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Bad Blood

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Crime novelist Vincent’s (Xavier Samuel) first book was a smash hit – and was based in part on the murder, as yet unsolved, of his wife two years previously. Perhaps that’s why he’s having so much trouble making progress on his follow-up book. Worse, he’s being harassed by a private detective (Rob Macpherson), who thinks that he had something to do with his wife’s death, and stalked by a mysterious hooded figure. It’s possible that a retreat to a remote country house with his new girlfriend, Carrie (Morgan Griffin) in tow, might be just the tonic he needs. Then again, this being a fairly rote example of Australian Gothic cinema, that might be just the place for everything to come to a head, complete with ghosts from the past, dark family secrets, and the odd bit of grim murder.

As a thriller, David Pulbrook’s (Last Dance) latest offering is pretty perfunctory. It’s competently directed and realised on what is evidently a fairly limited budget, which accounts for the low number of both characters and locations, but the script isn’t dexterous enough to overcome those handicaps. Bad Blood is heavily predicated on a surprise reveal that we won’t be callous enough to expose here. In the context of the film, it works a treat; the problem is, outside of that surprise, there’s not a lot left, narratively speaking, to keep the viewer engaged. Surprises only work once – there’s not a lot of re-watch value here.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth looking at once. Samuel and Griffin, last seen together in the B&S Ball rom-com Spin Out, both give good performances, with Samuel in particular stretching himself to play the frustrated writer who may or may not be a murderer – and who may or may not be cracking up. For her part, Griffin makes for a good Final Girl – even though, in this scenario, she’s almost the Only Girl – in the film’s last act.

Indeed, putting Griffin at the centre of things might have made Bad Blood a lot more effective as a thriller. Instead, we drift from Vincent’s perspective to Carrie’s as the film progresses and the plot demands, which feels like undisciplined writing. It’s easy to imagine a tighter version of the film with Carrie as our sole POV character, and Vincent by default a more suspect and menacing figure.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Bad Blood will depend on your generosity as a viewer. It’s solid but unspectacular fare that will be all too familiar for genre regulars, but still provides a thrill or two.

 
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Spacewalkers

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are considered classics in their genre; true tales of steely US determination to conquer the stars. Conversely, Russia, the US’s only real competitor in the great space race, is painted as a footnote in America’s climb to the top. Spacewalker attempts to re-address the balance with the true story of cosmonauts, Pavel Belyayev (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Alexey Leonov (Evgeniv Mironov).

It’s the ‘60s and the US and Russia are competing to be the first to have a man walk in outer space. Getting wind of the progress their rivals are making, the Kremlin pull their deadlines forward by two years in the hope of being the first out of the gate. Directed by Dmitry Kiselyov (Black Lightning), Spacewalker starts with a tame first act that follows Belyayev and Leonov through their training. Slowly, we begin to see cracks in the veneer. Yes, a technician dies whilst helping to build the very craft that will be shot off into space. But hey, it’s nothing that isn’t to be expected and can’t be quickly dusted under the carpet all in pursuit of glory.

Once the cosmonauts are blasted off into the unknown, the aforementioned death retroactively becomes a portance of things to come. The rush to be first leads to problems and very quickly, Spacewalker breaks free from the biopic tropes that weigh it down to become a throughly engaging and tense thriller. Backed by a score that would make Hans Zimmer blush, Kiselyov racks up a surprisingly large amount of tension from a setting which is essentially two men in a metal box, whilst on Earth their fates are decided by bureaucratic yes-men more concerned about the reputation of the motherland.

Engrossing, nerve rattling and patriotic without turning into parody, Spacewalker is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place.

 

 
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Grain (BFI London Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

It is sometime in the not-too-distant future, and after some unspecified environmental collapse, genetically modified crops designed to save humanity are failing. Geneticist Erol (Jean-Marc Barr) hears tell of Cemil (Ermin Bravo), a controversial scientist who predicted what he called “genetic chaos” which now seems to be occurring. Looking for answers to the world’s current plight, Erol leaves the protection of the city and ventures out into the poisoned wilderness in search for Cemil, and what he discovers will change him forever.

Shot in gorgeous black and white by Hell or High Water cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Grain unfortunately only has its visuals to recommend it. The plot itself is, after a very promising start, laborious new age twaddle masquerading as insightful reflection. The characters feel all too wooden, existing just as pontification devices, and with a running time of over two hours, there becomes a fine line between quiet, soulful contemplation and utter tedium.

Director Kaplanoğlu is obviously wearing his influences on his sleeve, as the film calls to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a dash of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, but is considerably, achingly, less profound or entertaining. It is perfectly fine for filmmakers to adopt styles or framing from other filmmakers, as part of the enjoyment of the art form is how films become conversations with each other, but one also needs to measure up to those directors they are conversing with. If a film just ends up reminding the audience of a laundry list of better films, then it is in trouble.

As mentioned before, Nuttgens’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. The only thing that carries this film through its tedious quiet moments is the black and white images of the cold and barren landscape. It perfectly captures the dystopian vision of the film, while at the same time reinforcing the film’s themes of man’s relationship to nature and our hubristic obsession with “perfecting” it. These images are so well composed and bring forth the themes so strongly it is unfortunate the screenplay hammers them home so thoroughly, rather than letting those prolonged, silent moments of beautiful imagery just speak for themselves.

A strong start, amazing cinematography, and an interesting premise is not enough to save Grain from the protracted tedium of most of its running time. Props to the filmmakers for wanting to tell a worthy story about humanity’s environmental impact, and setting it in a dystopian future is a perfect way to do that. It is unfortunate that the film seems more interested in naval gazing than looking outward and making its story more universal, because then this morsel may have become a touch more palatable.

 
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The Party (BFI London Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are having a party for close friends after Janet’s unspecified British political party wins an election, putting her in the position of Health Minister. One by one the friends arrive: staunch pessimist April (Patricia Clarkson), her life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz),Bill’s university colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of Janet’s aide-de-camp who has arrived coked to the eyeballs and secretly armed with a handgun. Needless to say, the party begins civilly enough but quickly descends into a night of accusation, paranoia and violence.

Sally Potter’s brutal satire on modern society and politics starts quietly and builds to a hilarious crescendo as she manipulates her room of characters like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Working with a murderers’ row of acting talent from Britain, Europe and America, it isn’t hard for Potter to hit the right comedic beats at the right time, as they are all on very fine form here. The black and white cinematography and the single location give the film the right amount of claustrophobia, which gets tighter and tighter as the story progresses.

One is reminded, at least at first, of the Australian play Don’s Party by David Williamson, as a group of friends congregate (in this instance after the election) and as the liquor flows an unspoken tension rises to the surface and the cordial atmosphere begins to fracture. Then in the later scenes it begins to resemble Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, as the characters seem to feel trapped inside the house, unable to escape the escalating events, even though the front door is right there in front of them.

The Party feels more like a filmed play than a piece of cinema, but with the acting talent on display that hardly matters, the script is thing and these performers make it positively sing. Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall are excellent as the upper class married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, Murphy is wonderfully unhinged as the cocaine addled, villainised investment banker, and Jones and Mortimer provide a great counterpoint to one another, with Jones as the freewheeling feminist and Mortimer the traditional family woman. But the standouts in a film of standouts have to be Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz. Clarkson spends the entire movie spouting pessimistic and unhelpful rhetoric while Ganz is superb as the hippy guru wannabe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, whispering new age gibberish, much to the consternation of most in the room.

The Party is whip-smart satire at its very best. A cast of incredible actors given a sparkling script can raise any film above the stratosphere and they do just that very thing here. Potter is a master filmmaker and may not be working at full capacity but she doesn’t have to. She gives the film exactly what it needs to be a claustrophobic, tightly wound snapshot of absurd humanity at its most acerbic.

 
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I Am Not a Witch (Adelaide Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is a young girl of mysterious parentage who appears in a Zambian village. The villagers accuse her of witchcraft as an excuse for their misfortunes and she is found guilty and banished to an outcast village populated with other “witches”, elderly women tied down with ribbons to stop them from flying away. Shula is quickly taken under the wing of and exploited by government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who sells her services to bless food and pick out supposed criminals from police line ups. As the only child “witch” in the community, will her innocence finally be recognised, or will the strength of these superstitions override all reason?

An entrant in the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, I Am Not a Witch has already garnering high praise from across the globe, and with good cause. The film is a remarkable debut that brings to the fore the suffering of victims of outdated, yet state sanctioned, superstition by highlighting its utter absurdity. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni has perfectly captured this absurdity by making all the officials and accusers appear as buffoons, bringing a lot of comedy to the unbelievable situations Shula finds herself in. There are shades of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, or even Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in the realisation that even the most horrifying truths can be so ridiculous that the most natural reaction is to laugh.

Although emphasising this nonsense, the film keeps it all contained in beautifully captured cinematography and controlled framing. Although filmed in Africa, there is no concern by Nyoni and director of photography David Gallego to capture or linger on landscapes and vistas, preferring to focus on Shula’s young and innocent face and the ribbons trailing behind her and her fellow “witches”, which always dangle down from just out of frame as a constant reminder of their plight.

All the performances are excellent, particularly Henry B.J. Phiri whose comic timing turns Mr. Banda into one of recent cinema’s most dangerous fools. But above all is Maggie Mulubwa as Shula, who is a revelation. One is reminded of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, only where Wallis’s performance is extroverted, Mulubwa’s is all internal. She barely speaks throughout the film, but watches on silently as each injustice is inflicted upon her, a mix of innocence and knowingness imparted by her youthful features. It is a stunning performance.

I Am Not a Witch is a remarkable film that manages to balance absurdity and outrage in a perfectly observed character piece. Nyogi deploys comedy with precision, making the characters’ superstition a figure of fun, but then quickly follows it up with a shot of Shula’s face or a demonstration of intolerance which brings the reality crashing in. Through the bizarre behaviour we are constantly reminded that these are real lives being victimised and that the only thing more ridiculous than a government official trying to sell eggs “blessed” by Shula on a local TV talk show, is that society always seems to be addicted to marginalising those that are deemed different.

 
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Better Watch Out

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This new horror, or perhaps horror-comedy [originally titled Safe Neighborhood] from director Chris Peckover definitely has its moments and should please those that seek it out. It was shot in a studio in Sydney and uses rising Aussie talent among its cast. However, the film is nominally set in some generic American suburb where solid white-windowed houses hide their terrible events behind well-tended gardens. It is also set at Christmas time which is by now a well-worn horror trope so that the filmmakers can use the contrast between sweetness and false jollity and the gory mayhem.

A suburban couple, parents Deandra and Robert (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) leave their precocious young teen son Luke (Levi Miller) and his friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) for the night. Luke has designs on the comely babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), and he persuades the more reluctant Garrett that he has a chance of seducing her. This being a horror film, they get in the essential self-referential element by making them watch a horror film on the sofa. Luke hopes this will scare Ashley into his arms. However, Luke hasn’t planned on Ashley inviting her current boyfriend Ricky over for nookie while the ‘kids’ are asleep.

The film played to delighted squeals at the Sydney Film Festival earlier in the year and the curator of the season described it as Home Alone meets Funny Games. Without veering towards spoiler territory, this is a fairly neat encapsulation, although the film is not in the same league as either reference point. It’s good to see Ed Oxenbould (Paper Planes, The Visit) progressing on the tricky passage from cute blond child actor to more meaty roles but one wouldn’t want him to stray too far into horror and get trapped there. Miller as Luke is rather good too. He looks like a younger version of Dane Dehaan, and he handles the character switch that the film requires (but which horror fans will decry) with aplomb.

Horror watchers can be nerdy and they are a notoriously picky bunch who will savage the slightest false step in their beloved canon of genre rules. However, if you don’t go there so much as a purist but rather as someone who enjoys a good jolt and moderate comedy-gore, this is well worth catching.

 
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Blockbuster

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Charging over the horizon like a cartoon Thelma and Louise, Blockbuster is the latest film from director Roman Volobuev (The Cold Front). In it we see Liza (Svetlana Ustinova), a TV presenter on the wrong the side of her mid-thirties, reluctantly partnering up with Natasha (Anna Chipovskaya) a wannabe model on the run from the police, her money hungry boyfriend and a violent debt collector. You know, the usual.

Underneath the screwball comedy and stylised violence, Blockbuster has something it wants to say; feminist themes run throughout, but don’t necessarily run deep. Punches are thrown at the media’s obsession with youth and beauty without many of them making contact. Perhaps the sharpest dig comes when a female producer applauds an impassioned speech about women’s rights during the recording of a show, before immediately requesting it be aired with the overtly feminist parts cut out.

Whilst its intent is good, further issues arise when we throw our two leads under the microscope. In a film that promotes the ever-changing facets of being a woman, strip away Volobuev’s kinetic visuals and our two heroes come across as one-dimensional with no believable life offscreen. We know Liza feels like a nobody despite her fame because she literally tells us, whilst Natasha’s mental health is boiled to ‘crazy’ with a self-confession of needing pills.

The lack of characterisation is, however made up for by the film’s two leads, who bounce off each other well enough. Chipovskaya, in particular, is actually a lot of fun to watch as the whirlwind in skinny jeans that sweeps through Liza’s life.

Not as incendiary as it believes it is being – or sadly as funny – Blockbuster is an enjoyable enough experience that could really do with putting the breaks on once in a while and changing gears from manic to reflective in order to get its point across.

 
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The Midwife

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Catherine Deneuve is a French national treasure, an iconic star from the Sixties onwards, she has been in more than 120 films, and shows no sign of slowing down, appearing in 5 films in 2017 alone. In The Midwife, a bittersweet two hander, she plays opposite the wonderful Catherine Frot (The Page Turner, Marguerite); so it is battle of the Catherines.

Frot plays Clare, a pleasant woman in midlife who is devoted to her work as a midwife (which in French means literally wisewoman). When she is not plucking healthy babies from beneath the sheets of labouring mums, she is trying to be a good mother to her grown up son Simon (Quentin Dolmaire) who also wants to go into medicine. She lives in the outer burbs of Paris and spends time on her allotment growing veggies. She seems content with her life in a sightly settled kind of way. The only possible point of interest is a slow flirtation with a too-good-to-be-true lorry driver called Paul (Olivier Gourmet) who shares her love of gardening.

Into all of this bustles Beatrice (Deneuve), the long-term mistress of Claire’s swimming champion deceased father, but not Claire’s birth mother. In fact, Beatrice feels she has something to make up to the adult Claire for having diverted the father’s life and affections even though it was all a long time ago. The rest of the film explores the complex relationship between the two once-estranged women.

Writer/director Martin Provost obviously knows he has significant talent to work with and he treats his two stars respectfully. Indeed, there are great little scenes between them with Frot radiating her believable long-suffering goodness and Deneuve (who has much the more interesting role of course) effortlessly getting us to feel Claire’s frustration whilst also engaging our sympathies. It is a difficult balancing act and a tribute to the great actor’s skill. That said, the film does have its longueurs. It takes ages to set up the very basic backstory and, at nearly two hours, it is about half an hour too long. Claire’s romance with Paul shows some promise but is too pat in another way and her relationship with her grown up son is just underdeveloped. Still, the focus is rightly on the two leads and fans of theirs won’t want to miss the chance to see them one more time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Midwife

 
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Mindhunter: Episodes 1 and 2

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David Fincher is back on Netflix to take a look at the birth of profiling and we’re hoping that the signs line up for TV’s answer to Zodiac.

As a location title appears on the screen reminiscent of a vintage postcard; Mindhunter welcomes you to the United States of America in the ‘60s: the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the emergence of modern serial killers. Series creator Joe Penhall and executive producer David Fincher come to the small screen to chronicle the development of the method to pursue their madness.

Mindhunter is based on the twenty-five-year career of Special Agent John Douglas. Douglas began his journey as a profiler; an interviewer for the very worst serial killers in United States history. Douglas probed the likes of Charles Manson, necrophile Ted Bundy, and skin peeler Ed Gein. Douglas used his familiarity with the patterns of serial killer behaviour to adopt their mindset to great success, often unravelling seemingly unsolvable cases.

If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Douglas eventually became an internationally renowned investigator and the basis for Will Graham in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon.  Ever wonder what it would be like if Hannibal and Zodiac had a baby? Well now you don’t.

Fincher is an auteur particularly enraptured with psychopaths; SE7EN, Zodiac, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl. He’s behind the lens for the opening two and final two episodes of the first series. Mindhunter has flurries of Fincher’s signature appraisal of obsessive loners. Fincher continues to use living spaces as metaphors for the characters’ internal workings.

When we encounter Holden, his apartment may as well be a ‘70s Holiday Inn. There’s a spartan, deliberate precision that even he is unwilling to disturb. Once Holden collides with Wendy (Anna Torv) and her ruddy, unkempt bohemian studio, his discomfort and disgust (and some sweaty sex to distract) paves way for his own enlightenment. Mindhunter maintains appeal because the idealistic Holden wants to enhance law enforcement’s ability to diagnose and detect serial killers at a time when distrust for government institutions is at its peak.

Jonathan Groff plays Holden Ford (a confusing name for Aussie revheads), a failed hostage negotiator turned tutor for the FBI. Mindhunter uses the template of the Jake Gyllenhaal Richard Graysmith character from Zodiac, but he’s got the look of young, Robin Hood: Men in Tights Cary Elwes.

Zodiac’s Graysmith was an outsider cartoonist, eventually consolidating his findings and becoming THE significant authority on the killer. This approach doesn’t quite work with Holden. He’s meant to have the acumen of a law enforcement practitioner but his social naivety is profound. It’s difficult to reconcile how he’s been assigned to expand his knowledge for the good of the bureau. Thankfully, the awesome and terribly underrated Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the behavioural specialist assigned to mentor Holden, a pragmatic and road weary force that stops him from stumbling into an open fire – so to speak.

Australian Anna Torv plays Wendy and delivers a small but essential role. There is a level of world weariness and intuition for human behaviour in Wendy that makes Groff’s Holden feel like he’s deficient by comparison. The only frustrating element of her contribution is that she’s not the main character. The towering Cameron Britton plays the tormented teddy bear Edmund, their first taste of a serial killer. The highlights of the second episode are Holden and Bill Tench interviewing Edmund.

It would be incredibly unfair to judge the overall quality of Mindhunter from a two-episode arc, which is all that we got to for this review; however, they’re likely to be the worst of the series. The final seconds of the second episode are filled with the most promise. The Fincher Zodiac-eque deliberate and unflinching gaze keeps it worthwhile. For now.

 
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The Pink House

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Carmel Galvin is extremely houseproud. Every morning, she diligently dusts all the fixtures of her abode in anticipation of guests arriving. The fact that her home is a brothel, her fixtures are sex toys and her guests are johns looking for a good time may sound surreal, but it’s all in a day’s work for Carmel in The Pink House, a documentary from Sascha Ettinger-Epstein.

Prostitution is technically illegal in the state of WA, but that hasn’t stopped Madame Carmel’s brothel, Questa Casa, from being an integral part of Kalgoorlie for 100 years.

Working alongside her is BJ, the brothel’s longest serving sex worker. When we first meet the pair, as they potter through their nights patiently waiting for customers, there’s an air of Grey Gardens about the set up. (BJ even appears to be dressed as Little Edie at one point.)

What makes The Pink House so fascinating to watch is that it doesn’t try to sugar-coat their existence with attempts at titillation, instead it revels in the normality of their existence.

The Pink House touches upon the outside influences that are impacting business for Questa Casa, from the internet to sex trafficking, but, like Ettinger-Epstein’s previous film Destination Arnold that followed two indigenous bodybuilders, it’s the relationship between these two women that engages the most.

Carmel’s surprising amount of prudishness brings about a lot of the documentary’s humour, but the heart of the of the piece belongs to BJ, who regularly drops out of employment with Carmel due to a long-standing drug habit. Things become exceedingly darker when she becomes involved in a horrific murder. Throughout it all, Ettinger-Epstein wisely never judges her and when BJ eventually opens up about her family, it pierces through the frivolity.

The Pink House is a celebration not just of stoicism in the face of adversity, but also a portrait of the familial bonds that can form between two strangers in less than average circumstances.

Screening as follows:

NSW Leichhardt- Wednesday November 1st

QLD Brisbane- Wednesday November 8th

ACT Manuka- Wednesday November 8th

TAS Hobart- Wednesday November 8th

VIC Melbourne- Wednesday November 8th

WA Churchlands- Wednesday November 8th

SA North Adelaide- Thursday November 9th: