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Dawson City: Frozen Time (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

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Bill Morrison (Decasia) is a filmmaker whose experimental avant-garde work is often more at home in art galleries than in multiplexes. However, with his new film Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison has embraced a more conventional documentary style, and has made his most accessible, and arguably most moving film of his career.

The film begins in 1978 in Dawson City, a town on the Yukon river in the remote northwest of Canada. During the demolition of a building in the historic town centre, workers uncovered a treasure trove of lost film reels, which contained, amongst other things, rare footage of the infamous 1918 baseball world series, and numerous feature films that had long been thought to be lost forever. In order to demonstrate the significance of this find, Morrison takes us back to Dawson City’s founding and tells the story of the city, a history which is fascinating even without the connection to these lost films. However, Morrison also uses this history to tell a story about the early days of cinema, illustrating the revelatory effect that these films would have had on the audiences who once viewed them.

Set to a magnificent score by Alex Somers (known for his work with Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros), Morrison weaves together material from the lost films, together with archive photographs and other early film footage to tell the story of how these films survived decades buried in the ice.

However, while the story is both mesmerising and intriguing, what is most captivating about the film is Morrison’s ability to use ancient, decaying footage to conjure an emotional response, and to say something powerful about the nature of the passing of time. Dawson City: Frozen Time is truly an ode to the power of cinema, and deserves to be seen by film lovers everywhere.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Adelaide Film Festival)

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This is an extremely strange and unsettling film – which is not to say that it’s consistently good. It hits the ground running with a close-up of an operation, but then becomes maddeningly – but evidently deliberately – mannered and distancing.

The central characters are wealthy heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his opthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). They like to have sex whilst pretending that Anna is under general anaesthetic. Both of them speak in a flat deadpan manner, employing staccato phrases whether discussing the mundane or the important. So, for no apparent reason, do many of the other characters, who include the couple’s two children. It’s rather as if they’d consciously based their styles on that of the young David Byrne, circa “Psycho Killer”. It’s also hard to work out whether the effect is meant to be intermittently funny, and harder still to suspend disbelief.

So far, so-so. But Stephen has a friendship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a distinctly odd – even in this context – and obsessive teenager whose late father was one of Stephen’s patients. We become mildly curious as to exactly how all these people relate to each other.

And then – ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that at a certain point the story suddenly gets much more engrossing, even as it becomes absurd.

The music is effective, the widescreen cinematography is striking and the plot is, shall we say, unusual. And whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, there is at least one scene you are guaranteed to remember.

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The Devil’s Candy

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Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones was a darkly comic horror that took a teenager’s obsession and entitlement to the extreme. In The Devil’s Candy, the Tasmanian director tackles those long time bedfellows of Satanism and Metal Music.

Ethan Embry plays Jesse, a Metallica loving artist moving into a new home with his punky daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), and straight-laced wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Soon after settling in, the large figure of Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) turns up at their front door. Ray used to live in their home and wants to move back in, whether they want him to or not. This is the perfect setup for a home invasion film, but Byrne refuses to let the film settle on this routine premise. First there’s the little matter of the demonic voices Ray can hear speaking to him through his radio; the same voices that Jesse has begun to hear too; the voices which centre on the men’s obsessions of varying morality. Jesse wants to be taken seriously as an artist, whilst Ray will do whatever it takes to make the voices stop.

This is a down and dirty film that relies on unease and tension for a large part of its narrative, with Ray taking a disturbing interest in young Zooey. As the two men become more and more intrinsically linked, Byrne lets the tension simmer before exploding into a violent finale lit by the literal fires of hell. Whilst Ray isn’t your average satanic antagonist – he’s shown to be a bumbling whiner on more than one occasion – the danger he conceals is never in doubt, due to Byrne’s skilful direction and the film’s ominous throbbing score.

 The Devil’s Candy is a short, sharp shock of terror that knows well enough to keep its audience in the dark even as the sun rises in its final shot.

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20th Century Women

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In an ode to his own mother, who passed away in 1999, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) continues to make personal cinema that is both stylistic and engaging, aided by an a-list cast at the top of their game.

For reasons unknown, Annette Bening missed out on an Oscar nomination for her beautifully truthful, nuanced performance as Dorothea, an incredibly open-hearted but equally flawed human being who has a knack for picking up stray men and women who end up openly loitering in her grand but modest house. These include Elle Fanning’s Julie, the daughter of a single-parent therapist; Greta Gerwig’s Abbie , who has survived cervical cancer; and Billy Crudup’s William, who lives by the New Age life philosophy of 1979 Southern California where most of the story takes place.

Circling the orbit of these characters is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s teenage son who juggles the urges of his loins with the sensitivity he has inherited from his mum.

Each character gets their own chapter, flashing back to key moments in their lives. But it’s not your ordinary flashback, these are flourishes that we’ve come to expect from Mike Mills. If you had to compare Mills’ approach to cinema, it’d be his contemporary Spike Jonze – flashy modern stylistic choices but never at the disservice of character.

A performance piece, if there’s a flaw it’s that the film feels flat at times, and struggles to shift gears during its first two acts. But if you stick with it, there’s plenty of reward in this highly personal film for Mike Mills. And as per the title, it’s ultimately a rumination and an affirmation on the female lifeforce, and its evolution throughout the 20th century, something that is incredibly important to acknowledge now more than ever.

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American Assassin

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“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.”

That’s a quote from Neal Stephenson’s excellent science fiction novel, Snow Crash, and it’s the thesis – one of them, at least – of American Assassin, the new techno-thriller from director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger), based on the series of novels by the late Vince Flynn.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is the subject of that thesis, a normal American dude who dedicates his life to wiping out terrorism after his fiancee is murdered in front of him during an attack on a Spanish beachside resort, mere minutes after he proposed to her. Our man Rapp spends 18 months turning himself into an Arabic-speaking, intel-gathering, killing machine, and is all set to pull the trigger on the evil mastermind of his woes when he’s snatched up by Sanaa Lathan’s shady CIA Deputy Director and folded into a black ops program which will hopefully channel his aggression in more politically desirable directions.

In practice that means we get a training sequence under the steely tutelage of Michael Keaton’s Navy SEAL instructor, which is pretty enjoyable because Old Michael Keaton is great. Then the plot kicks in, and we’re on an international hunt for a quantity of missing weapons grade plutonium, swiped by a ruthless mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, giving the best performance in this thing). He’s American, he knows their tactics better than they do… could he be Mitch’s Dark Shadow ™?

If you think that sounds dumb, you’re right, and it’s not even the silliest element of American Assassin, which plays out like an alternate version of the Jason Bourne flicks where the Treadstone assassination program are the good guys. On a plot level, it’s a dumb run ‘n’ gun that treats espionage and tradecraft like an MMA steel cage match, bouncing from fight to chase to fight to predictable revelation to fight.

On a thematic level, it’s worse. The film can’t figure out whether our man Mitch needs to learn how to follow orders for the greater good, or if his willingness to go off the playbook and Do Whatever It Takes is his chief asset – which is weird considering it’s explicitly stated as the reason why The Ghost was not up to scratch (if the penny doesn’t drop about his origins early on, god help you). For all that the film sets up Mitch and Ghost to mirror each other, it’s not narratively or politically sophisticated enough to make the leap to the inherent irony that a clearly radicalised young American man has dedicated his life to hunting radicalised young Muslim men, instead cleaving to the notion that fanatical white people are inherently more palatable than fanatical brown people.

Still, if you can ignore the politics, or even align with them, there’s fun to be had here, albeit of a simple and sadistic nature. American Assassin, like Olympus Has Fallen, revels in showing bodily harm (interestingly, Olympus director Antoine Fuqua was once attached); the film is peppered with closeups of flesh being pierced with bullets, slashed with knives, burnt, and torn – at one point a pair of pliers meets some fingernails and the camera lingers just that little too long for the squeamish. The action is competently, efficiently staged, although there’s nothing on display to make, say, John Wick‘s Stahelski and Leitch worry about their pole position, and the whole thing ends with a big, dangling sequel hook, which is only to be expected – there are, after all, 12 books in the series, with more to come.

If you’re in an undemanding mood and a fan of the genre, American Assassin ticks enough boxes to make it worth a cheap seat. Charitably, it feels like an ’80s action movie throwback, with all the bombast and political naivety that implies. Whether that’s gonna work for you or not is something you already know.

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Patti Cake$

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Aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowksi a.k.a. Killa P. a.k.a. Patti Cake$ (Danielle Macdonald) leads an ordinary life in her rundown hometown in New Jersey, and though dreaming of big city lights, is tortured by unpaid bills, broken dreams and an army of haters that are determined to bring her down. Alongside her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who is one of the few that recognises her true potential, her Nana (Cathy Moriarty) and an enigmatic musician by the name of Basterd the AntiChrist (Mamoudou Athie), they venture out to find her voice, stumbling over new obstacles along the way, but leading to a truly satisfying redemption arc.

Geremy Jasper, VMA-nominated director behind Florence and the Machine and Selena Gomez music videos, has made an ambitious and hard-hitting film inspired by his own personal experiences growing up in New Jersey, mixed with his lifelong obsession with rap music and the music scene in general.

Drawing on his experiences within the music industry, he is able to contrast the life of the musician, to the individual behind them. The juxtaposition of Patti Cake$’s imaginary life to that of Patricia Dombrowsky, a 23-year-old bartender struggling to support her family, provides insight to the fact that fame comes at a price.

Reminiscent of the narratives explored in 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton, Patti Cake$ also works in some subtle and cheeky sense of humour in amongst the grit. With its strong leading lady, a soundtrack written exclusively for the film, and a talented and diverse cast, Patti Cake$ hits all the right beats.

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Taboo Season 1

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Ugliness is an integral part of the aesthetic in Taboo. The take on early 19th century London it presents is not a pleasant one, all mud, blood, offal, corruption, and horror. Even its characters are a parade of grotesques, looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Mervyn Peake novel.

It’s a fascinating world we’re thrust into, though: the tail end of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, at the dawn of modern corporate dominance in the form of the British East India Company, the powerful merchant concern who are our villains here. Our “hero”, for want of a better term, is Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, long thought dead in some African hellhole and greatly upsetting the apple cart when he returns to London to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father.

Part of his inheritance is a vital spit of land on the Canadian/US border, which will be of strategic import in coming negotiations. The East India Company, largely represented by Jonathan Pryce’s conniving chairman, are of the opinion that the world would be a better place if James wasn’t in it, but they haven’t reckoned with the kind of man who has returned from Africa: tattooed, scarred, and a rumoured cannibal. But is James’ pragmatic savagery any match for the monolithic Company?

Taboo is OTT in the best and most gloriously Gothic sense of the word, offering up a feast of brutality and sensuality as our enigmatic hero, cutting a menacing figure in his stovepipe hat and long coat, negotiates high society and low in his quest for allies and advantage. He’s more at home in the gutters, it seems, winning Stephen Graham’s criminal Atticus to his cause, but is just as formidable cutting a deal with American spy Dr Dumbarton (Michael Delaney), or getting up in the grill of Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), upper class husband to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Is there incestuous desire between James and Zilpha? Of course there is, because Taboo throws every Gothic and Victorian literature trope into the blender and then spills it all out on the screen, like the result of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole going on an absinthe bender together. What elevates it is a modern political sensibility that approaches topics such as class, race, colonialism, and corporate malfeasance with an astute eye – while still allowing space for the odd disemboweling.

At the centre of it all is Hardy, giving a performance as magnetic as any other in his career as the opaque and ruthless James. He’s ostensibly our point of view character, but for much of the series he remains as much a mystery to the viewer as he is to the rest of the cast of characters – Hardy’s sheer watchability carries us through, though, even if we’re left as witnesses rather than participants in the drama.

A grim romp with plenty of secrets, lies, violence and the odd grand guignol sequence, Taboo is an enjoyably idiosyncratic drama –  call it Peaky Blinders: The Early Years, or Boardwalk Empire 1814 if you need a quick shorthand. Such glib descriptions do it something of a disservice, though; while the ingredients might be familiar, in combination they result in a fresh flavour that is unlike anything else we’ve yet seen in the increasingly popular “adult historical melodrama” genre.

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Victoria and Abdul

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Here we go again, another movie about the fat and insufferably regal Queen Vic having unlikely late life nookie with a commoner. This is the Indian Elephant in the room for British veteran director Steven Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) in making this historical romance cum costume drama. Back in 1997 there was John Madden’s Mrs Brown about her majesty taking up with the gardener. In that one the wonderful Dame Judi Dench previously played the queen in later life and it also tried to breathe life into an apparently true story.

This one has to stand on its own two feet of course, and, to be fair, it is not a bad effort. The big twist here is that the Queen falls for an Indian (and a Muslim to boot, although the contemporary resonances of that ‘clash of cultures’ is largely left unexplored). British cinema about India has a rich vein to mine given the complex interweaving of the two countries from the Raj onwards. There have also been scores of films and TV shows (from The Best Marigold Hotel to Jewel in the Crown) about this relation in which the exoticism of India and the irresistible appeal of its life force for the stuffy British allows for much wry self-flagellating enjoyment.

Even in this post-colonial age, the view of India can be vaseline-lensed – no Born into Brothels slum poverty here, only the rich fabrics and marbled gloriousness of Empire. The plot is elevator pitch simple: Victoria, as Empress of India, gets delivery of an Indian medal/coin and happens to fall for the handsome servant Abdul (Ali Fazal from 3 Idiots) who presents it. Fazal bears a slight but disconcerting resemblance to the great Indian batsman Verat Kohli. This Indian finds a different way to flay the hapless English.

The chaste romance is largely unconvincing if not downright embarrassing, but the film neatly sidesteps into some delicious light comedy about the sycophantic courtiers trying to outmanoeuvre the beaming Abdul. A host of fine Brit talents are on display and they relish every line. Needless to say, the costumes and sets are suitably sumptuous. If the whole thing is a confection it is a satisfyingly sweet one which will find, and please, its audience.

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Australia Day

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Cogently directed (by the ever busy Kriv Stenders, the man behind such high quality and disparate works as Red Dog, Lucky Country, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, and TV’s upcoming Wake In Fright) and smartly written (by Stephen M. Irwin, who penned the impressive TV series, Secrets & Lies), Australia Day runs like a tick-off list of the various ills currently picking at the seams of our great (and sometimes not so great) nation.

It’s all here: black-white relationships; irresponsible policing; people smuggling; the plight of our farmers; the continual presence of unsympathetic politicians; the growing racism in our seemingly polite suburbs; the cruelty and exploitation of the sex work industry; the widening generation gap; and the increasingly fraught societal role of Middle Eastern-Australians. But don’t get the wrong idea – this is no “message movie”, bogged down in weighty ideas and political correctness. Australia Day focuses its themes through rich characterisation, and gives them flight via a sense of pacing that would do any thriller proud.

A separate but inter-connected narrative in the vein of Crash or the seminal works of Robert Altman, Australia Day literally starts on the run, with three characters legging it through the steamy streets of contemporary Brisbane. Middle Eastern heritage youth, Sami (Elias Anton), is on the run from the brother of the girl that he’s just shared drugs and a bed with; Aboriginal teen, April (Miah Madden), is fleeing a car wreck after being pursued by police; and terrified Asian woman, Lan Chang (Jenny Wu), is heading away from a life that has her coursing with fear and desperation. These three characters’ sore and tired legs will send them spinning into the orbits of a number of other players with their own problems: a compromised Aboriginal policewoman (Shari Sebbens); a down-on-his-luck farmer (Bryan Brown); a beer swilling Aussie bigot (Sean Keenan); a no-nonsense detective (Matthew Le Nevez); and a Middle Eastern Lady Macbeth (Neveen Hanna).

Proving that you don’t need an exorbitant running time to canvas a swathe of big issues, Kriv Stenders delivers the very definition of cinematic economy here, not wasting a single frame in telling his broad spectrum story. The connections between the characters and stories are never too forced or gimmicky, and the narrative moves at an impressively breakneck speed while never tripping over itself. The performances, meanwhile, are across-the-board brilliant, with Bryan Brown and Sean Keenan standing out largely because they fill the shoes of the most moving and eye catching characters, respectively. A big, broiling stew of complex thought, Australia Day is a provocative, intelligent film that dares to pick, probe and ask a lot of burning questions. It doesn’t presume to have all the answers, but that just adds to the film’s strengths. Life doesn’t usually come complete with easy solutions, and neither does Australia Day. Sincere, ambitious, and truthful, this is an Aussie film worth celebrating.

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Brigsby Bear

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Growing up in a sealed habitat with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), James’ (Kyle Mooney) only connection with the wider world is the children’s television show, Brigsby Bear, which is still in production in their presumably post-apocalyptic world. A pseudo-Sid and Marty Krofft affair with talking animals, psychedelic production design, and a sprawling and intricate internal mythology, Brigsby Bear is the font from which all of James’ education flows, and he is an obsessive fan of the show.

Unfortunately, it’s not real. None of it is, as James learns to his dismay and confusion when the police raid their remote compound. James was kidnapped as a baby and raised in isolation, completely cut off from the real world for reasons which are never fully explored, and the show was manufactured by his faux-father as a kind of experimental teaching aid. James is returned to his real parents, Greg (Martin Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and meets his teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) for the first time, but reintegrating into the real world is fraught with difficulty.

James is in his 20s, by the way, which makes this a lot less cute than it might come across at first taste.

The central conceit here is “man-child obsessed with retro pop culture touches the hearts of friends and family”, which is a pretty well worn trope by this stage of the game, but rarely has it been done so mawkishly and insincerely. In a time when grown men are having heated online arguments about female Ghostbusters and fervently hoping for a Masters of the Universe movie that “gets it right,” do we really need a feature-length screed in defence of the infantilisiation of pop culture and the magic of fannish obsession?

That is, at the end of the day, what Brigsby Bear is, and while early in the piece there’s an intriguing tension between James’ singular, Brigsby-centric worldview and the complexities of the suburban life he is thrust into, it gradually becomes clear that the film is firmly in James’ corner: everything would be better if everyone just saw the world how he sees it, and helped him do whatever he wants to do, which is make a feature-length Brigsby Bear movie to finish off the show’s long-running storyline. James’ obsession stops being a handicap and becomes the mechanism by which he gains acceptance and friendship, teaming up with local budding auteur Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to shoot the thing, and even enlisting local cop Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to his cause, who not only acts in the movie but steals props from the evidence locker (all the Brigsby ephemera is, of course, evidence in the kidnapping case).

The film barely spares a thought for Greg and Louise, obviously tortured by James’ crippling case of arrested development and trying desperately to create a space where they can communicate meaningfully with him, but in this world that means doing what James wants and helping him make his movie. Everything improves when people fall in line. The idea that just maybe James’ poor socialisation and infantile fixation are real problems is barely given lip service; it’s the world that must change to accommodate James, not the other way around – ultimately, our protagonist learns almost nothing, making our main dramatic arc more of a flat plane.

There are strong performances here – Kinnear, Hamill, and Lendeborg stand out – and if you’re burdened with an utterly uncritical appreciation of whimsy or unearned sentimentality, then those buttons are going to get pushed good and hard. That doesn’t change the fact that Brigsby Bear is an empty exercise, a twee celebration of immaturity, and no amount of retro posturing can disguise the hollow solipsism at its core.