its tinge of hopefulness also makes it a celebration of Stanton’s life. What better way to end such an illustrious career than to smile in the face of death? Seems like a very Harry Dean Stanton thing to do.

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Grain (BFI London Film Festival)

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It is sometime in the not-too-distant future, and after some unspecified environmental collapse, genetically modified crops designed to save humanity are failing. Geneticist Erol (Jean-Marc Barr) hears tell of Cemil (Ermin Bravo), a controversial scientist who predicted what he called “genetic chaos” which now seems to be occurring. Looking for answers to the world’s current plight, Erol leaves the protection of the city and ventures out into the poisoned wilderness in search for Cemil, and what he discovers will change him forever.

Shot in gorgeous black and white by Hell or High Water cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Grain unfortunately only has its visuals to recommend it. The plot itself is, after a very promising start, laborious new age twaddle masquerading as insightful reflection. The characters feel all too wooden, existing just as pontification devices, and with a running time of over two hours, there becomes a fine line between quiet, soulful contemplation and utter tedium.

Director Kaplanoğlu is obviously wearing his influences on his sleeve, as the film calls to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a dash of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, but is considerably, achingly, less profound or entertaining. It is perfectly fine for filmmakers to adopt styles or framing from other filmmakers, as part of the enjoyment of the art form is how films become conversations with each other, but one also needs to measure up to those directors they are conversing with. If a film just ends up reminding the audience of a laundry list of better films, then it is in trouble.

As mentioned before, Nuttgens’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. The only thing that carries this film through its tedious quiet moments is the black and white images of the cold and barren landscape. It perfectly captures the dystopian vision of the film, while at the same time reinforcing the film’s themes of man’s relationship to nature and our hubristic obsession with “perfecting” it. These images are so well composed and bring forth the themes so strongly it is unfortunate the screenplay hammers them home so thoroughly, rather than letting those prolonged, silent moments of beautiful imagery just speak for themselves.

A strong start, amazing cinematography, and an interesting premise is not enough to save Grain from the protracted tedium of most of its running time. Props to the filmmakers for wanting to tell a worthy story about humanity’s environmental impact, and setting it in a dystopian future is a perfect way to do that. It is unfortunate that the film seems more interested in naval gazing than looking outward and making its story more universal, because then this morsel may have become a touch more palatable.

 
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The Party (BFI London Film Festival)

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Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are having a party for close friends after Janet’s unspecified British political party wins an election, putting her in the position of Health Minister. One by one the friends arrive: staunch pessimist April (Patricia Clarkson), her life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz),  Bill’s university colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of Janet’s aide-de-camp who has arrived coked to the eyeballs and secretly armed with a handgun. Needless to say, the party begins civilly enough but quickly descends into a night of accusation, paranoia and violence.

Sally Potter’s brutal satire on modern society and politics starts quietly and builds to a hilarious crescendo as she manipulates her room of characters like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Working with a murderers’ row of acting talent from Britain, Europe and America, it isn’t hard for Potter to hit the right comedic beats at the right time, as they are all on very fine form here. The black and white cinematography and the single location give the film the right amount of claustrophobia, which gets tighter and tighter as the story progresses.

One is reminded, at least at first, of the Australian play Don’s Party by David Williamson, as a group of friends congregate (in this instance after the election) and as the liquor flows an unspoken tension rises to the surface and the cordial atmosphere begins to fracture. Then in the later scenes it begins to resemble Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, as the characters seem to feel trapped inside the house, unable to escape the escalating events, even though the front door is right there in front of them.

The Party feels more like a filmed play than a piece of cinema, but with the acting talent on display that hardly matters, the script is thing and these performers make it positively sing. Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall are excellent as the upper class married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, Murphy is wonderfully unhinged as the cocaine addled, villainised investment banker, and Jones and Mortimer provide a great counterpoint to one another, with Jones as the freewheeling feminist and Mortimer the traditional family woman. But the standouts in a film of standouts have to be Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz. Clarkson spends the entire movie spouting pessimistic and unhelpful rhetoric while Ganz is superb as the hippy guru wannabe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, whispering new age gibberish, much to the consternation of most in the room.

The Party is whip-smart satire at its very best. A cast of incredible actors given a sparkling script can raise any film above the stratosphere and they do just that very thing here. Potter is a master filmmaker and may not be working at full capacity but she doesn’t have to. She gives the film exactly what it needs to be a claustrophobic, tightly wound snapshot of absurd humanity at its most acerbic.

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I Am Not a Witch (Adelaide Film Festival)

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Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is a young girl of mysterious parentage who appears in a Zambian village. The villagers accuse her of witchcraft as an excuse for their misfortunes and she is found guilty and banished to an outcast village populated with other “witches”, elderly women tied down with ribbons to stop them from flying away. Shula is quickly taken under the wing of and exploited by government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who sells her services to bless food and pick out supposed criminals from police line ups. As the only child “witch” in the community, will her innocence finally be recognised, or will the strength of these superstitions override all reason?

An entrant in the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, I Am Not a Witch has already garnering high praise from across the globe, and with good cause. The film is a remarkable debut that brings to the fore the suffering of victims of outdated, yet state sanctioned, superstition by highlighting its utter absurdity. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni has perfectly captured this absurdity by making all the officials and accusers appear as buffoons, bringing a lot of comedy to the unbelievable situations Shula finds herself in. There are shades of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, or even Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in the realisation that even the most horrifying truths can be so ridiculous that the most natural reaction is to laugh.

Although emphasising this nonsense, the film keeps it all contained in beautifully captured cinematography and controlled framing. Although filmed in Africa, there is no concern by Nyoni and director of photography David Gallego to capture or linger on landscapes and vistas, preferring to focus on Shula’s young and innocent face and the ribbons trailing behind her and her fellow “witches”, which always dangle down from just out of frame as a constant reminder of their plight.

All the performances are excellent, particularly Henry B.J. Phiri whose comic timing turns Mr. Banda into one of recent cinema’s most dangerous fools. But above all is Maggie Mulubwa as Shula, who is a revelation. One is reminded of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, only where Wallis’s performance is extroverted, Mulubwa’s is all internal. She barely speaks throughout the film, but watches on silently as each injustice is inflicted upon her, a mix of innocence and knowingness imparted by her youthful features. It is a stunning performance.

I Am Not a Witch is a remarkable film that manages to balance absurdity and outrage in a perfectly observed character piece. Nyogi deploys comedy with precision, making the characters’ superstition a figure of fun, but then quickly follows it up with a shot of Shula’s face or a demonstration of intolerance which brings the reality crashing in. Through the bizarre behaviour we are constantly reminded that these are real lives being victimised and that the only thing more ridiculous than a government official trying to sell eggs “blessed” by Shula on a local TV talk show, is that society always seems to be addicted to marginalising those that are deemed different.

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Ingrid Goes West (BFI London Film Festival)

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Social media fanatic Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) finds it difficult to connect to the human race through any means other than her mobile phone screen. When she comes across “Instagram star” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) in a magazine article she becomes obsessed with her and her Californian lifestyle. Using some recently inherited cash from her mother’s passing, Ingrid sets off to find and emulate Taylor, and ingratiate herself into her orbit. Needless to say, Ingrid soon learns that, in this social media age, Taylor’s life is all surface sheen, and it doesn’t take much scratching to find the ugliness behind the beauty.

Social media saturation leads to curated identities in Matt Spicer’s debut black comedy Ingrid Goes West, where the search for global validation through the internet creates a vortex of deceit. As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, so does our desire to like and be liked in turn, but where in the past it would be for the content of our character that we endear ourselves to one another, in this new generation of social interaction it is the content of our Twitter feeds which becomes the portrait for our inauthentic selves.

Ingrid Goes West is a darkly funny cautionary tale about the dangers of social media, but thankfully Spicer and co-screenwriter David Branson Smith don’t get overly preachy. It is on the whole a very well observed critique of the way the internet has enriched our lives but also how it can pervert our relationships. The strongest manifestation of this is in the exploration of how assumed identities can help us deal with the world, but if unchecked can cause more harm than good. Ingrid’s landlord and love interest Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is obsessed with Batman, but recounts how his identification with the Dark Knight helped him through hardships as a child.

Yet, Ingrid’s assuming of a curated identity allows her to silence her self-doubt to the point of a complete fracture with reality, and her own obsession with Taylor blinds her to her girl-crush’s own struggle with the way the world perceives her. The only time the film threatens to move too far into morality territory is toward the end, when an action taken by Ingrid in desperation almost gilds the lily in regards to the thematic lessons Spicer and company wish to impart, but thankfully they bring it back from the brink in the film’s final moments.

The performances all around are terrific, with Plaza capturing the internal pain and devil-may-care attitude of Ingrid, adding her to the actor’s long list of wryly comic but damaged individuals. Elizabeth Olsen is spot on as the overly manicured and stage-managed Taylor, imbuing the character with many hidden depths, even if they go unsaid, while O’Shea Jackson Jnr is a comedic revelation as Dan.

Ingrid Goes West is a film that is wryly observational about society’s fixation with social media but is never judgmental. None of the characters are drawn as purely heroic or villainous; they are all damaged or struggling in their own unique ways. That makes the whole experience very much a human one, which is essential. It is the kind of film that should be shown to high school kids on a rainy day, as both a cautionary tale and maybe as a panacea to those who feel they are alone in the world and cannot connect to others in real life.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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In the late 1920s, Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are teaching Marston’s controversial psychological theories and working on their prototype of the lie detector at Radcliffe College, when they recruit student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a teaching assistant. The three of them build a relationship based on mutual respect, which quickly turns into a love affair. Before long they are living in a polyamorous relationship, which turns them into social outcasts struggling to make ends meet. That is until Marston, motivated by the twin aspects of the women he loves and his burgeoning interest in bondage, creates the comic book character Wonder Woman, to provide the world with an inspirational female figure in order to break down gender stereotypes in mid-20th century America.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, from the bottom to the top, a very traditional biopic. It is a slick, costume heavy period drama that we have all come to expect these days from an “inspired by true events” prestige film. In terms of form there really are no surprises to be found here, however, it is in the content that the film diverges from what most audiences would be used to. There is a moment late in the story where Marston, in reference to Wonder Woman, claims comic books are the perfect populist medium with which to expose audiences to an idea they might not entertain in any other circumstance, and, in turn, writer/director Angela Robinson uses the familiar biopic style to champion fluid gender dynamics and pansexuality, which even in this day and age struggle against bigotry and small mindedness.

Marston’s creation of his iconic female superhero is thus not the entire focus of the film. Robinson is much more interested in the Marston/Byrne relationship and how it fed into the ideas around Wonder Woman and it is all the stronger for it. The title may suggest Marston is the lead and the women in his life are merely his cheerleaders but, refreshingly, all three are presented as and treat each other as equals. After an initial trepidation, they quickly develop an intimate relationship that is open, honest and completely healthy, if unconventional. They must hide the true nature of their relationship from the world at large, but Robinson goes to great pains to present the world as wrong and not the love between consenting adults. When Marston discovers an interest in bondage and pornography, he doesn’t hide it but rather presents it to his two lovers as a new dimension in their relationship, and it is when Olive dresses in a corset, thigh high boots and grabs a golden-coloured bondage rope, that the image for Wonder Woman springs to life.

The performances by the three leads are terrific across the board. Luke Evans continues to impress after his intense role in High Rise. Rebecca Hall always gives her characters extra dimensions that bring them fully to life, whilst Bella Heathcote proves her performance in Neon Demon was no fluke, playing Olive as sincere, pure of heart, but, most importantly, a real woman who is the one to break down the cultural barriers that define what a relationship is “supposed” to be. If there are any faults in the film, it does pull its punches from time to time. It feels that Robinson, in order to fit the story into the traditional biopic mould and reach the largest possible audience, kowtows to the very oppressive censorship that the characters in the film are fighting against. There are kinky and sexy moments for sure, but perhaps it could have pushed a little more in that direction to fully characterise the deeply felt love between these individuals.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a wonderfully performed and heartfelt exploration of sexuality and the need for positive female empowerment. It uses the template of the traditional biopic to put forward “non-traditional” gender roles which brings to light how much the world needs to open up to these ideas. However, it does become clear how much the world still has to learn since the film cannot go a little further in this exploration than the lightness of touch it is given at crucial moments of the characters’ sexual awakenings. As a look at the unconventional origins of the most famous female superhero of all time it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of these forward thinking and innovative individuals.

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Most Beautiful Island (BFI London Film Festival)

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If you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, or if paying your rent meant the difference between living with a roof over your head or on the street, what would you be willing to do for money? This is the question faced by Luciana (writer/director Ana Asensio), an undocumented Spanish immigrant living hand to mouth in New York City.

When Luciana meets Olga (Natasha Romanova) whilst handing out flyers for a fried chicken restaurant, Olga offers her the opportunity to earn some quick cash; show up to an address, wear something skimpy and attend a party. No problem. However, when Luciana shows up, something is not quite right and it quickly dawns on her that this “party” is for rich weirdos to exercise their bizarre peccadilloes. Luciana really needs the money, but is what they want her to do really worth it?

Debut writer/director and star Ana Asensio has crafted a fascinating and tense low budget film supposedly drawn from real life inspiration. Set over a single day, the first half of the film finds Luciana struggle in the anonymous throng of the Big Apple, taking odd jobs and failing to get medical attention without insurance. After Olga gives her the details of the job, the social realism of the previous half gives way to a frightening descent into the underworld; as she arrives at the address a hatch in the sidewalk opens up and beckons her down into the darkness of the unknown.

When Luciana is ushered into the “party” in a mysterious basement, she finds she is destined to be part of a distasteful meat market, where her and other women are told to stand inside crudely drawn numbered circles, with chosen candidates ushered into a room, where God knows what transpires. Asensio keeps the audience with Luciana as she struggles to understand her predicament and the tension builds beautifully, along with the mystery of what is just behind that door. When she herself is finally ushered into the room beyond the door the film takes a left turn toward something as particular as it is strange, something that feels not too far-fetched, and is all the more frightening for it.

Asensio manages to balance the sense of realism with a dark surrealism without sacrificing tone or character motivation. The film takes us into a realm of strangeness that feels authentic and manages to be a perfect metaphor for the immigrant experience. The women in the basement are disposable commodities to the wealthy elite who will stop at nothing to exploit the immigrant workforce toward their own ends, in this case, their gratification. Most Beautiful Island is a terrifically well-observed little genre film that is not afraid to go to dark places to hit its narrative beats and reinforce its themes.

 
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1% (BFI London Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week 7 Comments

In the very opening moments of Stephen McCallum’s 1%, the audience is assaulted by infamously loud noise band Swans instantly filling the cinema with a cacophony of distorted chords while singer Michael Gira repeatedly screams “lunacy, lunacy”, like the howl of a tortured Greek chorus calling out from the gates of Hades itself, as its denizens, a horde of leather clad outlaws on motorcycles, roar forth through a tunnel into the night of the city. It becomes abundantly clear that, much like the road these men are travelling down, the following film will be a dark, harrowing journey toward a final destination that can only be one of madness and death.

The Copperhead Motorcycle Club has gone from strength to strength under the interim leadership of their Vice President Paddo (Ryan Corr). Membership is up and they are on the brink of a deal with a rival club to launder their ill-gotten gains, turning their profit legitimate and beyond the reach of the law, but when club President Knuck (Matt Nable) is released from prison, he is determined to return the club to the status quo, through any means necessary. Paddo reluctantly steps aside, but when his brother Skink (Josh McConville) breaks club rules and is exiled it sets the two leaders down the road toward violent confrontation.

Shot on a small budget on the back streets of Perth, Western Australia, 1% is a lean, mean, well-oiled genre machine, continuing the Australian cinematic tradition of grim, violent portrayals of toxic masculinity. Immediate comparisons to ’70s Ozploitation classic Stone are inevitable but there are shades of Romper Stomper in the film’s group dynamics, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in its portrayal of the way prison focuses criminality more than it rehabilitates, and even Wake in Fright with its feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. But what actor/screenwriter Matt Nable and director Stephen McCallum manage to do is to embrace the Shakespearean nature of the story that lends the film an air of the epic. These men are not stereotypes, they are archetypes, acting out humanity’s violent tendencies as a way for the audience to experience the darkest extremes of our very nature.

Yet amongst this archetypal milieu there are political concerns to be found in the motorcycle club as microcosm for the current political climate. Paddo, being the young upstart, has his eye on the horizon, to the future of what his beloved club could be, whereas Knuck, the old warrior, is the voice of the past which rejects change; Knuck is Trump, he is Brexit, the obsessive view of the nostalgic past that refuses to look beyond the immediately knowable. His time in prison sharpened his resolve, but it also brought to the surface homosexual tendencies, which in his world would be viewed as a weakness, and, like Paddo’s ideas for the club’s future, he refuses to acknowledge them.

All of these machinations would be for nought, though, without a terrific ensemble cast to give voice to these characters and director McCallum has assembled a formidable one. The aforementioned three male leads; Corr, Nable (terrifying) and McConville are superb and the always brilliant Aaron Pedersen appears as Sugar, the leader of a rival club, in a very welcome extended cameo. However, for all the quintessential hardcore male-ness on display the true power lies, in both the film and the performances, with the women. Simone Kessell is a powerhouse as Knuck’s wife and keeper of the flame Hayley, while Abbey Lee brings a quiet intelligence to the scheming Katrina, Paddo’s girlfriend and Hayley’s heir-presumptive.

1% is a gloriously rendered and assured debut feature, but if there were to be a caveat it would be that the film is a brutal watch. Thankfully, McCallum and company don’t wallow in the brutality but rather use it as a means of portraying the damaged and damaging lives these people lead. In fact, it is the violence that happens off screen that is the most emotionally affecting. But what we do see is captured with an unblinking intensity by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who also captures the suburbs of Perth with an eye for unexpected detail.

If 1% was just a well-made motorcycle picture it would still be considered an achievement of genre filmmaking, but Matt Nable’s screenplay and Stephen McCallum’s direction aims for something more epic in scope. The film feels like it could be classified as Ozploitation 2.0, bringing a modern update to a classic formula but still using the genre to address universal concerns. It is grim, gritty and violent but to avoid the film on those terms is missing the point; we currently live in violent times and genre films can provide that experiential lens through which we can confront the agony, the ecstasy and the lunacy of the world around us.