Movie Review – The Beguiled

Sexuality turns sinister in Sofia Coppola’s bewitching return to a more savage era.

 ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

A girls’ seminary stands isolated in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, where several young women and their teachers remain sheltered from the violence raging on outside. While roaming the fields one day, one of the youngest girls stumbles upon a wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) and helps him back to the school. The proprietor, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), is wary of helping an enemy soldier, but eventually gives in to the girls’ pleas to nurse him back to health. The house is soon in disarray as everyone’s fascination with the soldier turns into obsession, and sexual tension and rivalry swells as both the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and eldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) make known their attraction to him. Pressures boil and erupt, and things soon take a dark and unexpected turn.

Though technically a remake, or a new spin on the same source novel (the original, weirdly enough, was by the Dirty Harry team Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood), the notorious Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled is her freshest and most interesting film in years. It’s without question her most thrilling film, and marks a slight departure from her signature dressy drama style – at least in the film’s second half.

Curiously, it also feels somewhat like a return to the dynamic of her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides. In a similar vein, it lures us into a mystifying group of women and their sexual frustrations and relationships with one another. But we’re never quite given all the pieces of their puzzle, so they remain enticingly mysterious – beguiling, if you will.

It’s a slow burner, but also a wickedly entertaining ride, balancing its flirtations with a welcome helping of humour. The older actors – Farrell, Kidman and Dunst – are on typical good form, particularly Farrell, who’s given great opportunity to exhibit a descent from charming larrikin to unhinged madman.

But it’s the younger actresses who really excel and make an impression here. The always excellent Elle Fanning doesn’t get quite as much screen time to flaunt herself as usual, but she’s mastered the art of the temptress, oozing sexuality like a walking aphrodisiac with her endlessly breathy vocals and seductive looks. Australia’s own Angourie Rice could very well be the next Elle Fanning with her naturally distinctive looks and charisma. The most junior member Oona Laurence runs away with the most laughs, unafraid to voice her thoughts on her innocent fixation with the Corporal.

The inclinations, intentions and morality of these characters becomes extremely hazy, so it’s difficult to know who to root for, if anyone at all. Like Lady Macbeth, the alleged “pro-feminist stance” this has been said by some to take is debatable, given the disturbing nature through which it is triumphed; nonetheless Coppola’s return to fine form is a terrific, beguiling achievement.

The Beguiled is available in Australian cinemas from July 12 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Free Fire – Revelation Perth International Film Festival

Ben Wheatley tries his hand at aping Reservoir Dogs to riotous effect.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

One of the most dexterous and consistently interesting directors to emerge from Britain in the last decade, Ben Wheatley’s latest film Free Fire sees the filmmaker transition into old fashioned shoot ‘em up territory for a gleeful celebration of gunplay.

Set in Boston in 1978, Free Fire sees a duo of Irish terrorists, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), employ the help of local fixers Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) in organising a secretive docklands exchange with wildly unpredictable kingpin Vernon (Sharlto Copley).

Naturally, the deal soon goes south as hired goons on both sides decide to settle a standing grudge in the midst of an illegal arms deal. What follows is a protracted melee of ricochets, expletives and blood-soaked shoulder pads. Wheatley and his charismatic cast wholeheartedly embrace the zaniness of the premise as they fling dust, shrapnel and sly barbs across the screen. Copley is the star of the show, his larger-than-life character an absolute hoot as he tries (and fails) to hit on Justine and weasel his way out of getting a slug to the head.

Larson, Murphy and Hammer are also excellent; the irreverence with which they approach the chaos never undercuts the serious moments and everything knits together for an effective character-driven 90-minute actioner, even when the bare bones plot is scarcely enough to keep the thing anchored during the second half.

Unquestionably light on plot, Free Fire instead chooses to focus on genuinely enthralling action. The editing, cinematography and sound mixing all work in tandem to create something rather special. Wheatley displays an unrivalled aptitude for staging that makes Free Fire easy to follow and enormously engaging to boot.

Free Fire is screening at Revelation Film Festival (6-19 July)

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures & Revelation Film Festival

Wiener-Dog – Revelation Perth International Film Festival

An impressive cast doesn’t save Todd Solondz from drowning along with his wiener-dog.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

I don’t know Todd Solondz nor am I acquainted with his body of work, but after seeing Wiener-Dog, his latest black comedy about a wandering dachshund, I believe a successful career is still far ahead of him. This is an awkward, at times frustrating film in which no one utters a single line of credible dialogue and every performance – except Danny DeVito’s – is tuned to the frequency of a shock therapy patient.

DeVito plays Dave Schmerz, a failed screenwriter working for a prestigious film school. His story is one of numerous, vaguely interconnected tales about different bunches of people and, of course, a wiener-dog that somehow finds its way into their care. “A dachshund passes from oddball owner to oddball owner, whose radically dysfunctional lives are all impacted by the pooch”, states the film’s IMDb synopsis, and yet I don’t recall the dog doing a single thing of value except providing the film with an excruciatingly overdrawn shot of faeces. Its owners could’ve been lugging around an old toilet and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Sad, then, that the movie is called Wiener-Dog. Solondz, who wrote and directed, must feel affection for canines, but it is lost in his screenplay, which frowns upon them ambivalently with a truly disturbing conclusion, and Julie Delpy having to constantly remind her son that “Dogs are not humans!”. Everyone’s so stunted by the strange dialogue and bizarre staging that the entire picture becomes a distraction of itself. It might also be the only movie under 90 minutes to have an intermission. Gives us the perfect opportunity to walk out, I suppose.

Wiener-Dog is screening at Revelation Film Festival (6-19 July) 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films & Revelation Film Festival

Top Knot Detective – Revelation Perth International Film Festival

Riotously funny, Top Knot Detective is what happens when you watch too much late-night SBS.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp 

It’s hard to describe Top Knot Detective to the uninitiated. Its list of influences includes Power Rangers, midnight SBS insanity and legendarily bad films like The Room. Imagine a mockumentary retrospective on Kung Fury, and you’ll have some grasp of what you’re in for. If those things don’t float your boat, the exit is to your right. For everyone else, Top Knot Detective is brilliant and it deserves to be on your must-see list.

Top Knot details the rise and fall of fictional 90’s Japanese TV show Ronin Suiri Tentai (Deductive Reasoning Ronin), zeroing in on the show’s creator/director/star/writer Takashi Tawagoto (Toshi Okuzaki), who is described as “Errol Flynn without the STD’s or the talent”. Through interviews with his co-stars and the show’s crew, the film builds a fascinating and hilarious portrait of a young man swept up in the creative process.

There are so many things to love about Top Knot. The number of jokes per minute is phenomenal, and just about each one lands perfectly. On top of that, the level of care on display is remarkable. From the acting to the background details, everything around the show is on-point. Even the tie-in advertisements and archive photos feel beautifully real, and you’ll often forget that everything you’re seeing has come directly from the minds of directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce. Top Knot Detective isn’t just a send-up of cheap, over the top Japanese cinema, it’s McCann and Pearce’s love letter to the genre. Theirs is a world of giant penis monsters, talk shows with cats, and gloriously ridiculous (and ridiculously gory) action scenes. If that sentence interests you, Top Knot Detective cannot be recommended enough.

Top Knot Detective is screening at Revelation Film Festival (6-19 July)

Image courtesy of Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and Revelation Film Festival 

Descent into the Maelstrom – Revelation Perth International Film Festival

Descent into the Malestrom is a high energy journey into the success, and failings, of 70’s Aussie rock’n’roll band Radio Birdman.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill 

In 1974 in Sydney, a young American man named Deniz Tek formed the band Radio Birdman with Rob Younger. Following the recruitment of four other members, Radio Birdman went on to cause a stir in the Australian music scene, with their unconventional take on rock’n’roll and their determination to stay true to their original brand of music. Whilst the band had a short run of success, with the members of the band choosing to part ways in 1978, they became the influence for many mainstream Australian bands.

The genius of Descent into the Maelstrom lies in director Jonathan Sequeira’s complete understanding of the band. There are so many elements at play that are carefully hidden behind the guise of a historical documentary as Sequeira explores the band’s rise to fame. But this documentary offers so much more, and much like the music of Radio Birdman, it refuses to stick to traditional documentary conventions.

The first half of the documentary is littered with wild tales as retold by the band members, now well into their 60’s, and discusses their struggle to be taken seriously in the music scene. There is an incredible archive of footage and photos from Radio Birdman’s performances, which makes up the majority of the visual content for the documentary, but it’s the clever use of storyboard animations that help to fill the gaps in the footage that adds a little extra something, and makes the documentary slightly unusual.

The second half of the documentary takes on a quiet, reflective state as the band are picked up by a label and begin touring internationally in 1977. The more they tour, the more the cracks in the group become irreparable, and this is supported with a definite change in mood in the present-day interviews as the band members become more solemn and disgruntled about how Radio Birdman ended.

Descent into the Maelstrom does well in immersing the audience into this world of rock’n’roll, but there’s also a certain amount of assumed knowledge that is expected of the audience. Knowledge of the state of the Australian music scene at this time is helpful, as well as knowing a bit about the punk scene, both on an international scale, and on a more local, Australian scale. There’s a lot of reminiscing about forgotten bands and pubs that no longer exist, which can leave you missing the significance of these details if you’re just that bit too young.

Descent into the Maelstrom, much like Radio Birdman’s music and band ethos, is raw, gritty and unorthodox, but it’s the honest portrayal of the highs and lows of Radio Birdman’s short rise to fame, and subsequent conflict within the band, that makes this documentary so interesting.

Descent into the Maelstrom is screening at Revelation Film Festival (6-19 July)

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment & Revelation Film Festival

Watch The Sunset – Revelation Perth International Film Festival

Watch the Sunset is a remarkable achievement that maintains a gripping momentum… almost until the end.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The one-take genre of drama is small; its most oft-cited works being Victoria and Russian Ark. It’s a format that lends itself to intense realism, but is also hampered by logistical constraints. Watch the Sunset, filmed over the course of an afternoon in Kerang, Victoria, delivers the former in spades, but fails to overcome the trappings of its genre.

The film opens with a brief montage of documentary footage on the drug ice, giving context to the film’s first scene: a man, Danny (Tristan Barr), driving a devastated young woman, Charis (Zia Zantis-Vinycomb) to a motel and locking her in a room. From here, Danny abandons her to attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife and daughter. For good reasons, the former doesn’t want a bar of him, and her reservations are proven legitimate when things take a turn for the worst.

For the vast majority of the film, the camera sticks to Danny like a small child, allowing the audience a stomach-churning view of the proceedings. There is a remarkable level of authenticity on display: every actor nails the realism and depth necessary to breathe life into the single take, and the camera is there at every step to unflinchingly capture their performances. Better still, it manages to pull off the impressionistic angle just as well, with several clever uses of reflection elevating Damien E. Lipp’s cinematography.

Sadly, the film goes off the rails near the end. A brief monologue on “what separates us from the animals” comes off as egregiously empty philosophising, and the film never recovers enough to deliver the rousing finale you want. If this were a normal film, the editing bay might have caught that and cut the scene down, but the single-take genre allows no such leeway.

Watch the Sunset is a powerful film: its performances are devastatingly real, and its achievements are awe-inspiring. Every member of the crew deserves commendation; they have pulled off one of cinema’s most daring feats with aplomb, producing a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat almost until the very end.

Watch the Sunset is screening at Revelation Film Festival (6-19 July) 

Image courtesy of BarrLipp Productions and Revelation Film Festival 

Movie Review – Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sixth film is a complete delight, packed with music, action, and revved to the brink.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Baby Driver is a slam-bam roller-coaster ride filled with pop tunes, screeching tyres, machine guns and, of course, lots of kisses. It’s the kind of heist movie that isn’t so much about the heist as about the people who execute them. They’re a mishmash of assorted character types, some deluded, some tragic, some just plain nuts; but they’re all necessary. This is a crazy, thoroughly enjoyable movie by a director who’s in full command of his craft and totally revelling in it.

It starts with a bang: a high-speed getaway after a bank robbery. The driver is none other than Baby (Ansel Elgort), a sunglasses-wearing, jacket-loving young chap whose motor skills are so good he makes the Fast & Furious crew look like L-platers panicking at a roundabout. He also has a thing for music. Lots of music. 24/7. It is the beat to which his life grooves.

Much is made of the soundtrack – indeed, it punctuates just about every line of dialogue, every scene change, every gunshot – but I was more enthralled by the sheer audacity of Wright to marry so many influences into a bubbling cauldron of cinematic delight. Like all his movies, Baby Driver is written with meticulous precision. It draws its narrative from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). It steals romance from Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Baby has mummy issues, just like Peter Quill from the Marvel movies. And yet none of it feels unoriginal. By rooting the character drama so firmly in the innocence of its leading couple, Baby Driver becomes something uniquely its own. A kind of modern day fairy tale told through a lens of crime.

Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the chauffeured gangster who recruits Baby and orchestrates his devilish schemes; he is reliably intimidating and droll. The two best performances belong to Jamie Foxx as Bats and Lily James as the diner waitress Debora. Foxx eerily blurs the line between acting and real life. His trigger-happy, psychotic thief is so convincingly bonkers I suspect Elgort and the rest turned up to work each day wearing Kevlar. He is the volatile variable Wright flings into the cauldron, content to let him steer the story as he sees fit. Next to him, the vengeful Buddy (a manic Jon Hamm) seems almost domesticated.

But it’s not enough that these characters are broadly drawn and impressive; what they say and how they say it is often what keeps the entire machine oiled. Wright has a knack for words, not in the same way as, say, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, but his dialogue has a way of kidding itself. Watch how a conversation in a car about code names and real names becomes almost poetic. Or another in which three bad guys have to wear Halloween masks of Mike Myers instead of Michael Myers. Or how Wright shrewdly slips in a reference to Monsters, Inc. (2001). It’s kinda bewitching.

I have enjoyed all of Wright’s pictures. There’s an energy about them. A certain charm that runs from the page to the screen. It is clear he is a visual storyteller, a director not content to explain his ideas but to showcase them through cinematic technique. He is the grand puppeteer. He has all the strings. He knows exactly what they do, and not for a second does he ever tug the wrong one.

Baby Driver is available in Australian cinemas from July 12

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-man’s latest solo film promises a bright future ahead, even if we have to sit through some of the same old stuff to get there.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

A short while after being recruited by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is back slumming it at school and daydreaming of his next mission with The Avengers. Peter blows off homework after school each night to don his spandex Spidey suit and fight crime throughout Queens, but when he comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) – a career criminal in possession of a high-tech vulture-like suit – he might have just bitten off more than he can chew.

After 2014’s The Amazing Spider-man 2 effectively flushed the webslinger down the drain, Sony and Marvel struck a deal to incorporate the popular character into the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. The resultant compromise is Spider-man: Homecoming, another reboot (the second since 2002) that thrusts Peter back to high school and trades one young Brit for an even younger Brit. Thankfully, this young Brit is even better than the last. In Holland, Marvel have struck gold, with the 21-year-old personifying the goofiness and charm of Peter Parker in assured fashion.

Channelling classic John Hughes films from the 80s, Homecoming shifts the focus onto Peter and his quirky crop of friends, complete with The Breakfast Club parallels and a plain-as-day homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

In Peter’s posse you’ve got Ned (Jacob Batalon), the goofy best friend; Michelle (Zendaya), the sarcastic social outcast; Betty (Perth’s own Angourie Rice), the preppy goody two shoes; and Liz (Laura Harrier), the senior stunner and object of Peter’s affection. This troupe extends to others as well and is the strongest aspect of Homecoming. The humour and heart hits home (pun intended) as the kids squabble and banter with one another over Spanish quizzes, house parties and field trips.

Things start to get a little shakier when Homecoming has to do the ‘Marvel stuff’ and serve up some action. The biggest flaw with this film is that the daring-do is fairly so-so; I never felt like Peter or those around him were ever in any degree of peril. That said, the set pieces – one in Washington, one aboard a NYC ferry and another on a cargo plane – are well staged, even if the third act drags.

Keaton’s villain is one of the better ones we’ve seen from Marvel; his melding of unnerving malice and an honest schmuck persona makes for a nice match. Downey Jr.’s contribution is minimal, with most of it glimpsed in the pervasive marketing material – that said, it was cool to get a taste of how Spider-man fits into the broader universe going forward.

Holland is far and away the best iteration of the character and the Marvel formula gives everything a vibrant sheen, but Spider-man: Homecoming is still too much alike its predecessors to truly enthrall or inspire. Not definitively the best, and far from the worst, Spider-man: Homecoming finds itself dangling precariously in a middle ground that leaves us hanging for the next entry without very much in the present.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is available in Australian cinemas from July 6

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

Movie Review – Lady Macbeth

If only Pride & Prejudice had this much grit, trepidation and bloodshed…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

In rural England, 1865, the youthful Katherine (Florence Pugh) lives out a miserable existence in a house with her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age, and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who scolds her for not doing her marital duties and bearing an heir despite Alexander’s disinterest in her sexually. When the two men leave the estate on business, Katherine is free to roam the grounds, and takes an interest in a roguish worker named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). A few deliberate encounters later, the two begin an affair and Katherine is finally happy – until the return of the malicious men of her life. Unwilling to return to her pointless squalor, Katherine uses any means necessary to protect her new life.

For the uninitiated, Lady Macbeth is not in fact a feminine twist on Shakespeare’s tragedy (though the title is drawn from the similarly bloodthirsty protagonist of Macbeth), but based on the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. William Oldroyd – yet another impressive debut director, graduating from theatre productions – updates the story for a post-Game of Thrones world, dialling down the romantic aspect and drenching it in confronting sex and violence.

Oldroyd immediately makes his style of filmmaking clear-cut; adhering to realism and letting his imagery or actors’ expressions do the talking, keeping things taught, well-paced and to the point. There’s a definite unease that lingers over everything that unfolds, from Katherine’s initial unholy treatment as a subhuman object, to the radical sexual romps with Sebastian, at which time anyone could simply waltz in and discover them.

The house maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) causes anxiety every time she’s on screen; she knows about the affair and is clearly conflicted by her loyalty to Katherine and the fear of what could happen to her as an accomplice. It’s doubly distressing when she’s so startled by the chaos around her she becomes mute.

21-year-old Florence Pugh hands in her star-making performance, capable of portraying a great range of emotion through a face she’s forced to keep straight most of the time. Whether being abused or plotting her next sinister deed, she maintains a confidently unchanging façade that tells those around her that nothing is wrong, and tells us exactly what is really going on; it’s an outstanding duality.

It’s a bit of a letdown then, that her character gradually becomes a tad one-note. Her eventual shift into taking control and becoming the cold, unsympathetic master of her own destiny is well handled, but things become a little predictable. When someone gets in her way, you already know that she’s planning to off them. When she does it’s unsettling, and soon it’s hard not to commiserate more with her victims and unwitting accomplices than Katherine herself.

Still, Lady Macbeth engages, shocks and entertains, and has an energy coursing through it that feels rare for a period piece, giving it a distinguishing modernist feel. An unexpected approach to a conventional old tale combined with some terrific acting and production work makes Oldroyd’s darkly atmospheric debut a gritty gem worth seeking out.

Lady Macbeth is available in Australian cinemas from June 29 

Image courtesy of Sharmill Films

Movie Review – First Girl I Loved

Love can take unconventional forms: First Girl I Loved shows all the delights and despairs of this in a short but sweet marvel.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

While photographing the high school softball match, seventeen-year-old Anne (Dylan Gelula), editor of the school yearbook, suddenly discovers she’s harbouring a strong attraction to Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), the popular, athletic star player. She confesses her feelings to her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), who, having held his own burning desire for Anne for quite some time, is outraged and makes it his duty to interfere with her unexpected new crush at every turn. Anne feigns a yearbook project to get to know Sasha better, and soon finds that the attraction is mutual, but social pressures, Clifton’s intrusion, their parents and a particularly disastrous stunt threaten to bring this first romance crashing back to earth.

Third time’s the charm for teen romance specialist Kerem Sanga, who delivers his best rumination on the subject yet with First Girl I Loved. He goes beyond capturing the first-time jitters of young love to create the full complicated whirlwind of coming out of the closet as a teenager. The film explores conflicting sexuality and sexual awakening, changing hearts and unrequited love, and the waves it causes within the society of a high school and family relations. It’s a frothy brew for an ostensibly simple, 90-minute teen flick, but it balances its weighty topics well without succumbing to melodrama.

What bolsters Sanga’s film is its authentic look at coming-of-age in a modern school, and how contemporary communication influences teenage relationships. Texting, naturally, plays a big part, serving as the key to Anne and Sasha really getting to know each other, and – in a memorable scene – intently tiptoes a line of intimacy as the two mutually masturbate via text message, without yet having acknowledged the inclination now clearly between them. It’s a testament to the way we now hide our emotions behind our technology.

Elsewhere it’s body language used efficaciously to create the allurement between the girls, especially in their first encounter, in which Anne conducts a faux yearbook interview with Sasha to get close to her, gauge her magnetism and unearth information – namely whether or not she has a boyfriend. Every lingering look they share and breathy pause between words confirms a subtle but undeniable temptation, furthered by believably awkward but endearing exchanges. It all feels very real, and both Gelula and Hildebrand are charismatically game.

Without spoiling too much, there’s the foreseeable heartbreak predetermined by such rollercoasters of emotion, but First Girl I Loved is always kind, tender, optimistic and ultimately a little profound. It may lack the epic scope of Blue is the Warmest Colour, but it’s an instantly endearing new look at pubescent love – one that can be enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike.

First Girl I Loved is available in Australian cinemas from June 29 

Image courtesy of This Is Arcadia Pty Ltd