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Sunday
Jun092019

GHOST LIGHT

Stars: Cary Elwes, Shannyn Sossamon, Danielle Campbell, Carol Kane, Roger Bart, Tom Riley, Scott Adsit, Caroline Portu and Steve Tom.
Writers: John Stimpson and Geoffery Taylor.
Director: John Stimpson

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

The curse of The Scottish Play gets a big screen treatment that one senses William Shakespeare's 16th century fans would have appreciated in the enjoyably dark-hearted romp, Ghost Light. In equal measure a love letter to The Bard, a satirical skewering of theatrical tropes and a cracking Twilight Zone episode, director John Stimpson and co-writer Geoffery Taylor display a clear affection for the stock troupe dynamics of their ensemble cast, but it is when the madness takes hold and the daggers appear that something delightfully wicked this way comes.

Fitting his entire troupe on a bus bound for a barnyard theatre in Massachusetts, increasing jaded director Henry (the wonderful Roger Bart) finds himself more often a caretaker of egos and eccentricities, having overseen his cast and meagre crew for 50 semi-pro stagings of Macbeth. With AD Archie (Scott Adsit) by his side, Henry must contend with the over-emoting tendencies of leading man Alex (Cary Elwes); the increasingly bitter ambitions of snooty Brit import Thomas (Tom Riley); and, Alex’s wife, Thomas’ lover and the production’s Lady Macbeth, Liz (Shannyn Sossamon).

When Thomas defies the legendary superstition of live theatre and brazenly yells the play’s name on stage in a petulant fit, mishaps and mischief begin to befall the production. Some are delightfully daffy; a blow to Alex’s forehead somehow restores his talent (Elwes renders a masterful version of the “Is this a dagger…” monologue), ensuring Thomas’ transition to leading man won’t happen on this staging. Others, infinitely more sinister; Thomas begins seeing apparitions in his quarters, while Liz, true to her stage character, can’t cleanse her hands of her husband’s blood.

While the framework for his narrative is pure Bard, Stimpson enjoys taking aim at such live theatre clichés as stock company pretension, bedroom farce romps, ‘manor house’ mysteries and, of course, good ol’ fashioned ghost stories. A support cast that includes established pros Carol Kane and Steve Tom and relative newbies Caroline Portu and Danielle Campbell play their parts to perfection, injecting what may have been one-note side players with heart and humour.

As Ghost Light careens with an understated glee to its full embrace of The Curse’s supernatural elements, the balancing act that Stimpson achieves with his sure directorial hand becomes more evident. Finding plenteous joys in Shakespeare’s most bloody of tragedies while respecting the source material is no small feat; those that look upon this picture will reflect without regret, ‘What’s done, is done.’

Wednesday
Jun052019

PALM BEACH

Stars: Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Sam Neill, Jacqueline McKenzie, Richard E. Grant, Heather Mitchell, Matilda Brown, Aaron Jeffery, Claire van der Boom and Charlie Vickers.
Writers: Joanna Murray Smith and Rachel Ward.
Director: Rachel Ward

Reviewed at the OPENING NIGHT of the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, held at the State Theatre, Sydney on June 5.

Rating: ★ ★ ½

An amiable meander across the surface of middle-age melancholy, director Rachel Ward leaves little stylistic or narrative footprint on her second feature, Palm Beach. Largely turning her film over to production designer Melinda Doring and art director Sophie Nash, Ward’s boomer friendship fantasy is light on real world issues and heavy on champers, sunshine and how life’s little hiccups can take the sheen off wealthy privilege. Unlike the vast blue expanse off the titular shoreline, this is pretty shallow stuff.

Set amongst the bushy, seaside millionaire’s row at the far end of Sydney’s northern beaches, the thematic thrust of Palm Beach addresses that mature life moment when that which fulfils you, however shallow, comes under threat. For birthday boy Frank (Bryan Brown), it might be his aimless son Dan (Charlie Vickers), who may be the by-product of a fling between Frank’s wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) and friend Leo (Sam Neill); for snotty cad Billy (Richard E Grant), it is his ad industry status and the aging glamour of his actress wife Eva (Heather Mitchell), herself struggling with career transition; and, for Leo’s noble wife Bridget (cast standout Jacqueline McKenzie, terribly underused), it is the life and love she has for husband and family.

Most of the first act is spent establishing the raffish bond the men share, the by-product of their days as mid-70s one-hit wonders The Pacific Sideburns (!) Having gathered at Frank’s sun-dappled mansion, they drink and sing and eat, just as Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble did but with far greater resonance in 1983s The Big Chill (clearly the template for Ward and co-scripter, Joanna Murray-Smith). Until the is-he-isn’t-he DNA conflict kicks in, there is little dramatic thrust, scene after scene merely coasting on the charismatic presence of a cast that works hard to make their decades’ long friendship at all believable.

The narrative moves from a boozy lunch, to a fancy dinner, to a pretty picnic, with little of convincing emotional heft at stake. Laughs come cheap, including such uninspiring set-ups as a farting yoga moment, a drunk-in-a-treehouse sequence and a stiffie joke (in service of a stiffie subplot). Some rote hospital scenes allow for Brown and Scacchi to capital-E emote; the ‘genetic origins’ drama resolves in an entirely perfunctory manner (admittedly, earning one of the film's few big legitimate laughs), reinforcing it was a meagre plot device to start with.

Young support players, including the director’s daughter Matilda Brown as Frank and Charlotte’s eldest child and Claire van der Boom and Aaron Jeffery as hot-&-cold lovers, are ok; Jeffery’s Esky-carrying, beer-drinking, squared-jaw sheep farmer is so morally upstanding his working-class hero is essentially the film’s ‘noble savage’ archetype. The top-heavy cast list means many of the actors are little more than background movement for long passages (particularly Grant, who seems to disappear entirely at key moments). Australia’s diverse multicultural society gets a tokenistic look-in when an Asian doctor and a cabbie of indeterminate European origin pop up for line readings.

In her feature directorial debut Beautiful Kate (getting a retro run at this year’s Sydney Film Festival), Rachel Ward weaved a solid dramatic thriller out of a ‘secrets of the past encroaching on the present’ premise; the inherent darkness of spirit and core existential struggle present in the 2009 film seemed to energise her storytelling. No similar elements exist in Palm Beach; it merely reinforces the perception held by much of rest of The Harbour City’s population that the suburb is an elite social enclave. If it does reflect anything truthful about modern Sydney society, it is that just because you’re pretty, it doesn’t mean you’re interesting.

Tuesday
Jun042019

63 UP

With: Andrew Brackfield, Peter Davies, Neil Hughes, Bruce Balden, Nicholas Hitchon, Tony Walker, Suzanne Dewey, Symon Basterfield, Jacqueline Bassett, John Brisby, Susan Sullivan and Paul Kligerman; featuring Charles Furneaux and Lynn Johnson.
Director: Michael Apted

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

From director Paul Almond’s 1964 launch episode to the subsequent installments helmed by Michael Apted, the Seven Up series, the slice-of-British-life documentaries that have explored the U.K. class system via the proverb, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” has captured the hearts of generations of viewers. In the ninth installment 63 Up, the social experiment faces its own end goal; were the children introduced 56 years ago tiny blueprints of the men and women now before Apted’s camera in 2019? (Pictured, above; Nicholas Hitchon)

When Apted poses that question to the participants (as he has done repeatedly since his series hit mature age status in 1998, with 42 Up), their general response is, “Yes, mostly.” In Episode 1, lifetime cabbie Tony Walker is unmistakably the lad he was six decades ago, referring to himself as, “the same cheeky chappy”; upper-middle classman Andrew Brackfield (pictured, below) is every inch the successful, if slightly stressed, business executive he envisioned for himself (by his own reckoning, he has lived a, “happy, fulfilling life”); and, Sue Sullivan, despite a troubled romantic history (a typically common trait amongst the adult Uppers), maintains the confident glow of the vibrant little one she was at 7.

Episode 2 presents a more nuanced, slightly sadder appraisal of the aging process. A particularly understated Bruce Baldon has retired from teaching, falling short of attaining an executive position in the profession, and finds himself facing old age fighting weight gain and the dissolution of the family unit as his sons prepare to leave the nest; and, Jacqueline Bassett, who takes on Apted over questions asked in past episodes that reflect the casual misogyny of 70s/80s society, reveals the sadness that has shaped her later life.

In the third episode of 63 Up, the bond between boarding school housemates Paul Kligerman and Symon Basterfield is explored, the pair reuniting in Kligerman’s adopted home of Australia; John Brigsby, perhaps the most toffee of the 7 Up children, but who, in adulthood, has delivered on his promise to use wealth and status to help the less privileged; and, saving the most compelling portrait of his series until its conclusion, Apted revisits Neil Hughes, the bright-eyed moppet who has morphed into, at different intervals, a drifter, a Liberal Democrat politician and a lay priest, all while battling mental health torment.

Age withers us all, and so Apted and his audience must face the tragedy of mortality. Two of the series most popular ‘stars’ are confronted with their final days; one ponders on a life that will soon be left behind, while another is remembered by surviving family and archive footage. For those of us who have grown up alongside these personalities, these are heartbreaking moments that speak to the strength of first-person documentary storytelling. The scenes drive home the extraordinarily unique impact that Almond’s and Apted’s perfectly ordinary subjects have had upon those that have shared in this journey.

It is in the views of the participants that the effectiveness of the Seven Up series as social commentary emerges. Baldon cites the brutality of boarding school beatings as key to perpetuating repressed emotion, an accepted symbol of his middle-class life; Dewey, a working-class East-ender, still believes “You are what you are born into,” her friend Jackie says, “I’ve never changed.” The plummy comforts of life in society’s upper tier seemed pre-ordained for Andrew and John (you’ll recall their discussion, aged 7, about which newspapers they favoured), but they are humble with respect to their wealth and family stability.

63 Up captures the universal essence of mature-age happiness – pride and faith in one’s children, a levelheaded perspective on life’s highs and lows, firm but softening views on the society one has helped to shape (just as Margaret Thatcher’s divisive social policies in the 1980s were addressed in past installments, so is Brexit in sufficient measure). Yet it soars as that most rare of cinematic works – a project that exist long enough to both consider and continue to shape its own legacy.

Before the cameras, Apted’s cross-section of British lives has delivered on the promise of its premise; the men and women glimpsed in the boys and girls all those years have emerged as remarkably good people, irrespective of class. Behind the cameras, Apted has exhibited the same degree of intellectual growth and determination to capture life with truth and integrity. If 63 Up is the last chapter of the Seven Up series (as has been rumoured), it will finalise a monumentally personal, profoundly important work deserving of timeless reverence.

63 UP will screen on ITV in The United Kingdom from June 4. The series will have its Australian Premiere on SBS from June 10. Please checkguides for your local screening times.

     

Wednesday
May292019

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Stars: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Thomas Middleditch, Anthony Ramos, CCH Pounder, Joe Morton and David Straithairn.
Writers: Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields.
Director: Michael Dougherty.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

In 2014, director Gareth Edwards endeavoured to take schlockbuster icon Godzilla down the same credibility path that Marvel guided their goofy comic-book properties; the resulting film was beautiful and earnest and a bit dull. Five years later, new-kid-on-the-studio-tentpole-block Michael Dougherty punches up the action (and the decibels) while dumbing down the dialogue in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If the look of the big lizard and his fellow fantasy titans owes much to Edwards’ eye, the script harkens back to Roland Emmerich’s ear, it being attached to the writer/director of Sony's much-maligned 1998 incarnation.

The sequel picks up four years after the destruction of San Francisco by Godzilla’s wrath. The government agency Monarch is getting drilled by the U.S. Senate for not having found and offered up the head of the big lizard for the damage it had done. What the Senate committee members don’t know is that the Monarch team are not only tracking Godzilla, but have several other ‘titans’ in lockdown at key sites around the world. Scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) lords over one such site, in China; she lost her son in the 2014 San Fran attacks, her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) to booze in the wake of their tragedy, and clings to strong-willed teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).

Emma is overseer of an audio-pulse generator called The Orca, which streams a frequency that controls her titan, the larval stage behemoth that will ultimately take flight as Mothra. Just as it begins to stir, a mercenary outfit led by the ruthless Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) storms her outpost, stealing Orca, Mothra, Emma and Maddy. With a surly Mark now back on board, the Monarch team – stern lead scientist Dr Serizawa (Ken Watanabe); offsider Dr. Chen (Ziyi Zhang); wisecracker Dr Stanton (Bradley Whitford); and, nerdy bureaucrat Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) – need to retrieve The Orca and save mankind from Emma, who has gone full-Thanos with a plan to wipe the planet of the virus that is mankind and restore the human/titan balance.

The whip-smart mind behind cult items Trick ’r Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015), Dougherty works hard to give all these cast members something to do and say. He has them address each other in a combination of mostly single-line observations or exclamations that largely serve to move the plot from one kaiju-related predicament to the next. There is no character depth or dimension – so cornball is some of the dialogue it recalls the Irwin Allen disaster epics of the 1970s – but it does ensure the real stars of the film are not offscreen for too long.

Most dominant amongst the mythological beasties is the three-headed King Ghidorah, a dragon-like lightning-breather who has it in for our leading man-monster from the get-go; barely freed from his icy tomb, Ghidorah battles it out with Godzilla in one of the loudest and most visually stunning/confusing action sequences in recent memory. We are soon introduced to Rodan, a pterodactyl/hawk crossover-creature who lays waste to a Mexican town when it emerges from its dormant volcano tomb, and the ethereal shimmering wingspan and deadly spikes of the aforementioned Mothra. Each has their own moment in the spotlight, with their human co-stars largely reduced to looking upwards and dodging debris; perhaps best served is Stranger Things’ breakout star Brown (pictured, above), who earns her ‘real world emoting’ badge when given the screen time to do so.

Of course, it’s all about the beast that is Godzilla in any Godzilla movie, and Dougherty and his effects team have conjured a titan who balances a screen persona that is equal part ‘rampant destroyer of cities’, ‘noble ally of the righteous’ and ‘scaly, snarling action hero’. If you’re paying for a ticket to a Godzilla movie, what needs to work most of all is your anti-hero’s rock ‘em/sock ‘em presence, and King of the Monsters gets that right. If Edwards’ big lizard was a bit too precious with the property, and Emmerich’s a bit too flippant, Dougherty respects both the B-movie beats of the big guy’s film history as well as the environmental subtext that Godzilla has always represented.

      

Friday
May242019

DOGS DON'T WEAR PANTS (Koirat eivät käytä housuja)

Stars: Krista Kosonen, Pekka Strang, Ilona Huhta, Oona Airola, Jani Volanen, Ester Geislerová and Ellen Karppo.
Writers: Juhana Lumme and Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää.
Director: Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää

WORLD PREMIERE: May 21st at Théâtre Croisette; Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director's Fortnight), Festival de Cannes 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

FESTIVAL DE CANNES 2019: A widowed cardiologist mends his broken heart with a dominatrix seeking her own like-minded connection in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, J.-P. Valkeapää darkly funny, surprisingly sweet, occasionally challenging take on grief, emotional redemption and the recuperative qualities of a golden shower. Finding a sliver of lovely memory while on the verge of one’s own mortality is the starting point for the Finnish director’s leather-&-buckles love story; it is a film that talks tough and plays hard but has at its core, a message of acceptance and joyful release.

The idyllic married life of Juha (Pekka Strang) is torn asunder as he naps; in a dreamlike prologue, his wife (Ester Geislerová) drowns at their lakeside home while their small daughter Elli (Ellen Karppo) watches on. In trying to rescue his tangled wife, he has a moment of spiritual connection with her soul, nearly drowning himself in the act. Ten years later, Juha is still consumed by grief; he finds comfort in his lonely daily routine, which includes his own form of self-abuse using his late wife’s underwear and perfume, while barely registering the existence of teenage Elli (Ilona Huhta).   

As his daughter gets her first body piercing (with his blessing, in his presence), Juha wanders into a backroom BDSM chamber, an act of accidental trespassing that sees him choked into semi-consciousness by parlour mistress Mona (Krista Kosonen). Her attack energises his senses; a subsequent visit, in which he is humiliated and stripped bare (hence the title), leads to consensual asphysixiation, an act that triggers in him the moment when he last saw his wife’s life force. Juha grows dependent upon Mona’s skills, while failing to register the bond that his willingness for pain and degradation is generating in her.

Which all sounds potentially soul crushing to an audience, yet manages to play out in the hands of bad-boy auteur Valkeapää with classically deadpan Finnish humour and an increasing sense of warm emotion. Even a pivotal third-act moment involving teeth and pliers (as awful, but also a lot funnier, than it sounds) is in the service of his character’s re-emergence into a world of human connectivity.

Pekka Strang walks once again on the fringe of Euro-sexuality, having starred in the equally chafing leather-clad opus Tom of Finland (2017); as Juha, he plays desperation and absolution with equal conviction. Krista Kosonen, as Mona, provides a great deal of character shading even when Valkeapää’s script (co-penned by Juhana Lumme) leaves her backstory ambiguous. As the dominatrix whose understanding of pain alters the decade-long depression of a grieving widower, major star Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049, 2017; Miami, 2017) leaves no pressure point unexplored in her on-screen interactions with Strang. While the dungeon scenes are daring and confronting (and the film’s final sequence, set in a BDSM niteclub, entirely forthright about life in this realm), Valkeapää avoids leering over the perverse by remaining bound to his themes of redemption and understanding.

Herein lies the difference between this Finnish spin on sexual deviance and the decidedly more puritanical Hollywood versions of bondage living. In Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks (1986), walking on the darker side of sexuality led to the damaging and ultimate destruction of ‘true romance’; in the recent Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, a room of whips and chains came to represent a shallow, lesser version of human connection. In Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, the darker and more painful the exploration shared by Juha and Mona, the more a fuller understanding of each other’s emotional needs began to form. What could be more romantic than the strengthening of that bond, by whatever means?

Wednesday
May152019

DAVI'S WAY

Stars: Robert Davi.
Director: Tom Donahue

Screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 19-29.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Achingly bittersweet and fitfully anxiety inducing, Tom Donahue’s compelling Davi’s Way tracks the great character actor Robert Davi as he undertakes an ambitious restaging of Frank Sinatra’s iconic 1974 ‘Main Event’ concert. Capturing a vision that begins to unravel despite everyone’s best intentions, this deeply personal work also serves as a long overdue insight into a man whose entire career has painted a not-entirely truthful representation of what drives him as an artist.

Davi’s remarkable filmography posits him somewhere between “Oh, it’s that guy!” status and anti-hero cult icon. Of the 156 credits on his IMDb page, it might be ’Jake Fratelli’ in The Goonies (1985) or ‘Agent Johnson’ in Die Hard (1988) or ‘Franz Sanchez’ in License to Kill (1989) that register for most; probably Maniac Cop 2, The Expendables 3, Showgirls for the next tier of fandom. For every studio gig, Davi’s pockmarked cheeks and sunken sockets have upped the impact of ‘bad guy’ roles in dozens of B-crime thrillers and video-bound actioners.

The very first of those gigs was in a 1977 TV movie called Contract on Cherry Street, which featured a late-career tough-cop role for Davi’s idol, Frank Sinatra. Robert Davi has taken that adulation (and his early-life training as an opera singer) and forged a new career path as a crooner of The Chairman’s classic song list.

Donahue’s documentary joins Davi as he begins to set in motion his plan to celebrate the centenary of Sinatra’s birthday by securing the original venue, Madison Square Garden; acquiring talent like Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake and Adele for duet duties; and, re-enacting such details as the boxing-ring set, pizza for the crowd and a sell-out auditorium. Davi is the pivot upon which this odyssey of obsession spins; as the planned date of the event nears, the actor reacts with far less grace in the face of an increasing degree of compromise and adversity, all the while exuding an endearing desperation.

Where Donahue’s slyly insightful film works best is as a profile of a working actor struggling with the legacy he will leave behind. The planned concert is as much about the actor creating a work of which he can be proud as it is to honour the late singer. Davi ponders why his career didn’t soar into the A-list after his Bond villain turn; he is repeatedly captured berating the documentary crew for the lighting of his ‘money maker’, the craggy visage that is as much a part of his fame as his undeniably potent screen presence. Moments spent with his family (including three daughters and one overly exalted son) paint him as a traditional Italian-American patriarch, fiercely protective of but none-to-gentle with his children’s own egos. There is a melancholy to the film that stems from the rarely glimpsed fragility of one of cinema’s great tough guys.

The ‘dreams of an actor’ subtext is skilfully reinforced by Donahue’s lens also focussing on struggling bit player Stevie Guttman, who steps into the crosshairs as Davi’s out-of-his-depth P.A. Villain of the narrative falls to self-proclaimed producer and sycophantic ‘yes man’ Danny A. Abeckaser, who nods a lot and promises influential contacts, but buck passes like a pro. Other notables that drift in and out of Davi’s journey include director Richard Donner and fellow NYC thesps Chazz Palminteri and Joe Mantegna.

Wednesday
May152019

LITIGANTE (THE DEFENDANT)

Stars: Carolina Sanín, Leticia Gómez, Antonio Martínez, Vladimir Durán and Alejandra Sarria.
Writers: Franco Lolli, Marie Amachoukeli and Virginie Legeay.
Director: Franco Lolli.

OPENING NIGHT: 58th Semaine de la Critique, Festival de Cannes 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The emotional extremes we bear witness to in the face of impending mortality and the generational flow of familial love provide the existential framework for director Franco Lolli’s elegant, often profound and deeply resonant sophomore feature, Litigante (The Defendant). Having travelled to Cannes in 2014 with his debut Gente de bien, the Colombian director’s return to the Semaine de la Critique is an understated triumph.

Fronted by two superb actresses crafting vivid portrayals of old and new matriarchy, Lolli constructs a mother/daughter dynamic not dissimilar to that utilised by James L. Brooks for his Oscar-winner Terms of Endearment (1983). Unlike that relatively upbeat slice of well-to-do white American melodrama, however, Litigante presents a middle-class Colombian family in a downward spiral of tension, grief, black humour and barely restrained conflict. This is a home that runs deep with resentment and unfulfilled expectations, despite maintaining a façade of tolerant warmth and stable intellectualism.

With co-scripters Marie Amachoukeli and Virginie Legeay, Lolli provides layers of rich humanity for his key protagonist, 40-ish lawyer and single mother Silvia (Carolina Sanín); introduced as a passive observer, she sits by her mother Leticia (Leticia Gómez) as the elderly woman reacts with defiance to the news that the cancer that has been in remission for a year has returned. Refusing an extended hospital stay and invasive treatment, Leticia decides to see out her final days in the family home, not entirely aware of the burden it will place on her family (which has been patriarch-free for many years).

As Bogota’s Deputy Legal Secretary of Public Works, Silvia is implicated in corruption charges brought against her boss – another man absent for most of the film (as are several influential males in this female-centric story). Silvia must fend for herself in a heated radio interview conducted by journalist Abel (Vladimir Durán). An unlikely romance develops, but theirs is a love destined for difficulty as the obstinate and ailing Leticia weighs in on his suitability as Silvia’s prospective partner.

Carolina Sanín is wholly wonderful as Silvia, every ounce of pain she withholds and frustration she endures etched on the lines that seem to take shape on her face over the course of the narrative. As the title suggests, she is under constant scrutiny, forced to defend herself from a judicial system out to prosecute her office or a mother questioning her entirely reasonable life choices. The personification of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Sanín is a true contemporary female heroine; stoic and determined to face her hardships, focused on others above herself and unwavering in her commitment to family, regardless of how challenging and tenuous that link may sometimes appear to be.   

All of life’s distractions, and the narrative’s subplots, fade away as Leticia’s health deteriorates; Silvia, her young son Antonio (Antonio Martínez, a natural screen performer) and 20-something sister ‘Majo’ (Alejandra Sarria) experience firsthand the daily pain and dwindling life energy of their once vibrant mother. So to does the audience, in scenes of aching tenderness and sharply focused emotionality; the astonishingly transformative performance by Leticia Gómez is even more remarkable given that the actress is the real-life mother of the director as well as the inspiration for the story, having been cared for by her son while recovering from a cancer bout.

The final frames of Franco Lolli’s Litigante speak to the cyclical nature of the parental bond, acknowledging that Silvia knows she is next in line for a similar decline and that Antonio, blissfully unaware as he presently is, will step into the carer’s role. It is a beautiful, universal, heartbreaking observation from a filmmaker fully invested in his story and characters.

Tuesday
May142019

PARIAH DOG

Features: Kajal, Pinku, Milly and Subrata.
Writers; Jesse Alk, Koustav Sinha.
Director: Jesse Alk

Screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 19-29.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: The opening scene of the documentary Pariah Dog is one of heartbreaking poignancy; a beautiful young adult male pariah (or desi) dog, the native canine breed of South East Asia, sits alone in an empty street in Kolkata, the tips of his golden coat covered in the city’s dirt, his yearning howl a cry in the night for other members of his long-dissolved pack. The life he cries for – the wilderness existence with which every one of his instincts is primed to interact - has long been consumed by man’s industrial expansion. He is native to a land that he no longer recognises, and one whose society has wilfully neglected to recognise him.

Director Jesse Alk takes the outsider’s plight of the urbanized native dog as the starting point for a lyrical examination of four humans for whom modern Indian society is equally unforgiving. Pinku is an artist, his wooden carvings things of rare beauty but unsellable in a modern metropolis; Subrata is ageing into irrelevance, his memories of a game show win and a fading dream of stardom all he has left; Milly was a once a woman of means with generational land rightfully hers being taken by squatters and corrupt local government; alongside Milly, her faithful assistant Kajal endures their complex love/hate relationship as her own life narrows in scope.

United only by the documentarian’s lens, these four Calcuttans share a passionate love for the street dogs of their city, dedicating hours and most of their meagre earnings towards their care. A great deal of bitter existential irony courses through the frames of Alk’s deeply humanistic film; as the population that surrounds them seems oblivious to the torment of their lives, these four remarkable people commit to providing shelter, food and affection to the similarly displaced dogs (as well as cats, a monkey and a parrot, if dogs aren’t your thing).

To the production’s credit, Alk and co-writer Koustav Sinha refuse to present their subjects as the antidote to the street dog’s harsh life. Scenes that convey the physical hardship and ultimate demise of some beautiful animals will be too much for some, as will the emotional toll that an animal’s passing takes upon the carer. The director also refuses to employ traditional narration, a decision that skilfully adds to an overall defiance of any prejudicial context; fittingly, Pariah Dogs will live a long, timeless life as a statement against selfish modern living.

The film is not without humour, of course; in one left-field moment that serves to both relieve tension and utterly bewilder, Alk helps Subrata realise his Desi-pop ambitions by crafting a music video for his self-penned, lower-caste anthem. The potential that factual filmmaking has for capturing fateful moments is realised when the elderly gentleman literally crosses paths with an anti-animal cruelty demonstration, which he soon joins in chorus.

The final frames, in which two of the protagonists reconnect on the traditional life-giving waterways far from the decay of the city, are a hopeful response to the call of that lonely, howling street dog. His India still exists, or at least the spirit of the land from which he came.

  

Tuesday
May142019

NEW HOMELAND

Director: Barbara Kopple

Screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 19-29.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Even-handedness, compassion and deep insight are the broad brushstroke qualities that festival audiences have come to expect from the films of Barbara Kopple. In a career spanning almost five decades, the two-time Oscar winner (Harlan County USA, 1976; American Dream, 1990) has proven to be arguably America’s finest factual filmmaking mind, with her camera confronting pressing socio-political boiling points with an empathetic, profoundly humanistic lens. New Homeland, her take on refugee assimilation set against the backdrop of a Canadian summer camp, is amongst the very best of her work; it is verite documentary making of the highest calibre.

The government from Canada has welcomed thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees into their large cities in the wake of the brutal wars in their native countries. After an opening salvo of news footage that puts in perspective the horrors they are fleeing, Kopple joins two families who have relocated to Toronto and been taken under the wing of private sponsorship groups. With these Canadian residents offering financial and social aid for the first twelve months in their new country, the families can begin building new lives and dealing with the emotional scars that warzone living has left.

The focus of the documentary becomes five boys in their early-teens and the newfound sense of self they experience when they live amongst the stunning Canadian wilderness at Camp Pathfinder, in the Algonquin Park forest. The boys - brothers Hameed and Omer Majeed from Baghdad, Iraq; brothers Mohammad and Kasem Zin from Amuda, Syria; and Mohammad Darewish from Aleppo, Syria – have led sheltered lives since coming to their new country, due largely to parents who are themselves suffering various forms of PTSD and cling to the family structure as a stabilizing influence.

Kopple and her bare bones crew go bush with the boys, as they integrate with Canadian and US teens attending the idyllic 104-year old lakeside, log cabin campsite. This ‘all-American’ rite-of-passage experience, overseen by director Mike Sladden (in his 34th summer attending Pathfinder), has adapted to act as a spiritual extension of the sponsorship program, not only welcoming in boys who have survived life in conflict zones but also respecting their religious and social traditions.

There are many stirring, uplifting moments as you’d expect from Kopple’s work; the Syrian boys emerge from themselves with strength and confidence, while Hameed learns to cope with life away from his family (and phone) with varying degrees of success. The realities are that not all children who have lived through the horror of war will be able to compartmentalize the experience and move on; Omer’s inability to socialize with the group and insistence on carrying knives and disobeying camp rules leads to some heartbreaking moments, which expose just how debilitating to a young man’s growth the grip of life in a war can truly be.

Barbara Kopple has captured pivotal moments in young lives with astonishing warmth and clarity, while slyly pointing a condemning finger at elements of Western society that seek to distance themselves from the refugee experience. New Homeland would not exist as a film in a world where compassion and acceptance were the norm, but that world seems further away than ever. One can envision Kopple’s film playing an understated but crucial role in the fight that people hoping to right social wrongs have undertaken.

Sunday
Apr282019

TATER TOT & PATTON

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Bates Wilder, Forrest Weber and Kathy Askew.
Writer/Director: Andrew Kightlinger

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

A film so steeped in such deeply human conditions as grief, addiction and loneliness ought not also be such a sweetly engaging joy, but that is one of the many charms of Andrew Kightlinger’s rural heart-tugger, Tater Tot & Patton. Pairing two damaged humans on an isolated ranch sets in motion a narrative that affords stars Jessica Rothe and Bates Wilder some deep, dark but also delightful moments together.

Further affirmation that she is the most interesting ‘Young Hollywood’-type working today, Happy Death Day starlet Jessica Rothe plays brattish LA twenty-something Andie, who has chosen a sabbatical on her Aunt Tilly’s dustbowl farm over another stint in rehab. Upon arrival, Tilly is absent and Andie finds herself in the charge of her uncle, hulking boozehound Erwin (Bates Wilder); he has little time for the problems of a spoiled princess he hasn’t known since she was a 4 year-old that the family called ‘Tater Tot’.

Two disparate, desperate substance abuse survivors isolated with their inner demons proceeds for much of Act 1 as truth dictates; Tater Tot, forced to learn the ways of country life, and Erwin, ill-prepared for the intrusion a wilful millennial can represent, turn on each other with increasing venom. As their scarred psyches are revealed and the familial bond is repaired, the mismatched characters find themselves on a shared journey of recovery and understanding.

Rothe and Wilder, heartbreaking in what deserves to be a breakthrough lead role, bring a rich dynamic to the close-quarters life that Tater and Erwin are forced into. The intimacy they achieve is a credit to the actors, as well as testament to the inherent honesty of Kightlinger’s scripting (no aspect more so than the grip of alcoholism and the dangers of self-medicating). The director occasionally falls back on some ethereal indie visuals and wispy music to convey the grip of sad memories, but there is so much emotion imbued in the character’s plight such indulgences are not only forgivable, but mostly effective.

The lensing of Peter ‘Per’ Wigand captures the vast brown-tinged grasslands of the South Dakota setting with an artistry that re-asserts the isolation, both physical and psychological, of the protagonists. Top-tier craftsmanship by production designer Chris Canfield and art director Scott Schulte add further authenticity to the ranch interiors, which reflect the waning life force consuming Erwin. Buffs will respond warmly to Erwin’s recollection of his family’s ties to one of the great films made in the region, Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winner Dances with Wolves (1990).