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Entries in Sydney Film Festival (7)



Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.



Stars: Owen Vaccaro, P.J. Byrne, Emily Bergl, Richard Riehle, Ted Sutherland, Tatum Kensington Bailey, Lindsay Arnold, Noah Crawford and Jeff Goldblum.
Writer: Owen Burke
Directors: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael.

Screened at VR Experience Lounge 2 at The Hub, Sydney Town Hall, as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Both a sweetly nostalgic love letter to 80’s family rituals and a satirically acidic spin on the fleeting nature of consumer culture, the 40 minute virtual reality ‘feature’ Miyubi is at once warmly familiar and dizzyingly groundbreaking. The story of a toy robot whose life cycle lasts the attention span of a pre-teen boy, this captivating comedy-drama represents one giant leap towards a feature film future that includes unlockable narrative strands and 360-degree perspectives.

Once the goggles and headset are strapped on, the viewer becomes the titular android, a birthday gift for a precocious youngest boy (Owen Vaccaro) that is unwrapped to his unbridled glee sometime in 1982. Recalling the sibling dynamic of Spielberg’s E.T., his older brother (Ted Sutherland) is the wannabe-cool older brother stereotype, while doe-eyed moppet (Tatum Kensington) is the cute kid sister. Filling out the house is the increasingly desperate dad (P.J. Byrne), whose over-eager longing to be his son’s best friend is at odds with his job ‘s travel commitments; a mom (Emily Bergl), who has found the middle-class, wallpapered nirvana of her dreams; and, Grandpa (the wonderful Richard Riehle) whose fading memory and repetitive wartime recollections are testing everyone’s patience.

Miyubi’s journey unfolds as a series of reboots; during the downtime, the robot powers up, runs increasingly troublesome diagnostic checks, and re-emerges into a world in which his value as both a piece of hardware and a friend is waning. The plight of Miyubi echoes the emotional centre of Pixar’s Toy Story, in which Buzz, Woody and the gang are soon shunted for newer, cooler upgrades. At first the object of Grandpa’s derision and contempt (he fought the Japanese, he likes to remind his family, and now their technology is taking over his house), Miyubi and the old man soon bond over their impending obsolescence.

The beautifully rendered work is a collaboration between the Montreal-based Felix Paul Studios, whose principals Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael direct with seasoned skill (they recently inked a deal to explore feature-length VR opportunities with 20th Century Fox); and, humourist Owen Burke, one of the driving forces behind the Funny or Die troupe. His characterisations are pitched high, but the warm, more human moments are undeniably touching; one sequence, in which an airport-bound Dad dons a Rambo Halloween outfit to record a video message for his family, is very tender.

The larger question, of course, is how much of an expansion to the art and craft of cinematic storytelling do Lajeunesse and Raphael achieve via the use of virtual reality. The immersive element is certainly remarkable; sequences that take place in the boy’s bedrooms, set designed to recall pivotal influences in 80’s pop culture history, will stir the hearts and minds of Gen-Xers like no other film experience could (a Battlestar Galactica one-sheet autographed by the late Richard Hatch…I mean, Wow!). The physical reaction the viewer experiences are also without precedent; when a character reaches for Miyubi’s front control panel and inserts a music cassette, one’s tummy instinctively tightens.

The most intriguing advancement represents a melding of the traditional narrative and the tiered storytelling used predominantly in video games. By collecting three secret items, Miyubi accesses an implanted subconscious and is transported to the wondrously cavernous warehouse workplace of The Creator, played with typically eccentric charm by Jeff Goldblum. The sequence is not only a masterclass in richly detailed set design, but it also addresses the very essence of the cinematic ‘fourth wall’. To have Goldblum, deep in character, speak in extreme close-up directly into your eyes challenges the viewer to stay within the narrative, while experiencing a new form of celebrity interaction. (A further level, apparently representing Miyubi’s ‘happy place’, is spoken of by The Creator, but was not unlocked by your reviewer.)

As the medium advances, Miyubi will be looked back upon as a pivotal moment in VR development. A smartly written, emotionally resonant slice-of-life drama, it is an engaging, funny work. More importantly, it is a first for the new technology and represents a seismic shift towards the acceptance of VR films.



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.



For Volume 2 of The Critic’s Capsule, SCREEN-SPACE ventures to every corner of the Sydney Film Festival program, presenting our take on a much-loved actress’ latest US indie, a Swedish drama about body issues, a South African documentary on an immortalized text, an insider’s look at Italy’s most famous horse race and a post-apocalyptic vision with BMX bikes…

PALIO (Dir: Cosima Spender / UK, Italy, 92 mins / pictured, above)
In his unbridled account of the Palio - the bareback, city-square horse-riding event that enthralls the population of Italy twice a year - acclaimed documentarian Cosima Spender (Dolce vita africano, 2008; Without Gorky, 2011) captures not only the brutal spectacle of the race but also the essential purity of Italian machismo. Ego, honour, ruthlessness, social stature and courage are both celebrated and brought down a peg or two in this wonderfully entertaining account of the legends who have flown the flags of the competing regions to magnificent highs and crashing lows. As pulse-pounding as the thunderous derby appears on screen, it is the rife corruption and crooked traditions that often prove the most entertaining aspect of Spender’s feature-length debut (a Tribeca best documentary nominee).
You’ll be talking about…
: The smug charm of alpha-male Gigi Bruschelli, firm in his belief that a record 14th Palio win is his heaven-sent destiny.

THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD (Dir: Francois Verster / South Africa, Egypt, Jordan, France, The Netherlands, 107 mins / pictured, right)
One of the defining social texts of world literature, The 1001 Nights (aka Arabian Nights) relates the story of the great storyteller Princess Scheherazade, who defied the blade of her lover and king by crafting an endless narrative that would ultimately see her life spared and the monarch humbled. South African director Francois Verster frames a study of swift, often violent socio-political change in the Middle East within a celebration of music, art, performance and the redemptive power of positive creativity. Shot over two years and incorporating such outwardly disparate elements as the Turkish National Youth Orchestra’s staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and graphic images from the Arab Spring uprising, Verster considers the legacy of The 1001 Nights while crafting a challenging, vast yet intimate tapestry of personal and cultural significance.
You’ll be talking about…
: An Alexandrian actor and a troupe of Cairo-based performers stage readings of testimonies for the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution, written by the mothers of the deceased.

GRANDMA (Dir: Paul Weitz / USA, 78 mins)
Lily Tomlin sets her sights on Oscar glory as Elle Reid in writer/director Paul Weitz’s razor-sharp character-driven comedy/drama, Grandma. Cutting a tart-mouthed swathe through the upscale gay and intellectual enclaves of LA in her search for the $630 needed to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Warner, finally finding a worthy vehicle for her talents), Tomlins’ lesbian-poet-misanthrope reps a tour-de-force role. Having been cast aside by the LA suits after back-to-back duds Being Flynn and Admission, Weitz reconnects with the smart, sweet, caustic voice that highlighted his best work (About a Boy; In Good Company).
You’ll be talking about…:
Tomlin, of course, but also the marquee-worthy support cast – Marcia Gay Harden, John Cho, Judy Greer, Don McManus, Nat Wolff, a terrific Sam Elliott and the late Elizabeth Pena.

MY SKINNY SISTER (Dir: Sanna Lenken / Sweden, Germany, 95 mins / pictured, right)
Few films have tackled the early-teen sororal dynamic with the insight and empathy of first-time writer-director Sanna Lenken’s My Skinny Sister. Taken for granted by tuned-out parents (Annika Hallin, Henrik Norlen), youngest daughter Stella (the remarkable Rebecka Josephson) idolises her figure-skater big sis Katja (Amy Deasismont, an dead-ringer for Hailee Steinfeld); the family begins to implode when Stella, herself struggling with early body-issue concerns and the first flushes of romantic desire, discovers Katja is in the throes of bulimia. No surprise that Lenken was once a sufferer and has previously explored the impact of the disease in the short Eating Lunch; there is barely a false note in her slow-burn drama. Despite some unnecessary third act melodrama, My Skinny Sister is, in every other respect, a warm-hearted, quietly powerful work.
You’ll be talking about…
: The bathroom scene, where Stella is filled with concern when she discovers Katja is purging, only to have Katja hold the crush Stella has for the ice-skating coach over her little sister in exchange for secrecy. Josephson and Deasismont (aka, Swedish pop starlet Amy Diamond) are both extraordinary in their bigscreen debuts.
RATING: 3.5/5  

TURBO KID (Dirs: Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell / New Zealand, Canada, 95 mins / pictured, right)
Turbo Kid has been touted as a loving nod to those dusty VHS rentals that faded on the outer rims of rental shelves with names like 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Exterminators of The Year 3000. An outland BMX-er named ‘The Kid’ (an ok Munro Chambers) takes on the guise of his comicbook hero, Turbo Kid, to thwart the henchmen of bloodthirsty post-apocalyptic dictator, Zeus (Michael Ironside, enjoying himself). It should be a blast, but this Kiwi/Canuck hybrid oozes an icky hipster-cool smugness that impresses itself by ridiculing the genre’s shortcomings rather than celebrating the unshakeable integrity of the no-budget action epic. The gags feel like cheap shots, rarely earning a laugh. DOP Jean-Philippe Bernier’s widescreen frame and crisp imaging actually work against the comedic premise, as does the CGI-amped splatter-effects. EP Jason Eisener nailed the 80s send-up/homage with far greater skill as director of Hobo With a Shotgun (2011).
You’ll be talking about…
: The wonderful Laurence Leboeuf as comic-relief robo-babe Apple. If the film finds its audience (that under 25, ‘the 80s were so daggy and funny’ crowd), expect Apple cosplayers to populate the Cons.
RATING: 2.5/5

Visit the Sydney Film Festival website for all ticketing and venue information.



Writer/director: Jennifer Peedom.

Rating: 4.5/5

For all the mountainous visual majesty her lens captures, it is director Jennifer Peedom’s soulful, stirring depiction of the human spirit that allows her feature, Sherpa, to truly soar.

Envisioned as an examination of the tensions that led to a highly publicised clash between European tourists and Sherpa guides in 2013, Peedom contextualises the inequalities suffered by the Sherpa workers with some deftly handled backstory involving the lopsided mistreatment of the most famous Sherpa of all time, Tenzing Norgay, after he guided Sir Edmund Hillary to the peak of Mt Everest in May 1953.

But the Australian director suddenly found her already daunting production in the midst of an event that, at the time, represented the largest singular instance of loss of life in Mt Everest history. On April 18 2014, a 14.5 tonnes sheet of ice dislodged from the wall of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and a team of Sherpas, transporting camping and trekking equipment for international tourist operators, were crushed; 16 locals died in the disaster, with three bodies never recovered.

In chronicling the events with an as-it-unfolds immediacy, Peedom and her high-altitude co-director Renan Ozrturk afford their audience a first-hand visual account of unfettered human emotion at its most raw. The heartbreak that accompanies images of the deceased being helicoptered to base camp cannot be overstated, nor can Peedom’s deeply respectful depiction of the rescue and recovery efforts and, most importantly, the overwhelming grief that swept the region.

The central conflict remains constant – the global commercial interests invested in the Mt Everest tourism industry versus the relationship the indigenous population has with the mountain – but the stakes soar and the issues deepen in the wake of the tragedy. Certain to divide audience sympathies is trek operator Russell Brice, whose business depends on a trustful working relationship with his carriers but who finds himself facing agitated clients when militant Sherpas, tired of their cultural history and modern needs being disrespected by tourists and local government officials alike, want the climbing season abandoned.

The film’s true ‘star’ is experienced guide Phurba Tashi Sherpa, father of two and husband to a wife whose anxiety grows with every expedition. Having lived for generations in the shadow of his beloved Sagarmatha, Tashi shares a bond with the mountain that only locals can comprehend; it is this affinity with the landscape and its legends that places the softly-spoken Sherpa at the centre of the us-vs-them conflict, however reluctantly.

Peedom has a long history with Nepal and the Himalayan terrain; key production roles on such landmark small-screen achievements as Miracle on Everest (2008) and Everest: Beyond the Limit (2007) allowed her unprecedented access to the local people and their customs. This intimacy and shared understanding of the region imbues Sherpa with an immensely empathetic warmth. The access afforded her camera – flashpoint instances at the height of negotiations; achingly sweet moments inside Phurba Tashi’s family home – is a testament to a filmmaker of unquestionable integrity in the eyes of her subjects and whose subsequent vision is instinctive and heartfelt.

Donations to the Nepal Earthquake aid efforts can be made at via the following organisations:



Each and every film scheduled into the 62nd Sydney Film Festival deserves the standard 500+ word appraisal we usually publish here at SCREEN-SPACE. But, in an effort to offer as many opinions as possible while the festival is in full swing, we have introduced 'The Critic’s Capsule’ – short, sharp insight into as many of the Sydney screening highlights as we can muster. Three days into the 2015 event, here is our opening volley…. 

DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON (Dir: Douglas Tirola / USA, 93 mins / pictured, above)
No one influence has shaped the American comedic landscape in the last half century more than the satirical publication, National Lampoon. The lovechild of Harvard’s privileged intellectualism and the late 60’s counter-culture fearlessness, the magazine (and, subsequently, brand) became a multi-million dollar industry. Douglas Tirola’s account of the Lampoon heavyweights that cut a swathe through American society with their brand of barbed, hilarious satire is both a glorious celebration of the lunatic fringe (led by wild-child Doug Kenney) and a cautionary tale of the destructive impact of fame and fortune. Hilarious accounts of the surreal life led by those at the Lampoon ensure big laughs; not so expected, the tearful moments of memory and regret.
You’ll talking about…:
The Murray brothers, Belushi, Ramis, Radner, Guest, Aykroyd, Chase and many more, all in their twenty-something pre-stardom prime.
RATING: 4/5 

MY LOVE DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER (Dir: Jin Mo-Young / South Korea, 86 mins / pictured, right)
Unforgettably poignant moments captured during the final years of a 70-year marriage imbue Jin Mo-Young’s achingly sweet, funny and insightful documentary (a theatrical blockbuster in its homeland). The story of Cho Byeong-man (98) and Kang Gye-young (89) captures the exquisite simplicity of their vast life together (they wed when she was 14), most notably their affinity with the surrounding riverside landscape and interactions with their extended family. The authenticity of some early scenes is questionable, but the inevitability of one’s mortality is dealt with in a deeply respectful, entirely truthful manner.
You’ll be talking about…:
The final farewell.
RATING: 3.5/5 

BEING EVEL (Dir: Daniel Junge / USA, 100 mins / pictured, above)
A vivid, vibrant celebration of the famed motorcycle daredevil, Daniel Junge’s exhaustively researched profile credits the rough-hewn Montana native and the commercial phenomenon he spawned as the dawn of the modern extreme-sports industry. Despite teetering on the edge of gushy hagiography for much of the first half, the darker psychological shades of the man himself keep the film on track – unlike some of Evel’s (in)famous jumps, captured here in all their bone-crunching glory. Superbly cut by Davis Coombe under Junge’s assured guidance; no surprise that Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine, the ‘minds’ behind Jackass are on-board as producers.
You’ll be talking about…: Junge’s slow-motion analysis of the less-than-graceful landing that Knievel (barely) survived when he leapt the Caesar’s Palace fountain in Las Vegas.
RATING: 3.5/5

DEATHGASM (Dir: Jason Lei Howden / New Zealand, 85 mins / pictured, right)
For those convinced heavy metal music in all its forms is the tool of Satan…well, you’re right. Such is the premise of debutant Jason Lei Howden’s ridiculously splattery horror/comedy Deathgasm, named after the thrashing four-piece that conjures Hell’s minions from a garage in Greypoint. As deliriously OTT as the claret-soaked carnage is, the tropes of the no-holds-barred, dismemberment genre are beginning to fold in on themselves; one sex-toy inspired sequence aside, the influence of Jackson, Raimi and Gordon is all too evident. Where Howden earns his stripes is in his handling of the very funny cast of characters. A star is born in Milo Cawthorne as headbangin’ loner Brodie, who exhibits great comic timing and an every-dude charm, especially in his efforts to woo the wonderful Kimberley Crossman.
You’ll be talking about…
: Death by dildo probably, although the first decapitation gag (that’s right, the first) got one of the film’s biggest laughs.
RATING: 3.5/5 

THE POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS (Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky / Russia, 101 mins / pictured, right)
Journeyman Russian filmmaker Konchalovsky (Tango & Cash, 1989; Runaway Train, 1985; Dyadya Vanya, 1971) bounces back from the mega-budgeted 2010 flop The Nutcracker 3D with a pastoral character study set amidst a remote northern Russian village on the banks of Kenozero Lake. Binding the vodka-sodden community is sober mailman Aleksey Tryaptisyn, playing himself alongside a fellow non-pro cast in a narrative that captures a yearning to fulfil one’s dreams as traditional rural living clashes with encroaching and corrupt officialdom. The director’s understated naturalism may be too muted for some, but others will draw a heartbreaking universal relevance from the plight of Konchalovsky’s real-life protagonists.
You’ll be talking about…:
The tale of the river witch Kikimora, related so vividly by Tryaptisin to his pre-teen travel buddy Timur (Timur Bondarenko) as to render the child hysterical with fear.
RATING: 3.5/5

Visit the Sydney Film Festival website for all ticket and venue information.



Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Johnny Sneed and Bill Camp.
Writers: Michael A Lerner and Oren Moverman.
Director: Bill Pohlad.

Watch the trailer here

For 2015 Sydney Film Festival screening information, click here.

Rating: 4.5/5

The ‘musical biopic’ often adheres to a narrative that captures the subject’s life like a Wikipedia page. This approach is actor-bait; it allows for moments of life-defining drama from which a committed thespian can milk grand emotions. It is why everyone remembers Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline or Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis, but also why no one remembers much else about Ray or Sweet Dreams or Great Balls of Fire.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s refreshingly daring take on the life of Brian Wilson, transcends the biopic conventions. Finding kindred spirits in scripters Michael A Lerner and Oren Moverman, the director never settles for a ‘crib note’ version of the life of the Beach Boys creative centre. Pohlad captures the vibrancy of Wilson’s artistic peak, that early 60’s period of musical production that led to the Pet Sounds album, as well as his highly publicised and crippling mental health issues in the 1980s. Intercutting between decades, the film (named after Wilson’s 1988 comeback single) evokes the elusive brilliance that defined young Brian’s extraordinary songwriting talents as much as his descent into depression, and his re-emergence from a prescription drug-addled haze as middle age approaches.

The band’s rise to super-stardom has levelled out by the end of an exhilarating opening credits montage. As the brothers and bandmates jet-off to Japan, young Brian sets about constructing what would become the definitive record of the ‘California Sound’ era. Baulked up to play Wilson at a time when his weight gain signalled the early stages of dependency behaviour, an enigmatic Paul Dano pulses with the manic energy of a musical genius in the thrall of his talent. The young actor has already established an impressive resume (There Will Be Blood; Little Miss Sunshine; Ruby Sparks; Meek’s Cutoff), yet every new performance feels revelatory; Love & Mercy is his most warmly engaging work to date.

The ‘modern day’ Brian is introduced distractedly buying a new car, suggesting his life is now one of dull modern routine and scant creativity. But this low-key set-up develops into a beautifully realised ‘meet-cute’ between John Cusack’s gentle, over-medicated Wilson and Elizabeth Banks’ tarnished angel, Melinda Ledbetter. As the woman that would wrestle Wilson from the grasp of enabling drug-doctor, Eugene Landy (a full-tilt Paul Giamatti), Banks is the best she has ever been. Alongside Cusack, contributing his most nuanced and incisive character work in years, the actress brings a warmth and strength only hinted at previously.

The ‘two Brians’ plot device culminates in a fitting sequence for a story that combines the trippy SoCal surf-&-drug culture of the Sixties with the navel-gazing self-help LA mantra of the Eighties. Pohlad stages Wilson’s moment of inward realisation with Kubrick-ian clarity, particularly striking given the otherwise sunny, naturalistic ambience of DOP Robert D. Yeoman’s camera. Like the blackness of acute depression itself, the manifestation of which left Wilson infamously bedridden for years, the denouement creeps up on the film before fully enveloping it in its entirety. 

With only one directing credit to his name (the little-seen 1990 drama, Old Explorers), Pohlad’s industry credibility stems from his producer credits; his directorial eye has been honed in the presence of Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), Doug Liman (Fair Game, 2010), Terence Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013). His recent collaboration with Jean-Marc Vallee on the Reese Witherspoon true-life drama, Wild (2014), imbues his storytelling here. These films alternate seamlessly between recollections filled with both promise and regret and a present day journey filled with hope.

As Wilson’s dense instrumental experimentation consumes studio time, an increasingly frustrated Mike Love (Jake Abel) barks, “You’re not Mozart, man!” Yet, in ‘musical biopic’ terms, it is Milos Forman’s Amadeus that Love & Mercy most closely resembles. Like Mozart, Brian Wilson is portrayed as both driven and doomed by a talent that was all consuming, saved time and again from the brink of self-destruction by the unwavering commitment of his soul mate pairing. All the while, he created music that defined an era and changed lives. In succinct and sublime tones, Love & Mercy convinces that God only knows where American music would be without Brian Wilson.