Movie Review – The Lovers

In his latest film, Azazel Jacobs explores the murky labyrinth of relationships.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The Lovers starts with two affairs; one tenuous and volatile, the other filled with passion. The two perpetrators, husband and wife Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, but do not share in each other’s lives. They live in a marital dead zone, exchanging pleasantries and furtive glances, and have probably tried every remedy in the book to eliminate the chasm between them. Nothing has worked, and now they exploit the only remaining option: throwing their emotional resources into the arms of another.

This is the setup of Azazel Jacobs’ new film; written like a sitcom, but given the attention and care of a profound domestic drama. Michael and Mary are likeable enough, but chemistry between them has long since flown out the window. Michael is seeing a ballerina on the side (of course she’s a ballerina) and Mary is seeing Aiden Gillen. Neither knows the other is cheating, but their marriage has been so chaste for so long I suspect they’re wise to each other’s acts. The film complicates things a little with the arrival of their son Joel (Tyler Ross), who has come visiting from college with his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula).

The Lovers is a decent film with two great leads and a mishmash of supporting players. Melora Walters as the lithe ballerina Lucy is nothing but quirky, clingy and kinda ditzy. Gillen seems able to pressure Mary into leaving Michael and nothing else. Surely the main criteria for committing adultery is that your new partner must be more interesting than the one you’re cheating on, right? Both Lucy and Robert (Gillen) are so characteristically one-dimensional their only redeeming feature must be sex, and yet they seem about as sexual as rotting logs. So, are Michael and Mary simply cheating out of desperation? Who knows, really?

Like the best movies about difficult subjects, The Lovers treats romantic estrangement with maturity and compassion. Yes, occasionally it plays for laughs and develops ludicrous situations for its doomed couple, but it understands the simple truth that relationships, whether it’s keeping them together or apart, are never easy. And something as innocent as a mistaken morning kiss is enough to reopen Pandora’s box.

The Lovers is available in Australian cinemas from September 7 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

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Movie Review – Gifted

Witness a seven-year-old embarrass your intellect as she solves complex math problems and makes an idiot out of everyone she meets in this year’s dumbest smart movie.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Desperate for the niece he’s raised as a de facto guardian to have a normal childhood, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) enrols seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) in a public elementary school after years of home schooling. On her first day, she impresses her teacher Miss Stevenson (Jenny Slate) with her incredible mathematical talent, prompting the principal to suggest Frank take her to a private school. Frank refuses, which attracts the attention of his cold and calculating mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Believing Mary is in need of a strict education regime, she takes her son to court in a custody battle for who should become the young girl’s guardian.

After fumbling around in blockbuster territory with his not-so-Amazing Spider-Man duology, Marc Webb has wisely scaled down and stepped back into the indie comedy-drama field that made him prolific. Well, sort of. Gifted is not without its merits, but that wit, originality and intuition that made (500) Days of Summer stick in the mind seems to have been lost while Webb was busy web-slinging. Gifted is simple, straightforward, and nowhere near as remarkable as the young girl at its centre.

To be fair, there is plenty to commend about Gifted. Mckenna Grace already has a longer filmography than some seasoned actors ever will. She brims with natural charisma and is easily the film’s standout, effortlessly making us laugh and feel for her. Frank is another everyman for Chris Evans, and hardly a stretch of his talent, but it’s refreshing to see him in a role more vulnerable than Captain America for a change, and his chemistry with both Grace and Jenny Slate saves what could have been a bland and banal father-figure.

There is an interesting trick or two towards the end of the film and the courtroom drama, though brief, remains the most engaging segment. But everything else leading up to this is borrows to heavily from every cliché in melodramatic tearjerker in history.

Good intentions drown in a suffocating dose of sickly sweet schmaltz – scenes where Mary sits atop Frank’s shoulders, trading lines about family values that could be straight out of a Hallmark gift card are gag-worthy. It’s not enough for Mary to be clever; she’s able to solve renowned equations that have puzzled the world’s greatest mathematicians for years. All of this might have a little integrity were it to have some basis in reality or even on a particularly inspired book to give it some believability, but as an original, it’s pretty ridiculous.

The fine performances, occasional clever moments and tearjerker bits (manipulative though they are) keep this watchable enough. But, like learning algebra, don’t expect it to have a profound impact on your life.

Gifted is available in Australian cinemas from August 31

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Interview: Rob Livings – Two People

Thomas Munday 

Two People has, in every sense of the term, something for everyone. A twenty-something girl (Liberty Hills) takes some time out from domesticity to wander bars and comedy stores in Northbridge alone. She strikes up a conversation with a comedian (Nick Pages-Oliver) and after missing the last train home, the two begin an elongated conversation throughout the middle of the night.

Director, editor and co-writer Rob Livings peaks into the average twenty-something’s mind in this low-budget, walking-and-talking feature that was shot over four nights in the Perth CBD and Northbridge. Filmed in black and white, Livings and co’s latest utilises the budget, gear and location at their disposal to a desired effect.

Livings chatted with Hooked on Film about his cast, production challenges and how one night can change our lives.

TM: How did you conceive of the idea for the film?

RL: With Two People, I don’t think it was ever intended to be what it became, we were just like ‘let’s try and make a feature for nothing and we’ll just do it overnight, a couple of nights a week and figure it out as we go and do it in an improvised fashion’. We just held a little meeting about it, everyone was keen and then it just went from there. So, it was very much – ‘Let’s get together, shoot it chronologically and see what happens’.

It’s a very simple idea but it was a matter of whether we could pull it off the way we wanted to, we were like: ‘Let’s shoot it multi-cam, let’s treat it so when we’re editing it’s just dumping in a timeline’. There’s so many ways to move quickly in production, but there is not many ways to make a film quickly in post-production, so let’s try and find a way to find an answer for both of those.

TM: How was it to go from shorter-form projects to feature filmmaking?

RL: Switching to feature film was good, but it was just more targeting a new way of making a movie, so fully improvising the dialogue, going against what you learn in film school – basically, taking what you’ve learned from a technical aspect and throwing away everything else and building over. It was really fun and exciting to do something different, – shooting at night when no one is around. It was like Northbridge became this canvas we could do whatever we wanted with.

TM: A lot of the movie feels realistic, how much was scripted before filming and how much was improvised on set?

RL: Every bit of dialogue is improvised, we knew we had a start and we had an ending. We knew where we were going to be shooting because we had access to certain places. The film was set around who we knew and what we had and that’s kind of the point when you’re working for no money, you’ve just got to make the most of what you’ve got.

This film was very much a ‘make it up as you go’, but just let’s get to that ending and let’s get to the finish line however we need to. If things were steering in one direction we’d make sure they went back the other way. I’d say 90% of it happened whilst we were filming and the 10% was planned so it was very, very loose and I was just happy to see where it took us.

TM: How does Perth stand out as a good movie setting?

RL: I love Perth and like everyone in Perth. People have complained about the quiet nature of Perth many times. I think Perth works really well, I would encourage people to shoot at night here because there is literally no one around so you can kind of just create this world if you go to the right spots. For me, in this film they seem like they are alone and on their own, even within the bar there is a couple of people there. That whole quiet nature of Perth really works to people’s benefit, so you don’t have to deal with sound issues or the issues that you might have in a busy city like Sydney or Melbourne.

TM: This movie relies entirely on interaction, why is human behaviour so pertinent to drama, comedy and cinema in general?

RL: I think you can be your own character, anyone can reference with it. The characters in this film are so realistic and so down to Earth. I know that’s something that might push some people away, they might not want to relate to real life; they might want to go in there and watch something that takes them out of what is going on, but it is interesting to see people in this vulnerable state where they are willing to kind of open up. Well, at least, Liberty’s character was vulnerable whereas Nick’s was a bit more guarded. That’s just two different types of people and when you put them together it’s an interesting situation.

Image courtesy of Rob Livings 

Movie Review – A Ghost Story

Pretention be damned – less a film than a feeling, the emotional experience that is A Ghost Story is positively haunting.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan 

A young couple, dubbed only as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), see their not-so-perfect suburban life meet its end when C is killed in a headlong collision. He awakens in his afterlife as a ghost, still in the living world, yet invisible to everyone around him. Unable to cease existing, he seeks to connect with his wife – a journey that will take him to the end and beginning of time.

There’s not a trace of conflict in A Ghost Story. There’s barely a plot, and save for a handful of exchanges and one weighty, thought-provoking monologue, there’s very little dialogue. There are no visual effects in creating C’s supernatural apparition – Casey Affleck quite literally wears a bed sheet with eyeholes cut out of it – and much of the film consists of long, lingering scenes in which his spirit simply stands and watches life go by in all its significance and insignificance. And yet, David Lowery’s (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) miniscule passion project is bold, profound and possibly the best film of 2017 so far.

Made in secret on a shoestring budget cobbled together from what Disney paid him for Pete’s Dragon, Lowery’s big ideas transcend money limitations and the shackles of traditional storytelling to form a breathtaking and masterful rumination on love, life and death, memory and time, existence and its meaning (or lack thereof) and much, much more. It’s so shockingly simplistic in its execution that budding filmmakers everywhere are no doubt kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it first.

Something so artful is, naturally, not going to appeal to everyone’s tastes. It’s going to be a non-event for anyone who expects structure and showiness in their cinema, and is likely to frustrate with its meandering and drawn-out nature. But hopefully most will be able to absorb the richness and beauty that perpetuates its seemingly inconsequential moments.

C’s journey takes turns as simultaneously funny and sad as he’s confined to his house and forced to watch generations pass and new tenants shack up. A fellow ghost next door (who as the credits reveal is, strangely enough, played by a certain pop star everyone except Jerry Seinfeld would recognise) communicates amusingly with C, but tragically reveals that it can’t remember who it is waiting for. This melancholy of being unable to do anything but wait truly resonates, with Lowery cleverly framing in a 4:3 letterbox with rounded edges – not unlike a polaroid – giving that claustrophobic feeling that reflects the ghost’s own sense of being trapped for eternity.

Granted, there’s not a great deal of acting one can do from beneath a bed sheet, but Casey Affleck makes C’s odyssey endearing and hypnotic, attesting to the strong work he and Rooney Mara do when they share the screen in human form. And at the heart of it all is Daniel Hart’s mystic, synth-heavy score that perfects that cosmic feeling. You’ll leave cathartic, satisfied and enlightened; Lowery has done proud A24’s continuing reputation for releasing today’s most interesting films.

A Ghost Story is available in Australian cinemas from July 27 

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 

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 – It Comes At Night

A24 – the production company behind The Witch, Green Room and Tusk – continues to rescue the horror genre with the brooding and brain-befuddling It Comes at Night.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

The world has been plagued by an extremely contagious disease, forcing a surviving family – Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) to live isolated in a house deep within the woods. When another survivor, Will (Christopher Abbott), breaks into their home claiming to be seeking supplies for his own wife and son, Paul is initially untrustworthy and intends to kill him. After some convincing he agrees to let Will’s family live with them temporarily, but suspicion, allegations, assumptions and the visions that haunt Travis at night soon create a great deal of tension between the families.

It would seem apt to recommend going into It Comes at Night with as little knowledge about it as possible, but the truth is you’re just as likely to come out the other side with as few scraps of information as what you went in with. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ (Krisha) second feature is ambiguous in every sense of the word, straight up avoiding anything resembling exposition, convention, backstory or explanation.

What Shults does make clear is his masterwork in atmosphere. Here’s a man with a deep understanding of what it takes to stage a successfully terrifying ambience, fully capable of suspense-building restraint and an awareness that the unknown is often far scarier than what we’re given. Things as simple as a dog barking at something we can’t see in the distant woods, or the red door that lurks at the end of a darkened corridor are dripping with dread, more often than not because we don’t know what lies beyond.

Subtle technical ticks are used to great effect, particularly the shift to a tighter aspect ratio whenever Travis experiences one of his horrifying visions. It’s such a tiny thing, but the mere sight of night coming and those black bars sliding slowly into place is enough to induce fear that something nasty is about to happen.

Shults is helped by a very game cast, especially Joel Edgerton in another apprehensive, dialled-back performance, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who will soon no doubt owe his breakout success to this. But Shults’ film is ultimately defined by two things – its unsettling feel and imagery, and the endless barrage of questions you’re left with afterwards.

For better or worse, it’s down to our own personal interpretation and what we choose to make of it. In this sense, It Comes at Night can’t quite manage the satisfaction of say, The Witch, but it is a breathlessly tense 90-minute terror ride.

It Comes At Night is available in Australian cinemas from July 6

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

 

Movie Review – 20th Century Women

Like looking at a polaroid that captured a treasured memory, 20th Century Women is a dizzyingly beautiful snapshot of life and the moments that make it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

It’s a time of huge cultural change, rebellion and liberation in 1979 as determined single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) faces the challenge of raising her easily influenced teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone. Concerned she’s unable to connect with him, and with no father figure in sight, she enlists the help of two other women in Jamie’s life (Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig respectively) to help raise him.

Writer/director Mike Mills successfully explored his father’s coming out (and subsequent death) in his excellent film Beginners, and now with 20th Century Women he takes a semi-autobiographical look at his childhood and his relationship with his mother. At surface level, it’s standard indie fare, equal parts comedic and dramatic, but Mills digs deeper than many of his peers, getting under the skin of his characters.

With a golden, sunbathed tint to everything, there’s the feeling that we’re warmly reliving an old memory. Scenes are intercut with clips of bands playing and Jimmy Carter delivering speeches, rooting a strong sense of nostalgia in place. There’s an infectious and joyous optimism that buzzes around these open-minded people, even as they all seem pretty damn confused and directionless a lot of the time.

Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig are both on typically fine form, showing more of why they’re currently owning the indie scene. Lucas Jade Zumann is granted his breakout role after a few smaller ones, gleefully promising a bright acting future. The star of the show though is Annette Bening. Having intensely studied recreating what Mills claims is a highly accurate rendering of his own mother, Bening breathes life into a terrific woman, and gives one of the best performances of her career.

20th Century Women is, in simple terms, a wonderful time. It’s a deeply personal, rose-tinted love letter to the people of a period that bleeds into our own, and a breath of fresh air and optimism where cynicism feels far too commonplace. Beautifully shot, insightful and witty, Mills’ childhood makes for a deep and delightful piece of cinema.

20th Century Women is available in Australian cinemas from June 1st 

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films