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Last Flag Flying (BFI London Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In 2003, Vietnam vets Sal (Bryan Cranston), ‘Doc’ (Steve Carrell) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) are reunited after decades of estrangement when ‘Doc’ appears, asking his old friends for help transporting his son’s body to Arlington Cemetery after he has been killed in Iraq. What follows is a funny and emotional road-trip as the three men put the world to rights, reconnect with one another, and come to terms with the actions of their past.

Richard Linklater is back and once again he is exploring the effects of time on the human condition. Whereas his previous film Everybody Wants Some!! dealt with young men in the dawn of their adulthood with everything ahead of them, Last Flag Flying looks at men in their twilight years, looking back at their lives with equal parts reverence and regret, essayed brilliantly by three of America’s greatest working character actors.

Billed as sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson, Linklater and co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (who also wrote both novels each film is based on), bring that film’s acerbic look at the military and Vietnam forward 30 years and bring it right up against America’s involvement in Iraq to throw a spotlight on how the damage of war on soldiers’ lives has a ripple effect across generations.

There is a fascinating focus in the story on the power of truths and un-truths to either bolster or edit our social narrative in order for our lives to have meaning. All three men know how it feels to go to war based on a lie and to be vilified for it. They all share a tragic event that occurred whilst they were in Vietnam that they are still trying to come to terms with. Alcoholic Sal’s attempts stop the cycle of lies in order to exorcise his guilt brings him in conflict with his fellow veterans, yet when confronted with the opportunity to set the record straight, Sal finds perhaps there is some credence in reinforcing the story we prefer to tell ourselves as a way to just keep on living.

There are a lot of heady themes that circles the characters’ journey throughout the film but they only add depth to this entertaining road movie. The heavy lifting is done by the three central actors who are, of course, more than up to the task. Fishburne is terrific as a former wild man turned man of God and Cranston is phenomenal as Sal, a man torn between his love of the military and his resentment of his actions while in service. But Steve Carrell is the quiet, grief-stricken centre of the film and he once again brings to the screen a profoundly sad and human portrayal of a man who has been dealt a terrible hand in life but still finds the strength to go on.

Director Sam Fuller always said “Love your country, despite the ulcers” and Last Flag Flying takes that as its central thesis. This is a film about the conflict at the heart of American patriotism. Linklater explores how each generation gets the war that will define it and each war has the aftermath that cannot be addressed in fear of the fragile narrative we use to justify it crumbling into dust. The film may feel a little laidback at times but the themes resonate strongly and the acting even more so. This may be a lesser entry in Linklater’s filmography but is still a wonderfully heart-felt and emotional film.

 
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Most Beautiful Island (BFI London Film Festival)

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If you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, or if paying your rent meant the difference between living with a roof over your head or on the street, what would you be willing to do for money? This is the question faced by Luciana (writer/director Ana Asensio), an undocumented Spanish immigrant living hand to mouth in New York City.

When Luciana meets Olga (Natasha Romanova) whilst handing out flyers for a fried chicken restaurant, Olga offers her the opportunity to earn some quick cash; show up to an address, wear something skimpy and attend a party. No problem. However, when Luciana shows up, something is not quite right and it quickly dawns on her that this “party” is for rich weirdos to exercise their bizarre peccadilloes. Luciana really needs the money, but is what they want her to do really worth it?

Debut writer/director and star Ana Asensio has crafted a fascinating and tense low budget film supposedly drawn from real life inspiration. Set over a single day, the first half of the film finds Luciana struggle in the anonymous throng of the Big Apple, taking odd jobs and failing to get medical attention without insurance. After Olga gives her the details of the job, the social realism of the previous half gives way to a frightening descent into the underworld; as she arrives at the address a hatch in the sidewalk opens up and beckons her down into the darkness of the unknown.

When Luciana is ushered into the “party” in a mysterious basement, she finds she is destined to be part of a distasteful meat market, where her and other women are told to stand inside crudely drawn numbered circles, with chosen candidates ushered into a room, where God knows what transpires. Asensio keeps the audience with Luciana as she struggles to understand her predicament and the tension builds beautifully, along with the mystery of what is just behind that door. When she herself is finally ushered into the room beyond the door the film takes a left turn toward something as particular as it is strange, something that feels not too far-fetched, and is all the more frightening for it.

Asensio manages to balance the sense of realism with a dark surrealism without sacrificing tone or character motivation. The film takes us into a realm of strangeness that feels authentic and manages to be a perfect metaphor for the immigrant experience. The women in the basement are disposable commodities to the wealthy elite who will stop at nothing to exploit the immigrant workforce toward their own ends, in this case, their gratification. Most Beautiful Island is a terrifically well-observed little genre film that is not afraid to go to dark places to hit its narrative beats and reinforce its themes.

 
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1% (BFI London Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week 7 Comments

In the very opening moments of Stephen McCallum’s 1%, the audience is assaulted by infamously loud noise band Swans instantly filling the cinema with a cacophony of distorted chords while singer Michael Gira repeatedly screams “lunacy, lunacy”, like the howl of a tortured Greek chorus calling out from the gates of Hades itself, as its denizens, a horde of leather clad outlaws on motorcycles, roar forth through a tunnel into the night of the city. It becomes abundantly clear that, much like the road these men are travelling down, the following film will be a dark, harrowing journey toward a final destination that can only be one of madness and death.

The Copperhead Motorcycle Club has gone from strength to strength under the interim leadership of their Vice President Paddo (Ryan Corr). Membership is up and they are on the brink of a deal with a rival club to launder their ill-gotten gains, turning their profit legitimate and beyond the reach of the law, but when club President Knuck (Matt Nable) is released from prison, he is determined to return the club to the status quo, through any means necessary. Paddo reluctantly steps aside, but when his brother Skink (Josh McConville) breaks club rules and is exiled it sets the two leaders down the road toward violent confrontation.

Shot on a small budget on the back streets of Perth, Western Australia, 1% is a lean, mean, well-oiled genre machine, continuing the Australian cinematic tradition of grim, violent portrayals of toxic masculinity. Immediate comparisons to ’70s Ozploitation classic Stone are inevitable but there are shades of Romper Stomper in the film’s group dynamics, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in its portrayal of the way prison focuses criminality more than it rehabilitates, and even Wake in Fright with its feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. But what actor/screenwriter Matt Nable and director Stephen McCallum manage to do is to embrace the Shakespearean nature of the story that lends the film an air of the epic. These men are not stereotypes, they are archetypes, acting out humanity’s violent tendencies as a way for the audience to experience the darkest extremes of our very nature.

Yet amongst this archetypal milieu there are political concerns to be found in the motorcycle club as microcosm for the current political climate. Paddo, being the young upstart, has his eye on the horizon, to the future of what his beloved club could be, whereas Knuck, the old warrior, is the voice of the past which rejects change; Knuck is Trump, he is Brexit, the obsessive view of the nostalgic past that refuses to look beyond the immediately knowable. His time in prison sharpened his resolve, but it also brought to the surface homosexual tendencies, which in his world would be viewed as a weakness, and, like Paddo’s ideas for the club’s future, he refuses to acknowledge them.

All of these machinations would be for nought, though, without a terrific ensemble cast to give voice to these characters and director McCallum has assembled a formidable one. The aforementioned three male leads; Corr, Nable (terrifying) and McConville are superb and the always brilliant Aaron Pedersen appears as Sugar, the leader of a rival club, in a very welcome extended cameo. However, for all the quintessential hardcore male-ness on display the true power lies, in both the film and the performances, with the women. Simone Kessell is a powerhouse as Knuck’s wife and keeper of the flame Hayley, while Abbey Lee brings a quiet intelligence to the scheming Katrina, Paddo’s girlfriend and Hayley’s heir-presumptive.

1% is a gloriously rendered and assured debut feature, but if there were to be a caveat it would be that the film is a brutal watch. Thankfully, McCallum and company don’t wallow in the brutality but rather use it as a means of portraying the damaged and damaging lives these people lead. In fact, it is the violence that happens off screen that is the most emotionally affecting. But what we do see is captured with an unblinking intensity by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who also captures the suburbs of Perth with an eye for unexpected detail.

If 1% was just a well-made motorcycle picture it would still be considered an achievement of genre filmmaking, but Matt Nable’s screenplay and Stephen McCallum’s direction aims for something more epic in scope. The film feels like it could be classified as Ozploitation 2.0, bringing a modern update to a classic formula but still using the genre to address universal concerns. It is grim, gritty and violent but to avoid the film on those terms is missing the point; we currently live in violent times and genre films can provide that experiential lens through which we can confront the agony, the ecstasy and the lunacy of the world around us.

 
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Attraction

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After interference from the Russian air force, an alien craft crash-lands in the middle of Moscow claiming the lives of many on the ground. Not accepting their part in the city’s destruction, the Government quickly set about making the inhabitants of the craft public enemy number one, despite the alien’s insistence that they will leave once they’ve made repairs. In some quarters, Attraction has been touted as Russia’s answer to Independence Day, but it shares a lot more in common with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Well, up to a point.

Despite impressive action that top and tails Attraction, it’s best to approach the film as less of a blockbuster and more of a war romance with two lovers desperately reaching out to each other over the trenches. Irina Strashenbaum plays Yulia, a student who blames the aliens for the death of her best friend. When she comes face to face with one of them, Heken (Rinal Mukhmetov), Yulia must overcome her own prejudices in order to help him get back home. It certainly helps her that Heken is shaped like an incredibly gorgeous human being.

Whilst the relationship between the two will have some audience members going doe-eyed, it unfortunately has a large impact on the rest of the film. The political discourse, as Yulia’s father, Colonel Valentin (Oleg Menshikov), tries to quell the beginnings of civil unrest, is by the far the more interesting aspect. There are some neat touches in this allegory about ‘illegal immigrants’, with everything the stranded aliens do and say being misinterpreted as a threat to humanity.

Director Fedor Bondarchuk (Stalingrad) has admitted the film has political leanings, inspired by the Moscow Riots in 2013 that saw a young Muslim man accused of murdering a local. It’s the kind of heady metaphor that good science fiction can be built upon. So, it’s a blow that the premise of the film is really built around is some rather unengaging Twilight-esque alien romancing.

 
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Dogs of Democracy

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In her first venture into film, author Mary Zournazi is open about having stumbled quite fortuitously onto the topic of her documentary. Originally intended to be an exploration of her own Greek roots in Athens, Zournazi soon uncovers a microcosm of stray dogs who roam the streets freely, whilst being cared for by many of the locals. Like Ceyda Torun’s Kedi – which looked at the large populace of homeless cats that prowl through Istanbul – we meet both humans and canines, witnessing the love they share for each other.

Extending beyond merely trying to make its audience feel warm and fuzzy, Zournazi tries to understand if there’s a way humanity can learn something from its furry brethren with regards to ethics and morality. This ideology is emboldened by the time and place in which Zournazi finds herself filming; Greece is being crippled by an economic crisis that is causing, amongst other things, mass unemployment. Like the dogs we meet, the people of Athens are cut adrift, facing tough realities. However, as the film progresses we see how these very same people can find moments of hope within their interactions with the dogs, whose resilience effectively rubs off on them.

The hero of the film is perhaps Loukanikos, a stray who appeared at numerous anti-austerity protests being photographed dodging tear gas alongside his human protestors. Loukanikos is set up to be a symbol of the people, from which those who gather around his memorial can extract their own sense of purpose. Zournazi highlights how as a society, if we are able to think of others, even in moments of great stress and foreboding, only then are we more likely to come together and stand strong in the face of disquiet.

Engaging and thought-provoking, go see Dogs of Democracy for the wet nosed mischief makers, but stay for the uplifting philosophical discussion.

 
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The Florida Project

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Tangerine director Sean Baker follows up that formally daring breakthrough film with this heartbreaking and humanistic look at the lives of the semi-transient poor in Kissimmee, Florida.

Six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives with her unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a run-down tourist trap motel within spitting distance of Walt Disney World. It’s summer vacation, and Moonee and her friends are pretty much left to their own devices in a pastel-painted world of strip malls and knock-off souvenir shops. To them it’s a kind of wonderland; abandoned houses are private playgrounds, their motel homes are shaped like fairytale castles and rocket ships, and the lack of parental supervision is simply the freedom to do whatever they want. But what’s heaven to children is really a disturbing dystopia huddled in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom: drugs, booze and the threat of violence are ever-present, and the pressures of poverty are constant.

Not a lot actually happens in The Florida Project – named for Walt Disney’s working title for Disney World – with Baker preferring to spend his time building up a striking and resonant portrait of a people and place rather than hitting rote story beats. Yet there’s an inescapable tension in the contrast between the incredibly likable Moonee and the world she inhabits. For all her brash confidence and charm (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince is simply a dynamo of charisma) Moonee is constantly threatened by two sources of danger. The first, the simple physical threats arrayed around a free range kid, from accidentally burning down an abandoned house to the attentions of a creepy adult, are easily understood, if no less dangerous for that. The second is more abstract: it’s the possible futures on offer for her, as embodied by her mother, a young, chainsmoking, easily angered woman-child who makes ends meet by selling knock-off perfumes and eventually – inevitably – herself.

That’s the real heartbreak in The Florida Project, and Baker offers no concrete happy endings. He does offer hope, though, in the form of human kindness and rough-hewn compassion. That’s where Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the manager of the motel, comes in, a harried and overworked soul who must herd his passel of hard-luck tenants as best he can. It’s a fantastic role for Dafoe, who imbues the character with a mix of seen-it-all cynicism and real warmth – those who are used to him playing villains should recall that he was also, at one time, Jesus for Martin Scorsese. For all that the antics of Moonee and her friends vex him, Bobby is an avuncular, almost paternal figure who wants to protect them from the world. But he also wants to protect himself, maintaining an emotional distance – he knows how hard the world is, and what it probably has in store for these kids.

That these dramas play out in the candy-coloured Disney hinterlands adds a sharp but subtle element of class and capitalism critique to the proceedings, and it’s interesting to note that the Walt Disney Company is the second biggest employer in Kissimmee. But what Disney is selling here, according to The Florida Project, is a lie, and a particularly cruel one: the message that happiness comes only through conspicuous consumption, and the gates of the Happiest Place on Earth are barred to the minimum wage working poor. When you can see heaven through a chain-link fence, then by simple contrast wherever you are must seem an awful lot like hell.

The Florida Project is by no stretch an easy watch, but it’s an incredibly rewarding one. Once again, Sean Baker has granted us ingress into a world and an underclass of people we might normally ignore or sideline, and allowed us to see the sheer humanity, generosity, and tragedy therein.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Florida Project