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A Hologram For The King

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Adapted from David Eggers’ 2002 novel of the same name, A Hologram for the King sees Tom Hanks’ beleaguered America sales executive, Alan Clay, dispatched to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by an IT company to pitch for the communications contract at a new city being built in the middle of the desert. Alan has his own problems; he’s going through a nasty divorce and can’t afford to keep sending his daughter to college, he’s haunted by decisions he made which led to massive layoffs at his last job, and he has a weird growth on his back that might be cancerous. Still, he attacks his assignment with a typically American can-do attitude, only to be stymied by the highly ritualised customs of the Saudis.

Any film which starts with Tom Hanks on a roller coaster singing a Talking Heads song can’t be all bad, but A Hologram for the King is an odd beast. Watching it, you get the sense that a lot of what worked on the page simply doesn’t translate well to the screen; while the action of the plot is all there, the literary meat and metaphors that presumably filled in the gaps in Eggers’ novel are absent.

Of course, the opportunity to hang out with Tom Hanks for a couple of hours is never one to be balked at, and he brings his usual solid, amiable charm to the proceedings. Alan is a desperate guy who knows he’s pretty much on his last chance here, and he’s easy to sympathise with as he negotiates the unwritten rules of the country he’s found himself in. With his support time stuck in an extravagant but under-serviced tent (the lack of wifi alone threatens to sink their proposal), Alan struggles to get so much as a meeting with his assigned liaison, and nobody knows when the King, to whom Alan must make his presentation, will arrive. It’s all a bit Waiting for Godot, with our hero twiddling his thumbs in the desert for long stretches.

The film does drive home the incredible wealth of the Saudi government, though, along with the bizarre (at least to Western eyes) reverence with which the King and his retinue are treated. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comes across as a culture where great importance is placed on appearance rather than actuality: huge cities are built as symbols of wealth and status, only to lie empty of tenants; the country is purportedly dry, but alcohol is consumed freely, disguised as olive oil. As a travelogue, the film is fascinating, despite the fact that it was not filmed in Saudi Arabia (Morocco and Egypt subbed in).

As an actual narrative, it’s not so great. The arc of Alan’s journey to self-actualisation is a shallow one, despite the presence of Tom Skerritt as his father-cum-guilty-conscience, and Sarita Choudhury as his love interest/beacon of hope, a female Saudi doctor who treats his abscess. When the credits finally roll, we don’t seem to be too far away from where we started. A Hologram for the King is a pleasant trip to an uninteresting destination, which is a damn shame – there’s a lot of talent in the mix, doing good work to little effect.

 
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Embrace Of The Serpent

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What a film! Inspired by the diaries of a German ethnographer, it follows the Amazonian journeys (decades apart) of two scientists, escorted by the same shaman. They’re both in search of a rare flower which allegedly has extraordinary healing properties. Their guide, Karamakate, is an understandably wary man, distressed to the very core of his being by the systematic destruction of his people, his culture, and his environment. Karamakate is played as a young man by Nilbio Torres, and as a much older one by Antonio Bolivar. Both actors are uncannily expressive, and both have incredible still-waters-run-deep presence. That’s just as well, because less formidable performers would be dwarfed by the sheer beauty of the movie’s setting or the bizarre exoticism of its set-pieces – a Dionysian scene involving a grotesque messiah cult being just one example.

Embrace Of The Serpent is profound, moving, ironic, visually exquisite, both subtle and powerful, wonderfully acted, and breathtakingly imaginative. The music is haunting, the dialogue is memorable, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography is sumptuous. On one level, it’s a great adventure story, but it’s also a character-driven saga of clashing cultures. It pulls off the amazing balancing trick of evoking mystical transcendence whilst maintaining intelligence and wit, eschewing “New-Agey” pretension and being an exercise in damning social and religious commentary.

And it does all this without ever seeming heavy-handed or unduly didactic. Though it conjures memories of earlier cinematic gems such as Fitzcarraldo and Dead Man, it’s fundamentally original. In short, as you may have gathered by now, it’s a flawless masterpiece and essential viewing – preferably on the big screen.

 
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Weiner

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Two years after he was forced to resign from Congress following a sexting scandal, politician Anthony Weiner attempted to revive his career by throwing his hat into the New York City mayoral race. Weiner made the bold choice of inviting a film crew to document what he hopes will be his redemption, and it all seemed to be going swimmingly until… oops, he did it again.

A young woman, Sydney Leathers, revealed to the media that she’d had a long-running online sexual relationship with Weiner long after he said his transgressions had stopped. With his campaign up against it and his personal life under incredible scrutiny, Weiner made the decision to let filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg continue to shoot. The result is never less that fascinating.

Weiner plays out like a Greek tragedy – a story of a hero (in the Classical sense of the word) brought down by a fatal, inescapable internal flaw. Make no mistake, Anthony Weiner is an incredible politician, and it’s easy to see his career arc taking him to the White House, if you excise all the horrible things he’s done. He’s passionate, driven, intelligent, articulate, charismatic… and he has no apprehension of the kind of damage he’s doing to the people around him, not just by philandering, but by insisting on continuing to work in the public eye after he’s caught out.

Which brings us to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife. A confidante of Hillary Clinton, Abedin is a political animal just like her husband, standing by him when he admits his wrongdoing (just like her mentor did, in point of fact – the parallels to the Clintons are inescapable, and in fact Bill officiated at the Weiner-Abedin wedding). However, as the film progresses and Weiner’s campaign implodes, the camera frequently seeks out Abedin standing in the background while Weiner keeps the wheels spinning on centre stage. More than any full-blown argument or confrontation we see between the two – and there are plenty – her beaten expression when she thinks she’s not being observed is heartbreaking. It also adds complexity to the proceedings; it’s one thing to derive schadenfreude from seeing a crusader with feet of clay get hoist on his own petard, but it’s quite another to see his family get caught in the splash zone. Interestingly, Weiner and Abedin are still married.

We’re also forced to ask ourselves whether all this media muckraking was really in the public interest at all. The film  never lets Weiner himself off the hook, but it does make us consider the sheer debilitating weight of the media scrutiny he and his family were under, and examine our assumed role as moral arbiters in the broader culture. Is there a line between the personal and the professional, the private and the public anymore? Weiner courts the media as a politician, and even invites it into his inner circle in the form of the documentary film crew, but does he then still get to demarcate certain parts of his life as off limits, or is everything up for grabs? What sins are forgivable in the the media panopticon, and what must be atoned for forever?

There are, of course, not pat answers. Weiner is a great film, taking a complex and balanced look at a scenario that could have been depicted as one long, rolling punchline. As a portrait of a flawed individual and an unblinking look at the intersection between the media and the political machine, it’s a triumph.

 
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REVIEW: Jason Bourne

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It’s been nearly ten years since Matt Damon punched, kicked, stabbed, and shot his way through a Bourne movie, and in the latest installment, Jason Bourne (which sounds almost like a statement of intent), he certainly makes up for lost time, opening the film by knocking a guy out cold, and then never letting up from there. With Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips, United 91) once again at the helm, Jason Bourne locks instantly into its predecessors’ shaky-cam-induced sense of urgency, while boasting a wholly contemporary subtext, with references to Edward Snowden, personal privacy, and the insidious possibilities of the internet as frequent as the car chases and gun play. With brutish forcefulness, Greengrass and Damon seem to be stating in no uncertain terms that they’re back because the time is right for a Jason Bourne movie, and not because the pay cheque was too irresistible.

As Jason Bourne opens, Matt Damon’s once amnesiac former government operative is still on the run, and now making his living as a bareknuckle fighter. But when he is contacted by his friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – who is now working for a WikiLeaks-style group of hacker activists – with more details about his foggy past, Bourne is once again drawn into the world of the CIA and its various sub-agencies, and on the run for his life. This time, his chief adversaries are Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA director, Robert Dewey; Vincent Cassel’s unnamed assassin; and Alicia Vikander’s CIA tech agent, Heather Lee; all of whom are tied in with a pioneering software entrepreneur played by Riz Ahmed. As with all of the previous Bourne films, the stakes are high, the action is full-tilt, and Matt Damon grounds it all with his renowned soulfulness and likeability.

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So yes, Jason Bourne is, well, very much a Jason Bourne movie. It connects with the previous films (though little is made of the events of the excellent Jeremy Renner-starring spin-off, The Bourne Legacy) while still striking out in new directions, and is peppered with highlights. Oscar winner, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), is teriffic as a very millennial brand of CIA agent, her icy exterior occasionally cracking to reveal the nervy rookie underneath; Tommy Lee Jones puts a different spin on his famed cantankerous schtick; and the film’s constant nods to today’s hi-tech world and its inherent dangers are intelligently and seamlessly woven into the narrative.

But despite the thrilling action sequences, Jason Bourne lacks a little punch. The absence of ship-jumping screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (who worked on the scripts for all of the other films, and directed The Bourne Legacy), is keenly felt, and the sharp pithiness that he injected into his dialogue (as well as his keen facility for narrative immediacy) isn’t replicated by Greengrass and the series’ regular editor, Christopher Rouse, who makes his screenwriting debut here. Vincent Cassel, meanwhile, isn’t given nearly enough to do with his bad guy role, and wasting an actor of his enviable gifts is borderline criminal. But as a continuation of a truly superior action franchise, Jason Bourne is a rock-solid success: it might not soar, but it certainly flies.

 
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REVIEW: Down Under

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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 premieres in Canberra at Dendy Cinemas as part of FilmInk Presents in conjunction with the Canberra International Film Festival on Thursday, July 28 at 6.30 with a post-film Q&A with writer/director Abe Forsythe; in Brisbane at the Palace Barracks as part of FilmInk Presents in conjunction with the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival on Thursday, August 4 at 7pm with a post-film Q&A with writer/director Abe Forsythe; as the Centrepiece Gala on Saturday, August 6 at The Melbourne International Film Festival, and will open in general release from August 11. 

 
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REVIEW: The Killing Joke

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The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot graphic novel written by beardy wordsmith, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta) and impeccably drawn by Brian Bolland (2000AD, Judge Dredd). Despite the fact that it’s almost three decades old, The Killing Joke remains one of the most iconic, memorable, and controversial comics ever printed by DC. The story focuses on Batman’s attempt to try and connect with The Joker, to make him stop his escalating madness before either or both of them are dead. The Joker, meanwhile, has something very different in mind: to prove to Batman that everyone is just “one bad day” away from chaos and insanity.

It’s a dense, dark read, featuring Moore’s signature heavy, layered dialogue, and containing truly disturbing sequences, including implied sexual violence and the crippling of a major Batman character. It’s also very static, with a lot of talk and not much action, so when the animated movie was announced, it seemed a baffling choice for adaptation.

The good news is that the end result is a quality animated movie. A large part of the credit needs to go to Mark Hamill, whose turn as The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham Asylum games is followed up here with his best performance to date. Hamill positively relishes Moore’s dark, pun-heavy monologues, and digs into them with gusto. He’s so good, in fact, that Kevin Conroy’s Batman can’t help but feel a little bland by comparison. The rest of the voice cast comprises Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and they both provide solid performances.

The Killing Joke is at its best when it’s a straight adaptation. Unfortunately, because the graphic novel is quite short, an additional 15-minute Batgirl-heavy prologue is added, and while it’s nice to see Batgirl in action, it smacks a little of filler. The prologue also features an attempt to recontextualise the relationship between Batman and Batgirl that will no doubt prove polarising, to say the least. That said, Batgirl offers a brief ray of sunshine in a story that takes place over a very dark night.

Presentation-wise, the animation is fine, but the art style never really captures Bolland’s intricate, mesmerising lines. The story is well executed, but like a lot of Moore’s work, it reads better on the page. In terms of the much-touted “R rating” (which translates as MA in Australia), the film is quite disturbing and violent, but nothing terribly envelope pushing. Ultimately, The Killing Joke is a solid, if unspectacular, adaptation of the source material. It’s worth watching for Mark Hamill’s performance alone, and a new way to experience one of comic history’s most enduring and infamous stories.

The Killing Joke will screen on July 24 only at cinemas around Australia. Check online to find a theatre near you.

 
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Hitchcock/Truffaut

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Hitchcock/Truffaut sounds like one of those quaint film titles where two people meet – as in Frost/Nixon, for example – and the odd juxtaposition provides the rationale of the film. In a superficial sense, this film has some of that dynamic. This one, however, is a feature length documentary about two iconic filmmakers. Francois Truffaut was part of the “New Wave” in French cinema in the 1960s. Via publications like Cahiers Du Cinema, he and fellow travellers such as Jean Luc Godard set out their manifesto and their canon of greats to follow. They resurrected a certain interpretation of the Hollywood western (Howard Hawks and John Ford mainly) and, of course, they worshipped Alfred Hitchcock.

When Truffaut was only in his mid-twenties, he wrote a scholarly book about Hitchcock’s films. By the time that Truffaut had made a couple of promising films himself (including his important calling card, The 400 Blows), he invited Hitch into the long filmed interview that is the substance of this film. The occasion was filmed in black and white with the two men sitting around a big table. Most of it is conducted in English. It is clear that Truffaut is somewhat in the position of the acolyte, but Hitch takes his questions seriously, and you can also tell that he is enjoying sparring with such an intelligent interlocutor.

Quite appropriately, this documentary is directed by a film critic too. Kent Jones is a well-known writer about film. He has also gained access to a number of contemporary filmmakers, who each bring their own thoughts to the question of Hitchcock’s style and how it influenced cinema and their work. Jones has been careful to balance French and American views as befits the topic. It is a pretty impressive list of contemporary directors, with Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader from the American side, and Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas from France. Each one of these directors could be the subject an interesting documentary themselves.

That said, Hitchcock/Truffaut may not have the widest appeal, although Jones clearly loves his topic, and is in a perfect position to understand it. The film has played successfully on the festival circuit. In the end, it is really talking heads. In regard to the famous interview, there is not much that you can do with the way it is filmed. There is no chance, for example, to have each of them apart reflecting on what the meeting was like. Still, for students of cinema and storytelling technique, there are nice dissections of famous sets ups and sequences from Hitch’s classics. It is not a put down to say that this is delightful viewing, but mostly for those of us who are invested in the cineaste world.

 
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Love And Friendship

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Based on Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan, this is a moderately successful adaptation, but one which somehow combines a breathless pace with intermittent flatness and staginess. We’re introduced immediately to a ridiculously large number of characters, replete with information overload via explanatory captions…albeit witty ones: one girl’s optimistic suitor is summed up as “her unintended.”

This story is all about social ambition, connivance, and trickery. At the centre of the Machiavellian maelstrom is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a particularly grasping and acquisitive character, whom we are apparently invited to find amusing and more or less likeable. Lady Susan is especially insensitive and spiteful to her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and has sent her away – hopefully permanently – while she herself leaves London and descends on wealthy rural in-laws with a view to negotiating a new marriage and a fortune. “Unfortunately”, Frederica turns up, and is pursued by the lively but amiable buffoon, Sir James Martin (a funny Tom Bennett). Lady Susan herself has designs on handsome young Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). And so it goes on.

Love And Friendship does improve a bit, and certainly passes muster at the level of chocolate-boxy escapism. But most of the pleasure here is verbal rather than visual, inevitably so when dialogue is lifted pretty faithfully from the great Jane Austen. A husband is dismissed as “too old to be governable, too young to die”, while Lady Susan reacts to the news that a friend will be leaving England for Connecticut with the words, “You could be scalped!” Mildly diverting.

 
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REVIEW: Lights Out

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Fear of the dark is one of the most relatable terrors that most of us have experienced at one time or another. It’s the basis for countless horror movies and, done well, still manages to provide tension and goosebumps. Lights Out seeks to capitalise on those fears but only sporadically succeeds in doing so.

All the ingredients are in place to make Lights Out a cracking horror yarn. The story is based on first time feature director, David F. Sandberg’s much-loved (and viewed) 2013 short film of the same name. Aussie horror maestro, James Wan, is on board in a producing capacity, which lends the project some genre cred.

The story involves a family secret that begins to unravel as Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) becomes increasingly concerned that her brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is falling afoul of her mother, Sophie’s (Maria Bello) increasingly erratic behaviour. Said behaviour is much more than mere mental illness, however, and involves a childhood friend of Sophie’s named Diana who is the very definition of a bad influence. Without getting too specific, Diana can only exist in the dark – leading to some extremely clever sequences in which light is used during tense games of cat and mouse between various characters and Diana. The problem is, despite quality actresses like Maria Bello, none of the characters are terribly interesting, representing unconvincing archetypes (the bad girl, the crazy mum, the precocious kid) rather than feeling like fleshed out human beings.

This sense of blandness sadly extends to most of the action between jump scares too, with TV quality, over lit direction killing any genuine sense of atmosphere. Sandberg’s noisy jump scare scenes are a little more effective, with solid jolts along the way, but they’re all a bit familiar, and are unlikely to linger long after the film ends. At a slender 81 minutes, Lights Out certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s good to see a fresh horror property that isn’t a remake, reboot, or sequel. Ultimately, however, the experience is a rather pedestrian one and unlikely to leave you needing to sleep with the lights on.

 
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Drown

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Under a pitch black sky, three inebriated men lie on a deserted beach: Len (Matt Levett) and his mate, Meat (Harry Cook), and their almost comatose acquaintance, Phil (Jack Matthews). Len has reached a crossroads in his life, and something bad is going to happen to Phil, but what it is will not be disclosed straight away. This is the harrowing start of Drown.

Directed by Dean Francis, and co-written with Stephen Davis, this is the tale of Len – proud volunteer lifeguard and even prouder all-Australian bloke. He drinks, he fights, and he likes his men to be men. Aside from a few flashbacks to his rather aggressive childhood, there’s very little given away about Len’s life outside of the lifeguard tower. Anytime we’re not at the beach, Francis bleaches the colour out of Len’s life. All of which emphasises how much this insular world means to him. When Phil enters that world as a newbie lifeguard, Len develops a fixation on him based solely around Phil’s homosexuality.

Drown has a lot to say about sexual identity and masculinity. Len is clearly in denial about the former and overcompensates on the latter, leading to violent outbursts that have plagued him since childhood. His reasons for trying to pick apart Phil are obvious, but not enough to dull his actions. There is, unfortunately, an element of voyeurism in Len’s victimisation of Phil that feels exploitative, and threatens to taint the overall product. Equally, some dialogue clangs when it should ring true; a discussion about foreskins seems oddly out of place in the context of the scene that it’s in. And yet, at a time when “Gay Panic” laws are still prevalent in some states of Australia, Drown’s themes are particularly potent, and will certainly open up a discourse about some people’s fear of male intimacy.

Drown will be screening through August and September in a number of special Q&A events. For all information and venue information, head to the film’s official website.