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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 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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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.

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REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

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It’s an interesting time for Star Trek. With the science fiction franchise celebrating a half-century since beaming into American living rooms via the latest cathode ray tube technology, the little-sci-fi-who-could has amassed an impressive six television series (yes, we are including the animated series) culminating in 523 hours of sci-fi glory with an all-new anthology series from Hannibal showrunner, Bryan Fuller, premiering in 2017. But while hardcore fans might argue that Trek’s rightful place is on the small screen, the franchise in recent years has found new life theatrically thanks to J.J. Abrams, whose reboot of the Star Trek universe in 2011 opened up both the mythology and the relevance of a series heavily steeped in nostalgia.

And that’s where Star Trek Beyond does well in paying tribute to the past fifty years, by deftly questioning its own relevance in today’s cinematic landscape via introspective character arcs that hold their own against the onslaught of visual effects, protracted action sequences, and a ball-tearing soundscape oddly, but effectively headlined by The Beastie Boys classic tune “Sabotage.”

Avoiding spoilers, Star Trek Beyond picks up three years into the crew’s five-year mission of exploring deep space, quickly establishing a burnt out crew going through the motions. But when the Enterprise, heading out from the Federation’s shiny new space station on a search and rescue mission, is attacked and destroyed, Kirk and his team, including a feisty alien castaway by the name of Jaylah, find themselves facing an enemy hell-bent on tearing apart the ideals of the Federation itself.

As with most Star Trek movies, on paper the synopsis seems simple enough, but the beauty of Star Trek has always been its ability to touch on big social themes, and Star Trek Beyond is no exception, tackling the current social and political divides between liberals and conservatives, the theology of terrorism, and, of course, the stalwart Star Trek mantra of acceptance, tolerance, and inevitable change.

Helmed by Justin Lin, whose directorial efforts on Fast And Furious saw that franchise reach new heights, Star Trek Beyond delivers a bold, entertaining spectacle designed to push the rebooted franchise into new territory. But the film isn’t without its flaws, most notably in Idris Elba’s protagonist, Krall, who has all the attributes of being a superb villain, but the actor frustratingly isn’t given the opportunity to truly engage with the role. Thankfully though, Star Trek Beyond has far more wins than losses thanks in part to Simon Pegg’s handling of the script, which is peppered with very funny moments (including the film’s opening scene) and which honours the franchise’s fifty-year milestone with numerous nuanced references to past films and characters, including the now controversial outing of Sulu and a subtle homage to the original cast.

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This is a documentary for those who would usually steer clear of them. Caged follows three MMA fighters and an MMA coach for a year. That year is trimmed down to a short 51 minutes, but by the end, you’ll feel like you’ve been alongside these fighters in the cage.

You watch as the three fighters jump rope, run, and spar their way into fighting shape. Martin, Claire, and Ali can be seen training, sweating and bleeding for real. Fights are lost, weight requirements are not met, and a fighter is put in a medically induced coma. These, however, are just normal people, with day-to-day jobs and families outside the ring.

Though gritty and compelling, a minor downside of the doco is the lack of emphasis on females in the world of MMA. Although Claire Todd is seen fighting, the lion’s share of her scenes are concerned with her personal life and her time on her father’s farm. Whilst the other fighters are shown sweating off pounds for their weigh in, you only hear narration about Claire’s process. The only other downside is that Caged is not nearly long enough. By the end, you want to see more fights, more training, and more nail-biting weigh-ins. Caged is a refreshing, exciting film, and will likely inspire audiences to swarm to the nearest MMA fight.

Caged will screen on SBS on Wednesday, July 20, 8:30pm

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Neil Hamburger – the creation of comedian, Gregg Turkington – is the antithesis of stand-up. With a permanently phlegm coated throat, Hamburger’s confrontational act of rambling jokes and jibes at his ex-wife has proved to be a hit outside of the mainstream comedy circuit. Given his cult appeal, it’s no surprise that this feature length vehicle for Hamburger is less Alpha Papa and more Lost Highway.

Rather than staying in character for the whole film, Hamburger is presented as the persona of a softly spoken man known in the credits only as The Comedian (Turkington). Alongside a vulgar mime (Tye Sheridan), The Comedian plays at ever increasingly small venues in the Mojave Desert as he makes his way to LA. His act is deliberately provocative, but when he begins to berate the crowd for interrupting or talking, it’s not made too clear if it’s The Comedian or his character that’s doing the shouting.

As each day passes, Entertainment captures the ennui of touring and doing the same thing over and over. Director, Rick Alverson, who co-wrote the mostly improvised script, paints The Comedian’s world in shades of beige that somehow match his worldview. Away from the stage, he wanders around various tourist traps and makes numerous phone calls – each more desperate than the last – to a daughter who doesn’t respond or doesn’t exist. These phone calls could be the cause or even the result of a man becoming utterly despondent with his life; his act slowly devolves until he can do nothing but fall to the ground letting out sobs of ineffectual rage. Entertainment is an uncomfortable road movie, perhaps even to those familiar with Turkington’s work, but it’s dreamlike state of mind is somewhat beguiling.

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Directed by Kike Maíllo, Eva is a Spanish science fiction film that tackles Descartes’ philosophy of “I think, therefore I am” whilst applying it to the manufacturing of artificial life. In a near future where it’s common place to own your own domestic robot, a cybernetic engineer, Alex (Daniel Brühl), returns to his hometown upon being commissioned to build a freethinking robot. Agreeing to the machine resembling a child, Alex begins to study the behaviour of his precocious niece, Eva (Claudia Vega), as inspiration for the robot’s thought patterns. Things become complicated, however, when Eva’s mother (Marta Etura), who also happens to be Alex’s former lover, refuses to let her participate in the experiment.

Eva walks down the path already well travelled by the likes of Blade Runner and AI, but it does so with a charm that’s utterly disarming. It’s more concerned about family dynamics than it is the morality of synthetic life. As Eva, Vega is a delight, and more than holds her ground alongside her onscreen uncle. Away from her, Brühl is given the least amount to do. Despite his insistence on cracking the code of freethinking, Alex is often doing nothing more than brooding after his love and smoking copiously. Elsewhere, his fights with his former mentor (Anne Canovas) boil down to little more than dummy spitting. Thank heavens then for his scenes with Eva, which give the film its emotional impact.

And speaking of emotional impact, Eva holds a secret at the heart of its story which is clearly signposted and yet happily enough, doesn’t detract from the rug pull come the final act. It’s a testament to how much the film engages its audience right up to the bitter end.