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The Duelist (The 2016 Russian Resurrection Film Festival)

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The Duelist really hits the ground running. The time is 1860, and the location is St. Petersburg, where young nobleman, Yakovlev (Pyotr Fodorov) is a relentless and evidently professional duelist. Yakovlev has a fearsome reputation as a “death machine”, notwithstanding the fact that he claims to detest duelling. His opposite number is Count Graf Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov), an apparent cad whom we’re not supposed to like.

The main trouble here is that almost no-one is sufficiently well delineated to be likeable, and expressionless machismo is overdone to the point where many characters become virtually interchangeable. Also, the production is overly stylised, with some – fortunately not too many – ostentatious camera angles and effects. There’s more than a quorum of gruesomeness, with the violence extending beyond duelling to include bludgeoning, whipping, and the smashing of bones.

So much for the bad news. As the plot thickens, and we learn more about the mysterious Yakovlev’s family history and possible motivation, it becomes steadily stronger and more interesting. There are odd bits of tersely snappy dialogue (of the “Shooting isn’t difficult but killing is an exact science” variety), and occasional flashes of grim humour. The Duelist is, in essence, a swashbuckling, exciting and – inevitably, being set in the 19th century – old-fashioned tale. And the stirring orchestral soundtrack helps ratchet up the dramatic tension, which is already high thanks to the sheer frequency of the duels, and the even more “gut-tightening” Russian roulette sequences.

The colourful setting in imperial Russia pushes The Duelist over the line, making it a diverting adventure story.

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Lucifer: The Complete First Season

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With Oliver Twist and King Arthur both up for reboots as police procedurals, you’re probably thinking that there’s very little else to do in the overpopulated field of detective dramas. Well, what if we were to throw in the literal Devil? Has that made you sit you up and take notice?

Based on a character from Neil Gaiman’s critically lauded Sandman comic series, Tom Ellis plays Lucifer Morningstar, who you may have read about in the popular book, The Bible. Having grown tired of ruling over Hell, Lucifer has decided to take a holiday. Now living in LA, where he runs his own nightclub, the crimson one is a champion of freewill and punishing people who choose to do the wrong thing. Think of it as a theological Dexter, with heavy dollops of Elementary thrown in, as Lucifer’s eccentric way of crime fighting clashes with the stony faced Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German). Elsewhere, Lucifer’s brother, Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside) pops up regularly to forcibly encourage his sibling to return to his rightful place.

Despite the potential for brooding Gothicism, Lucifer is a surprisingly light affair. As the main man himself, Ellis appears to be having a whale of time as the dark lord detective. Equal parts smarmy and charming, Lucifer finds great delight in the constant danger that he puts himself in. Even whilst being away from Hell means that he has the potential to become mortal, he takes it all in good stead realising that he’s now becoming open to new sensations such as bleeding and broken bones.

Admittedly the incessant puns about Hell do begin to grate, and the soundtrack is often too on the nose (Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut”, really?). And yes, aside from the protagonist being The Devil, there’s very little to distinguish it from other police procedurals. However, it’s quite easy to be charmed over by it all.

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The Handmaiden

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Adapted from Sarah Waters’ sapphic period potboiler, Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Stoker) The Handmaiden swaps out the novel’s Victorian setting for Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, a move that, for Western audiences at least, amps up the historical exoticism while foregrounding the class and gender issues at play.

When Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) takes employment as a handmaiden to the fragile, reclusive Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), she has an ulterior motive: she’s the spearpoint of an elaborate long con masterminded by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a smooth criminal who aims to marry Hideko, then have her committed to an asylum so he can take her money and run. That Hideko and Sook-hee fall in the love is only one complication that comes into play, as betrayal stacks upon betrayal in this sumptuous, sensual psychological thriller.

The Handmaiden is highbrow smut for the arthouse crowd, and why not? Over the course of his career, Park Chan-wook has frequently melded exploitation elements with more complex and high-minded themes. Here, he revels in “perverse” sexuality, of which the central lesbian affair is only one aspect; even putting aside one character’s lifetime goal to compile an exhaustive library of pornography and erotica, the film practically drips with fetishistic imagery and detail. Park and his cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, have crafted a meticulously detailed, finely textured world, all polished wood, taut leather and rich fabrics – it’s a film you can almost literally feel.

And yet, for all its sensorial appeal, narratively the film feels a little flat. Partly this is down to Park’s decision to excise much of the novel’s third act twists and turns – just when we should be building to a new set of plot and character revelations, the film draws to a somewhat anticlimactic close. Partly this is due to a sense of remove from the characters, something that you could argue is expected in a scenario where everyone is running a double – or triple – bluff and keeping their cards close to their chest, but even the (over)employment of voice-over narration from multiple characters fails to bring us fully into their inner world. We’re always watching events happen, not being drawn into them – although perhaps this is Park indulging our voyeuristic urges?

Still, while it might fall a little short of perfection, The Handmaiden is a great film: a willfully erotic, heady dalliance in a richly realised world of conflicted desires and sexual yearning. That we don’t get complete catharsis by the end of the tale may be Park’s entire point – leaving the audience in a state of unreleased tension just like so many of his characters.

The Handmaiden is screening now in selected cinemas, and will then go on to wider release on November 3.

Sydney : Event Cinemas George Street/Burwood/Top Ryde (Releases November 3)

Melbourne : Cinema Nova Carlton (Screening now)

Brisbane : Event Cinemas Garden City (Releases November 3)

Perth : Event Cinemas Innaloo, Cinema Paradiso (Screening now)

Adelaide : Event Cinemas Adelaide/Marion , Palace Nova Eastend Cinema (Screening now)

New Castle : Event Cinemas New Castle (Releases November 3)

Cairns : Event Cinemas Cairns City (Releases November 3)

Canberra : Event Cinemas Manuka (Releases November 3)

Gold Coast : Event Cinemas Australia Fair (Releases November 3)

Hobart : State Cinema (Screening now)

Morayfield : Event Cinemas Morayfield (Releases November 3)



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REVIEW: Doctor Strange

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Proving once again that they’re not averse to taking risks, Marvel Studios have pulled another Guardians Of The Galaxy-level left turn by opting to bring the character of Doctor Strange to the big screen. A loopy mystic born of 1960s psychedelia, he’s hardly a household name, but that actually works in the film’s favour. Wildly different to Marvel Studios’ previous films, Doctor Strange feels fresh, new, vibrant, and singular. And unlike recent entries such as Captain America: Civil War and Ant-Man, the connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe are minimal, meaning that you can comfortably come in cold, with no previous experience necessary. And those that do will be treated to another surprise wild ride from Marvel, with Doctor Strange more mind-zap than superhero flick.

Directed with a freewheeling flourish by horror specialist, Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister), Doctor Strange is the story of gifted but horrendously arrogant neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose glamorous life screeches to a halt when a horrific car accident shatters his hands. Failed by traditional medicine, Strange searches for healing and hope, and ultimately finds his way to Kamar-Taj, a mysterious enclave in Nepal. But as well as healing, this is also a place of teaching, and Strange is soon armed with newly acquired magical powers, giving his life a bizarre new sense of meaning.

Not hiding from Doctor Strange’s psychedelic roots, Scott Derrickson goes delightfully berserk with the film’s visuals, as buildings turn in on themselves (this is Inception on steroids), entire cities warp and bend, and vast fantastical tableaux literally engulf the screen. Though the film’s narrative is straight ahead and no-nonsense (it’s basically The Karate Kid, but with magic), the ambition of Derrickson and his cinematographer, Ben Davis (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron), is admirable and utterly thrilling. Along with their army of visual effects artists, they succeed in bending CGI to fit their own ends, creating nothing short of a hallucinogenic on-screen blast.

As the on-screen world fizzes and pops around him, Benedict Cumberbatch expertly grounds proceedings, delivering a funny, perfectly timed performance as Stephen Strange, an arrogant tool who experiences a spiritual awakening, but ultimately remains amusingly and smugly superior for the film’s duration. It’s a great piece of casting, and Cumberbatch grabs it with both hands. He’s ably supported by Tilda Swinton (a delight as The Ancient One, Strange’s teacher), Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Strange’s friend, Mordo) and Benedict Wong (as Kamar-Taj’s enigmatic librarian), though Mads Mikkelsen (as bad guy, Kaecilius) and Rachel McAdams (as Strange’s ex, Christine Palmer) aren’t given a hell of a lot to work with.

Brimming with Marvel Studios’ now well-noted use of humour (yes, there’s an Adele joke), Doctor Strange is a real joy. It’s exciting, entertaining, goofy, and fun, with the film’s weirdo world of sorcery and multidimensional madness adding a welcome dash of inspired lunacy into The Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Flight Crew (The 2016 Russian Resurrection Film Festival)

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With Hollywood criticised for its saturation of remakes and reboots, the Russian film industry itself little different with Flight Crew, a contemporary remake of the 1979 Russian film, Air Crew. In this case, however, that is far from a negative, as director Nikolai Lebedev brings his penchant for Hollywood blockbusters to the disaster pic, utilising a 3D IMAX camera and top-notch special effects to elevate his film.

When young hotshot pilot, Alexey Gushchin, is discharged from military service for disobeying questionable orders, he applies to Russia’s passenger airplane programme, a decision that brings him into direct conflict with the stern and experienced crew commander, Leonid Zinchenko. On route to Asia, the clashing pair receive word of a volcanic eruption at a nearby island, and are tasked with evacuating survivors, only to find upon landing that the natural disaster is far worse than first anticipated. With the island literally falling apart around them, the two pilots must work together to attempt the impossible, and ultimately save the lives of the 200 passengers in their care.

An entirely Russian production and only the second disaster film produced by the local industry, Flight Crew stands tall amongst the genre-specific Hollywood blockbusters circling the market today. While not the most cerebral movie, featuring questionable physics and a fairly simplistic plot, the film takes its time to set up the characters and their relationships before the central disaster kicks off with spectacular results. Featuring truly tense action sequences and a seamless blend of practical and visual effects, the time spent with the flight crew pays off as they each step up when needed to get their passengers home safe, resulting in a surprisingly fun action blockbuster.


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The Green Carriage (The 2016 Russian Resurrection Film Festival)

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Vadim Raevskii (Andrey Merzlikin) is Russia’s leading director, and he is a bastard. This we are told by several characters at the beginning of the film. He is a womanising, arrogant jerk of a man who can’t find time for his only child, Artyom (Aleksandr Michkov), a film student, whilst also ignorant to the barely concealed contempt of his wife, Vera (Viktoria Isakova). When a family tragedy occurs, Vadim goes on a journey of self-destruction as he discovers why his family has crumbled around him. The problem is that the audience already knows why in the first fifteen minutes.

Andrey Merzlikin puts in a convincing performance as Vadim, effectively capturing the flaws of this ignorant womaniser and angry father. He scoots around modern Moscow in his Porsche, on a wild-goose chase of a cinematic investigation, haphazardly asking people questions and often getting punched. There is a quick shot where Vadim is directing a scene and one of his assistants tries to insert a piece of product placement before being rebuked by the director; ironically, there are so many scenes which look like a commercial for Porsche that it makes you wonder if this is some kind of deliberate in-joke.

The idea of “just one more take” is also explored here, contrasting life to a director’s depiction of it, leading to a Groundhog Day type conclusion which ends up feeling cheap and lazy. The Green Carriage tries to refresh a familiar tale of family drama by taking elements of theatre and the film-within-a-film sub-genre, but ends up feeling hollow and trite, just like its protagonist.

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Lights Out

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Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is a metal-loving ball of anger who tries to keep a considerable distance from her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). When her much younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), tells her that mummy has begun talking to someone in her closet, Rebecca believes that it’s nothing more than a symptom of the mental illness that coloured her own childhood. And yet, she couldn’t be more wrong.

Based on his viral short film of the same name, the strength of David Sandberg’s Lights Out are the complex issues that hide under its simple premise. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, Lights Out uses its creeping horror and tension as an allegory of how depression and stress can bleed through and tear a family apart. Here, Sophie’s distress is manifested in a skeletal woman called Diana who can only be seen in the dark. That light – from a bulb, a car light, or even a mobile phone – appears to be her weakness means nothing as the threat of what she represents cannot be washed away with the morning. Much like Sophie’s behaviour around her family.

Even without this deeper context, Lights Out is a well-crafted spine-chiller which hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the end. It perfectly encapsulates that stalking feeling one possesses when wandering down a dark alley, unable to make out what’s lurking in the shadows. And yes, in light of any potential symbolism that the film may hold, its ending can be – and has been – read as condoning a certain behaviour. However, this is really a minor issue on which to hang the director, and diminishes the complexity of the topic of depression. Instead, Lights Out should be praised for wanting to tackle these ideas head on.

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REVIEW: Hell Or High Water

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Texas brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. The boys, however, are soon in the sights of seasoned, retirement-ready Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, a showdown ominously looms.

You can generally rely on westerns to be pretty solid for one reason: the classic anti-hero dynamic. As the old formula generally goes, there are two anti-heroes: the supposed villain – who is really just a good guy pushed to the brink – and the guy trying to catch him, a man of the law with a good heart but a prickly demeanour. In the case of Hell Or High Water, those roles are filled predictably by Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges. Their reinvention of these age-old figures, however, is anything but predictable.

While all the tropes are still there, even down to the Stetson hats, Bridges and Pine bring something new to this neo-western, giving it a truly modern quality while somehow maintaining the genre traditions that we love. Pine plays the strong silent type, all introspective and emotionally intelligent. It’s great to see him stretch his dramatic legs here, challenging his usual scenery-chewing roles with a largely silent performance.

Bridges sinks further into yet another gritty, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit type, which seems to be his jam at this stage of his career…and no one is complaining, because it fits him like a glove. It would have been easy for Bridges to phone this one in, resting on his gravel voice and steely gaze. Instead, he delivers a truly layered performance, giving subtle complexity and depth to his ageing redneck Texas Ranger.

The real hero of this piece though is Ben Foster, who is damn-near perfect as the explosive renegade yang to Pine’s yin. If you’ve seen Foster in anything else, you’ll understand how exceptionally transformative he is. His range is too-often under-rated, and his performance here is yet another example of how his extraordinary talents continue to fly under the radar.

Hell Or High Water has earned British director, David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Young Adam), a tonne of industry cred after the film’s popularity at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. His direction is quite transparent, and while this is mostly a good thing for the subject matter, a few of his choices are a little on the nose. The constant reference to “debt relief” and “fast cash now” billboards for example, feels like he’s beating you over the head with the narrative. We get it, David, the economy sucks.

The original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, meanwhile, is a total winner, and accompanies the narrative tremendously. Cave’s sinful voice alongside Ellis’ pan-handle fiddle is the perfect representation of the themes throughout. It is, however, quite similar to the score that they crafted for The Proposition, and unfortunately, it’s not quite as strong.

Hell Or High Water is a desperate, bleak and horribly authentic look at post-GFC America. The writing (the original screenplay is courtesy of on-the-rise Sicario scribe, Taylor Sheridan) very cleverly positions the current economic wasteland as the new Wild West – and it is truly sobering. There are lots of tense moments, car chases, shoot-outs, and frivolous references to how great the second amendment is (well, it is Texas). Be sure to take Dad and Pop with you, they’d totally dig it.

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Isabelle Huppert’s performance in Elle will make viewers want to dig out her entire back-catalogue and absorb it all. She’s just that good. As Michèle, Huppert is strong, funny, brash, beautiful, charming, and caring all at once – displaying incredible restraint where necessary to denote her character’s protective wall, while still harbouring a certain amount of vulnerability to ensure that viewers establish an emotional connection. We’re introduced to our lead in the worst possible circumstances, during her struggle and rape by an unknown intruder. Director, Paul Verhoeven, shows class by not glorifying or even dwelling on the act to instead focus on its psychological effects.

Elle has an entirely different tone to any rape-themed film that we’ve seen before, and that actually helps us change the way that we, as an audience, process the act and clearly perceive how it affects the victim. Michèle doesn’t let it hold her back, seeking the required medical attention but refusing to call police, for reasons disclosed later. She tells a few close friends, but ultimately carries on with her life as normal – as the head of a video game design agency, which she runs with her best friend.

The way that Michèle’s friends and family fit in her life is constructed similarly to a soap opera – and considering the extremity of the events that transpire, it kind of plays out that way. There’s a rape, an unwanted pregnancy, multiple affairs, and several counts of homicide. It also builds into a murder-mystery of sorts, with Michèle suspiciously evaluating all these people in her life, as to which of them could be her attacker. Satisfyingly, all of these questions raised are concisely answered in due course – largely thanks to the brilliant screenplay from David Birke, who adapted the novel by Philippe Djian. In the end, apart from being one of the best films of the year, Elle highlights the horrifying truth that much of the pain and abuse directed at women today is more often than not caused by men.

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Stranger Than Love

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When art teacher, Lucy (Alison Brie), finally commits to an affair with the school’s gym teacher, Clint (Colin Hanks), he immediately falls through a hole that opens up in her living room floor. Not a sinkhole, but a perfectly round hole that leaves Clint floating in a dark state of limbo, but still able to communicate.

When we’re introduced to Lucy, she’s the pixie girl trope brought into sharp relief, lusted upon by every male in her town, from her students to the police. She deals with their persistent lasciviousness with a stoicism that generates passive aggression from her so-called friends. This sudden appearance of a hole in her house appears the be the straw that breaks her, long before questions are raised about Clint’s “disappearance.” Her anxiety leads her to Rydell (Justin Chatwin), an out of towner looking for Clint to pay up on a debt. It’s apparent that the two are made for each other and so now, we have the triangle necessary for a romance, albeit with one of its participants floating in an ethereal hole.

As romantic comedies go, Stranger Than Love runs alongside films such as Stranger Than Fiction and The Cobbler in terms of magic realism. When news of the hole in Lucy’s home becomes public, the townsfolk use it as an excuse to hold a BBQ in her front garden and discuss its symbolism. And this is where screenwriter, Steve Adams (Envy), just seems to be using the quirky plot to air his thoughts on fidelity, poetry, and societal pressures, without really providing any cohesion, and occasionally forgetting about Lucy, his protagonist, altogether. By no means a surreal masterpiece, Stranger Than Love gets by on the performances of its leads, who paper over its exceedingly light plot.