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Sunday, 17 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (24) - BROTHERS' NEST (Clayton Jacobson, Australia)

(Spoiler alert, large chunks of plot given away)

Shane & Clayton Jacobson
Shane and Clayton Jacobson came out of nowhere to make Kenny way back in 2007. It was a film that captured imaginations. Hearts even. At the screening I attended, I still remember the moment when Kenny says he cant get to Sydney because he has to supervise the portable dunnies at the Melbourne Cup. “Oh No! Not the Melbourne Cup” said half the audience (four of eight) and they got up and left. The joke had worn out.

It’s taken a decade or more for the brothers to do another movie and this time there was no movement from the audience at any stage. 

Playing brothers Terry and Jeff, the Jacobsons have assembled a comic thriller with some serious, deadly, moments.  A slow burn, slow reveal, approach is what they are after, a bit Highsmithian. From the start guilt and uncertainty are already preying on Terry as the brothers embark on a lunatic scheme to murder their hated step-father, the man who caused their natural father to hang himself. The plan hatched by Jeff is motivated by pure greed. They seem to have been cut out of their mother’s will.

For close to an hour it’s only the brothers on screen as they prepare the family home to make ready for what they hope will be seen as a suicide. At each step of the crazed plan, little things go wrong. Best joke is deciding what electrical implement they will throw into the bath in order to electrocute him. Then there’s a problem because they need an extension cord. Life’s little miseries. Jeff in particular is basing the plan on endless number of viewings of TV crime shows. He has half absorbed a million facts about DNA and evidence and he rattles them off at will to placate, but bamboozle, his dumber sibling.

Kim Gyngell, Brothers' Nest
Somewhere along the way you realise the progenitor of it. It’s an attempt to channel a movie into a down-under Coen Bros wanta-lookalike, Fargo in a cheap setting, the backblocks of Victoria.  Its filled to the brim with Jacobson brothers laconic, ironic humour. The dad (Kym Gyngell) continues on from the dad in Kenny, a mean-minded arsehole who cant stand his stepsons.   The mum (Lynette Curran) is a monster propped up by walking sticks but still able to smack her son in the same room where she gave him a childhood beating on the day of his dad’s funeral.

Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, Brothers' Nest
In the end it turns violent but again with a twist involving setting fire to a car. Very droll. All up  a handful of actors do some comic stuff.

Amazing end credits. The producer/distributor must have pre-sold/booked the film to a host of independent theatres, all of whom have their logo on the screen. Never seen that before.

It's opening on 21 June in all those independent theatres. If you wait till the end you’ll probably be able to see the logo of the theatre where you are watching the movie.
Lynette Curran, Brothers' Nest

Sydney Film Festival (23) - Barrie Pattison reviews SAMUI SONG (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Visitor Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is one of the most established of Thailand’s film makers. He’s worked with Christopher Doyle and Takashi Miike and his Monrak Transistor and Invisible Waves have had some circulation abroad. That last film has several connections with his new Samui Song- including a Double Indemnity husband murder and a pregnancy sub-plot. Its bloody fish tank anticipates the gore stained pottery wheel in this film. That one wasn’t at all bad. 

Samui Song is the first fiction feature the director has come up with in six years, and he spent two of them editing it. American trained, he acknowledges his debt to Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch & Hitchcock. There’s more of Dial M For Murder with the killing of spouse Stepane Sednaoui, than of Strangers on a Train which the writer-director nominates. 

Soap Opera star Laila Chermarn Boonyasak plays a soap opera star who gets fellow smoker (“a social stigma before lung cancer”) David Asavanond to off husband potter Sedanoui after the dastard turns her out for Vithaya Pansringarm the leader of his Bondayakava Buddhist sect.

We start off with a car crash seen from the eyes of a dog for no fathomable reason.  Asavanond, looking after his invalid mother in single element lens insets, has to flee, with her making her lightning recovery, after he downs a couple of gunmen sent in retaliation. Suddenly there’s a time shift and a Thai Whale NGO is boating out to the remote community of Koh Samui with a 35mm movie projector show, after which one of their team attempts to rape a local. Rescued, she gets into a vigorous kiss with our heroine now subject to plastic surgery and the girl wants to take showers naked with her. We are denied that, though we did get a protracted shot of Sedanoui masturbating.

Samui Song
Vengeful Asavanond shows up with the organs of his now deceased mother in a ziplock bag, wanting the star to eat them, only for him to get repeatedly stabbed with a broken bottle, and then mysteriously shot.  The cult leader re-appears for what seems to be a cynical conclusion pinpointing exploitation by the patriarchy.

This is all delivered at length in artificial, muted colour with the digital production values that we might associate with the day time soap drama it references. The mix of sensationalism and naiveté is not without some fascination. I wonder what its target audience made of it all. 

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang seems like a nice guy and he’s the visible tip of a lot of movie activity. I wish I liked Samui Song better.

Sydney Film Festival (22) - LEAVE NO TRACE (Debra Granik, USA)

Spoiler Alert: The whole plot is given away here.

In Winter’s Bone (USA, 2010), Debra Granik and her collaborator Anne Rosellini, adapted a novel by Daniel Woodrell set in the backblocks, the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. The economy of this cold, bleak and godforsaken place seemed to run entirely on the production of illegal methamphetamines. A late teenage young woman spends her time trying to keep the remnants of her family together. The mother is dead, the father is missing. 

Winter’s Bone got a lot of attention. It catapulted at least one of its principals to stardom. That was the then young Jennifer Lawrence. 

Debra Granik
The director and writer seem to have spent the next seven years or so getting another feature movie off the ground, though Granik wrote and directed a documentary, Stray Dog in 2014 and is reported to have been seeking a go ahead for the pilot of an HBO series American High Life back in 2012. Glacial career pace you might say but a pattern not unfamiliar to any number of highly-regarded independent film-makers in any number of countries.

The new movie is Leave No Trace, is also adapted from a novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock. The similarities with the earlier Winter’s Bone do stand out. Once again, at the centre is a young and very smart teenage girl. This time its Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who is a willing participant in the lifestyle of her father, an ex-Vietnam vet with problems who chooses to shun civilisation as much as possible and mostly lives hand to mouth deep in parks and forests on the edge of cities. In this case it’s Portland Oregon but you get the impression that the pair are always on the move, always feeling threatened. The fact that the little vegetable garden Tom has planted has barely emerging plants indicates that their time in the place has been short, as usual.

Anne Rossellini
 Tom and her father Will try to escape all scrutiny, cover their tracks, leave no trace. They are ‘caught’ and kind people help them out, put them up and force Will into taking a job. An overhead helicopter seems to be the catalyst for Will deciding they will bolt and again try and leave no trace. Again they wind up in a low rent trailer community living on the edge of a park – lots of kindness again plus some sense of community. Sitting round the campfire and singing, tending to some beehives, making relationships – Tom decides that when Will once again, for unfathomable/unspoken reasons wants to move on deeper into the forest, she’s had enough and refuses. 

There’s almost no violence, apart from the police apprehension. The father and daughter are utterly respectful of each other. Hardly a voice gets raised. But you understand a lot…that’s what so good about what Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini do. It’s remarkable. 

But surely it shouldn’t take seven years for them to be able to once again strut their very fine, very quiet, stuff.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Ben Foster, Leave No Trace

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Streaming on Netflix - Rod Bishop alerts the world to the end of the Wachowskis' SENSE8

Sense8 (created by J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Netflix, 2015-2018)
Lilly & Lana Wachowski
For those who missed both seasons of this now defunct Netflix series (and that includes everyone I’ve ever asked), it’s been a wild ride. Not just wild in content, which it certainly is, but wild in delivery. After 12 episodes of Season One were released in June 2015, audiences could never be sure any more would arrive.
It was 18 months later in December 2016 before the first episode of Season Two was released. Then a further wait of 5 months before episodes 2 to 11 started streaming in May 2017. Only a month later, in early June 2017, Netflix cancelled all negotiations for Season Three. There was a “huge outcry” from fans who had been left with a cliff hanger ending to episode 11: “hashtags were created, campaigns mounted and Netflix was bombarded with emails and calls”.  
Netflix responded: “To our Sense8 family. We’ve seen the petitions. We’ve read the messages. We know you want to #RenewSense8 and we wish we could #BringBackSense8 for you. The reason we’ve taken so long to get back to you is because we’ve thought long and hard here at Netflix to try to make it work, but unfortunately we can’t. Thank you for watching and we hope you’ll stay close with your cluster around the world. #Sense8Forever”.
After an outcry of “clustercide!” from the fans, however, Netflix relented and commissioned a final 12th episode of Season Two “for the fans”. Lana Wachowski tweeted: “The passionate letters, the petitions, the collective voice that rose up like the first of Sun to fight for this show was beyond what anyone was expecting. In this world its easy to believe you cannot make a difference; that when a government or an institution or a corporation makes a decision, there is something irrevocable about the decision; that love is always less important than the bottom line.”
And there it was, Wachowski encapsulating what Sense8 had been all about: love can make a seemingly powerless individual take on the all-powerful institutions of The State, and win.
A year later, that victory has arrived and the “finale”, in typically extravagant Sense8 style, is a single episode clocking in at 150 minutes. 
It’s an interesting phenomenon. As Wachowski points out, fans of the series have actually emulated her characters and carried off a similar victory “against an institution or a corporation”. In this case, forcing Netflix to give the Wachowskis the chance to round-out the series in a dignified way.
The two seasons have consumed a huge budget and it’s just as undeniably ravishing to look at as it is difficult to follow. The plot could probably just stretch to two hours if it was made for cinema release, but over 26 hours its multiple treads have developed like Medusa’s Head. Fortunately, following the narrative is not where the pleasure lies. 
The Wachowskis have often used a simple scenario – individuals (or in this case ‘clusters’) fight for love, joy and meaningful connections while battling strangely amorphous and shadowy evil organizations. The plot contortions in Sense8 are abundant and sometimes the sugary messages grate, but it’s hard not to be caught up in the infectious struggle for the joy and meaning in everyday life. It’s been called a lot of things, mostly ranging from beautiful to incoherent. My favourite is the New York Times which affectionately called it “sublimely silly”. 
For those interested:
Eight strangers from different countries are “birthed” with a psychic connection between them from a woman known as Angelica. They form a “cluster” of “sensates” who can communicate with each other non-verbally, transfer themselves into each other’s bodies or simply teleport and be beside each other and share their emotional states and languages. A rogue sensate known as Whispers who runs the Biologic Preservation Organization is intent on using the BPO to control the cluster of eight sensates for evil, zombie-like purposes.
The eight sensates are Berlin locksmith and petty thief Wolfgang; a hugely famous Mexico City actor Lito, who hides his gay identity but lives with his boyfriend Hernando; Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ living in London; the trans woman and computer hacker Nomi who lives in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita; Chicago police officer Will; Korean kickboxer Sun Bak; Nairobi bus driver Capheus (who worships Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Kala, a Mumbai pharmacist. 
Nairobi, Malta, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Naples, Mexico City, San Francisco, Positano, Reykjavik, Cambridge, Paris, Seoul, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo. 

Sydney Film Festival (21) - Barrie Pattison reviews AMERICAN ANIMALS (Bart Layton, USA) and THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (Sara Colangelo, USA)

Of the films viewed in the current Sydney Film Festival, American Animals was the one to have a movie-of-the-moment energy. It is at once a heist film with the usual tension, action and ingenuity elements mixed in with tries for new film form and comment.

Bart Layton
Director Bart Layton (documentary The Impostor) had considered doing a factual film with staged material (think America’s Most Wanted and its heirs and successors) but shifted the production into a dramatisation in which the actual former college boy thieves appear commenting the movie's version of their seven figure rare book robbery fourteen years earlier. The piece has been compared to the Clint Eastwood The 15:17 to Paris and Michael Haneke, to which you could addFive Against the House.American Animals has, however, an idiom of its own. 

Layton has gotten together rising star leads. We get Transylvania U art student Barry Keoghan (Killing of a Sacred Deer) recruiting fellow undergraduate Evan Peters (Marvel’s Quicksilver), Jared Abrahamson  (Sweet Virginia) and Blake Jenner (Edge of Seventeen) joining his scheme to knock over the University Library where twelve million dollars worth of books are protected by “one old lady” with keys to a glass case.

American Animals
Their preparation is farcical, including running every heist movie they can find and skilling in theatrical make up, which we see being applied in extreme close up under the main titles, alternating with shots switching car number plates. They plot events in the best Asphalt Jungle manner with plans on the wall and a tipped over toy soldier to represent the librarian. There’s even an imaginary version of the proposed crime where events go with balletic smoothness. 

Layton planned on cutting shots of his actors into the briefing in Ocean’s Elevenbut Stephen Soderbergh wouldn’t go along, so they excerpted The Killinginstead. Soderbergh has since said he was sorry he turned them down but now Layton mutters that The Killingwas a whole lot better movie anyway - correctly.

The dodgiest element of their  narrative however is “the fence” met by emailing an address obtained from a shady contact (“Lose your fake ID already?”) for a five hundred dollar backhander which may or may not have sent Peters off to Amsterdam to encounter the film’s one familiar face, Udo Kier doing international hard man.

Of course the job unravels.

More important than the narrative development is the handling, including a scene run backwards to a different opening, melting sidewise juxtapositions and the comments from the now decade and a half older conspirators who occasionally contradict one another. Peters is shown doubling back from the airport entrance and taking a cab rather than fly off to Europe, leaving open the question of the Amsterdam connection altogether. Layton both offers and withholds sympathy for his subjects but adds a depiction of the victims of their action which we don’t usually see.

The film is curiously free of comment on the notion of any twelve-million dollar volume of bird drawings and its place in American culture though the makers are clearly aware of it, using Audibon's flamingo (a thousand dollars to repro each page) as a visual motif and doing a striking final credit sequence with the art work as title back ground. Real art student robber Spencer Reinhard contributed his character’s paintings for the film.

This gets us into an even more curious element as we see the leads are motivated by a jaded dissatisfaction with the comfortable suburban lives their parents have laid out for them “to find out what would really happen in real life.” Failed jock Jenner turns on Keoghan who claims to be drawn by the big pay day and says “Artists are supposed to starve.”

CompareThe Kindergarten Teacher also on show. 

Sara Colangelo
Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been able to do sexy without pretty and when she mixes menacing in with that, she’s a force of nature.

The vehicle is a close adaptation of an Israeli/Argentinian film that we are unlikely to ever get to see. Maggie has what passes in the U.S. mid-day movie for the ideal life. She is a kindergarten teacher in a nice school. No blackboard jungles here (if the tinies say a bad word they get a time out).She’s raised two teenagers in a comfortable house in a leafy suburb. Husband of twenty years Michael Chernus is a bit heavy but he’s still interested in getting it on. She’s even enrolled in Gael Garcia Bernal’s poetry evening class - what’s hedoing in this one?

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, The Kindergarten Teacher
However, things are sure to go pear-shaped by the logic that governs the independent cinema’s depiction of the suburbs. Sure enough, the son is going out for marine training (“kill people in the desert for oil!”) and the daughter won’t let mum stop her smoking a joint now that it’s been legalised. 

At this point Parker Sevak, one of her little charges, starts delivering spontaneous poetry. It’s a whole lot better than Maggie’s own which is all about water sprites. She has the kid’s minder copy down any verses he might sprout when there’s no one about and gives him a cell phone to call them through to her.

The boy’s proof reader uncle understandably finds Maggie a bit too touchy feely when she calls at his job and when she finally meets the bar tending dad, he’s not interested in the kid getting into anything artsy like that of his own brother, who now corrects people’s spelling for a living.

Maggie crosses all manner of lines - passing the kid’s work off as her own and hi-jacking him from football practice to a city poetry reading where the plagiarism thing unravels. The boy is a hit but Gael Garcia isn’t interested in doing Maggie on his office carpet anymore. His dad shifts the boy to another kindergarten so Maggie strikes and the boy proves smarter than she in a comic/grim ending.

Doing her first feature, writer-director Sara Colangelo gets value out of a modest indie budget. She used off the board methods like introducing Maggie to the kids in the picture as their real teacher which gave her problems when they got so involved in her activities they didn’t want to take nap times. Colangelo manages the film’s balancing act with some assurance showing that the kindergarten teacher is the one with the vision and understanding that the dad lacks. But he’s the one that’s grounded and she’s the wacko.

The audience in the State giggled through the first hour, possibly because this was all a bit too close to home, and then went quiet when the film got assertive - or they got tired.

The comparison with American Animalsis more interesting than most.  It's striking to find the leads all driven by a fear of being average. Is this an accident? Is everyone suddenly reading "Crime and Punishment" or are these films telling us something about Trump America that we can't yet see?

Friday, 15 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (20) - SHOPLIFTERS (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the handful at the very top of the current cinema. Hardly a less than superb film throughout a near thirty year career making thirteen features, half a dozen documentaries and two television series. He has developed a reputation in recent years that centres largely on the considerable number of films in all formats he makes about ‘families’- very broadly defined. 

There have been exceptions. Hard to call Air Doll (2009) about families. Or for that matter the beloved Afterlife (1998). That remains the director’s greatest film and a masterpiece to be savoured again and again is about the moments that follow death and for most of course, especially the religious, it’s a moment to contemplate reunion.  And, I haven’t seen his recent thriller The Third Murder (2017) which I am told popped up and out in a local Japanese Film Festival following its screening at Venice last year. Who knows about that one.

But Shoplifters (2018, Palme D’Or Cannes) is almost an ironic riff on his reputation and his alleged ‘theme’. The ‘family’ is slowly revealed as unconnected by blood, except remotely, a gathering of people who try to escape poverty almost spontaneously, organically, forming a group to cope with the tribulations daily visited upon the poor, each member playing a role from a Granma playing on ex-husband’s son’s guilt through to a once neglected and abused near babe who is brought in and quickly starts to learn the signals to indicate a shoplift is on the go. 

Lily Franky, Kairi Jō, Shoplifters
At various times Kore-eda has tended to show off his skills by effortlessly knocking out a Mizoguchi movie (Hana, 2006) or an Ozu movie (Still Walking, 2008). I have a feeling that in fact he is rather more of a Kurosawa – an eclectic selector of subjects, almost all of them deeply humanist fables by a director relying on a stable and, in the Japanese studio manner, only slowly changing his cast of regular actors. His frequent recent choice of the eccentric Lily Franky (Like Father, Like Son, 2013, Our Little Sister, 2015, After the Storm, 2016 and Shoplifters, 2018) is like a code allowing us to track through the director’s most sentimental films.

Shoplifters is engrossing and the exposition of the story, particularly the destruction of the ‘family’ unit by relentless police interrogation is handled in a manner that reminds of the beginning of Afterlife, actors speaking direct to camera with no cutaways to their interlocutors, moving the narrative at breakneck (for Kore-eda) speed. 

A minor work by a master. A full house sat enthralled.

Jean Brooks - Geoff Mayer recalls the career of an overlooked actress from the 40s

Jean Brooks, The Leopard Man
The release of Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man in June 1943, marked the transition of Jeanne Kelly, low budget western and serial heroine, to RKO contract player Jean Brooks. 

In Lewton’s next film, the nihilistic masterpiece The Seventh Victim (1943), Brooks was stunning as the tormented Jacqueline Gibson and in what should have been a career defining role. However, the commercial failure of the film and her own personal problems resulted in RKO gradually losing interest in the actress and her status at the studio receded until she was dropped in 1946. 

Following one more film in 1948, she left the industry and finished up working at a newspaper in San Francisco. Jean Brooks died in 1963 at the age of 47 following complications associated with malnutrition and alcoholism.

Jean Brooks, Publicity photo
Born Ruby M. Kelly in Houston in 1916, she moved to a coffee plantation in Costa Rica after her father died. Ruby became fluent in Spanish and English and began her show business career as a singer/guitarist with Enric Madriguera’s orchestra at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. During this period she befriended Eric von Stroheim who secured a role for her, billed as Jeanne Kelly, in the independently produced horror film Obeah (1935) and a supporting role in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) starring von Stroheim which was filmed in New York. After parting with von Stroheim she appeared in the 1938 Broadway production of “Name Your Poison”.

At Paramount she starred, as Robina Duarte, in two Spanish language films followed by a contract with Universal who cast her in three serials, a brief role in chapter 5 of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), as Warren Hull’s love interest in the first two chapters of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!(1940) and the
Buck Jones, Jean Brooks, Riders of Death Valley
lead heroine in Universal’s so-called “Million Dollar Serial” Riders of Death Valley (1941) starring Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Lon Chaney Jr., and Noah Beery Jr. Kelly, as the feisty heroine fighting for the gold mine bequeathed to her by her uncle, holds her own among the plethora of male leads. However, Universal, after a few more low budget western and crime films, did not renew her option.

Jean Brooks, The 7th Victim
After her marriage to screenwriter (and later Academy Award winning writer and director) Richard Brooks in 1941, Ruby changed her name to Jean Brooks and a contract with RKO initiated a promising period for the actress with three films for Val Lewton’s unit. In The Leopard Man, as nightclub singer Kiki Walker, she unleashes the leopard that causes the initial mayhem in the film (and triggers the homicidal drives of a serial killer). However, it was her second film for Lewton, as the (spoiler) doomed heroine in The Seventh Victim, that gave Brooks her best screen role. In this morbid masterpiece, she did not disappoint the producer with her soulful eyes and intense screen presence that captured the inner despair of her suicidal heroine. In a lesson to modern filmmakers with regard to economy, and visual and aural subtlety, the film’s devastating ending consists only of the sound of a chair falling over accompanied by Brooks’ sad voice-over reprising a portion of 17th century English poet and cleric John Donne’s Holy Sonnet: “I runne to death and death meets me as fast and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

She also co-starred in five of the studio’s popular Falcon series starring Tom Conway. The best was The Falcon and the Co-Eds (1943). 

Divorced from Richard Brooks in 1944, she left RKO after The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). A talented actress, the largely forgotten Jean Brooks deserves recognition today.