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Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story (Russian Resurrection Film Festival)

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There have been numerous adaptations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, so one could argue that if you’re going to wrestle with the popular tome, then you should be willing to bring something fresh to the table. In this instance, director Karen Shakhnazarov (Ward No. 6, Assassin of the Tsar) takes the original story, blends it with the war memoirs of writer Vikenty Veresaev and recounts the whole affair from the point of view of Anna’s lover Count Vronsky.

On the battlefields of the Russia-Japan war in 1908, a middle aged Vronsky (Max Matveev) unexpectedly meets his ex-lover’s son Sergey Karenin (Kirill Grebenshchikov), who has held a simmering hatred for the former over 30 years. Vronsky’s Story is quick to bring up Anna’s passing as it plays out in the novel, and the two men attempt an uneasy reconciliation in order to understand her and the events leading up to her death.

Done right, this kind of revisionism can really open up an established text, throwing light into its shadows in the hopes of finding something new. Sumptuous in its costumes and set design, Vronsky’s Story starts strong; the Count admitting that the deceased Anna, played by Elizaveta Boyarskaya, haunts his every waking day.

However, Anna’s all-consuming grip on Vronsky’s life bleeds into the narrative and he literally becomes a bit part in his own story. As such, we see events play out before seeing them recounted to our hero by others. Elsewhere, in the ‘present day’, Sergey disappears into the background, popping up only occasionally to insist Vronsky continue his tale. Something he does, even when peculiarly Sergey isn’t around.

It’s certainly easy to get swept up in the grandiose spectacle of it all, whilst Matveev and Boyarskaya give strong performances. However, there’s this inescapable feeling that by sticking rigidly to its source material, Vronsky’s Story is doing itself a disservice, ultimately struggling to tell its own story.

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Ballad Of Youth: The Making Of Flirting

With a new print of the 1987 Aussie teen film classic, The Year My Voice Broke, set to screen at the Adelaide Film Festival, we take a look back at the making of the film’s under-celebrated sequel, 1991’s Flirting.
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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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Sweet Country

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Warwick Thornton’s much awaited Sweet Country may well be the best Australian film of the year. It is certainly the most timely and necessary. The film is in-competition at the prestigious 74th Venice Film Festival and in the Platform section of the Toronto International Film Festival. To get into the main competition of these two festivals is a victory in itself. Given the lengthy and genuine standing ovation at the premiere screening in Venice, the Italian and foreign audiences clearly understood the world of the film, if not its modern day Australian significance. This film represents our lasting shame and our national pride; it is an exquisitely made film about a complex recent history.

Sweet Country is inspired by true events, a revisionist western, not unlike The Proposition, set sometime after WWI in the Northern Territory. As a western it features cowboys on the hunt for a runaway in the vast, wild unknown frontier country. There are good guys and bad guys, Christians and drunks, thieves and cowards. There are guns and shootouts, sheriffs, saloons and savage ‘natives’. There is also the law, justice and epic landscapes that preside over bitter, deranged men. Like all westerns it has something more to say, beyond the archetypal cracks of a horseback chase scene – history, race, slavery, faith, the law and the dreams of something greater.

Aside from the fine documentary-drama Jandamarra’s War (2011), there are few artistic projects that have engaged with Australia’s 150 year Frontier Wars. A conspiracy of silence? The fear of an uncomfortable audience experience? Not in this case, for the director managed a fine balance between intricately drawn Indigenous characters that the audience cared about and action sequences featuring snotty, fearful and deranged white men. Common perception would have it that the skirmishes out in the back of beyond, for it was terra nullius after all, ended in the 1800s. But as this film makes clear the full-blown conflict was waged well into the middle part of the 20th century where the law and common practice were strange bedfellows.

The film is based on a true story, told to Thornton by writer David Tranter, of an Aboriginal man, Wilaberta Jack, who in the 1920s was arrested and tried for the murder of a white man in Central Australia.

Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) who kills a crazed-alcoholic war veteran white station owner, Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence. Knowing that he is in trouble with the white men, Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) go on the run from the local cop (Bryan Brown). From there the classic western chase unfolds but its polarities are reversed and like the fugitives in Fury Road the audience is on the side of Sam and Lizzie.

From the very first moment while watching closely as a billy boils, we hear the assault of what we later learn is Sam Kelly for not complying with a white man’s orders. From our modern vantage point we know that this is not a case of the fair go and that we are in for an intense experience of having our ethical sensibilities shaken. Sam and Lizzie live with Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a preacher without a church, who believes “we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord.” But this is at odds with the other settlers in the area. Harry March, the new owner of a neighbouring property, comes over looking for help to build fencing and is curious where Fred got his “black stock”, talking about Sam and Lizzie as he wants to “borrow them”.

Despite his misgivings, Fred is cajoled by Harry to “do the Christian thing” and he agrees to let the couple help on Harry’s station. Everyone naively assumes that they will be fed and housed, paid and looked after. But harry abuses Sam with hard work and rapes Lizzie and then sends them packing with a flood of abuse. Some days later Harry “borrows” the young Philomac and Archie from Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) on another neighbouring property for more slave work. Mick, like Harry enjoys a drink and physical abuse of his “black stock”. Young Philomac, Mick’s “half-caste” son is chained up by Harry for the night for no reason. He escapes in the morning. Harry, drunk, armed and enraged by the escape, goes in search of the boy and ends up at Fred’s property where he starts shooting up the house thinking Philomac is hiding there. When he bursts into the house, Sam kills him in self-defence. Fearing the worst, Sam and Lizzie disappear. The local lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) organises a posse to go in search of the fugitives. Fred Smith joins them to make sure that no harm will come to Sam and that he is given lawful treatment. The best scenes, typical of a classic Western, are the chase through the ever-changing wild country and the significant obstacles that it throws up to the searchers. There is more to this of course and the final act is wonderfully composed, patient and full of surprises.

The title Sweet Country has multiple meanings – it is at once an observation of the stunning landscapes that titillates the audience; the promise of financial opportunity that the land offers the colonialists to capture for their own use without any acknowledgement of its ownership; and it is a bittersweet recognition that this country is both dangerous and bewildering and traumatised by a whole system of injustices that is only for the brave to face up to.

The film highlights the Frontier Wars, the settlers’ fear of Indigenous resistance and their complete contempt for the law of the land. It also reminds us of the impossibility of colonial development without Indigenous labour that was tantamount to slavery some 70 years after it was abolished in the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States. The disgusting Harry March, having begged Fred Smith to loan him some of his “blacks” for a couple of days’ work, imploring him that “it’s the Christian thing to do” then proceeds to abuse Sam and Lizzie in the most unchristian way possible. Was Harry March the type of character subsequently mythologised as the true-blue Aussie who seeded the legends of great bushmen, larrikins and settlers that made this country great? Harry knows he is wrong, but along with the other bedraggled vermin of the outback he also knows that he has the power to do as he likes – he is white and he has a rapid firing gun.

It is not surprising that the cinematography here is outstanding, but it is the decision-making with the visual language, the restraint and the revelatory surprises that are most startling. Thornton is a celebrated cinematographer in his own right and here he not only directs, but also lenses the film with his son, Dylan River (Buckskin, 2013). The setting in Central Australia’s MacDonnell Ranges, around the area where Thornton grew up, ensures a connection with the land; an understated confidence in capturing the majestic vistas of the landscapes and taming them in the service of the story. He refrains from imposing the stunning terrain to heighten the epic quality of the narrative and its natural grandeur but it is hard for it not to play a defining role. The variety of the landscape continues to surprise as does Thornton’s efficient use of sound and the soundtrack of the natural environment. This is a masterful production with top level, fully committed performances and a sensitivity to audience expectations and their emotional journeys.

Thornton does this partially through a silent foreshadowing that punctuates the drama and leads to a continuous second-guessing of what will come next and in what order, keeping the western narrative fresh.

Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2009 and justifiably thrust the director into the national spotlight with cinemas in the leafy small l-liberal suburbs screening the film long after it had finished playing elsewhere. There was cut-through where it was least expected. Sweet Country also features the escape by an Indigenous couple from the violence of their domestic environment and their search for something better on the road. Both films explore themes of justice, ethics and white law with the complexity of post-colonial blackfella relations. Where Samson & Delilah was for all of its genuineness rough around the edges and unnecessarily expositional in parts, Sweet Country is highly sophisticated, sparse and powerfully confident and should have even greater cut-through with mainstream audiences. The performances of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are worth the price of admission alone, but it is the understated and proud performances by the largely non-trained Indigenous actors that really provide the film with its heart and symbolic power. Thornton manages to provide each character with sufficient time for a full character narrative with the minimal use of language and an efficient lack of exposition.

This is a film that will inspire audiences with a feeling of righteous fury and national pride. Must see!

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The Shape of Water (Venice Film Festival)

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“Fantasy is always political,” proclaimed Guillermo del Toro following the 15-minute standing ovation for his new film. After a weird sojourn to Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, the much-loved writer and director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth is back in familiar territory mixing cruelty, fantasy and romance in Cold War era America. This is a modern-day fairy tale about an unexpected love between a mute girl and an aquatic god-beast and the battle between science and the beast’s inexplicable talents. It is also a tale of unexpected friendships set against a time of casual misogyny and brutal state oppression…. ummmm, sounds strangely familiar.

Del Toro delivers a masterful romantic vision full of enchantment and magical realism that recalls his earlier Spanish language films such as Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. As with Pan’s Labyrinth this is dark territory seen through the eyes of a young child, with the sadistic US government official standing in for the fascists. The labyrinth is replaced with watery images that overflow and conceal an aquatic creature that is at once terrifying, magical and misunderstood. This film is pure old-fashioned movie magic that will engross younger viewers (although it will undoubtedly have an MA+ rating) and adults alike – a critique of brutally stupid Cold War America and at the same time an exotic love affair between a delicate, damaged young woman and a swampy beast.

The brittle, lonely but feisty Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a mute cleaner at a U.S. government military facility who develops a deep understanding of The Asset, an amphibious creature kept in a tank for space science experimentation. Her two friends, another cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and illustrator neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) are instrumental in helping her save The Asset from senseless destruction by the authorities. Michael Shannon is Strickland, a hard arse cold warrior, the head of the military facility and, though concealed by good-ol’ American buttoned-downed conservatism, his machine-like sadism is boundless.

This is a battle between good and evil, but here the polarities are reversed. The hero is a fragile mute girl and her accomplices are a Russian counter-intelligence scientist, a gay illustrator and a plump African-American cleaner constantly abused by her husband.

For a fantasy fairy tale, The Shape of Water is unexpectedly moving and emotionally rich, and the visually ravishing art direction adds to the experience rather than distracting from the storyline which is deceptively simple. Indeed, if the storyline is familiar it is because it appears to be a reasonably direct adaptation of the 1962 Soviet science-fiction romance, Amphibian Man, with a focus less on science and more on love won and lost. Like the Soviet film, The Shape of Water is also a meditation on greed, commercial exploitation and the brutality applied by man to anything that is different, gentle and meek. There are also resonances with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Although the opportunities for special effects were clearly available, Del Toro’s piscine amphibious humanoid is a modest and compelling beast that appears very similar to the 1950s creature.

Eliza and Giles’ apartments are in an old Baltimore building above an old movie cinema, which triggers a swathe of vintage movie connections to look out for: from noir, thrillers and ‘30s musicals that deepen our engagement with the movie and network the characters to our cinematic memory cortex. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is superb and makes those cinematic connections meaningful rather than cute quotations. The production design team let by Paul Denham Austerberry clearly had fun.

Thematically the film examines social intolerance toward otherness (gay, damaged, disabled, black, an aquatic creature) that is just as relevant today as it must have been in the 1960s. Perhaps the most modern and innovative character interpretation is the portrait of Eliza – she is mute, with scars around her neck and communicates only with sign-language but she is also a passionate woman full of desire and a feistiness that belies her small, fragile stature – she masturbates regularly in the bath at home and at work develops a fascination and then love for the aquatic creature experimented upon in the lab that she cleans. It is her relationship with the beast that is at the heart of this film – it is at once fantastical and surprisingly erotic.

The Shape of Water is magical, old fashioned cinema, which proves to be vibrant, delightful escapism rich with emotion and significance.

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Chavela (Queer Screen Film Fest)

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Chavela Vargas was an icon in so many ways. She was a pioneering female artist in Mexican Ranchero music; a fierce lesbian who continues to empower the Mexican LGBT+ community; her 70+ year career survived turmoil and heartbreak, and she continued to perform well into her 90s, still selling out shows mere weeks before her death. She was a game-changer in every sense of the word, and though her legacy is enormous in Latin America and parts of Europe, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi are determined to take her complex story to the world in the documentary Chavela.

Beginning with her move to Mexico as a young child from Costa Rica, Chavela chronicles the incredible loneliness of Chavela Vargas, her estrangement from her family and exclusion from public life, because while her sexuality was okay onstage, in Mexican society it was unacceptable. This led not only to her extreme alcoholism during the first half of her career, but also her endless romances and affairs; at one point in the film we discover that Chavela had seduced all of Mexico and half of Hollywood at the height of her career. As we meet some of the women who Chavela loved and lost, we discover how deeply she loved, and the tragedy of being loved by her fans, yet so alone.

Indeed, it is this loneliness that fueled her incredible music; with lyrics full of pain and sorrow, Chavela’s music is raw and soulful. Gund and Kyi weave together her stories and her songs all through the film, and the music paints the best picture of her life, one that you feel inside of you: despite all her heartache, she lived a full life that never slowed down. In fact, it only moved faster, with her triumphant comeback a reminder that Chavela was more than her addictions, and that just like her music, she would continue to inspire.

Throughout Chavela, many of her friends and lovers tell her tumultuous story, such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr, son of Chavela’s legendary collaborator Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Pedro Almodovar, the director who was instrumental in her comeback (she sang and appeared in The Flower of my Secret); yet the film’s most striking footage is of Chavela herself, in a group interview with fans. Frozen in time in this footage from 1990, her words give insight into the story unfolding around her, and also what was yet to come for her at the time of the interview.

Chavela’s lyrical journey through the emotional rollercoaster of Chavela’s life may take you to the lowest of lows of celebrity addiction and despair, but its redemptive arc is deeply satisfying as Chavela earns the career she always deserved.