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Wednesday
Jul062016

SUSTAINABLE

Director: Matt Wechsler.

Rating: 4/5

Through strong voices and high production values, the modern documentary genre is demanding that the global population counter the abuse and exploitation of our resources by mass industry. It is the turn of the mega-farming practices of ‘Big Agriculture’ to be exposed in Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, an elegant, deeply empathic study of the Earth under corporate siege and the pockets of community landowners determined to turn the tide.

Over the last decade, potent statements have been made by factual filmmakers against the mining sector (Gasland, 2010; Frackman, 2015), the automotive industry (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), financial giants (Inside Job, 2010; Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2010) and technology manipulators (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013; Zero Days, 2016), not to mention the cage-rattling oeuvre of agitator Michael Moore. Industrial agriculture, such as that spotlighted by Sustainable, has come under fire before, in passionate works such as Fresh (2009), We Feed the World (2005), Food Chains (2014) and Food Inc. (2008).

Wechsler maintains the rage by highlighting nearly a century of chemical-based mass produce output and the shocking damage it has done to the American farming landscape. However, Wechsler and producer Annie Speichler, the principals behind Hourglass Films, hone their lens on the more personal narrative of Marty Travis, an Illinois farmer and businessman who has reclaimed his family heritage and undertaken to rejuvenate both the soil upon which he farms and the community in which he resides. The title implies hardline ecological beliefs, but also comes to represent a preserving and maintaining of America's proud farming history.

The filmmakers suggest that the future of America’s agriculture industry and, by association, the healthy longevity of the population is tied to men and women like Travis; masters of traditional farming methods that need to be re-employed with a smarter, more holistic approach to the paddock-to-plate cycle. This extends to big-city restaurant owners and chefs, who deal directly with the new wave of primary producers and take an active role in the production of their key ingredients and the lives of their suppliers. 

The film acknowledges that the crucial mechanisms necessary to fix the damage are in its infancy. The breadth of change required to feed the world via sustainable methods is unlikely to happen in the next half-century, but that the science and those willing to apply it do exist and are at the forefront of positive change. It also pitches a convincing line in economic attainability, in an effort to silence naysayers who say changing the industrial paradigm is beyond the nation's means.

Aesthetically, Sustainable is at the high-end of the talking-heads/advocacy genre. Fluid camerawork and golden-hued lensing capture the spiritual essence of the rural setting, further strengthening the key thematic strands of tradition, community and hope. Wechsler keeps the science garble to an effective minimum, often employing simple animation and strong personalities to get information across. The obligatory call-to-action interstitial that is de rigueur for the modern doco, often overstating a filmmaker’s agenda, feels entirely earned in this instance; Sustainable brings a level-headed, humanistic and vital perspective to mankind’s relationship with the planet.

Sustainable screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11. Ticket and session information can be found at the event's official website.

Friday
Jul012016

A BILLION LIVES

Director: Aaron Biebert.

Rating: 4/5

The solidly crafted three-act structure of Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives provides a compelling, infuriating case study in big business dirty tricks. That the tobacco conglomerates are guilty of poisoning the global population and crushing the potentially life-saving emergence of a smoke-free alternative won’t be fresh news to educated audiences who seek out these types of paradigm-shifting, talking-head advocacy efforts, but the slick visuals and thoroughly researched arguments make A Billion Lives one of the best recent examples of the booming genre.

The title is derived from the number of people that might have been saved had ‘Big Tobacco’ not conspired to kill off the e-cigarette, or ‘vaping’, industry in its infancy. The liquid-based steam inhaler movement, which emerged in the late 2000’s and boomed, briefly, in the first half of this decade, was finding favour as a far less toxic option for nicotine-&-tar traditionalists, the removal of the ‘smoke’ from smoking representing a seismic shift in health side effects. However, Biebert’s even-tempered diatribe convinces that the dreams of e-cig entrepreneurs were extinguished by corporations with vested interests all things traditional cigarette.

The first act is a pacey recounting of the birth of the global tobacco industry, entertainingly repackaging already widely known facts into a timeline that brings us to the present. The personal drama that drives the first 30 minutes and infuses the whole film is that of David Goerlitz, the macho face of smoking in the 1980s when he was the ‘Winston Cigarettes Guy’ and who now speaks loudly and proudly against the industry. The second act focuses in on the invention and expansion of e-cigarette technology, while the last act points a bitter, accusing finger at the forces that shut down the sector.

The director’s collection of experts runs the gamut from high-ranking bureaucrats in the health and primary industry sectors to everyman business people to everyday addicts. Each has their own spin on how billion dollar profits and the greasy-palm tactics of both commercial and governmental interests subverted vaping industry growth; most extraordinary are notions that even anti-smoking bodies favoured self-interest over the greater good and helped quash the e-cig momentum.

Biebert plays first-person narrator, posing on-camera observations that extend his voice-over contributions to fourth-wall breaking. Given the profile he affords himself, he may have declared whether the film is a personal plea; he never states what drew him to the e-cig debate or whether he is a ‘vaper’. Where he excels as a storyteller is in the balance he finds between issue-driven details and the more human aspects of the narrative.

A Billion Lives doesn’t quite impact with the knockout punch of Josh Fox’s Gasland or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the polished standard bearers for the ‘Big Business is Evil’ factual-film genre. But Biebert’s lean production team nevertheless land some telling blows against the global industrial complex that unjustly bolsters profits at great cost to the planet’s population. Even non-smokers, who may otherwise find it hard to sympathise with the nicotine addict, will be drawn into the injustice and dark manipulation Biebert captures.

Screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11 2016. Check the official website for session and ticket information.

Wednesday
Jun222016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writers: Nicholas Wright, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt.
Director: Roland Emmerich.

Rating: 3/5

Once again, Earth is the battlefield in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s gleeful, cheese-whiz sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. Reuniting many of the original players for a '50's comic-book plot’ that manages to be both preposterously convoluted and gossamer thin, critics the world over are likely to use those words, ‘Earth’ and ‘battlefield,’ with wild abandon when shredding this latest alien invasion spectacle.

But if the clunky dialogue, square-jawed heroics and plethora of ‘puh-leeze!’ moments occasionally recall that Travolta travesty, Emmerich and his army of five(!) writers and tech wizards nevertheless deliver grand-scale sci-fi spectacle and old-school human heroics the likes of which Hollywood has neglected in this era of the Marvel/DC tentpole. As reflected in the re-casting of ageing stars Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and a tagline that sends shivers down the spine of the original film’s then-young key demo, Emmerich’s own resurgence as a director is a 20-year throwback to those glory days of 1996 when large-scale destruction did not recall 9/11 imagery and the scourge of cyber-cynicism was still a ways off.

An attention-grabbing set-up posits the sequel in a vividly imagined alternate 2016, in which the alien technology captured when the Earth armies defeated the space invaders in 1996 has reshaped everyday life. In this world, the President is already a woman (Sela Ward, burdened with some of the script’s most on-the-nose dialogue) and the global community is one, still basking in the US-led glory of borderless comradeship. How a female commander-in-chief and a unified planet will play in the real-2016 climate of fervent fundamental ideologies and rife Trump/Brexit-style nationalism, is perhaps the sequel’s most daring gamble. But, hey, it’s only a movie…

To delve too deeply into the machinations of the plot would be to do Resurgence a disservice and entirely overstate its importance. In B-movie terms, the re-emergence of the aliens and the means by which the human race combat them is conveyed in a handful of scenes where good actors use words like “fusion” and “override” and “window of opportunity,” then repeat those sentences to a room full of gathered extras who nod and look worried.

Similarly, personal subplots that are easily defined and resolved with instantly accessible sentiment are all these cast-heavy disaster spectacles require. Jeff Goldblum, a bespectacled silver-fox cut from the ‘Indiana Jones’ school of heroic academic, returns as tech whiz David Levinson, whose role in the 1996 victory has seen him elevated to valued government advisor. The years have not been so good to President Whitmore (a terrific Bill Pullman), who is cursed with nightmares and mental fatigue that begin to take on prescient qualities (and which also afflict the not-dead-after-all Brent Spiner as Dr Okun and Deobai Operai’s African warlord, Umbutu).

A trio of new faces provide the bulk of the derring-do, including Liam Hemsworth as the roguish fighter pilot-turned-moon tug captain Jake Morrison; It Follows' Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patricia, a Presidential aide and Morrison’s gal pal; and, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, an academy ace and son of the late Steven Hiller, thereby providing the only connection (aside from a fleetingly glimpsed portrait in the rebuilt White House) to the original’s action lead, Will Smith. Sidekick duties are performed by Travis Tope as Jake’s co-pilot Charlie, bringing the ‘Anthony Edwards/Goose’ vibe; Chinese starlet Angelababy as the best of the East’s pilots (and a none-too-subtle nod to the current importance of global distribution); and Judd Hirsch, still nailing ‘grizzly Jewish father’ with bravado as Julius Levinson. And, providing that unexpected first degree of separation to Euro-badboy Lars von Trier, an occasionally bewildered Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, that Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a French/UK psychiatrist.

Upping their profile this time around are the invading hordes, whose physicality resembles a mash-up of great space visitors from the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, primarily James Cameron’s Aliens and John McTiernan’s Predator (as well Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and the little-seen 2012 Italian sci-fier, The Arrival of Wang). Their CGI rendering is detailed and impressive, yet remains just this side of over-polished; there is an overall retro-vibe to the effects work and a faded palette to the visuals that thankfully denies the epic the shimmering, fake textures of most modern blockbusters.

Roland Emmerich’s career has been peppered with fine ‘half-movies’, films that build to a second-act climax then have nowhere interesting to go for an hour. Think of the wave hitting New York in The Day After Tomorrow; the big lizard hitting New York in Godzilla; the destruction of America’s west coat in Independence Day. All awe-inspiring sequences, some even achieving a high emotional element, yet robing their respective narratives of momentum, leaving a third act that hobbles to the finish film.

He overcomes this narrative failing in Resurgence. The mid-section arrival of the alien spacecraft delivers immense scope and scale, but the film kicks on to a denouement that, like the enormous intergalactic vessel of war, can be seen coming from miles away but provides bang for buck. He also manages to temper the jingoism of the 1996 film, a time when America’s role as the world’s do-gooders did not cast its own immense shadow like it does today.

Independence Day: Resurgence entertains like few Hollywood blockbusters have of late, largely by foregoing pretension on every level and drilling down on the basic tenets of popcorn moviemaking. Haters going to hate, but those looking for old Hollywood (i.e., 1996) thrills will be over the moon.

Wednesday
Jun152016

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie and Ty Olwin.
Writer/director: Olivier Assayas.

Selected In Competition at 69th Festival de Cannes; screened at 7.00pm on Monday, May 16 at Salle Debussy, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

A lonely existence tormented by distant voices is examined in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a moody, occasionally frustrating, often brilliant study in isolation, grief and disenfranchisement. Although it is likely to prove more critically divisive than his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, the French director’s latest is a typically challenging drama employing such disparate flourishes as murder, high fashion and the supernatural. Reports of audience discontent at the Cannes screening your critic attended were greatly exaggerated; the absorbing work should further strengthen the director’s reputation as one of world cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.

Assayas sets a chilly tone with a haunted-house opening sequence that introduces Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a twenty-something American suffering the emotional stress of having recently lost her twin brother, Lewis. Walking the dark halls of an empty, vast suburban home, Maureen reaches out to her sibling’s spirit; as a medium, her will to connect with the afterlife is strong and soon evidence of her twin’s presence becomes clear. Assayas seems to enjoy the genre tropes inherent to a ghost story. The cloudy wisps of ethereal intrusion into her world that are glimpsed in the corner of a room or over Maureen’s shoulder bring on the goose pimples; a last-reel development leaves a last-gasp impression not soon forgotten.

In the real world, Maureen is a ‘retail expert’ for flighty model/starlet Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), tasked with sourcing the latest Euro-threads for an employer she rarely sees. A cross-borders train ride that consumes the second act pits Maureen against a nameless text-stalker, whose flirtatious words initially empowers her (she is ‘seduced’ into visiting a hotel room and dress in erotic attire to appease his wishes) but soon become sinister and frightening. Assayas proves a deft hand at these Hitchcock-like machinations; the text may be from Kyra’s smarmy boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) or, more intriguingly, from beyond the grave.

For over two decades, Olivier Assayas has provided complex, multi-dimensional roles for women, from Clotilde de Bayser in Winter’s Child (1989) and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Connie Nielsen in Demonlover (2002) and Juliette Binoche in Summer Hours (2008); the female lead in an Assayas film requires an actress of international standing at the top of her game. Kristen Stewart proved she had the mettle to carry a support part as (another) personal assistant opposite Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria; she became the first American to win a Cesar, taking a Supporting Actress trophy for the role.

Stewart steps into an Assayas lead role with a performance of slowly unravelling psychology coupled with a brittle emotional and physical presence. The scenes where she calls forth the afterlife capture a heartbreaking longing for her late brother. The connection he provided to human emotion is now gone from Maureen’s life; she talks to a distant boyfriend via Skype, about a job that she undertakes alone, in a city that speaks in a foreign language. Her sadness is conveyed in such an understated manner by Stewart, the inevitable moments when her disconnect consumes her and she begins her journey back to self-belief proves deeply moving.

Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterisation; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Feature on Kristen Stewart, 'Can The Queen of Cannes Conquer The World...Again?' here.

Wednesday
Jun082016

GOLDSTONE

Stars: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver, Michelle Lim Davidson, Pei-Pei Cheng, Michael Dorman, Max Cullen, Kate Beahan, Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil.
Writer/director: Ivan Sen.

Opening Night Film of the 63rd Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Australian auteur Ivan Sen accomplishes that all-too-rare sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor with Goldstone, a compelling continuation of the journey of damaged detective Jay Swan. Having established a richly atmospheric sense of outback geography and populated it with vivid genre character types in 2013’s Mystery Road, the director recaptures his fluid handling of dusty tough-guy dynamics while succinctly revisiting weighty thematic strands.

As with Mystery Road, classic ‘western’ beats with a strong hint of ‘noir’ intrigue pulse through Goldstone, so named for the one-cop/tin-shed township and its barren surrounds in which Sen sets his action. Seeming to exist only in service of the mining conglomerate that is gutting the sacred land of the region, the pre-fab settlement appears to consist of a police station, a brothel and the mayor’s home office (why such a meagre outpost has a mayor at all is never fully explained).

Young and alone in his new posting is cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell, solid), who has learnt to keep the peace by not ruffling too many feathers, notably those of mining boss Johnny (a slimy David Wenham) and mayor Maureen (Jacki Weaver, bringing her best ‘Barbara Stanwyck’ in a cheerfully untrustworthy role). The status quo begins to unravel after Josh cages a barely-conscious drunk driver, soon revealed to be Sen’s complex anti-hero, Jay Swan.

Reprising the role of the grief-stricken, dangerously depressed indigenous officer is the terrific Aaron Pedersen. Carrying the emotional burden of a father denied his daughter in every shuffle and grimace, Pedersen’s remarkable performance is also one of immensely understated heroic might. As convincing as the hard-as-nails machismo is conveyed, the actor’s best scenes are quieter ones opposite national treasure David Gulpilil, as the elder who re-energises Swan’s sense of self during a journey into the spiritual heartland.

The central narrative involves Swan’s exposing the trafficking of young women, shipped in to stock ‘The Ranch’ and service mine employees under the watchful eye of Mrs Lao (respected Chinese star, Pei-Pei Cheng) and the quest to find a missing girl who took flight into the unforgiving desert. Sen’s script explores exploitation on several levels – the land, its rightful owners and the legacy of abuse and misuse that has been endemic since the earliest days of outback settlement (the film opens with a sepia montage of immigrant labour images from Australia’s shameful past). Goldstone revels in its genre roots, but like Sen’s best work (Beneath Clouds, 2002; Toomelah, 2011) it offers social and cultural insight into the issues and history of minority abuse in Australia. The presence of Pedersen, Gulpilil and fellow indigenous acting great Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978) speaks to the respect afforded the filmmaker and his storytelling by the Aboriginal community.

Coupled with some downbeat moments, Sen’s pacing occasionally feels laboured (an observation that your critic levelled at the mid-section of Mystery Road, too); the beautiful Kate Beahan turns up for an odd cameo as a roadside hooker called ‘Pinky’, doing business from a caravan straight out of ‘Priscilla…’ But these are minor distractions in an otherwise fine dramatic thriller, primed for festival and specialist theatrical distribution both at home and abroad.

Technically, the production is first-rate; superb use of drone cameras allows the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, acting as his own DOP, to capture stunning desert landscapes from towering angles, in a film whose palette and framing reflects the director’s affinity for the red rock and ochre setting.

Thursday
Jun022016

UNIQUE ARTISTRY FINDS LOVE AT MELBOURNE DOC FEST

From Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse to Crumb to American Movie; from Burden of Dreams to The Devil and Daniel Johnston to this years’ Oscar winner, Amy. Arguably, the most compelling sub-genre in the documentary field are the works that examine the complexities of the creative process and the fragile, brilliant psyches from which it emerges. Commencing its vast 2016 program on July 9, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival features four factual films that delve deep inside the artist’s mindset, probing the passion, ego and talent needed to leave a lasting impression…
MAD TIGER (Dirs: Michael Haertlein, Jonathan Yi / USA; 82 mins)
Proclaiming themselves the ‘Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander’, Peelander Z are a colourful cult oddity who spruik their punk-stunt brand of raucous J-music to loyal if dwindling numbers across the US. Led by charismatic, dictatorial frontman Kengo Hioki (pictured, above), aka Peelander Yellow, the band have been pushing their trademark Jackass-style stage show and Power Rangers-inspired aesthetic for nearly two decades, their alternative musical stylings enlivened by a not entirely self-aware parody element. Co-directors Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi capture Peelander Z as the band faces a crucial juncture – guitar hero Peelander Red (Kotara Tsukada) is leaving the band; Hioki is taking the departure with a mix of philosophical resignation and bullying petulance. Let’s face it, the music is awful, but the inter-personal drama and backstage dynamics ensure Mad Tiger is a tense, at times sad peek inside the ego and ambition that motivates the artist. A welcome reprieve from the band’s inner and outer turmoil is a softly-spoken interlude that follows Hioki back to his roots and the warmth of his religious family home (although it raises the question, ‘Why have they not sought fame in Japan?’)
RATING: 3.5/5

YOU BETTER TAKE COVER (Dirs: Harry Hayes, Lee Simeone / Australia; 29 mins)
When a music-quiz show innocently revealed that one of the most famous pop riffs in Australian music history was very similar to an Aussie bush ditty of yore, the monster that is litigious law was awakened. Men at Work’s iconic hit Down Under is filled with homage after homage to this great southern land, from Vegemite to combi-vans to ‘chunder’. But when composer, the late Greg Ham and the band’s production team settled on a flute interlude that referenced ‘Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree’, they had no idea that Larrikin Music owned the rights to what many assumed was a public domain property. Harry Hayes and Lee Simeone’s brisk, melancholy doc You Better Take Cover traces the origins of the song, the creative forces and fateful turn-of-events that propelled it to global recognition and, most winningly, the recollections of those that were there. Emotions run the gamut in this comprehensive account; local audiences will puff their chests with national pride during scenes of America’s Cup and Commonwealth Game jubilation, but expect teeth to grind when the details of the copyright law court case engineered by Larrikin are brought into cold, greedy focus. Chunder, indeed.
RATING: 3.5/5


ROOM FULL OF SPOONS (Dir: Rick Harper / USA; 113 mins; trailer, above)
That one of the worse films ever made should be the subject of one of the most comprehensive and insightful making-of docs in recent memories just adds to the myriad of ironies that have come to be associated with The Room and the enigmatic creative force behind it, Tommy Wiseau. Canadian alpha-fan Rick Harper knows the ‘Best Worse Movie Ever’ inside out; fans will appreciate that he gets into the minutiae of the wretched melodrama, referencing such crowd favourite moments as ‘the neck lump’, ‘the moving box’, ‘tuxedo football’ and ‘the crooked boyfriend’. Cast members prove open and endearing; key behind-the-scenes contributors (including Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor who argues that, in fact, it was he who directed The Room, not Wiseau) reinforce the tales of legendary, often hilarious ineptitude during the shoot. But Room Full of Spoons goes beyond fan-fact fun when it digs deep into such mysteries as the film’s funding and, above all else, the force of twisted nature that is Wiseau. His origins, inspirations and eccentricities are respectfully but determinedly dissected by Harper, who inserts himself into his narrative with appropriate succinctness.
RATING: 4/5
 
TODD WHO? (Dirs: Gavin Bond, Ian Abercromby / Australia; 58 mins)
The term ‘hagiography’ is too often used pejoratively, suggesting sycophantic bias. But what if the primary focus of a biography is to be wondrously, majestically hagiographic? With co-director Ian Abercromby pulling focus (literally and figuratively), Gavin Bond deifies low-key music industry visionary Todd Rundgren in his rousing, roughhewn love letter, Todd Who? Rundgren found fame in the mid 70s with his sweetly melodic yacht-pop hits Hello It’s Me and Can We Still Be Friends, before embarking a producing career that was filled with innovation and experimentation alongside the likes of Cheap Trick, The Tubes, The Psychedelics Furs and iconic Australian band, Dragon. Not that anyone knows it, except the likes of Paul Schaffer, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, Daryl Braithwaite and Jim Steinman, all of whom put their hands up to sing the praises of Rundgren (now in his 60’s, living in Hawaii and still touring). Bond’s larrikin charm sets the tone for the doco, before a stream of toe-tapping classics and fun, vital facts are employed to chart Rundgren’s influence and personality. Despite some tech shortcomings (mic placement and audio post is not the productions’ strong suit), this is a heartfelt, feel-good ode to a unique talent. If Todd Who? achieves its aim, and it deserves to, that title will become ironically redundant.
RATING: 4/5

The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is held from 9th – 11th July at Howler Art Space in Brunswick. Session and ticketing information can be found at the event’s official website.

 

Monday
May162016

RAW

Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Marion Verneux, Jean-Louis Sbille and Joana Preis.
Writer/Director: Julia Ducournau

Screened in Semaine de la Critique selection at 69th Festival de Cannes; reviewed at Olympia Cinemas 2, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

While filmmakers and audiences tend to gag at the thought of ‘the other C-word’ onscreen, writer/director Julia Ducournau and her fearless leading lady Garance Marillier launch themselves teeth first into their bloody and occasionally brilliant cannibal horror pic, Raw (aka Grave, to its homeland Euro auds).

Blood ties and the inflamed passion of a woman’s blossoming are central to the French director’s strikingly accomplished first feature, one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. A coming-of-age tale conveyed with deftly handled emotional complexity and chilling thematic subtext, Raw is above all else a gut twisting work of classic body horror. On one occasion, your seasoned scribe averted his eyes in anticipation of what was about to unfold; there were a couple of other times when he wished he had.

In almost every frame is teen actress Garance Marillier as Justine, a committed vegetarian(!) who we meet as she is being delivered by her parents (Laurent Lucas, Joana Preis) to veterinary college. From the first night, senior students haze and harass the newbies; Justine is cut no slack by her big sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who so fervently adheres to university tradition she makes Justine eat raw rabbit kidney instead of being shamed before her peers.

Justine’s despair at eating flesh manifests in scaly, itchy skin; in one excrutiating but brilliantly sound-designed sequence, she works her nails deep into the red patches that have formed. Worse is yet to come, however, as the hunger for raw meat becomes an all-consuming need for Justine, her ravenous desires of every kind escalating to predatory proportions.

Such developments would be sufficient for many lesser works, but Ducornau taps a rich vein of sibling rivalry drama and familial intrigue that elevates the stakes and pits Marillier against the ferocity of Ella Rumpf’s Alexia. There are corpulent detours and the odd surreal touch along the way, but nothing derails the foreboding menace and driving dramatic pulse of the story; the denouement, a shocking sequence that plays like a real-world nightmare, and icky coda will induce a goosepimply bout of the cold sweats.

Raw is a film that both embraces and defies cinematic traditions. The sublime camerawork of DOP Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, 2013; The Sky Above Us, 2015) enhances the narrative while also subverting the genre; coming-of-age loveliness can turn to animalistic rage from one frame to the next. Other major assets include co-star Rabah Nait Oufella as coarse but caring gay roommate Adrien; the dizzying music score by Jim Williams (Sightseers, 2012; Kill List, 2011); and, of course, the precise and often sickening work done by the make-up effects units led by Olivier Alfonso and Laura Ozier. Julia Ducournau’s command of the production and assured guidance in the pursuit of her harrowing, unforgettable vision signifies the director as a new major talent. 

Sunday
May152016

THE BFG

Stars: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Matt Frewer, Rafe Spall and Penelope Wilton.
Writer: Melissa Mathison; based upon the children’s novel by Roald Dahl.
Director: Steven Spielberg

Premiered Out of Competition at 69th Festival du Cannes; screened at the Grand Lumiere Theatre.

Rating: 2/5

Steven Spielberg has been open about his adoration for the classic Roald Dahl children’s novel The BFG, of how the 1982 book was standard bedtime reading in his household and how an adaptation has been in development for close to 20 years. He is not alone; the book is a publishing phenomenon that impacted a generation of young readers, just as Spielberg’s body of work is arguably the most fondly favoured American film output of the last half century.

Reteaming with the late writer Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-terrestrial) and long time producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Spielberg at least delivers on his promise to get it made. Unfortunately, the only element of the entire production that inspires any kind of wonder is just how far from a satisfying adaptation the film proves to be, given the potential held by the pairing of these two great storytellers.

The heroine is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little girl with big dreams who wanders the halls of her 80’s era London orphanage (looking very Harry Potter-ish, as does much of the film) well into the witching hour. Barely 10 words have been spoken in the film when we meet Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s not-yet-friendly giant, who abducts Sophie from her bed and takes her to a faraway land. The trauma of the abduction barely registers on Sophie and soon a type of accelerated ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ kicks in. The pair chatter away interminably in the giant’s home at the expense of plot establishment, the now friendly giant instead introducing her to such wonders as The Tree of Dreams and a workshop where he mixes the tree’s pickings to create happy night time visions.

The BFG is the runt of a large band of horribly ill-tempered, one-dimensional giants (just like the ones in Bryan Singer’s dud Jack The Giant Slayer), many times larger and with a cruel hunger for human flesh. Sophie convinces The BFG to come with her to Buckingham Palace, resulting in the film’s liveliest, funniest sequence, and advise The Queen (Penelope Wilton, the film’s best asset) and her offsider Mary (an entirely ill-fitting Rebecca Hall) that the giants are a real threat and a military first strike against them is the best option. Nocturnal kidnapping, the threat of cannibalism and the upside of a tactical airborne offensive all make for a modern family movie, apparently.

The absence of any discernible narrative for a great swathe of the film may not bother the real littlies; colour and movement abound and Barnhill is cutey-pie enough to connect with the tots. On the other hand, parents (in fact, anyone over 10) will be driven to distraction by the sweetness-over-substance approach. The BFG and his clan also speak in a broken ‘pigeon English’-like dialect called ‘gobblefunk’ that is often impossible to understand, ensuring a ponderous 115 minutes of young ones pulling at your shirt sleeve and asking, “What did he say?”

Steven Spielberg has rarely ever let the technology at his disposal do the work for him. Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, A.I. and Minority Report broke new ground in almost every frame, but Spielberg steadfastly put story first.  The BFG more readily recalls his lumbering over-produced misfires 1941, Hook and Always. It also bares witness to just how fallible the director is in this late-career stage; for every great work (Munich; Lincoln; Bridge of Spies), he persists at shoehorning storylines into experiments with CGI and performance capture tech, resulting in stinkers like Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

The occasionally pretty images captured by DOP Janusz Kaminski and omnipresent orchestral work of John Williams keep demanding that we feel for Sophie and her gargantuan friend, but Spielberg’s erratic tonality, overly-familiar technique and heavy-handed graphics renders what should have been a soaring adaptation of Dahl just plain dull.

Saturday
May142016

THE STUDENT

Stars: Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Revenko, Nikolai Roshin, Svetlana Bragarnik and Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov; based upon the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Screening in Un Certain Regard at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salles Debussy.

Rating: 4/5

Fervent creationism faces off against wide-eyed Darwinism amidst the already volatile environment of high school life in Kirill Serebrennikov’s chilling psychological drama, The Student. The Russian auteur’s journey into the dark recesses of a fanatical mindset provides religious extremism with a truly terrifying façade – the unbridled and fearless arrogance of a disenfranchised teenage boy.

Serebrennikov (Yuri’s Day, 2008; Betrayal, 2012) offers up a compelling microcosm of the faith-vs-fact debate that has grown in intensity and ferocity around the world in recent decades. That he also bolsters his narrative with themes such as teenage sexuality, institutional bias and agenda, free speech and Oedipal issues proves both ambitious and intellectually engrossing. The melding of the director’s storytelling skill and playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s stageplay proves a match made in…well, it’s a good match.

The titular protagonist is Veniamin Yuzhin (the remarkable Pyotr Skvortsov), a lean, surly teenage boy living with his struggling single-mom (Yuliya Aug). In a pre-credit sequence, he seems to be remarking with typical teenage disengagement that he wants out of his school’s mandatory swimming lessons on “religious grounds.” Only after he is taunted by the bikini-clad mean girl Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko) and ends up submerged beneath the bodies of his classmates do we learn of his spiritual will; the young man lives an existence devoted to the Bible scriptures, each memorised and instantly recalled, often with a cruel bitterness capable of levelling any counterpoint.

Soon, the school body is energised and enraged by Veniamin’s outbursts, none more so than biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who finds both her devotion to scientific study and faith-free middle-class life the target of the teenage evangelist’s wrath. In one ferocious sequence, Veniamin’s reacts to a carrot-and-condom sex education lesson by stripping bare and leaping from table to table, citing verse after verse of the scripture’s stance on love, sex and marriage. The passages cited begin to take on deeply anti-social views, be they homophobic, anti-semitic or just plain hypocritical; the foreboding sense that Veniamin’s crusade is about to turn irreparably destructive mounts with tangible tension.

With the school administration towing both the Kremlin’s line on religious education (in 2013, President Putin made the teaching of faith-based culture compulsory in secondary schools) and allowing for their own beliefs to affect their handling of Veniamin’s and Elena’s conflict, the scourge of religious extremism leads to an inevitably chaotic and tragic conclusion. The filmmaker leaves no doubt as to the role that unwavering and literal devotion to the written word of God plays in his narrative; Serebrennikov is not the type of director to create this vivid, scorched landscape of complex morality and biblical scale and then not take a stand.

As rich in allegorical intent as the very best of Russian cinema, The Student will ignite post-screening debate as it traverses the global festival circuit. Religious devotion at the expense of the very humanity it purports to enrich is endemic to every faith-based society; the existence of Kirill Serebrennikov’s frantic, frightening film will help to generate crucial discussion on the true nature of dogmatic fundamentalism the world over.

Friday
May132016

MONEY MONSTER

Stars: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Caitriona Balfe, Dominic West, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Dennis Boutsikaris and Emily Meade.
Writer: Jamie Linden, Jim Kouf and Alan DiFiore
Director: Jodie Foster

Screening Out-of-Competition at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Grand Theatre Lumiere.

Rating: 4/5

When the elite directing talent decide to splash about in the B-movie genre pool, the best of them bring their serious film smarts along for a dip as well. Such was the case when Spike Lee made his heist thriller Inside Man, and when Martin Scorsese made his corrupt cop actioner The Departed, and when Michael Mann made the hitman thriller, Collateral.

And so it is with Jodie Foster and her high-concept hostage drama, Money Monster. A slick and satisfying vehicle for the capital-M/capital-S charisma of two of Hollywood’s most reliable Movie Stars, Foster’s fourth directorial effort also sufficiently ponders the hot-button topic of America’s financial/social divide to the extent that it feels just smart enough.

Having a ball as Lee Gates, the clownish ringleader of his own financial infotainment show Money Monster, is George Clooney (channelling with no filter at all CNBC’s ‘Mad Money’ host loudmouth Jim Cramer). The actor bounds around his ‘TV set’ set with a freewheeling physicality and ‘Master of the Universe’ brashness that is pure bravado. The only one with the cojones to rein him in is his director and long-time friend, Patty Fenn, played with a commanding sturdiness by Julia Roberts. The actress atones for the embarrassing dud Mother’s Day with one of her best performances, sidestepping the inherent clichés of the ‘TV director’ stereotype and favouring maturity and sturdy integrity over flustered and shrill.

Worlds are turned upside down when the desperate gun-toting, bomb-carrying everyman Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the studio floor and takes Lee hostage, the whole terrifying episode playing out on live television. Budwell’s life savings went down the toilet when a ‘glitch’ wiped $800million of Ibis Capital’s stock worth; he wants answers from CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) and not spin from an increasingly sympathetic PR maven, Diane (Caitriona Balfe).

It is the angry and desperate pleading of Kyle that will resonate with mainstream audiences, especially in a year when the most ruthless overlord of western corporate domination is challenging for the top job (Foster and her cast were called upon to address the film’s election year relevance in the post-screening press conference). Embodied with fierce gusto by O’Connell, Kyle is the angry, blue-collar guy whose betrayal by a broken ‘American Dream’ is changing the very fabric of the good ol’ US of A. That he identifies both the problem and the solution as being the fault of the media landscape allows Foster to attack both the irresponsibility of the faux-news network landscape and the corporate blight that the abuse of capitalism has left.

Her lensing to date has been on character-driven small-scale dramas (Little Man Tate, 1991; Home For The Holidays, 2005; The Beaver, 2001), but Foster excels at the thriller beats and action set-ups here. With her writing team of Jamie Linden, Jim Kouf and Alan DiFiore, she even offers subversive, stabs at the ‘hostage drama’ familiarity; one of the film’s biggest laughs comes when the cops convince Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (the scene-stealing Emily Meade) to talk sense to him, only to have her erupt in a tirade of horrible insults that merely drive him closer to the unthinkable.

The narrative starts to strain in the films mid-section, notably when some trope-y contrivances are required to push the plot forward (important personal documents are found way too easily; dubious hacker tech is awkwardly relied upon). It is full credit to Foster and her towering leads that pacing and packaging are strong enough to let such developments slide.

Although Money Monster (awkward title, but fitting on different levels) takes place in a busted contemporary world of rampant greed and ego, the production feels very much of a time when studios made stirring dramatic thrillers on mid-level budgets that addressed social and personal ills. Comparisons to Sydney Lumet’s classics Network and especially Dog Day Afternoon are inevitable, with elements of Broadcast News to boot. Ultimately, the tummy-tightening thrills and movie-star moxie on display echo louder than any social commentary or thematic depth. But that a flashy hostage thriller should dabble in such issues at all in this age of bland and safe studio slates is a welcome and wonderful surprise.