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Unsane

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Mental illness may just be the last bastion for the mystery-thriller camp, probably because it lends itself so well to unpredictability and keeping the audience saying, “Bloody hell! I didn’t see that coming!” Well, in most cases anyway. Few directors in this genre know how to colour outside the lines, and thankfully for his latest flick Unsane, Steven Soderbergh is one of them.

The story follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), who has recently uprooted and fled her previous life from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape from the man (Joshua Leonard) who’s been stalking her for the last two years. While consulting with a therapist, Valentini unknowingly signs in for a “voluntary” 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center under the guise that she is “a danger to herself and others”. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. Sawyer’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic when she believes that one of the hospital staffers is her stalker – and she’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive and fight her way out.

Though it does have its problems, Unsane is pretty exciting for quite a few reasons, the biggest being that this is the first major studio motion picture shot entirely on an iPhone. While Soderbergh has been pretty heavily criticised by many cinema purists for resorting to such gimmicky methods, the iPhone gives the film a very deliberate sense of hyper reality – an all-too-real, uncomfortable close up of Sawyer’s unconfirmed fractured mental state.

Here, Soderbergh to his credit, does a bloody good job of keeping his audience – not unlike his leading character – totally paranoid. Like Sawyer, you feel lucid, panicked and angry, particularly in the first half. The second half however, really seems to get away from Soderbergh, where the narrative unravels a bit too quickly and soon becomes a tad contrived and even slightly boring. Though he may have been a bit overzealous in giving over all the answers too early on, Soderbergh should be rewarded for his directorial style, having undertaken such an experimental method for the genre.

Okay, so the plot and direction is unevenly hit-and-miss here, but what really saves the project is the absolute  supernova performances, particularly that of Foy and Leonard. Foy, in particular, had become dangerously close to typecasting for her pivotal role as the young and stone-faced Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix original series The Crown. Here, she is almost unrecognisable as the brutally abrupt Sawyer, a tenacious and calculated rat in a maze with equal parts fury and intelligence.

In the wake of the ongoing #MeToo movement, Unsane presents varying degrees of abuse, from mild to extreme, that most, if not all women will identify with. Sawyer is the victim of intense stalking and harassment, and every moment in her life is influenced by that trauma. Though not all of us have been the victims of stalking, Soderbergh does a surprisingly decent job of representing the fear of the daily female experience – walking home with your keys between your fingers, looking over your shoulder on the train, taking the long route around to avoid certain trouble-spots around town, questioning conversations over and over in your head to make sure you weren’t giving the wrong impression. These are things women live with every day, and a film such as this demonstrates the effect that male privilege, gas-lighting and harassment can have on a person.

Unsane is an uncomfortably claustrophobic look at mental health and abuse, and while there are moments of greatness, Soderbergh’s ambitious aim to redefine the genre never quite makes it. Cinematic snobbery aside, the film makes cogent points about a number of feminist issues that deserve more attention than is currently in the Hollywood zeitgeist. Ultimately however, while Unsane opens with a bloody big bang, it finishes with a sad fizzle and – though enjoyable – leaves you with a tiny twinge of disappointment.

 
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I Feel Pretty

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Being a woman is bloody rough, isn’t it? We are judged in just about every aspect of our lives to the point of epic personal mental health issues until we are crying into a box of donuts on public transport… or so flicks like this one would have you believe.

Sure, everyone has their hang ups about their personal appearance, some with more severity than others. But the problem is that movies like I Feel Pretty assume that if you’ve ever felt a bit shit about yourself, you should automatically build your entire existence around those insecurities until proven otherwise, and that all you need to succeed in life is to be (or at least think you are) crazy attractive. It’s all a bit problematic and infuriating, but hey, let’s dive in…

The story follows Renee (Amy Schumer), who desperately wants to be one of the “pretty” girls. After a freak accident during a SoulCycle spin class, her dream comes true when she wakes up to a completely new reflection, believing she is now the most beautiful woman on the planet. With a newfound confidence, she is empowered to live her life fearlessly and flawlessly, climbing the ranks at the cosmetics company she works for, earning the respect of her boss Avery LeClair (Michelle Williams), and bagging a cute boyfriend in Ethan (Rory Scovel). The catch? To everyone around her, Renee looks exactly the same as she always has.

Ok, so first up, Renee (Schumer) is a blonde, white, able-bodied woman of a very average weight and build. If her body is comedic and instantly shameful, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

While the crux of this movie poses that the joke is *actually* on society and the way in which women with different bodies are so differently treated, it still assumes that a physical appearance such as Schumer’s is totally vile until you have a massive head injury and get a bit of self-confidence – which is just total bollocks.

Problematic content aside, the film is just a bit beige (literally and figuratively). Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein – known of course for other screwball rom-coms like Never Been Kissed and He’s Just Not That Into You, the execution is typically predictable, following the same tired tropes, narrative plot points and character archetypes.

Not only is the movie boring in a ‘seen-it-before’ kind of way, it’s also frustratingly un-funny. In her cinematic follow-up to the hugely hilarious Trainwreck, I Feel Pretty by comparison is just a big stinker and so massively removed from the comedian’s usual laugh-a-minute flare. The jokes are flat and never quite land, and in fact all seem to point the same punchline: “look how funny it is that Schumer thinks she’s beautiful”.

The performances likewise, are flat and un-moving, which is a real shame given the strength of powerhouse talents on the bill such as Michelle Williams, Amy Schumer and many more. You just don’t really give a crap about any of these characters. They are all fairly unlikable people – even the ones that are supposed to be sympathetic and reflect your own experiences with insecurity.

Trying to look at the positives, I Feel Pretty at the very least passes the Bechdel Test (meaning it features at least two women who talk about something other than a man). It places a woman in a leading role, and that’s good, but there seems to be very little other than that going for it. It doesn’t boast diversity in its casting, with some races massively underrepresented, and as mentioned in this (now, rather lengthy) rant, there are a flurry of issues within the movie addressing fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, mental health dismissals and just generally missing the damn mark.

It seems such a shame, when society seems to be getting shit done in terms of prioritising women’s issues and giving much needed attention to important and worthy causes, for a production house to chuck millions of dollars at a movie which rewinds progression in so many ways.

I Feel Pretty suggests that while we all have our issues, pretty girls are dumb, bitchy and bad business people, and un-pretty girls are smart, very friendly and are professionally more savvy. It tries unsuccessfully to pose that confidence is the real beauty, while actually saying that feeling confident and attractive when you’re a similar body type to Schumer (or even otherwise) is funny.

The whole thing has the stink of 58 producers all over it, trying desperately to capitalise on the body positivity movement, and instead engages every stereotype in the book with the opposite effect. At its worst, the flick is a wolf in sheep’s clothing for anyone with self-esteem issues, and at its best a lazily-written, quickly forgettable beige-o-rama.

 
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A Wrinkle In Time

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a typical middle school student struggling with issues of self-worth who is desperate to fit in. As the daughter of two world-renowned physicists, she is intelligent and uniquely gifted, as is Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), but she has yet to realise it for herself. Making matters even worse is the baffling disappearance of her father (Chris Pine), which torments Meg and has left her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) heartbroken for the past 4 years.

Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her fellow classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to three celestial guides – The Mrs’ – who were drawn to the Murry’s home to help find their lost father. Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) along with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace set off on their formidable quest. Traveling via a wrinkling of time and space known as ‘tessering’, they are soon transported to worlds beyond their imagination where they must confront a powerful evil – The It. To make it back home to Earth, Meg must look deep within herself and embrace her deepest flaws to harness the strength necessary to defeat the darkness closing in on them and the missing Mr. Murry.

Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), the film’s source material is based on the original 1962 novel A Wrinkle In Time – the first of the Time Quintet series by Madeleine L’Engle. Taking on a beloved piece of many of our childhoods would have been a tough ask for any director, and while DuVernay does her best to steady the ship, it seems the menacing presence of an over-zealous production team meant that she wasn’t given too much opportunity to rise above the CGI and cringey pop-cultural references.

Quite simply, the film is a mess. It’s kind of like one of those fancy, over-the-top doughnuts that seem to be everywhere right now – you know the ones that are three-stories stacked high with Freddos and marshmallows and stuffed with nutella but don’t actually taste like anything when you bite into it. That’s what A Wrinkle In Time is like. A big budget epic with a stellar cast, and nothing to show for it.

DeVernay and team do their best to take a stab at classic tween issues like bullying, nerdiness, body-image and even parental separation, but these hints at something deeper are completely buried by special effects and superficial attempts at world-building to presumably promote the incoming line of action figures and dolls.

It’s all sizzle, no steak. The production value for example, is insanely high. The makeup/costume budget alone must have been astronomical, so the project clearly had some cash to play with. And it’s a shame, too, because had they thrown a couple of bucks at the writing team, we may have ended up with something slightly more compelling.

It’s an even bigger shame because the film is so wasteful of the tremendous talents it attracted to the roles. With such a spectacular and practiced cast you would think at least one of them would be able to redeem the trainwreck. But no. The performances are plastic and unconvincing, not to mention patronising. Sure, it’s a kids’ flick – but that doesn’t mean that the characters can’t have emotional or even literal intelligence built in.

Case-in-point, the three main fantastical characters played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling struggle woefully to create the necessary chemistry and as a result, the whole thing feels insincere. This however, may be more about the lazy adaptation than the cast’s acting chops. The book, for instance, is so rich in detail and narrative substance. The worlds and mythology of the original canon are complex, sophisticated and thorough – and in classic Disney style, they chose to ignore almost all of that.

Here, fans of the book will be disappointed as their fantasy is reduced to watered-down orange juice. Not only is the story given a superficial makeover, there are huge, gaping differences from the original narrative that die-hards will not be cool with. So, if you were hoping at least for a trip down nostalgia lane, then you’re plum outta luck.

A Wrinkle In Time is a classic case of an over-produced, under-directed Hollywood churn-and-burner. It lacks personality and despite the best efforts of DuVernay and her illustrious players, seems disingenuous. Anyone with kids knows how expensive it is to take the whole fam to the flicks, so this time you could save yourself the time and cash and just watch the trailer online – it gives you as much as the actual film does anyway.

 
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Terror Nullius

Australian, News, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Okay, so this 55-minute mash-up film might just be the greatest bloody thing to come out of Australia since Chris Hemsworth and the cheesymite scroll.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (better known as the ACMI) and The Ian Potter Cultural Trust recently commissioned internationally acclaimed Australian sample art collective Soda_Jerk as the third recipient of the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission (IPMIC), a ten-year, biennial program providing $100,000 for the creation of new works by mid-career Australian artists – and the most significant moving image commission in the country. [The Ian Potter Cultural Trust withdrew their support this week – ed]

The result – Terror Nullius by Soda_Jerk – is made up of countless spliced together samples of iconic Australian films, political speeches and modern Aussie pop-cultural references to create a part-political satire, eco-horror, and road movie.

Terror Nullius is one hell of a ride into the dark heart of Australia; a blistering, badly behaved sample-based film that “confronts the horror of our contemporary moment,” says Soda_Jerk themselves. This is a rogue remapping of national mythology, where a misogynistic remark is met with the sharp beak of a native bird, feminist bike gangs rampaging, a woke Skippy and bicentenary celebrations ravaged by flesh-eating sheep. Ultimately, Terror Nullius intricately remixes fragments of Australia’s pop culture and film legacy “to interrogate the unstable entanglement of fiction that underpins this country’s vexed sense of self.”

For those that don’t know all that much (if anything) about Soda_Jerk, this two-person art collective formed in 2002 approaches sampling as a form of “rogue historiography”. Working at the intersection of documentary and speculative fiction, their archival practice takes the form of films, video installations, cut-up texts and lecture performances. And Terror Nullius may just be the perfect embodiment of that philosophy.

The film features a veritable cavalcade of Australian cinema royalty including: Romper Stomper, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max (original and Fury Road), Muriel’s Wedding, Crocodile Dundee, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Red Dog, even some snippets from Crocodile Hunter episodes.

Soda_Jerk takes these samples, and pastes them into a three-act narrative, swapping out some dialogue for famous Australian political speeches from John Howard, Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, and cleverly blending them with local pop-cultural references such as The Babadook, stand-up comedy moments from Josh Thomas and a doof-averting, woke-feminist Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.

While definitely hilarious, the film raises and comments on a number of hot-button Australian political issues such as black history, LGBTQI marriage and so on in a way that relates to the kids. For example, you won’t see a Mad Max fortresses with a Woomera Detention Centre sign shopped on it and asylum seeking characters from Romper Stomper going up against the feral gangs (here made up of Pauline Hanson and Angry Anderson) while the head-feral monologue is dubbed with John Howard’s infamous 2001 “We will decide who comes to this country” speech, anywhere else. That’s bloody good content any way you slice it.

The editing is clever and at times, deliberately shoddy; superimposing modern Aussie celebs such as Shazza from TV show Housos and comedians Hannah Gadsby and Meshel Laurie into national films that are more than 40 years old for example, gives the film a kitschy, meme-afied charm.

The sheer volume of content alone would have been a daunting enough challenge for Soda_Jerk to work with and edit through, much less creating some kind of followable narrative from it. But somehow, the pair manage to pull together an ocean of very different cinematic and political variables into one cohesive piece – an exceptional achievement in itself – in a wonderfully witty and satirical way.

Terror Nullius is layered – so much so that you can actually hear Year 12 English Teachers champing at the bit to use the film as their HSC text on symbolism and mis-en-scene. And to be fair, it probably would make an amazing essay on the subject. Here, Soda_Jerk uses a very intelligent (and completely bonkers) mixture of reality and fiction to comment on some of Australia’s most divisive national issues, with a highly intelligent, decidedly leftist skew – and it’s bloody brilliant.

Ultimately, the film is a total corker. It’s like the visual equivalent of a Girl Talk album and a Vaporwave Facebook page combined – which brings me to my next point. Sure, if you’re over the age of 40, you will get something from this film. It references Australian cinema and political happenings that are decades old, so you’ll totally make the intended connections and editorialised comments. However, Terror Nullius is very much a Millennials’ film  communicating almost entirely in post-ironic language, where the entire 55-mins is basically one big string of obscure memes. So, if you don’t know who the ‘salty italian man’ is, or you have never considered eating a detergent pod, then you might not ‘get’ the film entirely. Though the way it’s communicated might go over some heads of the older generations, the iconography of the content itself means you’ll still have a whale of a time watching it.

 Terror Nullius is hilariously insightful, politically valuable, culturally brutal and is more hyper-Aussie than Paul Hogan riding a crocodile in a river of VB, rubbing vegemite on his nipples. A must-see for any Aussie and Australian film aficionados.

 
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England Is Mine

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Ahhh Morrissey, arguably music’s greatest paradox – exceptionally talented and important figure in music’s history… but a total and utter knob – and not just in a “ohh come on, all creative geniuses are a bit shit as people” kind of way, more in a kind of racist, victim-blaming “the world owes me everything” kind of way. The Smiths were of course, one of the greatest and most successful post-punk/Brit-pop bands in history, and their polarising frontman Morrissey (alongside guitarist Johnny Marr) was the primary cause of that success.

Mozza was indeed a fascinating character. He famously hated music videos and never allowed for any of The Smiths discography to have one. He was in constant opposition and feuds with other iconic creatives about why he was far superior to them, most famously with fellow musical prodigy Robert Smith of The Cure. He once spent a staggering three months holed-up in his bedroom, covering his windows with garbage bags in a near catatonic state.

But forget all that for a sec, because the film doesn’t actually cover any of that stuff you’d really want to see.

Written and directed by the Oscar and BAFTA nominated (not to mention fellow Manchester kid) Mark Gill, England Is Mine is the unofficial (more on that later) biopic about the early days of Morrissey, featuring precisely two minutes of Morrissey singing and 97 minutes of Morrissey moping.

The narrative follows Steven Patrick Morrissey, a shy boy from 1970s Manchester who wants to write and sing. But as a young man, his voice goes no further than the NME (the famous New Musical Express) letters-to-the-editor page and his dead-end accounting office walls. When the punk scene explodes, Steven discovers there’s more to life than slagging off local bands in the press, and with the help of strong women, the young Morrissey embarks on a journey to become himself in a world that’s trying to make him just like everybody else.

There are quite a few problems with this film, the first being that this is an unauthorised biopic. In fact, Morrissey’s mum and friends have publicly issued statements distancing the artist from the film. Even the singer’s close childhood friend James Maker – who performed at some early Smiths gigs Bez-style and later of projects Raymonde and RPLA – has weighed in saying the project is “disingenuous,” “insulting,” and “historical fiction.”

The second, is that all the supporting characters are terribly thin versions of their actual selves. Now that would be fine if these were just fictional or even real but unremarkable people, but when you have punk-rock feminist icon and all around revolutionary bad-bitch Linder Sterling (played competently by Jessica Brown-Findlay) represented as little more than Morrissey’s love interest who moves to London and breaks his frail heart, then we have problems. Additionally, Smith’s co-founder and creative genius in his own right Johnny Marr is present but doesn’t even have any bloody lines until the last three mins of the film!

What might be the biggest punch in the bollocks however, is the soundtrack. You would think that a film about ‘70s/’80s Brit-pop would have a killer soundtrack, right? If so, England Is Mine will surely disappoint. To be fair, the film is about Morrissey’s pre-fame formative years, and so having The Smiths greatest hits wouldn’t have exactly made any sense. But the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a magical time in music, and it would have made all the difference to the film’s charm-factor to have some tracks from Bowie, Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux – take your pick! This major gap could be attributed to issues with licensing, but that shouldn’t have been a problem for someone like Gill, and therefore seems like more of a lapse in judgement on his part.

The only redeeming factor is Jack Lowden’s performance as Morrissey, who doesn’t particularly look like him, but has his exact mannerisms, posture and wobbly voice completely nailed. Lowden’s expert delivery of Morrissey’s trademark charisma is in fact, one of the only reasons to get through the film. Other performances by the likes of Jessica Brown-Findlay who plays Linder Sterling or Laurie Kynaston who plays Johnny Marr, are passable, however the actors are never given much opportunity to properly round out their real-life characters.

Ultimately, England Is Mine drips with anticipation; like someone holding a pin to a balloon without ever actually popping it. The major problem is that those who don’t really know of or appreciate The Smiths won’t be bothered to devote 95 minutes to a film focused solely on the boring part of his life before he was famous. And those die-hard, purist fans who would usually love to see the makings of the Pope of Mope, won’t put much stock in it (if they endeavour to watch it all) being that so many of Mozza’s closest friends and fam have written it off as wildly inaccurate soapy trash. All-in-all, you’d be better off having a quick skim of Mozza’s wikipedia page. It’s much quicker, and far more entertaining.

 
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Game Night

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Ok people, so Game Night isn’t winning any Oscars. There is however a little more than meets the eye with this seemingly run-of-the-mill flick.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie’s (Rachel McAdams) weekly game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s successful and charismatic brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arranges a highly realistic murder mystery party – complete with fake thugs and federal agents. So, when Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all supposed to be part of the game. As the competitors set out to solve the case, they start to learn that neither the game nor Brooks are what they seem. The group soon find themselves in over their heads as each twist leads to another unexpected turn over the course of one chaotic night.

Initially, all the obvious tropes you’d usually find in a film like this have you thinking that Game Night is your standard, garden variety, beige rom-com. The goofy white suburban couple, living their middle-class life in a pretty suburban house, trying to have a kid while maintaining their current friends-over-for-wine-and-cheese lifestyle. And to be fair, it kind of is… but in a really surprising and original way.

What’s perhaps most refreshing here is the quirky genre mixing. What starts out as a typical rom-com then gets tied up with moments of horror, crime and drama – all wrapped in what is ultimately a pretty funny comedy. Here, directors John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (collectively, directors of Vacation, writers of Horrible Bosses) do a damn fine job in giving this type of film a bit of reinvention, also using some creative editing and CGI skills to give scene and location transitions a boardgame/game-piece like feel. It’s unexpected and adds another layer of kitsch to the proceedings.

Game Night is not only visually interesting from a genre perspective, it also has some killer narrative twists and turns. Written by Mark Perez, the story takes strange detours, and while not all of them hit the mark, it’s at least an interesting ride.

Perez’ writing chops however, don’t quite hold up in the character department. Each of our main players (pun-intended) are a bit thin on the ground. These characters lack depth and are shoehorned into archetypes so carelessly that you find it hard to be on their side – or even care what happens to them.

Luckily, none of that matters, because the cast is so funny that their hollowness doesn’t actually count. While each of the performers get a chance to bring the laughs – and succeed – it’s Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman who do the comedic heavy lifting. Both are consistently hilarious, which might have something to do with the strength of their chemistry – seriously, the combo here is magic.

Again, Game Night isn’t here for awards season, but it should definitely get points for at least thinking outside the box. At the end of the day, it is uproariously funny – and that’s pretty much all we’re looking for with these kinds of films, right?

 
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A Fantastic Woman

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The transgender experience is one that hasn’t often been told in cinema, much less told honestly. While some of the more sensitive and insightful representations such as Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl communicate the pain and struggle of transgender people, the fact that these roles have not been played by transgender actors means that their representations could never be completely telling. (The recent film Tangerine is a wonderful exception).

Directed by Sebastián Lelio (the masterful Gloria) and co-written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) is a Chilean drama starring Chilean transgender actress and lyrical singer, Daniela Vega. So far, the film has collected a staggering 20 nominations for several prestigious accolades (of which it has won 12), including a pending result for Best Foreign Language Film at the coming 2018 Academy Awards.

A Fantastic Woman follows transgender woman Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega). Marina and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) are in love and planning for the future. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer, while Orlando is 20 years her senior, and owns a successful printing company.

After celebrating Marina’s birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes away soon after arriving at the hospital, having suffered a fatal aneurysm. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, suddenly Marina is treated with suspicion. The doctors and Orlando’s family don’t trust her, particularly his judgmental ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and homophobic son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra). The family even has a detective investigate Marina in humiliating ways to see if she was involved or even responsible in his death.

Orlando’s ex-wife forbids her from attending the funeral. And to make matters worse, Orlando’s son threatens to throw Marina out of the flat she shared with Orlando and their dog. Marina’s trans identity is treated by Orlando’s family as an aberration, a perversion, and an insult to their family. Throughout the film, Marina struggles to defend her love for Orlando, the right to mourn her partner and more importantly for the right to be herself – a fantastic woman – in a world that keeps rejecting her.

Sebastián Lelio’s direction is a magic combination of a gritty, real-life drama interspersed with moments of hyper-realism. The blend of the two is a clever comment on the duality of Marina’s experiences – her real-life encounters and struggles, and her internal flare and shining personality. It would have been all too easy for Lelio to over-do it in mixing the two, but rather, he is measured and restrained with keeping the film grounded, while peppering it with just the right amount of fantastical spice.

Likewise, Lelio and Maza’s screenplay is artfully pieced together, giving the actors just barely enough to work with, forcing them to communicate in ways other than words. While each of the actors rise to this challenge, it’s Daniela Vega’s powerhouse performance as Marina that haunts you long after you’ve left the cinema.

Vega’s Marina is as formidable as she is defenceless, and her tenacious actions in the face of alienation is both heart-breaking and uplifting. What’s really special is that Vega has you on Marina’s team; you cheer for her, you cry for her, you’re angry for her, you want her to succeed.

Ultimately though, it’s not just that her performance is sympathetic or extraordinary, it’s that Vega, being a transgender woman herself, brings a perspective too honest to ignore. Here, the character of Marina becomes a friend – someone you know or could know in your own life who shares parts of Marina’s difficult journey. And let’s face it, anyone who can elicit that level of insight and empathy from their audience has a real and valuable talent.

As a whole, the film is a truly remarkable and unfiltered glimpse into a world of experiences that many of us know nothing about. It intelligently and with lots of heart, holds a mirror up to the ugliness of prejudice and the beauty of self-identity.

A Fantastic Woman, indeed.

 
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Rift (Rökkur) (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

 

The complexity of LGBTQI characters in modern cinema still has a ways to go. Too often, we still see the stereotypical (and offensively two-dimensional) gay-bestie or flamboyant supporting character with all the emotional range and substance of a pop-tart. There are however, glimmers of hope that represent the gay community with intelligence and honesty, cleverly (and with no BS) depicting the realities of LGBTQI relationships.

Rift (Rökkur in the original Icelandic) is absolutely one of these films. Written and directed by Icelandic Erlingur Thoroddsen (Child Eater, 2016 and The Banishing, 2013), Rift is an Icelandic thriller, telling the story of two men in a secluded cabin who are haunted by their dead relationship.

It begins when Gunner (Bjorn Stefansson) receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend, Einar (Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson), months after their unresolved break-up. Einar sounds distraught, like he’s about to do something terrible to himself, so Gunnar drives up to the secluded cabin where Einar is holed-up and soon discovers that there’s more going on than he anticipated. As the two men come to terms with their broken relationship and reminisce about their traumatic childhood experiences, they gradually realise that there may be someone else in this seemingly lonely region. Threatening noises outside the house grow in intensity, and the looming presence of a mysterious figure in red forces the pair to question their reality.

Having both written and directed the film, Erlingur Thoroddsen knows the world he has constructed inside and out, and as a result the complexity of the narrative is sewn into every facet of the writing and direction in a highly obscure and layered way. In fact, it’s one of those films you can watch over and over and find something new every time.

To this end, Thoroddsen is very clever with his tropes here, using a delicate blend of symbolism and distortion to create this fractured, hyper-real environment. The characters – and therefore the audience – are kept in a constant state of questioning what’s real and what isn’t, which keeps the intrigue-factor strong right through to the very end. To give a local comparison, Rift communicates about sexual trauma in much the same way as Aussie smash-hit The Babadook does with mental illness.

If you’re a cinematography nut, Rift is definitely for you. The brutal and vast landscape play a large role in the film’s symbolic value, sure, but if nothing else, it is damn breathtaking to look at.

Likewise, the performances of Bjorn Stefansson and Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson should be commended, as the film is essentially a two-man gig. The pair have very little to rely on; with nothing else but each other and their reactions to what the other is experiencing. It was a tall order, and the pair do a magnificent job in expressing the strange relationship between love and pain.

What’s really – and perhaps most – exciting about this film is that the characters’ sexuality is a complete non-issue. Gunner and Einar are at complete ease with their sexuality, and are represented with the same complexities as a straight couple. The fact that they are gay is never really pointed out, rather they just *are* gay, as much as a straight couple is straight. It’s a significant benchmark for how a mainstream thriller/horror film should be dealing with representations of LGBTQI life.

Rift is terrifying, thrilling, highly-nuanced, a pivotal moment in queer cinema, and one hell of a ride!

 
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The Innocents

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Warsaw, December 1945: the Second World War is finally over and Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) – a young Red Cross doctor – is treating the last French survivors of the German camps. When a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic one night begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent, what she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy.

A staunch communist and non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza). Fearing the shame of exposure, the hostility of the new anti-Catholic Communist government, and facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their belief and traditions clash with harsh realities.

And that is really what The Innocents is driving home – that reality is often stranger (maybe crueler) than fiction. The most poignant instance being that the film is based on the true story of Madeleine Pauliac – an actual Red Cross doctor who risked her own life helping 25 Polish nuns who were raped repeatedly in their convent by Soviet soldiers, which killed 20 through sustained injuries as well as advanced STDs, and left the survivors to face unwanted pregnancy.

Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Adore) the film moves forward at an excruciatingly glacial pace. Fontaine deliberately hovers for far too long over every painful detail of the characters’ experience, and therefore holds her audience emotionally hostage, unable to escape every unbearable moment suffered by these women. It’s definitely tough watching but a masterful move on Fontaine’s part, who demands that you not only watch their plight, but experience a small part of it, too.

The intensity of the story demands a lot from the actors, some of whom really struggle to get in touch with the intensely broken nature of their characters. Others, however, really rise to the challenge to deliver what may be the performances of their careers. Lou de Laâge, for example, is beautifully stone-like as the tenacious communista Mathilde, and it is thrilling to watch as the cracks in her façade start to appear as the stakes become higher.

Additionally, the bond between de Laâge’s and Agata Buzek’s characters is what really stays with you, having successfully communicated the strength of their connection with almost no dialogue. The main victory though, belongs to Agata Kulesza who plays the supporting role of Mother Abbess; the aggressively devout and unforgiving head nun whose vitriolic faith is both infuriating and glorious. She gives the film that grey area of duality between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that gives the story a real three-dimensional quality.

Though not all parties pull it off, and it’s maybe a tad too long, The Innocents is a film that raises important questions that according to Fontaine “continue to haunt our societies”, demonstrating what radical fundamentalism can lead to. Theology and politics aside, this is a visually breathtaking piece of cinema that despite its strong message of morality, gets completely upstaged by the bleak, crunchy landscape – a must see for both history and cinematography nerds alike.