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Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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If ever a film called for a SPOILER ALERT, it’s this one. The film’s very raison d’etre is also pretty much its ending, so read no further if you wish to remain in the dark. Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old TV reporter who committed suicide in 1974 with a handgun, live on air in Sarasota, Florida. This is her story, or at least the final few months of it.

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck, and her performance is absolutely superb. It’s nuanced, naturalistic, and (when appropriate) understated. Chubbuck was evidently a mess of contradictions: likeable and intelligent, but brusque and in some ways immature; self-deprecating yet also self-assertive to the point of being pushy; desperate for closeness but inclined, in her own words, to “push people away.”

The period detail here is fairly accurate, and Chubbuck’s professional context (a small-town TV news station) is well delineated, and so too are her often fraught relationships with her workmates. She has a serious but thus far unrequited crush on anchorman, George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), and an ongoing struggle against her boss’ pressure for a more “If it bleeds, its leads” approach to choosing stories. The irony in that could not, of course, be more bitter. And then there are her health problems.

Suicides are not always entirely explicable, and the mode of dispatch here made this tragedy rather more mysterious than many. But Christine – with its subtle depiction of inexorably rising stress and despair – at least succeeds in turning established fact into convincing drama.

Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 6 and August 12. To buy tickets to Christine, head to the official website.

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Desperately seeking a babysitter when theirs fails to turn up for duty, a couple end up exposing their children to something much worse than an early bedtime in this atmospheric thriller from director, Michael Thelin.

Played by Irish actor, Sarah Bolger (The Tudors), babysitter Anna appears to be everything the parents want. She’s pleasant to the point of distraction for the father, and she’s keen to ensure that the children follow mother’s rules in her absence. The children, including eldest, Jacob (Joshua Rush), warm to her instantly; she lets them eat food that they’re not supposed to, she encourages their imagination, and she’s not against computer games. Perfect! But things begin to go awry when she starts to fixate on the youngest child, Christopher (Thomas Bair), reaching such heights of favouritism that she lets him feed his big sister’s hamster to his brother’s snake (an animal combo that was surely only going to end up in disaster at some point).

As the reasons for Anna’s less than ethical behaviour become apparent, Emelie unfortunately loses steam and falls toward the pit of pantomime. The fact that it doesn’t is because of the sum of its parts. Bolger is perfect as the devious babysitter, whilst the film’s aesthetic, under Thelin’s helm, turns a middle class suburban dream into a gothic nightmare. Equally impressive are Bolger’s young co-stars, who have to tackle heavy emotions and ideas, including Jacob being dropped into a very uncomfortable and creepily sexual conversation about tampons with Anna. As home invasion movies go, this is a strong contender, and certainly shares a number of traits with Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Creepy, claustrophobic and unnerving, this is the perfect warning against hiring anybody you find off Facebook.

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Code Of Honor

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When decorated soldier, Colonel Robert Sikes, goes rogue and begins picking off members of a large cartel, his protégé, William Porter, must either reason with him or take him down with brutal force. It sounds like the perfect plot for a Steven Segal vehicle, with the Under Siege star chopping his way through the dark streets on the trail of a disgruntled sniper. And whilst Segal’s name is in the neon opening credits, he mostly takes a back seat playing the elusive vigilante, Sikes, whilst one-time next-big-thing, Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It), takes the reins as the film’s hero, Porter. Even when Segal does pop in to help move the plot along, he is clearly doing so under his own terms; he rarely moves, and his fight scenes are performed by a very obvious stunt “double.”

Meanwhile, Sheffer spends his screen time with Melbourne actor, Louis Mandylor (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), who is a detective walking a fine line between fanboy adoration for Segal and exasperation at the trail of carnage that he leaves behind. Elsewhere, Helena Mattsson plays a stripper with a heart of gold caught in everyone’s crossfire.

From its opening credits, Code Of Honor is a time capsule of ‘80s actioners where guitar solos spice up the soundtrack, and Segal literally slowly walks away from burning buildings. And yet, nothing can save it from its own averageness. Shot as flatly as possible, director, Michael Winnick, fails to give the film’s action scenes the adrenalin that they need; a shootout in a nightclub, wherein our hero must remain seated or else a bomb will detonate beneath him, is innovate but lifeless. Elsewhere, the overreliance on CGI and dubious green screen damages what was left of the film’s credibility, and highlights a distinct lack of faith in the final product.

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The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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Allegiant is the third film in the Divergent series, and this time, Summit Entertainment have chosen to tear the final book on which it’s based in half, like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter before it, to create what is technically the third part of a four-part trilogy.

Quickly retconning the happy ending of the previous film, Insurgent, Tris (Shailene Woodley), her beau Four (Theo James) and the rest of her motley crew decide to finally see, once and for all, what’s over the wall that surrounds their dystopian Chicago. And what lies on the other side? The Bureau Of Genetic Welfare, led by the too-good-to-be true David (Jeff Daniels).

Like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Allegiant suffers from being predominantly all filler no killer. After a fairly exhilarating clamber over the wall, the story doesn’t know what to do with itself and goes around in circles chasing its own tail. Kidnapping children for his nefarious schemes, and taking an unhealthy interest in Tris, Daniels’ David is clearly the big bad this time – and certainly no substitute for Kate Winslet, who departed the series in Insurgent – and yet, it seems to take forever for Tris to reach this conclusion. Largely, this is down to her taking a back seat for most of the narrative, whilst Four does the majority of the running, jumping, and standing looking pensive. Meanwhile, Allegiant as a whole looks rushed, with glaring green screen, and goes too far out of its way to distance itself from the violence of the previous movies. And honestly, until Ascendant comes out next year, it’s difficult to judge the overall story, but there’s no doubt that the pacing would be vastly improved if Allegiant had been boiled down to a half hour opening act to the film as it should have been.

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Under The Shadow (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Post-revolution Iran is not the usual go-to for a gothic supernatural horror, but that doesn’t stop filmmaker, Babak Anvari, using it as the backdrop for his directorial debut. Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi, is a westernised mother living with her family in an apartment block in 1980s Tehran. Having been denied the right to return to university because of her left wing leanings, Shideh spends her time working out to Jane Fonda videos and mourning the loss of her mother six months previously. With her husband away on the frontline, Shideh is left alone with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), amidst the sirens and enemy fire that rocks their home.

Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Under The Shadow pushes the mother/child relationship to the centre of its premise. When a bomb falls on her building but fails to detonate, Shideh refuses to leave like the rest of the tenants. And when rumours of a supernatural presence, a Djinn, is stalking the corridors, she refuses to acknowledge them, believing everyone to be superstitious, including Dorsa. However, Shideh, defiant in her country’s current political climate, is slowly undone as the Djinn makes its presence known.

Not everyone will have a deep understanding of the Iran-Iraq conflict, although Anvari quickly sets up the tone of the era from minute one. However, we all have an understanding of growing fear, and that bubbling sensation in our core that signals that something lurks outside of our peripheral vision. Anvari captures that universal feeling and throws it back at us in dark shadows and symbolism; the cracks in Shideh’s ceiling expand at the same rate as those in her resistance to everything. Anvari’s Under The Shadow is a superb debut, with the director utilising a unique perspective to ply his horror trade.

Under The Shadow plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29 and July 30. To buy tickets to Under The Shadow, head to the official website.

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Life Animated (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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When he was three-years-old, Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism, withdrawing into himself and becoming uncommunicative. As he grew older, Owen’s parents noticed that he was quoting lines from his favourite Disney films. In one of the film’s many touching animated flashbacks, Owen’s father, Ron, recalls having a conversation with his 9-year-old son for the first time in years simply by talking to him through a puppet of Iago the parrot from Aladdin. And yes, he’s happy to show you that he can do the voice too!

As the film shows, Owen continues to make progress, through therapy and by taking situations that he’s memorised from Disney movies and applying them to his own life. When we meet him as an adult in the documentary, he is 25 and getting ready to move into an assisted living apartment away from his parents and elder brother. In some ways, Life, Animated is more of a coming of age film than it is a documentary.

Director and Oscar winner, Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda), has crafted an immensely joyful film. Despite the presence of the big mouse, the documentary doesn’t shy away from showing the harder aspects of the Suskinds’ life. Elder brother, Walt, is loving, but in a moment of vulnerability admits that he’s worried about what kind of future he and Owen will have when their parents eventually pass away. Meanwhile, Owen’s belief in everything good that comes distilled from The Magic Kingdom fails him when nothing he’s seen helps him understand why his girlfriend has broken up with him. Life, Animated may well wear its heart on its sleeve at times, but ultimately, it’s a thoroughly positive experience, and reaffirms the joy that comes from a close knit family like the Suskinds.

Life Animated plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31, August 2, and August 12. To buy tickets to Life Animated, head to the official website.

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Kate Plays Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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On July 5, 1974, newsreader, Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide live on air. The footage exists, albeit only one copy, and like Chubbuck, has become the subject of interest for the macabre corners of the internet. This year, Chubbuck also became the subject of two films at The Sundance Film Festival: the Rebecca Hall-starring biopic, Christine, from director, Antonio Campos; and this documentary from filmmaker, Rob Greene (Actress).

In Kate Plays Christine, Green follows actress, Kate Lyn Sheil (Queen Of Earth, The Girlfriend Experience, Outcast), as she begins preparations to play Christine for a film that ostensibly doesn’t exist, in a documentary which is less about Chubbuck’s final moments and more about the idea of trying to understand the unknown and the shaping of a narrative. Despite the reporter’s dramatic ending of her life, Chubbuck’s home town of Sarasota has moved on, and her family is unobtainable, leaving her to almost become an urban legend with no weight or purpose. With little to get to grips on, Greene shows Sheil’s frustration as she tries to establish some connection with the ill-fated woman, outside of wearing a wig and brown contact lenses.

And whilst Chubbuck has become an enigma built on some truth, so too is Sheil’s journey to become her. Greene doesn’t hide that there is an artifice to his work, keeping in scenes that most documentarians would leave on the cutting room floor. On camera, Sheil admits that what she does is only because Greene has asked her to: a dip in the sea to find her inner Chubbuck contains Greene’s off camera comments on how to behave, and overwrought re-enactments replete with emotive score deliberately shape Chubbuck into a dead-eyed tragic hero. Throughout the film, it’s hinted that Sheil may re-enact the suicide, and when the moment finally arrives, it’s delivered in a manner that would make Michael Haneke proud, concluding the film appropriately by making the audience evaluate their reasons for taking this journey in the first place.

Kate Plays Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31 and August 2. To buy tickets to Kate Plays Christine, head to the official website.

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Tickled (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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When New Zealand reporter, David Farrier, stumbled across the company, Jane O’Brien Media, and its portfolio of “endurance tickling contest” videos, he was pretty sure that he was onto a sure thing in terms of a ten-minute fluff piece for the local news. However, as he explains in the opening monologue of his documentary, Tickled, after innocently reaching out to the company to learn more, Farrier’s enquiry was met with a barrage of homophobic emails and potential lawsuits. Jane O’Brien even sent three men from LA to warn off Farrier from digging any deeper into her company.

With so much legal action being thrown his way, Farrier did what any man would do: he and his co-director, Dylan Reeve, travelled to America to track down Jane O’Brien. And so begins a surreal documentary about fetishes, blackmail, and dual identities. Crossing paths with numerous people who have either worked for Jane O’Brien or have a tickling fetish themselves, Farrier approaches them like a kiwi Louis Theroux, never nailing them with hard questions, but still managing to distil some crazy confessions.

Ostensibly a bit of a lark, Tickled’s lightness of touch covers several instances of victimisation and bullying. Even if you know the twist in Farrier’s tale – the true subject of the documentary has been a thorn in the co-directors’ sides at several Q&A screenings – it’s hard not to be taken aback by the acts of manipulation and victimisation that have poisoned the lives of some of Jane O’Brien’s “competitors.” Doing something a little uncomfortable for cash is often a way for people to get out of a tight spot, but often in Tickled, that need is shown to be exploited. Admittedly, Tickled’s finale is perhaps too conveniently wrapped up, but as another tale that exposes the underbelly of the internet, this is fascinating stuff.

Tickled plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29 and August 1. To buy tickets to Tickled, head to the official website.

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Fear Itself (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Although Fear Itself takes virtually all its onscreen material from other films, its unifying idea is interestingly original. What we have here is a succession of clips from innumerable horror movies, stretching all the way through from 1922’s original (silent) Nosferatu to the 2012 Mexican flick, Post Tenebras Lux. There’s an ongoing voiceover, in which the narrator discusses not only the genre and its many variations and themes, but also the nature of real-life human fear…not to mention its “sibling”, anxiety.

The aforementioned narrator has a monotonous delivery, which itself suggests not so much fear as dispirited misery and lifelessness. But never mind the form – some of the analytical content is thought-provoking, though disturbing: “If horror movies are built to take advantage of who we are and how we work, what does that say about us?” Of course, it’s the clips themselves which are the main attraction here, and what a cornucopia they comprise. You might imagine that they would lose some of their power when divested of their original contexts, or that the impact would lessen as the excerpts pile up. But in fact, the doco gets much better – and heavier – as it goes on, and as some of the chosen sources get more esoteric. The commentary jumps a gear or two as well, sidelining theory and moving on to discuss specific flicks and their particular disquieting effects.

If you’re a horror buff, you’ll be familiar with many of the sampled gems, but you’re bound to find some promising obscurities to add to your viewing list too. If for that purpose alone, Fear Itself is worth seeing.

Fear Itself plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29 and August 1. To buy tickets to Fear Itself, head to the official website.

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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.