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Cleverman: Season One

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When Ryan Griffen noticed that there were no indigenous superheroes for his son to look up to, he came up with the basic concept of Cleverman, which blossomed into a six-part TV series that takes the tales of The Dreaming and applies them to a dystopian Australia. Despite the show’s futuristic setting, parallels with modern Australia run deep, from government run detention camps for Hairypeople (a stand-in for numerous oppressed people), through to indigenous rights and identity.

Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) is a disenfranchised bar owner, who thinks nothing of grassing up “illegal” Hairypeople immigrants, aka Hairies, in return for cash. He’s clearly a man out of touch with his own heritage. Inheriting the title of Cleverman from his Uncle Paddy (Jack Charles no less), and much to the chagrin of his older brother, Waruu (Rob Collins), Koen must reluctantly defend his people from the creatures that dwell in Sydney’s shadows. Elsewhere, we follow two members of a hairy family, Araleun (Tasma Walton) and Djukara (Tysan Towney), who have been incarcerated in different ways. We even stop off to watch Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen playing a businessman with a dodgy line of work.

Cleverman is rich detail, and you can get joyfully lost in discovering the stories that influenced its narrative. There’s so much going on in Cleverman that the first episode hits the ground running and refuses to wait for those who can’t keep up. That eventually becomes an issue, as with only six episodes to unspool its numerous threads, Cleverman does leave some frustratingly by the wayside come the finale. This, however, simply highlights how engrossing the show is, with Koen having to perform the same rights of passage any superhero has to, as well as plugging himself back in to his own heritage. With a second season already greenlit, Cleverman is sure to become an important TV property.

 
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Fathers And Daughters

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There’s something of the obvious about Fathers And Daughters, the latest from director, Gabriele Muccino. Like his previous film, The Pursuit of Happyness, despite the presence of a strong cast, the film’s insistence on wearing its heart on its sleeve means that there’s nothing here to surprise you. If anything, the whole thing feels like its only aim is to make you cry by hell or high water.

Russell Crowe plays Jake Davies, a popular but broke writer, struggling to raise his daughter, Katie (Kylie Rogers), after the death of his wife, which prompted a mental breakdown. Running parallel to his narrative is Amanda Seyfried as the now adult Katie, a psychologist in training who fills her evenings with drinking and one night stands. When Cameron (Aaron Paul), who also happens to be a writer and just so happens to have Jake as his all-time hero, enters her life, she must learn to address her own problems if there’s any chance of them being together.

Fathers And Daughters is very quick to point out that Katie’s lifestyle choice is not a good one, whilst linking it straight back to abandonment issues with her father. Cameron is lover and father all in one, and she just can’t handle it. Katie’s story never rings true, and when the film compounds her fate further by suggesting that it was also a drunken comment by her auntie that influenced her lifestyle, all agency she had is depleted. Jake’s story is handled slightly better, but only just, with the tortured artist falling into seizures whenever life gets too rough. What does work though are Crowe’s scenes with the young Rogers. The moments that they share shatter some of the more problematic elements of the film, and it becomes a shame that we never get to stay with them for long enough.

 
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Devoured

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Despite the cannibalistic promise of its title, Devoured never actually sees anyone being feasted upon with a nice bottle of chianti. Instead, it could be seen as a reference to the film’s protagonist, Lourdes (Marta Milans), one of the many immigrants in New York who look set to be swallowed up by the city’s seeming indifference to what will become of them. Devoured wastes no time in telling you her ultimate fate, opening with Lourdes’ cold body found at the bottom of some stairs before recapping the events that led her here.

Lourdes is a cleaner for a high-class restaurant where she is verbally abused by her boss and sexually harassed by the head chef. Her only reason for putting up with it all is to raise enough money for her sick son, so he can fly to America for an operation. As her night shifts begin to blur into one, a paranormal element enters the narrative as Lourdes becomes convinced that she’s being stalked by a malevolent spirit amongst the pots and pans.

Directed by Greg Olliver (Lemmy) and written by Marc Landau, Devoured trades in visceral shocks for a slow-burning dread that throbs throughout the narrative. At times, the slow build up can be patience-testing. It’s clear that Olliver and Landau are more interested in Lourdes’ response to the strange phenomenon that happen around her, and scenes set outside of her workplace in which nothing happens are there to highlight the banality of Lourdes’ life. However, they still feel an awful lot like padding. Milans, however, gives the film its true depth with a performance that grounds the whole affair, even as it spirals into insanity in its final minutes.

 
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Dad’s Army

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Out of all the TV-to-movie adaptations that float around the creative ether and have the potential to hit the big screen, Dad’s Army wasn’t the one most thought would stand a chance of ever happening, and yet here we are. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the (nearly) 50-year-old sitcom, Dad’s Army detailed the weekly adventures of a group of middle-aged men and OAPs in The British Home Guard doing their bit during WW2. Built on catchphrases and inoffensive humour, the show can come across as a bit too sweet and naïve for modern audiences.

However, Dad’s Army cares not for modern sensibilities, and plays out like an extended episode of the show, with actors Bill Nighy, Toby Jones and Michael Gambon stepping into the shoes of the original cast, whilst Catherine Zeta-Jones tags along as an undercover German spy looking to break up their ranks. Everyone involved clearly understand the kind of film that they’re making, and Dad’s Army is more of an end-of-pier revue than a fully-fledged feature film. Fans of the original will be comforted by spot-on impersonations of the affable characters, whilst newcomers will be scratching their heads wondering what the point of the whole exercise is.

It’s all very well evoking the tone and spirit of the show, but there needs to be something more tangible to stick around for outside of jokes about the Germans “not liking it up ‘em.” Some lessons about growth, bravery, and English stiff upper lip are thrown into the finale, but as well-meaning and enjoyable as Dad’s Army can be, the tenacity to stay within the lines and not rock the boat in terms of stakes and characterisation makes you wonder why you shouldn’t just stick on a boxset of the original show instead.

 
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REVIEW: Midnight Special

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Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, and is an obvious love letter to the imagination of Steven Spielberg. In a quiet but ominous opening, we witness two men, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), escorting a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), out of their hotel room under the cover of darkness. We later learn that Alton, who is burdened with mystical powers, is Roy’s son, and the pair are fleeing from the cult that they used to belong to. Said cult bases its beliefs on the things that Alton says when he’s “speaking in tongues.” Meanwhile, the government want the trio because Alton’s “teachings” also happen to disclose official secrets.

As Nichols expertly guides the film towards its conclusion, he brings more elements of the story to the table, never promising to truly explain everything that you’re about to see. It’s a bold move, and Midnight Special’s ending is likely to leave some in the audience feeling cheated by its lack of finality. However, to pull at the threads of the end means that you miss the story as a whole.

This is an emotive piece of sci-fi that at times feels like an allegory for the difficult decisions we make as a family, and the acceptance that we must have when we do. Alton’s otherworldly condition is shown to have the potential to kill him, but once his father, and later mother (Kirsten Dunst), decide what’s best for him, they’re basically undermined by religion and the government who seemingly know better. Perhaps this is over-analysing a film about a boy that can shoot lights from his eyes, but the film is so rich in depth that Nichols practically invites you to walk away with your own interpretations. Because Midnight Special will be damned if it’s going to explain everything to you.

 
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REVIEW: Red Billabong

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Home And Away stars, Tim Pocock and Dan Ewing, move from the Bay to the billabong in this Aussie monster movie that marks the directorial debut of Luke Sparke. The two men play estranged brothers brought together after the loss of their grandfather, who has left them a huge amount of land out in the bushland. When a shady land developer (Felix Williamson hamming it up deluxe) shows interest in taking the property off their hands for a princely sum, Tristan (Pocock) wants to sell up, but Nick (Ewing) is concerned about a warning from grandad’s friend, Mr. Garvey, played by Gregory J. Fryer (The Sapphires). There’s something in the dark, and it’s feeding time.

And that’s all that can be said plot wise, as Red Billabong relies on the audience going in as cold as possible to preserve its numerous twists and genre shifts. Tipping its hat to Aliens, Jurassic Park, and even Crocodile Dundee, it’s clear that Sparke’s passion is the bolshy action films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A fact further demonstrated when drug dealer, BJ (Ben Chisholm), rocks up with his group of mates for a party in the brothers’ new home; a drug fuelled party plus an evil lurking in the bush never works out well for anyone.

With so much in the mix – there’s guns, girls, and The Dreaming yet to be mentioned – Red Billabong starts off surprisingly slow. Perhaps too slow for those in the audience looking for a quick, one-hit-and-you’re-done monster massacre. But once Sparke lets the film off its leash, Red Billabong mutates into a special effects driven action movie that’s undeniably Australian. And whilst the credits hint at a potential sequel, it’s hard not to cross your fingers for the possibility of a spinoff with Mr. Garvey and his band of indigenous Ghostbusters.

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REVIEW: Free State Of Jones

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In American cinema, there’s plenty of liberalism, but radicalism is a true rarity, and that makes Free State Of Jones an even more fascinating filmmaking feat. Co-written and directed with a fierce lack of compromise by Gary Ross (who makes his first film since starting the cinematic Hunger Games, from which he was bounced and replaced by Francis Lawrence), this terse, harrowing, and breathtakingly immediate drama tells the strange tale of Newton Knight, a Civil War-era deep thinker and man of action who – for a brief, incandescent moment – scratched out a mini-utopia in the middle of a battle zone. As with any biopic, debate rages about the film’s alacrity, and whether or not it deifies an unworthy man. Truth-telling aside, the Newton Knight of this film – played with a canny mix of philosophical calm and broiling anger by a brilliant Matthew McConaughey – is as fascinating and compelling a character as you’ll ever see.

As the film begins, Knight is working as a nurse for the embattled Confederate Army, wrist-deep in blood as he grapples in vain to keep his eviscerated colleagues alive. Knight has a self-awareness lacking in his fellow soldiers, and when he learns that the Confederate Army has been sacking the farms of its own people to feed its men on the frontlines, he leaves his post to come to their defence. Eventually on the run, Knight ends up in the swampland of Mississippi, where he takes shelter with a group of freed slaves, kick-starting a community which soon swells with other Confederate deserters and exploited farmers of the region. Armed and angry, Knight and his followers take the fight to the Confederacy, and establish the “Free State Of Jones” in the area in and around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war.

A scene from Free State Of Jones

A scene from Free State Of Jones

Though gifted a Terrence Malick-style Magic Hour gleam by master cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition), Free State Of Jones is one long, anguished cry of rage from Gary Ross at the horrors of America: at its bigotry, its ignorance, and its easy propensity for war. We’ve heard that kind of scream before, but this time, it’s delivered in a far different timbre. Its hero, Newton Knight, is a true leftist revolutionary, the kind that raises the bile in most Americans. The community that he creates is not only racially harmonious (Knight happily takes up with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel, an escaped slave), but also built on socialist ideals. Knight calls out the Southern rich (those who owned twenty slaves or more were exempt from serving in the military, while dirt-poor corn farmers were exploited at every turn), and frames The Civil War as one of class, rather than ideology or geography. It’s a brave cinematic stand from Gary Ross (and a kind unseen since John Sayles’ 1987 masterpiece, Matewan), and it’s no surprise that Free State Of Jones comes without studio backing and 27 credited producers, perhaps pointing to the difficulty of its financing process.

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But political daring aside, Free State Of Jones rates highly as cinema. As created here, Knight is a brilliantly drawn figure: he’s deeply conflicted at every turn, reaching for peaceful ideals while always cocking his guns with disturbing urgency. There’s a slightly maniacal quiver somewhere inside McConaughey’s performance, which makes Knight anything but saintly. McConaughey is superb, and he’s teamed with a fine ensemble – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is earthily angelic as Rachel, while Keri Russell brings a knowing sadness to the role of Knight’s first wife, Serena. Mahershala Ali, however, steals all of his scenes as runaway slave, Moses, a cornerstone of Knight’s swampland paradise. There are also battle scenes aplenty, along with moments of high tension and action, while a contemporary (and mildly jarring) aside reminds us that America’s bigotry has continued long, long after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Impassioned and brave, Free State Of Jones is a towering piece of leftist American cinema, commenting on the horrors of the nation’s past, which continue to echo into its equally fractured present.

 
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Down Under (The CinefestOZ Film Festival)

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With his cruelly under-celebrated 2003 gut-buster, Ned, writer, actor, and director, Abe Forsythe, lit the fuse on a wildfire comedy that poked irreverent fun at Australia’s most famous anti-hero. Well, if Forsythe didn’t court the ire of guys with Ned Kelly tattoos and spare tire covers enough with that film, he’s back for seconds with the far more mature and even-handed Down Under, a work of biting intelligence that finds comedy – yes, comedy – in amongst the bloodied debris of the 2005 Cronulla Riots. A blight on Australia’s image as a fair-go, laidback nation filled with knock-arounds and larrikins, December 11, 2005 saw one of Sydney’s most famous beaches turned into a battleground, as young Aussie guys staked their territorial claim on an area popular with visitors from Middle Eastern backgrounds, some of whom had caused trouble in the region.

No chin-stroking meditation on the riots themselves, Forsythe instead crafts a scathing attack on institutionalised racism (on both sides of the cultural divide) by focusing on two fictional car-loads of young men still hot and angry from the riots and ready for retaliation. Though divided by their racial backgrounds, they have many things in common, with basic stupidity and ignorance being the principal uniters. One car is filled with angry boys from Cronulla (with Damon Herriman’s Jason and Justin Rosniak’s Ditch the true believers, and Alexander England’s hapless Shit-Stick and his Down Syndrome cousin, Evan – winningly played by Chris Bunton – basically bullied into rolling along), while the other hails from Sydney’s south-west. This lot is similarly divided: Nick (Rahel Romahn) is fired up and ready for violence; D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) is a wannabe rapper with little talent and less brains; Ibrahim (Michael Denkha) is an older, religious Muslim who prods his younger charges on; and Hassim (Lincoln Younes) is the sensible, increasingly compromised voice of reason. Both car loads spend the film cruising around looking for trouble, and a collision is not only expected, but inevitable.

For the entire running time of Down Under, Abe Forsythe walks a tonal tightrope, but he never sways or comes close to losing his balance. The mix of comedy and tragedy is voluble and perfectly judged, and his handling of the film’s characters is impeccable. In this world, vile racists still love their (hilariously foul mouthed) wives and (often neglected) children; even the most awful people have a sense of humour; and horrible acts aren’t always committed by horrible people. Despite their spray-gun-like hurling of f-and-c-bombs (Down Under may very well challenge 44 Inch Chest for the most effectively used c-bombs in one movie) and their propensity for violence, Forsythe has an obvious love for these characters.

Yes, they’re dickheads, but there’s a kernel of goodness (some bigger than others) in all of them, and that makes them indelibly watchable and relatable. Forsythe is way too smart to lay a condescending blanket of authorial scorn over these characters, all of whom are essentially misfits. His malice is justifiably saved for the older men (Marshall Napier’s fire-eyed suburban racist; Michael Denkha’s funny but dangerous fundamentalist) who so gleefully lead them astray. This, of course, all sounds po-faced and serious, but make no mistake: Down Under is, ahem, a laugh riot, peppered with witty dialogue and brilliant performances (check out David Field’s wild cameo as a sleazy drug dealer!) and bolstered by a canny know-how when it comes to the often vicious vernacular of young men for whom violence is a first option. Thought provoking and profoundly hilarious, Down Under is as entertaining as it is culturally significant.

Down Under plays at The CinefestOZ Film Festival, which runs from August 24-28. To buy tickets to Down Under, head to the official site.

 
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REVIEW: David Brent: Life On The Road

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The Office’s David Brent is back! In the decade plus since we last saw him at Wernham Hogg, David’s moved on, repping cleaning chemicals across Berkshire, but still dreaming of making it big with his band, Forgone Conclusion. Unfortunately, due to children, mental illness, and a conviction for sexual assault, The Conclusion are no more, so forming Forgone Conclusion Mk II and booking an intensive eight date tour over three weeks, in and around the Slough area, David takes his not so happy band of troubadours out to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the rocky start to the tour gets progressively rockier from one date to the next. Poor attendances, tensions within the band, and shooting a woman in the face with a t-shirt gun are just the start of Brent’s problems. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when David persuades a record label to come down and check out one of their final gigs that could finally be his big break. It’s not. But it could be.

Bringing Brent to the big screen is a pretty tall order. After all, transitions from cult TV shows to feature length movies are, more often than not, less then successful at best and just plain terrible at worst. This, coupled with the fact that Gervais didn’t co-write this with The Office co-creator, Stephen Merchant, doesn’t bode well at all for David Brent: Life On The Road.

But it is with great relief that Gervais really pulls this off, and the feature length debut of David Brent does fit in with the previous material and doesn’t feel strained or laboured in the slightest. There’s even a little pathos halfway through when you feel bad for David as his relentless optimism is tried and tried again.

The majority of the supporting cast, with the exception of the band’s rapper, Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) and potential love interest, Pauline (Jo Hartley), aren’t particularly well fleshed out, but ultimately this isn’t an ensemble piece, it’s all about Brent. Sure, there’s a heavy dose of off-colour humour and toe curling awkwardness as David looks to the camera yet again after delivering another highly dubious dose of his home-brand “philosophy”, but what did you expect? If you’re not a fan of The Office or Ricky Gervais, then David Brent: Life On The Road will do nothing to change your opinion. But if you are, then you’re in for an hour-and-a-half of Brent at his best.

 
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Endless Night

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In 1909, American, Robert Peary, embarked on an Arctic expedition, and – after a momentary stop over to impregnate a fourteen-year-old Inuit – claimed to have reached the geographical North Pole for the first time. Whether Peary actually reached the Pole was and remains a fact of some contestation. Nevertheless, his life and works, particularly his imperialist treatment of the Inuit people, are dramatic enough to make for a compelling film.  Unfortunately, it isn’t this one. More Godot than Kurtz, Peary is the shadowy eminence whose fabled presence never materialises, not even for a cameo.

Rather, Endless Night entirely concerns his wife, Josephine Peary, played here by Juliette Binoche. Living in Greenland, Josephine grows tired of waiting for her husband to return, and so sets off on her own trek through the ice to find him, guided by Gabriel Byrne, egregiously cast as a native Sherpa. Naturally, the decision proves disastrous, and after losing Byrne to the auspices of nature, Josephine finds herself sequestered in an igloo for The Polar Winter with the Inuit girl, Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi), who is carrying Robert’s baby.

Endless Night is a terribly inconsistent film. It starts off like African Queen on the tundra, but Byrne is gone after thirty minutes, and it devolves quickly into an unhallowed mixture of Nanook Of The North meets She’s Having A Baby. While the decision to make a film about the explorer’s wife rather than the explorer may have seemed an interesting usurpation of roles on paper, there is not enough genuine substance in the characterisation, nor enough excitement in the film, to merit its existence. There are a few touching moments between Josephine and Allaka, but mostly it proves difficult to get past the tired stereotypes – the haughty, out of her depth society matron; the wise, tender native – and the clunky humanism which are supposed, but fail to, compensate for the actual lack of a story. Even the scenery proves undiverting, being as it is, made entirely of ice. Endless Night – despite its occasional rays of sunshine – is likely to leave you cold.