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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 (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.

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Embrace Of The Serpent

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What a film! Inspired by the diaries of a German ethnographer, it follows the Amazonian journeys (decades apart) of two scientists, escorted by the same shaman. They’re both in search of a rare flower which allegedly has extraordinary healing properties. Their guide, Karamakate, is an understandably wary man, distressed to the very core of his being by the systematic destruction of his people, his culture, and his environment. Karamakate is played as a young man by Nilbio Torres, and as a much older one by Antonio Bolivar. Both actors are uncannily expressive, and both have incredible still-waters-run-deep presence. That’s just as well, because less formidable performers would be dwarfed by the sheer beauty of the movie’s setting or the bizarre exoticism of its set-pieces – a Dionysian scene involving a grotesque messiah cult being just one example.

Embrace Of The Serpent is profound, moving, ironic, visually exquisite, both subtle and powerful, wonderfully acted, and breathtakingly imaginative. The music is haunting, the dialogue is memorable, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography is sumptuous. On one level, it’s a great adventure story, but it’s also a character-driven saga of clashing cultures. It pulls off the amazing balancing trick of evoking mystical transcendence whilst maintaining intelligence and wit, eschewing “New-Agey” pretension and being an exercise in damning social and religious commentary.

And it does all this without ever seeming heavy-handed or unduly didactic. Though it conjures memories of earlier cinematic gems such as Fitzcarraldo and Dead Man, it’s fundamentally original. In short, as you may have gathered by now, it’s a flawless masterpiece and essential viewing – preferably on the big screen.

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Two years after he was forced to resign from Congress following a sexting scandal, politician Anthony Weiner attempted to revive his career by throwing his hat into the New York City mayoral race. Weiner made the bold choice of inviting a film crew to document what he hopes will be his redemption, and it all seemed to be going swimmingly until… oops, he did it again.

A young woman, Sydney Leathers, revealed to the media that she’d had a long-running online sexual relationship with Weiner long after he said his transgressions had stopped. With his campaign up against it and his personal life under incredible scrutiny, Weiner made the decision to let filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg continue to shoot. The result is never less that fascinating.

Weiner plays out like a Greek tragedy – a story of a hero (in the Classical sense of the word) brought down by a fatal, inescapable internal flaw. Make no mistake, Anthony Weiner is an incredible politician, and it’s easy to see his career arc taking him to the White House, if you excise all the horrible things he’s done. He’s passionate, driven, intelligent, articulate, charismatic… and he has no apprehension of the kind of damage he’s doing to the people around him, not just by philandering, but by insisting on continuing to work in the public eye after he’s caught out.

Which brings us to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife. A confidante of Hillary Clinton, Abedin is a political animal just like her husband, standing by him when he admits his wrongdoing (just like her mentor did, in point of fact – the parallels to the Clintons are inescapable, and in fact Bill officiated at the Weiner-Abedin wedding). However, as the film progresses and Weiner’s campaign implodes, the camera frequently seeks out Abedin standing in the background while Weiner keeps the wheels spinning on centre stage. More than any full-blown argument or confrontation we see between the two – and there are plenty – her beaten expression when she thinks she’s not being observed is heartbreaking. It also adds complexity to the proceedings; it’s one thing to derive schadenfreude from seeing a crusader with feet of clay get hoist on his own petard, but it’s quite another to see his family get caught in the splash zone. Interestingly, Weiner and Abedin are still married.

We’re also forced to ask ourselves whether all this media muckraking was really in the public interest at all. The film  never lets Weiner himself off the hook, but it does make us consider the sheer debilitating weight of the media scrutiny he and his family were under, and examine our assumed role as moral arbiters in the broader culture. Is there a line between the personal and the professional, the private and the public anymore? Weiner courts the media as a politician, and even invites it into his inner circle in the form of the documentary film crew, but does he then still get to demarcate certain parts of his life as off limits, or is everything up for grabs? What sins are forgivable in the the media panopticon, and what must be atoned for forever?

There are, of course, not pat answers. Weiner is a great film, taking a complex and balanced look at a scenario that could have been depicted as one long, rolling punchline. As a portrait of a flawed individual and an unblinking look at the intersection between the media and the political machine, it’s a triumph.

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REVIEW: Jason Bourne

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It’s been nearly ten years since Matt Damon punched, kicked, stabbed, and shot his way through a Bourne movie, and in the latest installment, Jason Bourne (which sounds almost like a statement of intent), he certainly makes up for lost time, opening the film by knocking a guy out cold, and then never letting up from there. With Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips, United 91) once again at the helm, Jason Bourne locks instantly into its predecessors’ shaky-cam-induced sense of urgency, while boasting a wholly contemporary subtext, with references to Edward Snowden, personal privacy, and the insidious possibilities of the internet as frequent as the car chases and gun play. With brutish forcefulness, Greengrass and Damon seem to be stating in no uncertain terms that they’re back because the time is right for a Jason Bourne movie, and not because the pay cheque was too irresistible.

As Jason Bourne opens, Matt Damon’s once amnesiac former government operative is still on the run, and now making his living as a bareknuckle fighter. But when he is contacted by his friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – who is now working for a WikiLeaks-style group of hacker activists – with more details about his foggy past, Bourne is once again drawn into the world of the CIA and its various sub-agencies, and on the run for his life. This time, his chief adversaries are Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA director, Robert Dewey; Vincent Cassel’s unnamed assassin; and Alicia Vikander’s CIA tech agent, Heather Lee; all of whom are tied in with a pioneering software entrepreneur played by Riz Ahmed. As with all of the previous Bourne films, the stakes are high, the action is full-tilt, and Matt Damon grounds it all with his renowned soulfulness and likeability.


So yes, Jason Bourne is, well, very much a Jason Bourne movie. It connects with the previous films (though little is made of the events of the excellent Jeremy Renner-starring spin-off, The Bourne Legacy) while still striking out in new directions, and is peppered with highlights. Oscar winner, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), is teriffic as a very millennial brand of CIA agent, her icy exterior occasionally cracking to reveal the nervy rookie underneath; Tommy Lee Jones puts a different spin on his famed cantankerous schtick; and the film’s constant nods to today’s hi-tech world and its inherent dangers are intelligently and seamlessly woven into the narrative.

But despite the thrilling action sequences, Jason Bourne lacks a little punch. The absence of ship-jumping screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (who worked on the scripts for all of the other films, and directed The Bourne Legacy), is keenly felt, and the sharp pithiness that he injected into his dialogue (as well as his keen facility for narrative immediacy) isn’t replicated by Greengrass and the series’ regular editor, Christopher Rouse, who makes his screenwriting debut here. Vincent Cassel, meanwhile, isn’t given nearly enough to do with his bad guy role, and wasting an actor of his enviable gifts is borderline criminal. But as a continuation of a truly superior action franchise, Jason Bourne is a rock-solid success: it might not soar, but it certainly flies.

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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.