Braid

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US | 2018 | Directed by Mitzi Peirone

Logline: Two young women on the run decide to rob their wealthy psychotic friend who lives in the fantasy world they created as children, but to take the money they have to take part in a perverse and deadly game of make believe.

Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Susan Hay) lay sprawled on a filthy floor, counting cash, sorting a drug stash, hatching plans. But the long arm of the law has reached their grimy apartment, so it’s time to skedaddle, quick smart. The young women jump a train and do some fancy fingersmith work in order to escape the clutches of those they’ve temporarily evaded, Tilda stealing a purse, and Petula prizing fare in exchange for a bootlick from a dirty conductor. These girls are adept at getting out of trouble, but they’re jumping from the saucepan and into the fire. 

Arriving at a majestic, but intimidating upstate NY property, where their childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer) dwells alone (with her demons), the scallywags have now donned more classy threads, for they know what’s required (but not what lies around the corner). The huge Renaissance mansion was where the young women frolicked as children, and now they return as adults to play once again, and purloin Daphne’s inheritance moolah to pay for their sins. 

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But they mustn’t forget the house rules: #1 Everyone must play, #2 No outsiders allowed, and #3 Nobody leaves. 

What was once up in the treehouse, with each girl roleplaying “mother”, “daughter” and “doctor”, now resumes in the kitchen, but the ante has been upped, the forfeits more severe. If Tilda and Petula wish to find the safe(ty) they’ll need to do what mother says. It seems the accidental fall that happened all those years ago has been injurious in more ways than one. It also seems that the innocent daydreams of youth have now transmogrified into garish nightmares. Indeed, in this topsy-turvy tenebrous world the fabric of reality is only as firm as one’s loyalty, and that can be twisted and torn as easy as apple pie. 

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Delving deep into the realms of fantasy and illusion from narratives gone by, writer/director Mitzi Peirone has fashioned an exquisite-looking study of fractured identities, unreliable memories, and desperate remedies, a danse macabre. Indeed, an oneirdynia of voluptuous abandon and violent repercussion told with a masterful control of the elements, a la 60s and 70s cinema; the paranoia/madness of Repulsion and The Tenant, the deception and duplicity of The Ballad of Tam Lin, the exotic allure and sensuality of Daughters of Darkness, the Gothic textures and unhinged logic of Suspiria and Inferno, the chaos and fetishism of Daisies. It’s a melting pot of cinema magic. 

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A mystical veneer that threads with an hallucinogenic edge that screws with mythological symbolism. Weaving like an endless braid. 

For her feature debut Pierone exhibits a vivid talent as director and wields an uncompromising perspective on storytelling, with huge props to Todd Banhazi’s spectacular cinematography - careering through psychedelic colour and raw monochrome, Annie Simeone’s elaborate production design coupled with Lindsay Stephen’s detailed set decoration, and the furious editing by David Gutnik, it’s a truly impressive collaboration. The three leads - Waterhouse, Hay, and Brewer - are sensational, exuding arrogance, sassiness, vulnerability and bewilderment with aplomb, while composer Michael Gatt provides a suitably dramatic score, amidst the effective use of several classical cues.

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Stumbling through this kaleidoscopic realm the audience struggles to keep up, the rabbit hole winds deeper and deeper, the threat of violence escalates, the grasp on sanity slips. Just who is manipulating who? What are the truths? What moments are memories? Will the madness and absurdity ever end??

We are only as resilient as our dreams are fragile, only as vulnerable as our desires are real. 

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I feel it is inevitable Braid will be my favourite movie of the year, as nothing else I’ve seen is as richly atmospheric, as provocative and elusive, as sexy and dangerous, as frustrating and rewarding, as gorgeous and grotesque in deliciously equal measure, and I doubt anything I see in the next few months will be quite as extraordinary. Pierone has delivered an instant cult classic. Embrace it, or die trying. 

Alice

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UK/Australia/France | 2019 | Directed by Josephine Mackerras

Logline: When a married mother discovers her husband’s ruinous addiction to prostitutes she is forced into grappling with her own identity and self-determination. 

Alice (Emilie Piponnier) is happily married with a caring career husband, François (Martin Swabey) and a young son Jules. They live in a Parisian apartment. One morning François says goodbye and vanishes for several days on end. Alice is confounded. Suddenly she is alone with a young child, with credit cards that have been cancelled, and heavy mortgage payments that are threatening to foreclose. Alice is desperate. 

She soon discovers that her husband had been living a duplicitous life, addicted to high end prostitutes, and spending all his money, including all the savings Alice’s father had provided to help secure the apartment. Alice is devastated. But she holds it together. Just. The threat of destitution propels her into digging deeper into her husband’s sordid secret doings. As a result she attends the escort service’s screening and befriends Lisa (Chloé Boreham) who gives her a crash course in tailored sex work. 

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Soon enough the initially nervous Alice is earning good money, and has garnered a sense of independence. Her fragility has been conquered, and with it she has embraced a new lease on life. Then François suddenly re-appears, all pathetic and desperate for reconciliation, and her inner strength is challenged. 

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This is Aussie director Mackerras’ debut feature, having made several shorts. Although there is nothing Australian about the production, there are universal truths that lie at the heart of this extraordinary character study, penned by Mackerras. It’s easily the most remarkable relationship drama I’ve seen in a long time. It is small, and intimate, yet never once feels constrained or limited in its scope and execution. 

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An absolutely brilliant performance from Piponnier who totally owns the movie. But superb work from Boreham, who provides a wonderful sassiness, and perfect contrast to Alice’s rigidity and earnestness. Swabey is also very good, and it’s a difficult role to play. It’s easy to see that Mackerras has a true talent for directing actors. But her mise-en-scene is strong also, as is the score and cinematography. Alice is the kind of narrative that could easily have felt like a play being filmed, but never once suffers from that kind of staged unreality. In fact, there is a real sense of docu-drama to the film.

But Alice isn’t all grim fare, it possesses a lovely natural sense of humour, without the comedy feeling forced. Also - and this isn’t really apparent until the very end - Alice harbours a desire for freedom that she isn’t really aware of until she experiences a degree of it with her new friend Lisa. It’s the kind of freedom one can only experience physically, not just psychologically or spiritually. It becomes a kind of thematic, emotional core.

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Alice is a truly wonderful film. An amazing example of a taut screenplay that doesn’t feel over-written, perfectly cast and given excellent direction, with production values that fit like hand in glove. Easily in my top three films of the year, make sure you see it. 

Alice screens as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday, September 14th, 2pm, at The Factory, Marrickville. For more details and tickets click here.

Albanian Gangster

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2018 | US/Kosovo/Albania | Directed by Matthew A. Brown

Logline: An ex-pat Albanian has done time and is now back on the streets of NYC and immediately becomes entangled in the throes of obsessive revenge, whilst trying to court a local woman. 

Leon (John Rezaj) is fresh out of prison, back into the fold of his Albanian community in The Bronx. He’s nearly fifty and yet feels like a caged animal half his age. Years of pent up frustration are oozing through his pores. Cognac and cocaine provide only temporary relief. But his brotherhood is strong, and there is the presence of Lisa (Ashley C. Williams), who has caught his eye. He wants to impress her, but his social skills leave a lot to be desired. He only really understands the rules of honour and the rituals of vengeance. 

Leon and his buddy Koja (Nik Nucallaj) run into the informant who was responsible for Leon being put away. Immediately Leon is on the attack, but he curbs his anger, knowing there is a time and place for release, and it will come. Instead he bides his time, fuelling his rage, a pistol under his tank top, his eyes watering with contempt. Soon the thunder will crack. 

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Brown’s debut feature, Julia, was a dark and intense tale of revenge, and Albanian Gangster is similar territory, but an altogether different kind of beast, especially in its style. Whereas Julia had a shadowy lushness that gave it a distinct Euro vibe, even though it was also set in New York, with Albanian Gangster Brown has allowed the grimy Eastside locations to really sing. Combined with a mostly non-professional cast, the movie has a strong sense of realism. 

I’m reminded of Nicolas Winding Refn’s debut film, Pusher, which in turn was inspired by Scorsese’s Mean Streets. There’s the heat-seeking camerawork, the naturalistic performances, and Brown’s cinema verité technique. Indeed there’s a classic Scorsese-esque tension that binds the movie. The use of implicit violence, as opposed to explicit, though that’s not to say the movie isn’t brutal, when it hits, it hits hard. 

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As a rule the most memorable gangster movies aren’t the ones peppered with over-the-top action and savagery, but the ones that use the threat of violence as momentum, a kind of invisible propulsion, keeping the audience on edge, and Brown uses this ploy beautifully. It’s what lifts the movie from being an ordinary and predictable gangster movie into something that feels authentic, that resonates, as if you’re watching a gripping documentary, rather than a crime drama. 

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Rezaj delivers a startlingly performance, essentially playing a fictionalised version of his true self. There’s even scenes with the two lead male characters talking directly to camera as if being interviewed. But there is strong work from the entire cast, especially Nucculaj, another new blood and one to watch out for, and Williams is terrific too, her centred, wary role a perfect counterpoint to the seething volatility of Leon. 

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Only his second feature, but Brown has the command of a seasoned filmmaker. Like Julia, Albanian Gangster is another powerful hybrid; part brooding character study, part slow-burn, pared-back thriller, and it rewards through its dramatic intensity, its ugly truthfulness; that gangland honour is steeped in brutal vengeance, always and forever. 

Albanian Gangster screens as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday, September 14th, 6pm, at The Factory, Marrickville, with an introduction by yours truly. For more details and tickets click here

Too Old To Die Young

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US | 2019 | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Logline: As an L.A. police officer becomes embroiled in a turf war between the Mexican cartel and local gangsters, his own, already compromised moral compass becomes increasingly twisted. 

We open on Martin Jones (Miles Teller), a sheriff deputy (and later detective), and his partner, in the neon glow of a desolate and ominous City of Angels. These men are bored, and they indulge their power in inappropriate ways. A Latino thug executes the partner in cold blood, and Jones soon enough finds himself neck high in a case of corruption and murder. The deeper he dives into the black waters the colder his world becomes. Not even the soft cosy embrace of his teenage lover can warm the cockles of his icy soul. He is suffering an existential crisis that not even he is aware of. 

Let the cards fall as they may. 

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Nicolas Winding Refn and co-creator and co-writer Ed Brubaker have fashioned one of the most gorgeous looking shows to ever grace the small screen. It’s in a league of its own. A sumptuous, slow burn crime thriller that refuses to play by the rules, yet wears its influences like flair adorning a uniform. It’s a series (listed as the first season), but was shot as a marathon-length feature production (a staggering 751 minutes in duration!) One very long, drawn out quest sectioned into ten, mostly feature-length episodes which the creators are calling “volumes” (like chapters in a novel), and delivered with the kind of stylistic indulgence that would make free-to-air prime time programmers weep in despair. 

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This is Neo-Noir (yup, in capitals) and takes no prisoners. Well, actually, it does: the audience. We are held hostage from the moment the camera languidly pans across the police officers standing posed by their patrol car, slowly sweeps across the street, past a blitzed-out motel, in the background a night time of demons and infidels coiled in disguise. Refn is all about the tableaux. It feels as if he has been waiting his entire career to make something this delicate and nuanced, as protracted, yet in the moment. Amazon Prime has provided him the perfect platform, and he has embraced the streaming concept like a hug from a bear on opiates. 

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To refer to this show as Lynchian would be an understatement. The influences of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive are embedded deep. The lush aesthetics, the religious iconography, the surreal edges. It’s deeply sensual, perversely sexual, then blackly comic, ultraviolent, absurd and unshakeably strange. A labyrinthine realm of sordid darkness seething just below the chrome sheen of the urban world … north of Hollywood, west of Hell. A snake pit of pedophilia, torture and execution, where drugs and money feed greedy mouths. Sister Fate is a harsh and inhumane mistress.

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Action speaks louder than words, and dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, indulging in the kind of pregnant pauses that would arouse the most jaded Beckett enthusiast. Music throbs and sound pulsates throughout. Composer Cliff Martinez is at the top of his game, but Refn curates some choice source music as well, again, very much on the Lynchian tip, especially in one scene late in the season with Jimmy Angel playing live. The superb cinematography is courtesy of a master of light and shade and colour; Darius Khondji, with a couple of episodes shot by the equally talented Diego Garcia. 

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On the surface Too Old to Die Young is a study of morality and corruption, with the threat of violence lingering constantly, lashing out to spectacular Scorsese effect. Refn is no stranger to screen violence. Like Tarantino he adores it with a fetishist’s command. Like Tarantino and Scorsese, Refn has always been a dab hand at casting. He keeps Teller in permanent check, has John Hawkes on the back foot, gives Jena Malone one of the best roles of her career, allows Billy Baldwin to snort like a pig and chew the scenery, and introduces us to several striking and charismatic new faces, chiefly, Nell Tiger Free as Jones’ adolescent lover Janey, Augusto Aguilera as Jesus, the Mexican prodigal son, and Cristina Rodlo as Yaritza, quiet and alluring, and, hush hush, High Priestess of Death. 

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Refn and Brubaker have named all the episodes/volumes after Tarot cards, and if you are familiar with cartomancy you’ll be able to read into each episode the respective fortune, or misfortune, a complex subtext; “The Devil”, “The Lovers”, “The Hermit”, “The Tower”, “The Fool”, “The High Priestess”, “The Magician”, “The Hanged Man”, “The Empress”, and “The World”. Themes of ritualism, fascism, narcissism, and nihilism all merge, along with rich symbolism, an uneasy eroticism, and even touches of magic realism. 

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Too Old to Die Young does not suffer fools gladly, nor does it pander to any kind of easy solution. It culminates in a denouement as rewarding as it is punishing. A circle of pain and suffering, sex and death, of resignation and inevitability. Gratification and frustration in equal measure. To some it will be the ultimate display of pretentiousness, of style over substance, to others a master class in mood, tone, and allegory, of style as substance. 

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During the final three episodes (the last two co-written by Refn and Halley Gross) the narrative arcs of its central characters twist and curl, some into a tightened screw, others fraying like ruined rope. Please, for the love of God and the Devil, let Refn and Brubaker make a second season, so that we can continue on the tenebrous journey of the show’s true protagonist/antagonist. A journey so exotic and compelling under it’s mesmerising dream/nightmare shroud, but we were delivered an ending so abrupt - it felt severed. 

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“Our identities will be defined by the pain we cause.”

Dead Ringers

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Canada | 1988 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: Twin doctors who share everything find themselves falling apart after a complicated woman comes between them. 

The story follows the dual career of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played with astonishing skill by Jeremy Irons) They are pioneering gynaecologists, and female fertility is their field. Having excelled at a young age, they are now forty and at the top of their game, with their own private clinic, specialists to the wealthy and elite.

The clinic’s latest patient is Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold, also superb), a movie star. Elliot, the cynical ladies man, seduces her, then has Beverly impersonate him, so, as usual, his shy introverted brother can get laid. But this time Beverly falls heavily, and for awhile Claire is none the wiser. As Claire is taking a cocktail of drugs for her infertility and high profile equilibrium, Beverly soon begins his own dependence on prescription pills. The Mantle twins have a dark side, and this shadow soon eclipses everything.

Cronenberg based his screenplay (co-written with Norman Snider) on a 1977 novel, which in turn was inspired by an newspaper article about successful doctors, the Marcus twins, who were discovered dead in their Upper East Side Manhattan apartment which had become a scene of utter degradation. They had died due to withdrawal from barbiturate abuse.

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Originally the movie was titled Gemini, which the studio didn’t like, so it was changed to Twins (terrible alternative, but then I’ve never been a fan of Dead Ringers as the substitute either). Cronenberg’s former producer Ivan Reitman then wrangled the title rights for his upcoming Danny DeVito/Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy, so Cronenberg went with the trashy-sounding Dead Ringers. Oh well.

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The King of Venereal Horror has always been fascinated by the body and its various states of physical strength and mortal decay. He has also been intrigued by the psychological states of mind that influence the body, both metaphysically and biologically. Dead Ringers is more subtle in his exploration of body horror, but no less powerful. More concerned with the abuse of power and the disintegration of control. It is the subtleties within Dead Ringers that make it so resonant, disturbing, yet quietly, strangely exhilarating. Balancing sensuality with grotesquerie, nightmarish horror with sly eroticism.

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It’s a stunning looking film. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s hot/cold palate of lush reds and metallic blues juxtaposed amidst the straight formal lines courtesy of Cronenberg’s regular production designer Carol Spier. It’s the director’s most stylised film. Of particular note is the computer-controlled moving-matte photography used to enable Jeremy Irons to seemingly interact with himself on screen. This pre-CGI special effect was the first of its kind. It’s a double whammy performance that should’ve netted Irons a double Oscar nomination!

Howard Shore’s score is a highlight, the brooding strings beautifully capture the inherent sadness and despair. Though the cloud is long and dark, there are some genuinely funny moments; sharp, scabrous dialogue and some unsettling visual gags too. The one weak link is Heidi von Palleske as Elliot’s lover Cary, whose acting is mediocre at best, but it’s a small quibble, as she doesn’t have a lot of screen time. 

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This is Cronenberg’s masterpiece, a ferociously intelligent study of ambition, addiction, corruption, loneliness, and despair. Almost Shakespearean in its tragedy, the tale of once clever, successful and sensitive men reduced to insufferable, disturbed children, trying to mend the broken pieces of their careers and lives, but their self-inflicted wounds keep rupturing, and it is their inexorable undoing. Poor Elly, poor Bev. 

Videodrome

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Canada | 1983 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: The head of a cable-TV station becomes involved in a mysterious broadcast and finds his reality and future sliding dangerously out of control. 

“The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

Max Renn (James Woods) runs a small television station – Channel 83 Civic TV that focuses on exploitation, but he’s constantly on the lookout for new and exciting material, content that’ll heighten the basic viewing experience, arouse viewers in ways much tougher than the mediocrity he’s been solicited in the past, and he’ll be real cheap and sleazy to purloin it. 

When his tech employee Harlan (Peter Dorvsky) decodes a pirate broadcast depicting highly realistic torture and mutilation, known as “Videodrome” Max senses something big. In fact he becomes obsessed with it. This hardcore is a whole new ballgame. He gets hold of his supplier Marsha (Lynne Gorman) to found out who’s responsible. Marsha warns Max that “Videodrome” is real. Meanwhile Max has met and started dating local talk radio celebrity Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry). Nicki, who is openly into S&M, has her interest well and truly piqued when Max introduces her to “Videodrome”.

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It soon becomes frighteningly apparent to Max that “Videodrome” is far more sinister than just addictive viewing. Fantasy and reality collide, dream and nightmare merge, and Max becomes both an activist and pawn as he tries to fight against “Videodrome” and is manipulated by “Videodrome” into terrorism.

Videodrome’s screenplay origins began as Network of Blood, a B-movie title if ever there was one. Writer/director Cronenberg’s first two features; Shivers and Rabid owe much to the exploitation genre, but had an socio-political savvy and philosophical streak coursing through their cinematic veins. He continued similar body and psychological horror themes through his next two movies, The Brood and Scanners, but it was with Videodrome that the social discourse of modern consumerism was most deeply entrenched; it even pre-dates cyber-space and reality television, pushing the sex and violence envelope into the deadly realm of “snuffTV”, where the ante has been inexorably raised. 

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Much of the symbolism in Videodrome is vaginal and phallic. In fact most of Cronenberg’s movies from Shivers through to eXistenZ utilise sexual imagery and metaphor. The director is as much concerned with the corruption of the body as he is with biological creation, birth, and metamorphosis. There’s a fusion of pleasure and pain, of sex and death; the gratification and control of one blurring into the fear and submission of the other. A mesmerizing moment has Nicki beckoning to Max through the television, her sensual mouth filling the screen, the monitor tube convexing to engulf Max’s head as he submits himself to her. This is fellatio and cunnilingus entwined and inverted as a powerful visual motif. 

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James Woods commands the screen with real intensity, perfectly cast. Debbie Harry’s Nicki slides beside Max exuding a sensuality and vulnerability that perfectly off-sets Renn’s prickly arrogance and unctuous charisma. And then there’s Rick Baker’s outstanding practical effects work, arguably the real star of the show. CGI wouldn’t capture the kind of grungy immediacy that Baker’s special effects does, and there are some truly ingenious set-ups.

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Videodrome didn’t fare well upon its initial release, considered too dark and subversive, and its narrative too impenetrable for general consumption. With the original Star Wars trilogy in full flight Joe Average preferred his science fiction with ray-guns and force fields, space ships and robotic villains. The irony is Videodrome features all these elements, only perverted and twisted into provocative, transgressive new shapes and into far more immediate, but outlandish territory. It is a film far more relevant now than it ever was; dark, disturbing, and prophetic, and I strongly doubt the remake, which is currently in development, will be anywhere near as clever, transgressive, or as bleak. 

“… Long live the new flesh!”

Memory: The Origins Of Alien

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US | 2019 | Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Logline: An analysis of the how Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror movie Alien came about, its surrounding influences, and the relevance of its legacy. 

Tracing the path Alien took from it’s first incarnation, a script treatment entitled Memory, about a planet that detrimentally affects the memories of the astronauts that land on it, through to its final form under Ridley Scott’s direction as Alien, it’s the movie that terrified its potential audience by declaring, “In space no one can hear you scream”. The ultimate monster horror movie, and it remains so today, with only John Carpenter’s The Thing as a serious threat for the top position. 

The origins lie with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who grew up in small town Missouri, with no television. But there were lots and lots of bugs. The constant infiltration of insects had a profound affect on the boy’s imagination. That, and comic books. O’Bannon loved the fantastic, and later, around the same time the French magazine Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) was launched in 1975, he wrote a screenplay called They Bite, about an archeological dig on Earth that lets loose a cycle of million-year-old bugs. He was told it would be too expensive to make, so O’Bannon decided to write something on a smaller scale. Another B-movie, but just one monster, and set mostly inside a spacecraft. He called it Star Beast

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O’Bannon’s early screenplay was influenced by a whole lot of elements, from Lovecraft to Greek mythology, and also several low-budget science fiction horror movies, Planet of the Vampires (1965), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and one that bears a striking similarity in plot, Queen of Blood (1966). His alien pyramid (an Egyptian-influenced concept that was eventually dropped from the final shooting script) and creature was a kind of synthesis of all cosmic monsters and mythology. 

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O’Bannon had been employed to design special effects for Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science fantasy novel, which was being adapted by Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger had been hired to provide concept art for the movie’s production design. Unfortunately the project never reached principal photography (watch the amazing documentary Jodorowksy’s Dune for that story!). When Ridley Scott was brought on board Alien as director, O’Bannon introduced Scott to Giger’s “Necromonicon” paintings. That was the game changer.

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Memory is a superbly constructed portrait of creation within the folds of the cinema realm, the film industry. Cast members Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartright offer their reflections, also included are the late, great editor Terry Rawlings and producer Ivor Powell, art director Roger Christian (who was plucked straight from working as props master on Star Wars), a bunch of scholars and critics discussing the relevance of Francis Bacon’s work, also O’Bannon’s widow reveals a few secrets. 

Without showing too much of the actual movie, yet punctuating with behind the scenes footage, Memory serves up a terrific celebration of this legendary “B-movie”. The dangers of conquest, the futility of humanity, the toils of the blue collar working class, Alien is a prophetic beast. It’s only now, forty years later, that the movie’s scope is truly being appreciated. 

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It champions the extraordinary complex sub-textual elements within its seemingly straight forward construct. Indeed, Scott invested a meticulous attention to detail, to authenticity and realism - if there can be such a thing in a phantasmagorical movie - employing an Robert Altman-esque technique; a cluttered, claustrophobic mise-en-scene, with frequently overlapping dialogue. The violence is messy and shocking (the chestburster scene gets a proper dissection), there’s all that heat, sweat, goo, grime, and slime. 

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All of these elements contributed to making Alien one of the most important, influential and memorable genre movies of the past fifty years, and Memory champions this with a beautifully edited treatise on the collective dreams of a group of visionaries. But most importantly the tenacity of the late Dan O’Bannon, who died ten years ago. As his wife Diane says, with a tear in her eye, “He moved the world.”

Memory: The Origins Of Alien screens as part of Sydney underground film festival, Saturday September 14th, 2pm at The factory, marrickville. For more info and tix click here.

Dragged Across Concrete

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Canada/US | 2018 | directed by S. Craig Zahler

Logline: Following suspension for excessive force two police officers embark on a dangerous mission to extract what they feel they are owed in compensation. 

For his third feature writer/director Zahler is still comfortable as all hell in delivering a movie that continues to push the boundaries of how a genre movie should play out. His debut feature was a Western with a brutal spine of horror, whilst his second was a punishing prison drama that wrestles with the tropes of exploitation. For his latest, he takes the crime thriller and stretches it out until it almost snaps, a whopping two-hours-and-forty-odd minutes, where the action is kept to a minimum, but the journey is compelling as hell. 

Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are cop buddies working the streets and back alleys of Bulwark (a fictitious city somewhere in US). Ridgeman is the jaded, embittered veteran, struggling to provide for his disabled wife and bullied teenage daughter. Lurasetti is the younger, cocksure, opportunistic partner. On a drug bust the volatile Ridgeman uses police brutality, and Lurasetti indulges him. They further their bad behaviour by humiliating the suspect’s girlfriend. It’s all caught on tape by a neighbour, and due to a media blow-up, their superior, Calvert (Don Johnson), is forced to suspend them both without pay. 

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Almost immediately Ridgeman concocts a plan to use their criminal connections and underworld savvy to make some quick serious cash. Ridgeman sees it as justice for their past services, and now, in limbo, they must make amends, Ridgeman for his family, whilst Lurasetti has a fiancé. Meanwhile a couple of African-American ex-cons, Johns (Tory Kittles) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White) become involved in an elaborate bank heist, for a dangerous, cold-blooded career criminal, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). 

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The officers, operating rogue, take it upon themselves to pursue the bank robbers, in order to serve both justice, and to fill their pockets. However, the long arm of Murphy’s Law seizes them by the collar. The heist claims extensive collateral damage, and Ridgeman and Lurasetti soon find themselves in the deep, dark end of the criminal pool, with just their wits and wiles, and some solid firepower, at their disposal. 

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Let’s call a spade a spade, Zahler makes studies of extreme violence. His realms are governed by men, and women very much play second fiddle. He’s not interested in dramatic licence, intent on capturing a gritty realism, yet there is savage poetry at play. His dialogue is always very particular, existential, almost meta, injecting his movies with a stylised edge, and there’s a buried, oh so tenebrous sense of humour. One is drawn to making a comparison to the movies of Quentin Tarantino, especially with the dialogue and violence, but whereas Tarantino’s movies operate as vivid adult cartoons, Zahler’s movies feel like they’ve been lifted from hardboiled novels, stained with black coffee and straight bourbon. 

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Dragged Across Concrete is not just about police brutality, racism and sexism rear their nasty heads. The insidiousness of prejudice, the mechanics of corrupt masculinity and bravado. Ridgeman’s wife says at one point, “I never thought I was a racist until I moved into this neighbourhood,” and there’s an ugly honesty within her sarcasm. This is a world seemingly without hope, and Zahler relishes the darkness before the dawn. But what makes the film so much more interesting than most of the other crime thrillers that attempt similar narratives (although usually in half the time) is Zahler injects a palpable sense of menace and impending doom, right from the beginning, and he sustains that tension, an implicit violence, through the course of the movie, releasing it a few times in sudden, shocking punctuations of explicit violence. 

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Bone Tomahawk put Zahler on the map, and it’s a terrific movie, and although Brawl in Cell Block 99 has many fans, I would champion Dragged Across Concrete as his strongest, most impressive movie to date, with Gibson and Vaughn in fine form. It’s definitely not for everyone, it’s a bitter pill, but for those who like their crime flicks uncompromising and hard as fucking nails, Zahler’s muscle flex will be the bittersweet reward. 

Dragged Across Concrete screens as part of the 2019 Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Monday July 8th, 3.30pm, Saturday July 13th, 8.40pm, & Wednesday July 17th, 8.15pm (Luna).

Love Express. The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk

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Poland/Estonia | 2018 | Directed by Kuba Mirkuda

Logline: Documentary tracing the career of the acclaimed Polish animator turned arthouse eroticist. 

“My fantasies are identical to the viewer’s. I only show what everybody dreams about.”

If you’ve not seen a film from this most extraordinary and important artist, Love Express is the perfect entry point. The portrait covers his early avant-garde period in Poland as an animator of short surrealist films (one is reminded of the early short works of David Lynch) and then plunges into his ex-pat career in France where he cultivated his position as one of European cinema’s most interesting agent provocateurs. 

From the short films it begins in earnest with chapter one, “1968”, and the filmmaker’s first live action feature Goto, Island of Love. Throughout the documentary numerous luminaries wax lyrical, including directors Terry Gilliam, Neil Jordan, and Andrzej Wajda, also a very twitchy intellectual Slavoj Zizek, Borowczyk cinematographer Noël Véry, critics Peter Bradshaw and David Thompson, and the much needed female perspective of psychotherapist Cherry Potter, and actress Lisbeth Hummel (who starred in The Beast). 

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Borowczyk’s films frequently deal with the journey of love into death, a kind of libertine art that deals with desire and cruelty. In a way the viewer has to submit to his films, and many echo this position. Chapter two, “1974”, is Immoral Tales, described by the director as “a sanctuary of liberty, an island of no restrictions”. An unusual and provocative display of stylised eroticism, featuring Picasso’s adult daughter Paloma as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the anthology was a critics’ darling, and placed Borowczyk on an enviable pedestal. 

“1975” unleashed The Beast, “a film about the mechanics of dreams”. An outrageously lascivious tale of bestial pursuit, it lead to the carnal artiste being labeled a pornographer, much to his chagrin. In truth the movie is more of a farcical male-skewed fantasy than the transgressive unbridled perversion it skirts with. But I digress. 

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Art or porn? Poor Walerian. Stuck in a kind of pit of “reigned freedom”. Determined to continue the artful endeavours he had grown used to controlling, yet hounded by the wolves of commerce, desperate for fabric they could chew on. By the end of the 70s he had become “a confectioner of erotomaniac delicacies” as one newspaper declared. Essentially it was a short-lived era, that period of the 70s when eroticism on the big screen held court. Erotic films managed a curious bilateral existence alongside hardcore adult films, both being exhibited in cinemas, both enjoying healthy audiences of men and women. This was before the advent of the VCR and the subsequent VHS market being chosen (over Betamax) by the porn industry as the perfect private format. And so the delicate art of Walerian Borowczyk slipped away…  But I digress. 

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Chapter four, “1976”, in which Emmanuelle herself, Sylvia Kristel, sifts with stud Joe Dallesandro in The Margin (aka The Streetwalker), arguably the two steamiest tickets in town, but the critics weren’t so hot under the collar. Was the erotic film becoming a parody of itself? Oddly, the doco then jumps to “1987” for its final chapter, which is frustrating, as it misses out Borowczyk’s brilliant and tenebrous 1981 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, starring Udo Kier and the sumptuous Marina Pierro. Why the doco chooses not to discuss this integral entry in the director’s oeuvre is a mystery. Instead we focus on the ragged hot mess that is Emmanuelle 5, a movie he barely directed, as he stormed off set only a day or so into shooting (the only part he claims is his work is at the beginning, the film-within-a-film, “Love Express”).

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Borowczyk passed away in 2006, after completing one last feature, Love Rites, also released in 1987. He struggled to find financing for any other projects during the 90s. But truth be told, film companies and producers had shown little interest in any of his film projects unless they were sex-themed or erotically charged.  

Despite the glaring omission of his Jekyll and Hyde interpretation, Love Express is essential viewing for anyone who fancies him or herself a cineaste. It quietly champions this most original of smut peddlers, if I may play Devil’s advocate. It reminds us, that in this contemporary climate of neo-conservatism, and the ever-expanding minefield of socio-politics, that freedom of artistic expression is paramount, and the sensual, sexual cinema of Walerian Borowczyk’s kind is rare ambrosia indeed. 

Love Express screens as part of the 2019 Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Sunday July 7th, 4pm & Saturday July 13th, 8.30pm (Luna).

Come To Daddy

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Canada/New Zealand/Ireland/US | 2019 | Directed by Ant Timpson

Logline: A man visits his long-estranged father for a reunion only to discover dark truths and stranger revelations. 

“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” Words penned by William Shakespeare. “There is no one else like my daddy.” Lyrics sung by Beyoncé Knowles. Both are quotes on the screen at the beginning of Ant Timpson’s debut feature as director, having produced a number of movies that ooze similar cult appeal; Deathgasm, Housebound, The ABCs of Death, Turbo Kid, and The Greasy Strangler

Timpson knows a thing or two about genre cinema aesthetics, and screen charisma. He’s been the director and programmer of The Incredibly Strange Film Festival in New Zealand for twenty-five years (fifteen of them as a sidebar within the NZ International Film Festival), so it’s not surprising his first foray in the director’s chair is one that is nestled moist and snug in a cradle of uncompromising ickiness.

But Come To Daddy is more than just a strange tale of a boy and his dad; it’s an emotionally resonant portrait of loneliness and the anxiety of confrontation. It’s the age-old dilemma of trying to reconnect with the past, picking the scabs off old wounds. It’s also about the fear of the unknown. Come To Daddy delicately balances a sense of mystery and menace with the shackles of crime and punishment. It’s a gloriously unctuous stew, as compelling in its poignancy as it is fetid in its detail. 

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Norval (Elijah Wood, perfectly cast) is a 35-year-old wannabe Ric Owens’ hipster lost in his own delusions and sporting a ridiculous haircut. He’s responded to a letter from his elusive father, and he arrives at the doorstep, intrigued, but wary. The house is a “UFO from the 60s” perched high on the rocks on the west coast of Canada. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is an intimidating, booze-addled space cadet, but still quick-witted enough to catch out Norval’s attempt at celebrity name-dropping, and sly enough to prevent Norval from communicating with the outside world. Animosity rears its head, and will continue to thrive like barnacles on a wretched hull. Paranoia will fester. 

Timpson was inspired to helm the feature following his father’s passing, hoping to create the kind of movie they would’ve enjoyed watching together. The death of a parent forces us to face our own vulnerability, fragility, mounting questions without any proper answers, resentment and grief colliding, grasping for some kind of resolution, some kind of closure. 

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Timpson fed an idea to Toby Harvard, who had written the screenplay to The Greasy Strangler, and Harvard ran with it. The result is a Wild Mouse rollercoaster of genre elements and dynamics, with Timpson and Harvard exhibiting a genuine love and dark delight of 70s cinema, from the movie’s title card, right through to that perfect ending. 

The central performances – Wood, McHattie, Martin Donovan, and Michael Smiley - are rich with nuance, exuding the kind of studied characterisation that usually comes from a novel adaptation, and seemingly Come to Daddy feels pulled from the pages of an unknown pulpy paperback fished out at a garage sale and savoured like rare and precious booty. But then Come to Daddy is also the kind of movie that could have been presented in “Odorama” with scratch and sniff cards (pungent kelp, spiced rum, and other foul and exotic smells), but I digress … 

It blends silt and bubbles like a potent cocktail. It tickles the funny bone with tangy, absurd moments, then broods menacingly, and suddenly slaps you in the face with surreal violence. It toys with your sensibilities, plays silly buggers with your comfort zone, but deep down, there is a broken heart looking for adhesive, desperate for a stiff whisky and the clutch of a loving hand. It’s an emotional journey indeed, and all the more memorable for it. Come to Daddy is one of my faves of the year. 

Why Don't You Just Die!

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Papa, Sdokhni | Russia | 2018 | Directed by Kirill Sokolov

Logline: A petty thief visits his girlfriend’s apartment to confront her father, only to find himself at the violent end of a very messy situation. 

Costing the equivalent of around a million Australian dollars this tale of crime and punishment in a tiny Russian apartment is the most tight-knit fun I’ve had in the hands of a bunch of losers all year. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll chortle, you’ll grimace, but you’ll come out smiling. Why Don’t You Just Die! is as hilarious and over the top as the title suggests. 

Young Matvey (Alexsandr Kuznetsov) is dead set on bashing the living daylights out of Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev). Not just because the big man’s daughter, Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde), claims her father has been raping her every day since she was twelve, but also because she’s told him he has a very large stash of money in the apartment. Matvey has now taken it upon himself to deliver justice, and steal the cash. But then Andrey reveals he’s a crafty and corrupt police detective, and he’s none too happy with the young thug screwing his daughter. 

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All hell breaks loose in the cramped family abode as lover and father go head to head. Wife and mother, Tasha (Elena Shevchenko), watches on with a bemused expression. Soon there is much collateral damage to the apartment, and Matvey has not achieved what he arrived to do. Olya and Andrey’s colleague Yevgenich (Mikhail Gorevoy) have yet to arrive, to thicken the plot, and spill more blood. 

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Writer and director Sokolov’s debut feature seemingly channels the camera and editing virtuoso style of Sam Riami and Luc Besson. It’s an insane comedy of mayhem, an adult cartoon. The tone is pitch black like the Sea, the violence on the ultra-tip, full of that seriously painful-to-watch stuff like dislocated fingers, and heads being smashed against the corners of shelves. Why is it always those small injuries that often cause the biggest reactions in the audience? 

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This is like a stage play on steroids. The only time the action steps outside of the apartment is a flashback in Matvey’s even smaller flat where Olya spills her traumatic beans, and at the movie’s very beginning and end, in the apartment’s elevator landing. But Sokolov’s mise-en-scene is brilliantly structured, like a choreographed danse macabre. Adding cream to this sweet brutal dessert are the performances, all are excellent, but especially the three k’s: Kuznetsov, Khaev, and Kregzhde. 

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Why Don’t You Just Die! (the original Russian title translates as “Dad, die”) is perfect late night viewing with a couple of vodka and soda’s under the belt, or after you’ve knocked back a bunch of Pilsner Urquells with some mates. It swings hard and fast like a baseball bat, then chomps down, severing the tongue after it’s lodged in the cheek. Vulgar and stylish in equal measure, it’s what they call a killer comedy. 

The Wind

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US | 2018 | Directed by Emma Tammi

Logline: On a desolate Western frontier prairie a woman is forced to deal with isolation and an increasing sense of fear as the landscape encroaches like a darkness. 

Having made a couple of documentaries Emma Tammi has delivered her first feature. From an original screenplay by Teresa Sutherland, The Wind tells the tale of Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), an 1800s plains-woman, married to Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), who frequently leaves her alone in their isolated cabin. She is suffering from post-natal depression following a stillborn baby. The arrival of neighbours, another cabin visible a mile away, initially keeps her occupied, as Emma and Gideon Harper (Julia Golden Telles and Dylan McTee), are expecting also. 

Weathered in a rich atmosphere, laden with a creeping sense of doom, The Wind smoulders with supernatural intent, yet never allows its audience to feel too comfortable with what is reality and what might be going on inside poor Lizzy’s fragile mind. And what happened to Emma? In the opening scene she is being buried in an open casket, half her head is missing, due to some horrific  injury. No doubt a shotgun blast. Lizzy has had to cut the stillborn baby from Emma’s belly, and it’s buried along with her mother. It’s a macabre opening to an eerie movie filled with foreboding. 

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Utilising a non-linear narrative, that flashes back and forth, in a way reflecting the flighty and file nature of Emma. The Wind focuses on Lizzy’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality. There is something out there, and it’s not just the hungry wolves. A pamphlet Emma was harbouring illustrates the many demons of the prairie, folk lore that seemingly conjures many different forms of ill will and paranoia. “I don’t expect God has much business out here,” Lizzy tells the traveling reverend (Miles Anderson). He is playing his cards close to his cloth, his shadow against the cabin wall suggests he might not be all he appears to be. 

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Tammi’s assured as a feature director, with beautifully composed “classic” Western imagery, and some terrific old school horror touches - those shadows on the wall - while she elicits fantastic performances, especially Caitlin Gerard. I find it so refreshing to see such a well-made independent genre flick - and the kind that isn’t made too often - with excellent actors I’m not familiar with at all. What’s more the casting is spot on, as they call possess that classic “Western” look of beauty (rugged, handsome, wistful, forlorn). They blend with their surroundings in an effortless way. 

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Adding serious punch to the movie is Ben Lovatt’s score, full of melancholy and menace in equal measure. Westerns are often weighed down by overt orchestration. Tammi skilfully uses Lovatt’s music to punctuate the narrative, giving breath and poise, then hammering with insidious dread. And, of course, the prairie wind never seems to stop, whispering, beckoning, stealing, consuming. 

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The Wind deserves a big screen viewing, hopefully local distributors Umbrella Entertainment gives it a theatrical release following its Sydney Film Festival screenings, it’s definitely one of the more original and memorable genre offerings so far this year. 

The Wind screens at the 66th Sydney Film Festival, Wednesday 12th June, 8.30pm (Event Cinema 9).

In The Realm Of The Senses

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Ai No Corrida | Japan/France | 1976 | Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Logline: After a master begins a torrid affair with one of his servants, she becomes morbidly obsessed with their sexual relationship. 

Still one of the most controversial “mainstream” movies ever made, In The Realm Of The Senses is a powerful and disturbing tale of sexual obsession set in a small Japanese village in 1936. It was inspired by a true, modern day incident of a deranged woman who was found wandering the streets with her lover’s severed penis in her handbag.

Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) is married to Toku (Aoi Nakajima). He has several servants, but a new maid, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsudo) catches his eye. She is mischievous and highly-strung and she is equally attracted to Kichizo-san. Before you can say “bullfight of love” (the literal English translation of the Japanese title) they have embarked on a torrid affair. But what unfurls as a passionate display of forbidden lust quickly turns into obsessive behaviour, as Sada exhibits an unruly fixation on Kichizo’s penis. 

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She succumbs to nymphomania, and he can barely keep up with her sexual demands. Her strangely intense desire excites him and he encourages her. The other maids are forced to turn a blind eye. But when Kichizo indulges in sex with his wife, Sada becomes jealous and threatens to kill her master. Kichizo takes it all in his stride, but he knows Sada provides him with a level of passion that surpasses anything, so he surrenders to her carnal pleas. 

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Sada’s obsession can only lead to an act of extreme possession, and this is fueled by Kichizo’s own journey from dominance to subservience. In order to be sublimely happy, all joy must be consumed. Kichizo allows her to bind his hands, she tightens the handkerchief around his throat, feels him deep and rigid within her, her desire surging beyond control… 

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Sexual obsession had never been portrayed with such a ferocious authenticity. It was the first major motion picture outside of the hardcore porn industry to feature actual sex between the actors: vaginal penetration, fellatio, and ejaculation. In contemporary mainstream cinema unsimulated sexual activity has been embraced (or accepted, at least), but in 1976 this was unheard of. The movie was banned in many countries for a long time, including Japan. Even after it was filmed the undeveloped footage had to be snuck out of the country to France (who helped finance the movie) due to Japan’s strict censorship laws. 

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Due to the movie’s graphic intensity, and the overall themes of pleasure and pain, sex and death, and the abuse of power, the movie maintains the power to shock, certainly to confront the viewer, and it exists in numerous versions. Still censored in a couple of scenes, both involving sexual violation; one scene where Sado interferes with a young boy, and another where several of the maids assault another maid with a wooden dildo. 

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The whole movie plays as a kind of chamber piece of adult theatre. The lead performances, brave and unfettered, are excellent. The style is very precise, the atmosphere claustrophobic, and there are parts where the narrative becomes sticky in a mire of sexual repetition. Ultimately it’s a most curious mélange of eroticism and repulsion, and one that demands your attention.

In The Realm Of The Senses screens at the 66th Sydney Film Festival as part of the “All Night Cine-Love In”, Saturday 8th June at Dendy Newtown, five minutes after midnight. It is preceded by Eraserhead (10pm), and followed by O Lucky Man (2am) and Female Trouble (5.10am).

Eraserhead

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US | 1977 | Directed by David Lynch

Logline: In a surreal landscape an angst-ridden man tries in vain to keep his family and his sanity together. 

From the tenebrous squelch and stickiness that throbs and flows between the psychological and the physiological, is the inner cosmic debris that fills the realm of Eraserhead. To David Lynch, its auteur, it is whatever you make of it, for he is not prepared to offer anything more than “A dream of dark and troubling things”. So then, let Eraserhead be Eraserhead is Eraserhead was Eraserhead.

I first saw this inexplicable excursion into weirdness in the mid-80s, late at night on British television with my father when I was barely sixteen. It was a small screen in a small room that only exacerbated the movie’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The movie lingered in my mind like a dank mould, but one with curious spores. It grew into a morbid fascination; the mood and tone, the sounds and imagery, and The Man in the Planet; I loved those huge gears, that ominous window, his horribly scarred face, his enigmatic role in the giant stormy scheme of things … and of course, Henry’s baby. That hideous thing gave me the pleasure of nightmares. 

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Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives within an industrial wasteland. Perpetually depressed, suicidal even, he lusts after The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Roberts), who tells him he’s been invited to dinner with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents, Mr. X (Allen Jospeh) and Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates). This is the woman he had sex with. Or was that in his tortured mind? At dinner Mary’s parents serve up tiny artificial chickens in the midst of awkward conversation, and they chastise Henry for his lack of duty. 

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Back in their cramped apartment Henry and Mary deliberate over responsibility for their newborn mutant baby, that cries incessantly. Henry would prefer to visit the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) rather than feed the ghastly offspring. Mary leaves him, and in his despair he dreams of his head being drilled for use on the end of pencils. He sees The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall being intimate with Mr. Roundheels (Jack Walsh), and the baby cackles at Henry, seemingly laughing at his utterly pathetic existence. 

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David Lynch made Eraserhead in the same way Peter Jackson made Bad Taste, over a period of four or so years. Like Jackson, Lynch handled many of the key roles, writing/directing/co-producing/production design/art direction/editing/original music. Its original title was Gardenback. In Serbia it is called Chapter for the Removal, in Italy it is The Mind That Erases, and in France it became known as Labyrinth Man.

The monochromatic cinematography, courtesy of original lensman Herb Cardwell and his replacement Frederick Elmes, is brilliant and menacing, as is the sound design, courtesy of Alan R. Splet (and Lynch). But most memorable is the animatronic effect of the mutant baby. To this day Lynch refuses to explain how he achieved it, although rumours persist that it was an embalmed calf! The creation is an astonishing manifestation of everything infantile, domestic and familial, yet shockingly, disturbingly alien.

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With a smirk Lynch slyly describes Eraserhead as his “most spiritual movie”. Indeed it is a wildly existential movie that tackles metaphysics with abstract thought, it wrestles sexuality with introversion, wrangles loneliness and despair with a deep-rooted freaky control. It has a fascination with orifices; the camera is forever entering and exiting holes, like some kind of descent into a sexual phantasmagoria. Some of these entrances and exits are metaphors, while others are purely narrative tunnels.

Few films are able to capture the elusiveness of oneirodynia (or nightmare logic, if you will) with such a distinct and wholly original style; a mise-en-scene that threatens to consume itself, a narrative arc that coils and threshes with ferocity and tranquility in equal measure. 

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It was after viewing the movie during its initial “midnight movie” circuit that Mel Brooks gave Lynch the job of directing The Elephant Man, while Stanley Kubrick and John Waters were two of the movie’s earliest high-profile champions. 

With Eraserhead Lynch had tapped into the oiliest reserves of his inner primordial hell and forged a magnificent monster … but not to worry, because in Heaven everything will be fine. 

Eraserhead screens as part of the 66th Sydney Film Festival’s “All Night Cine-Love In, Saturday 8th June, 10pm, Dendy Newtown. Followed by In The Realm Of The Senses (12.05am), O Lucky Man (2am), and Female Trouble (5.10am).

Apollo 11

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US | 2018 | Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

Logline: Documentary traces the first manned mission to the moon over its eight-day return journey in July 1969. 

A tour-de-force of editing that captures a spectacular trajectory like nothing before or since; the Apollo 11 flight mission celebrates fifty years and in many ways its journey is even more astonishing now than it was then. 

Todd Miller was given unprecedented access to around 11,000 hours of previously unreleased NASA materials, from 70mm, 35mm, 16mm, and videotape, including audiotapes of all the commentary and announcements from the event. America’s National Archives provided surrounding radio transmissions and additional media footage. By using only the recordings from that eight-day period, with the exception of some graphics to illustrate technical stats, such as time, velocity, and distance, and not using any actors/recreations or contemporary narration, Miller has produced a truly startling portrait, not only a stark and emotional celebration of the event, but a testament to the power of cinema verité. 

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Where as Damien Chazelle’s recent First Man biopic focuses on the entire career of astronaut Neil Armstrong leading up to and including the Apollo 11 mission, and takes two-and-a-half hours to do so, Miller is a succinct 90 minutes covering just the eight day mission, beginning with the awesome Saturn V rocket being slowly maneuvered toward its launch pad position and ending with part of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about space exploration from 1961 as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins enter a 21-day regulatory quarantine having returned from the moon. 

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We all know how it transpired, the words of Armstrong as he touched down on the lunar surface, “This is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”, are ingrained, especially for baby boomers and gen-x. Despite all this knowledge, the tension and excitement are genuinely palpable, as the mission control countdown approaches ignition, and there is even added suspense – I won’t spoil it – before lift off (was this ever revealed before?!)

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The entire journey illustrates extraordinary details. One forgets just how complicated and awe-inspiring the logistics were in getting these men to the moon, the landing, the Eagle leaving the moon and docking again with Colombia, the spin around the moon to get the necessary speed up for the return home. Some of the stats boggle the mind: the Saturn V was the largest and heaviest rocket to ever travel into low Earth orbit, at lift off it produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and the command module reached a speed of nearly 25,000 miles per hour on re-entry. 

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Seriously, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more thrilling movie this year. That Miller has made a documentary that we all know the ending of, yet operates and resonates more effectively than most dramas or thrillers is a brilliant achievement. Much of this is due to the judicious and expert editing, but also the punctuation of Matt Morton’s fantastic electronic and percussive score. In an inspired decision he only used instruments available in 1969. 

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I can’t recommend Apollo 11 highly enough. One can’t deny the national pride Americans deservingly own, but the dodo expands beyond that in a beautiful way. If you’re a space nut this is essential viewing. If you’re one of the conspiracy theorists that believe the man landing was a hoax, this doco will blow your small little mind. Actually, and the irony isn’t lost on me, the restoration quality of the archival materials is so good the film looks like a Stanley Kubrick movie with his pristine, high production values, or a David Fincher movie for a contemporary comparison. 

Quite simply, Apollo 11 is the perfect time capsule, the ultimate date stamp, and a very strong contender for my favourite film of the year. 

Apollo 11 screens as part of the 66th Sydney Film Festival, Monday 10th June, 9.30pm (State), Saturday 15th June, 2pm (Casula), and Sunday 16th June, 1.45pm (HEQ15).

Apollo 11 will release in Australian cinemas nationally on July 18, 2019.

Thunder Road

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US | 2018 | Directed Jim Cummings

Logline: A police officer begins to have a nervous breakdown as he struggles to deal with this mother’s death, a divorce and custody battle for his young daughter. 

Expanding on his 2016 multi-award-winning short, writer/director and star Jim Cummings has delivered what is very likely to be in my top three favourite movies of the year. Yup, it’s April, and I’m calling it. Thunder Road is a darkened comedy-drama, what we call a tragi-comedy. With a tour-de-force performance from Cummings, it’s a superb vehicle for his talents as a writer and actor. 

The movie opens with Austin, Texas police officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) at the funeral service for his mother, attempting a heartfelt eulogy. It is painfully obvious he is struggling, both emotionally and psychologically. It’s a single take, as the camera slowly dollies down the church centre aisle, with Jim recollecting, apologising, recollecting, apologising, wavering between abject grief and tempered frustration. His endeavour to perform a dance piece is an absurd display, since the CD player won’t work. The mother of his separated wife steps in to calm him down. 

That prologue formed the basis of the short film.

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The feature continues with Jim’s trials and tribulations, his plight through personal mourning and public mistake. His work performance is at risk, and his daughter, Crystal (Kendall Farr) is suffering too. Then wife Ros (Jocelyn DeBoer) files for divorce, and Jim is a crumpled heap, clutching at straws, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation. Can he pull himself together? He desperately wants to. 

Let’s hope he sorts his shit out. For everyone’s sake. But there’ll be many tears before bedtime. 

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Jim Cummings seems to have sprung out of nowhere, but it turns out, apart from a number of shorts he’s directed over the years, he’s had his fingers in a few creative pies, and also did a stint as a visual affects production assistant for ILM on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Thunder Road is his second feature (he made another comedy back in 2010) and I am very impressed with this man’s take on life’s wee ironies, the delicacies of maintaining relationships, his insightful window into the soul. Jim Arnaud is one of the most complex and rewarding characters I’ve seen in a long while; awkward and at times pathetic, but tenacious, compassionate, and utterly endearing.

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The direction is not cinematic in any standout way, in fact, much of the time the movie feels like a television adaptation of a play; there are few locations and just a clutch of main roles. Nican Robinson is terrific as Jim’s police buddy Nate, as is Chelsea Edmundson as Jim’s sister, and Macon Blair makes a short appearance as Crystal’s school teacher in a wonderfully funny scene.  But Cummings keeps the narrative brisk, and his central performance - he’s in almost every scene - is one to behold, especially with his monologues. 

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Thunder Road (its title is taken from the Bruce Springsteen song, which is used in the short) is one of the year’s true delights, essential viewing for anyone who has struggled with grief, struggled with the role of parent and provider, struggled with recognition, struggled with connection to those they love, and those they might have lost. Struggled with always having to put on the happy face. Thunder Road will provide the perfect emotional release. 

Feel free to laugh out loud.

“Oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road

Sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road …”

Destroyer

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US | 2018 | Directed by Karyn Kasama

Logline: A troubled police detective reconnects with people from an old and unfinished undercover assignment in order to make peace with herself. 

After several years of television work Kasama returns with her follow up feature to The Invitation with a terrific crime thriller featuring Nicole Kidman in the utterly deglamorised role of a disheveled, barely functioning law enforcer on the trail of the scumbag that slipped through her fingers. Destroyer is a hard road to redemption.

Erin Bell (Kidman) is an LAPD detective still shell-shocked from events ten years earlier, when, as an undercover with a gang in the Cali desert, her assigned job went tragically pear-shaped. Now, with a John Doe sprawled in the floodway, Bell has to trace her way back through the remaining figures involved, and dig into her own damaged history, including attempting to re-connect with her estranged teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn).

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Phil Hay and Matt Mandredi’s screenplay weaves in and out of the present and the past creating a kind of narrative jigsaw. It’s a slow burner, like many of the notable neo-noirs. The issues I had with character motivation, especially two of Bell’s most crucial decisions, were outweighed by Kasama’s attention to mood and performance. Kidman has delivered better work, most notably in the series Big Little Lies, but this is still a solid role, and she rises to the occasion. 

Along with Pettyjohn, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, and Scoot McNairy all provide excellent support. If there’s one thing Kasama achieves brilliantly, it’s casting. She has Scorsese’s Midas touch. 

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Julie Kirkwood, who provided Oz Perkins with beautiful cinematography for February and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, gives the City of Angels and its immediate surrounds the kind of desolate, sunburned glow that mirrors the protagonist’s jaded, desperate soul. From the get go it’s obvious this story isn’t going to pan out so well for Bell. The movie’s title spells things out fairly clearly.

Theodore Shapiro’s score pulsates with intent; it’s a superb accompaniment to Bell’s quest, punctuating her attack and defense with dramatic intensity. 

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I’m reminded of one of my very favourite neo-noirs, Romeo Is Bleeding, with Gary Oldman in a role not entirely dissimilar to Kidman’s. They are wounded animals clutching on the present by way of the past, destined to become prey to their own guilt and misfortune. We watch with morbid curiosity as they spiral downward. This is what makes noir so damn special, especially when it’s directed so well. 


Revenge

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France/Belgium | 2017 | Directed Coralie Fargeat

Logline: A young woman, on a tryst with a married man on a hunting weekend, is raped by one of his colleagues and left for dead, but soon the hunters become the hunted. 

Gotta love the French for pushing the envelope when it comes to modern horror, time and time again they deliver the hardgore goods, and Fargeat’s debut feature is no exception. In what appears on the glossy surface as your standard rape-revenge flick, it becomes an elevated exploitation flick, if such a thing can exist. Revenge kicks tight ass into the middle of next week.

Richard (Kevin Janssens) is a wealthy, good-looking CEO, on a weekend hunting trip, to let off the proverbial corporate steam. He’s a married man (as phone calls to his wife back home reveal), but he’s arrived by chopper to the lush desert pad with his young mistress, Jen (Matilda Lutz). They enjoy a bit of nooky, and Jen awakens later and is surprised by the arrival of his two hunting pals, Stan (Vincent Colombe) Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchéde) and who’ve turned up a day early. 

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Later the four of them get juiced by the pool and turn the music up, and Jen parades around. Everything seems fine and dandy. But when Richard leaves the property on an errand, Stan decides to make sleazy moves on Jen, whilst Dimitri nurses a hangover. Things go from bad to worse. Oh yes, there’ll be tears before the chopper arrives, there’ll be hell to pay. 

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All the tropes are in place, the remote, desolate location (which is never named, but one assumes it’s somewhere deep in the Nevada Desert), the gorgeous girl whose charming demeanour is abused, the crass and ugly assailants, the two-faced rescuer, the escape, the pursuit, the degradation, the desperation, the sweat-soaked rise to the challenge, and the oh-so cold serve of revenge.  

Fargeat has a sensational eye, and the movie’s mis-en-scene is laden with symbolic imagery, most notably the phoenix, the bird that rises from the ashes. Robrecht Heyvaert’s cinematography, shot in vivid colour, the heat undulating off the screen in waves, the sweat running down in rivulets, is stunning. Curious to note that the movie was shot on 35mm, a consciously artistic choice these days, as most movies, especially ones of this stock, would be shot with digital cameras.

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Of special note is Laetitia Quillery’s terrific special effects makeup work, most notably in the movie’s second half, with a glass injury to the sole of the foot that will make even the most hardened gorehound grimace. Apparently there was so much blood spilled - just wait ’til the movie’s last fifteen minutes! - that the sfx crew kept running out of fake blood. I must point out though, that you need to suspend all belief going into this movie, as there is a major plot point at the half hour point that will have most viewers rolling their eyes. You need to push that reservation aside. In fact, there are several more along the way, but hey, this movie is actually a very, very dark comedy. So pitch black, it demands its own Pantone entry. 

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So, absurdities aside, Revenge is a sensational b-movie given stellar treatment; the performances, especially Lutz and Janssens, are cracking. Lutz is an Italian ex-pat, but she oozes Californian sex appeal, whilst Jannsens has those chiseled matinee looks that belies his matter-of-fact murderousness. What’s also worth noting, Lutz has no dialogue past the half-hour mark, relying purely on body language and facial expression, and a scene within a cave, involving DIY surgery and a peyote-fuelled nightmare is a highlight. 

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Yes, it’s a violent movie for those unused to it (although unusually, and notably, for a rape-revenge flick it doesn’t actually show the rape on-screen), and the last fifteen minutes are unlike anything you’ve likely seen in a mainstream horror movie, elevating Revenge into the pantheon of contemporary cult classics. With Robin Coudert’s synth-soaked score adding further seductive fuel to the fire, voila! You have a graphic hardbody horror worth hooting about. 


Revenge screens as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival in Australia, March - April 2019.

Visit here for screening venues, dates, and times. 

Vox Lux

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US | 2018 | Directed by Brady Corbet

Logline: Follows the career trajectory of a pop star and her immediate entourage from her discovery into troubled adulthood. 

At the end of the last millennium a disturbed school student drives along a lonely road, parks his van, and walks through the cold night to his final destination. 

Young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) are in the classroom where the student gunman arrives, glass-eyed and determined. He guns down the teacher. Celeste tries to reason with him. She is shot in the neck, but survives. 

In the aftermath Celeste and her sister write and perform a song that becomes a surprise national anthem of hope and solidarity. Celeste is taken under the wing of an opportunistic, but savvy manager (Jude Law), who teams her with a hot shot producer, and before you can say YOLO FOMO Celeste is making her first record and on her way to international fame, with all its trials and tribulations, joys and trappings.

Jump to the present day, and Celeste (Natalie Portman) is under the thumb of pop pressure, with a tour at her doorstep, a petulant teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy, again), her faithful manager easing her through the gauntlet as terrorist activity hits the media, using her imagery as their disguise. 

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But the show must go on. 

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For his second feature actor-turned-director Corbet delivers an enigmatic, curious fictional biopic that works like an adaptation of a non-existent novel. Based on a story written by Corbet and collaborator Mona Fastvold (who co-wrote his debut feature) it is a compelling, intriguing tale of struggle and perseverance, of human frailty, and familial bonds. The relationships Celeste has with her sister and her daughter are wonderfully nuanced. Also important, though peripheral, is Celeste’s relationship with her manager, which is expressed perfectly in scenes when Celeste is teenager and adult. 

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The score is by UK veteran Scott Walker, himself a pop star from the 60s, whilst the songs that are Celeste’s are written by Australian legend Sia. It’s interesting to note that Portman, Law, and Sia also served as executive producers, no doubt to ensure Corbet would be able to hold on to his vision, and it’s a bold and distinct one. 

The core cast are exceptional, Portman delivering (another) career performance, while Cassidy holds her own. Law is always wonderful when he’s given character work. He’s an actor with leading man looks and presence, but he’s much stronger when given key support work, or plays a less glamorous role. Martin, as the sister in the shadow, is solid, as is Jennifer Ehle in the support role of publicist, while Christopher Abbott pops up in one scene as a befuddled music journalist. 

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Vox Lux has cult favourite written all over it, from its intense melodrama, ramblings, and wayward angst, through to its extended concert performance at movie’s end, its lingered in my head for the past couple of weeks, sure to be one of my faves for the year. An inspiring, uplifting movie that cleverly transcends the melancholy and tragedy its tied to. I look forward to more stories and style from Corbet. 





Arctic

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Iceland | 2018 | Directed by Joe Penna

Logline: Stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash a man is forced to embark on a dangerous trek across the inhospitable landscape in search of rescue. 

After a series of short films and television episodes ex-pat Brazilian writer/director Joe Penna turns his hand to the classic survival genre where a resourceful man is pitted against the ruthless natural elements and has hope tugged and whipped out of him. It might not sound much like an entertaining night at the movies, but Penna delivers a thoroughly gripping exercise in narrative efficiency. 

The always brilliant Mad Mikkelsen plays Overgård, an Arctic pilot whose plane has crashed on the tundra. He is seen tending to his makeshift fishing holes and windup radio beacon at the start of the movie. It appears he’s been stranded for several days already, maybe longer, making use of the limited tools and supplies he has. He has to ration the fish he catches, and maintains a tight routine, via his watch alarm, activating the radio beacon and checking his bait line. There’s pretty little else to do. Except sleep, and thankfully the plane’s fuselage provides the essential shelter. And hope. Hope looms large.

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A distant polar bear catches Overgård’s scent, but thankfully isn’t interested, since the creature has probably just eaten. Whew. But it’s only a matter of time before he and the polar bear will encounter closer quarters. Hopefully the man will be rescued before then. Surely. Yes, a helicopter swings by, but the wind gusts are too strong for the whirlybird to land. Overgård watches aghast …

With little-to-no dialogue, and an excellent ambient score from Joseph Trapanese, Penna delivers a superb vehicle for Mikkelsen. It reminds me of another recent survival flick, All is Lost with Robert Redford struggling alone on a damaged yacht on the open sea. Both excel with a pared-back narrative, with just the bare mechanics of weathered emotion and psychological resilience and the wrath of nature on display. 

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Survival movies are like horror movies for realists. A nightmare scenario made absolutely palpable. If the production values, direction, and acting are top notch, a sense of authenticity is heightened, and the movie will pack true visceral thrills. Unlike many low-budget exploitation-style survival movies, like the ones popular in the 70s, Arctic makes the viewer feel like they are watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. 

Made on a micro-budget (by Hollywood standards) Penna shot the movie over 19 days in Iceland, and Mikkelsen regarded it as the most difficult experience of his career. Although it’s not the first time he has commanded a picture with almost no dialogue set entirely outside, as he played a Viking warrior in Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterful Valhalla Rising

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Arctic is a mostly hushed and desolate journey, with the exception of a truly hair-raising encounter with a hungry polar bear - but we knew that was coming. Of course, Overgård’s plight is brutal, there is no denying that, just as any arduous trek across an unforgiving landscape would be, and Overgård has his work cut out for him, as he valiantly attempts to save not just his own life. It becomes the classic scenario of will he make it, or will he succumb? Penna pulls all the right strings at the right time, and delivers one of the best examples of the genre, and my first favourite for the year.