BFF ’21: BELFAST

Belfast’s first scene establishes the sense of community that preceded the violence the broke out in Belfast, 1969: In one immaculate long, the camera swoops through a street, following people who are shouting for a Buddy (the incredibly photogenic Jude Hill), a nine year old boy who lives on the street. The amount of people all searching for him: relatives, friends, friends of friends, immediately establishes a firm sense of community.  The unbroken shot enables this sense of community to be established immediately as it explores the street in detail, subtly winding around around people of the neighbourhood. It isn’t flashy, but it’s effectiveness in establishing the feeling of a small neighbourhood is timed perfectly as we are able to relate to these people as a whole; as their peace is soon to be shattered. Tension between Catholics and Protestant radicals erupts early into the film without warning as we see neighbours and friends suddenly turn on each other in the name of religion. Most of this is seen through the lens of a child’s eye, Buddy, which proves to be an incredibly effective tool to tell a story that needs telling.

The nonsensical horror affects Buddy’s family as the film documents the suffering caused by the violence while not depicting much action. Despite being on the right ‘side’ of religion in their particular area as it puts Buddy’s father (a solid Jamie Dornan) in a tough situation where he is expected to fight as violently as the rest of the men on his street. His refusal makes Buddy’s family a consistent target in numerous ways, past the direct verbal threats are less direct ways of intimidation that make the family’s life miserable. Pa, who already works in England, is keen to leave but his wife is steadfast: All she knows is Belfast, and she does not want to leave.



The commentary on organised religion throughout the film is obvious, but this is forgivable for a number of reasons: almost all the scepticism is from the mouth of Buddy, purely through his natural, innocent sense of curiosity. He is unaware of the complexities but sharp enough to know something isn’t right, prompting a barrage of ‘whys’. This comic relief is more than a reprieve from the bleak reality, some lines cut deep with truth, often in hysterical fashion. It doesn’t try to preach to either side, it simply features a curious boy unintentionally skewering the hypocrisies of modern religion by simply seeking the truth to what is happening around him.

Both groups of people go to Church, Buddy reasons. What makes them different? It all feels incredibly natural, and certainly is helped by its most memorably funny scene being that of a preacher foaming at the mouth as he delivers his sermon on good and evil, which while slightly exaggerated, certainly isn’t far from the truth. For during the era of this film though it seems apt; one can only imagine what church sermons truly felt like at the time. It is the only time the film overly hints at a anti-religion bias.



Interestingly, Buddy isn’t a real protagonist for much of the film, far more an observer. His questioning of religion aren’t the reason for what is erupting around him, but in a sense Buddy is the protagonist for the audience’s heartstrings. This proves to be a double-edge sword as the photogenic young Jude Hill, his eyes especially, are arguably overused in close ups that may lead some feeling it is manipulative.

Belfast does have a faint smell of Oscar bait, however it doesn’t play to any current politically correct trends,  unlike many recent Oscar nominees/winners. If anything, taking aim at religion can be risky. This doesn’t hold Belfast back, but its soundtrack does. Rarely does a soundtrack fail in such a noticeable way, but hearing existing songs from the 60’s rather than an original score ruined the atmosphere numerous times. Nearly every track feels disconnected from the film and can have the same negative effect on the viewer’s experience.

Belfast immaculately captures the meaningless cruelty humanity is capable of in the name of religion, presenting it in a largely unbiased way via a child’s curiosity, leaving any concrete judgement to the viewer as well as avoiding, one would hope, talking about religion in an inoffensive or blasphemous fashion. It is impressive in this regard, and with its comic scenes and smooth, black and white look, it is a fantastic film about a subject that needs a memorable experience like this to illustrate its historical importance. If only a composer had been employed… this could have been the best drama of the year. I very well could be in the minority on the last point though as it received an enthusiastic round of applause, something that simply doesn’t happen often down under. The positive reaction at this festival is sure to lead to a financially successful Australian release


 

BFF ’21: THE WAR BELOW [2021]

J.P. Watt’s debut feature The War Below is a creative and unique addition to the genre, depicting the ugliness of World War I trench warfare with emotion and visual grit. Working with a micro-budget of 600,000 British Pounds, using a true story based in World War I proves to be a smart choice as we follow a group of British miners who, despite no formal training, are recruited to the front line in a final desperate effort to break the current stalemate. A solid story is waiting to be told, and given it took place during a war filled with stalemates, the close to complete lack of action doesn’t feel misplaced, though it does put a hefty weight on the story’s shoulders.

Watts” debut feature follows the characters that make up the group of miners rather than the soldiers and the action, principally focusing on Bill (Sam Hazeldine), the de-facto leader of the team. The stalemate at the front lines has prompted a sudden and, to many, insane idea: digging a tunnel thirty feet underground through No Man’s Land. An officer of influence, Captain ‘Hellfire’ Jack (Tom Goodman-Hill), is willing to put his entire military career in the hands of the miners he hires for the daunting task, one he is convinced can be done.



The fact that we are on the front-lines as seen by men untrained for combat immediately sets this apart from most war films. They are soon yelled at for a lack of training and told to sleep away from the ‘real soldiers’. This consistent mistreatment of blue collar hard workers who want to help in the only way they know makes them incredibly easy to relate to. This is especially true for Bill, who we see in the first scene turned away when trying to apply for army.

After having proved themselves able by tearing apart a building that was home to a machine-gun nest, despite heavy doubts, lack of sleep and absurd and dangerous deadlines, the miners refuse to let a company of soldiers finish their operation. They know that their expertise isn’t something a solider can learn in a few months, and subsequently force themselves into the situation.

The bleak look of the film is appropriate for the suicide mission the miners embark on, using a limited colour palette dominated by army uniforms, rats, and mud. The claustrophobic nature of the tunnels force the men to reflect on their situation, the film exploring the existential ache inherently connected to war: a toxic, dark side to the the chain of command mindset, comrades who don’t consider them real soldiers. This is where it is at its best, and the film intelligently focuses largely on it. It isn’t a brilliant award winner, but considering the budget, this is quite an impressive debut film.


 


BFF ’21: THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN [2021]

Benedict Cumberbatch shines far brighter than he ever has in this strange fantastical film as he revels in his role as the titular character in Will Sharpes’ The Electrical life of Louis Wain: a real artist who made his name painting pictures of cats. Lot’s of them. The film is split neatly into three acts covering the landmark moments of his life: first as he is working as an illustrator in 1881, then his first romantic experience that is amusing in its own way, and last when he decided to begin creating massive numbers of paintings that all featured cats. For him it was much more than painting: in his view, he helped changed the national perception of a cat bring a potential house pet. For Louis though it was much more, his attachment to cats symbolising past feelings he didn’t understand, which is what the film explores with a smile and a skip in its step.

Cumberbatch takes this real person and creates a character that is his own, uniquely eccentric and memorable. Most importantly, it’s believable and played with compassion. Louis’ lack of social skills would point to autism in the modern day, but the year is 1881 when the film begins. It comes as no surprise that compassion for being different and weird don’t exist as his actions are regularly labelled imbecilic and insane, both by strangers and siblings, while it is assumed he is mocking the societal and polite norms of Victorian-era Britain. The reality Louis sees is very different: he often appears to not listen, not to care or even understand that his behaviour causes constant problems. Often the butt of jokes, the fact he rarely seems affected by them renders him a fascinating character: representing the misfit, those who struggle to ‘fit in’ to current society.



Contrasting almost all of this is the film’s near-absolute refusal to take itself seriously, lending a light-hearted tone to these bleak situations, ideal fodder dry humour. Even the plot sounds amusing – a biopic about a crazy man who painted thousands of cats? – while the first interaction we see of Louis is so well written and performed that it establishes this light tone immediately, allowing the laughs to flow early and often. Interestingly they are often also at at Louis’ expense. While working as an illustrator early in life, it is impossible not to grin at the very least when his editor asks him why he decided to get three metres close to the meanest bull at the fair he was covering. The nonchalant way he responds with “well, I wanted to get a closer look”, bears no hint of sarcasm. Its his honest, serious answer to the question, a natural response from a man who is usually unaware of how rude he can seem. And it is consistently hilarious.

Quiet commentary on gender equality sits in the background as Louis is expected by his entire family to provide for them as the only male sibling, despite it the obvious fact that he doesn’t possess any business acumen at all. This is was indeed so true that he was known to sell paintings outright, unable to understand the world in which he worked. It is an interesting and different look at the topic, the lack of gender rights were why his family were never able to stay financially stable, but on the other side of the coin, his sisters are often harsh on him for bringing home pitiful sized pay-checks. It is a clever bit of writing that doesn’t hold any bias and also is true to the era the film is set in, nor does it tread on the story at all.



What also must be mentioned is how amazing the film looks. Framed using an old colour to bring an old era to life adds yet more life to a lively affair. Some scenes see the colours gradually becoming so washed away they literally look like a painting, beautifully underscoring a few important moments. Even the transition from the opening title of the film to the first scene involving Louis is incredibly done, and this quality doesn’t falter, enhancing dream sequences and the film at large, taking this old era of Britain and painting it fun.

The Electrical life of Louis Wain falls somewhere between the whimsical nature of many Wes Anderson films and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite – Olivia Coleman even serves as a dryly sarcastic narrator, to great comedic affect. While Benedict is at the centre of much of the humour, the other culprits range from his editor to his oddball sisters to even the narrator. This quintessentially British film sees Sharpe direct a uniquely hilarious film that is complete with a visual style appropriately resembling a painting. It is the most fun, purely enjoyable and well made films of 2021.


British Film Fest ’21: LAST NIGHT IN SOHO [2021]

Last Night In Soho is surely one of the most anticipated films of this festival, given baby’s Driver’s immense popularity and the fact it started screening in the US last month, before this festival had kicked off. The screening I was a part of was certainly sold out.

This unique addition to the horror genre is arguably Edgar Wright’s most ambitious film to date, drawing on numerous influences to create a thoroughly unique, unsettling experience that is so realistic it can be interpreted in countless ways, especially among different age groups. It follows young hopeful Elly (Thomasin McKenzie) who is moving to London to study fashion, against her grandmother’s advice of the big busy city. Leaving behind a bedroom filled with classic records and film posters, it’s clear that her connection to the 1960’s is deep

After finding new accommodation, Elly falls asleep only to wake as a different woman in a different era. In a meticulously directed scene, Elly looks in the mirror and sees the beautiful, colourful reflection of Anna Taylor-Joy’s Sandy, a  confident blonde knock-out who wants be a part of 1960’s Soho. Both mirror the other perfectly in a hypnotic sequence that introduces Wright’s unique twist to events that are already surreal: Elly becomes a spectator, watching Sandy from mirrors in awe as she sees a woman she wishes she could be. At other times though, she seems to be in control of Sandy. The dreams prompt a makeover of sorts for Elly’s current self as she enjoys the bizarre experiences so much that she doesn’t question any part of it.



It soon becomes clear that both Sandy and the unique use of mirrors are linked to Elly’s unhealthy obsession to a past era she never lived through. Attitudes like ‘back in the good ol’ days’ are figments of our imagination as our brain romanticises the past – Wright uses this fact and his own experiences when arriving in London for the first time to explore the darker sides of 60’s Soho, creating a realistic emotional core that enhances everything surrounding it.

Taking cues from Baby Driver, Wright effortlessly synchronises sound effects and music with what’s on screen. The 60’s scenes all use a psychedelic, technicolour-style palette in contrast to the dull depiction of current-day London. As Elly’s visions of the 60’s begin to invade her current-day life, the colours follow in an aggressive manner. Nightmarish sequences amplify in intensity as a result and parallel to this is a fading line between past and present, reality and fantasy.

Last Night in Soho sits alongside Get Out (2016, Jordan Peele) and Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster) as a horror film that continues the revival of the genre. Creatively though, it surpasses both: having satirised horror movie clichés himself in Shaun of the Dead (2004), Wright knew exactly what to avoid. There are no jump scares to be found here as the final act combines the colourful, stylish presentation of Italian giallo with Kafka-like dream logic to finish an emotionally engaging film whose international debut received a standing applause.



LAST AND FIRST MEN [2020]


As this film finishes, one feels that no words can justly convey the unsettling beauty this unique piece of art possesses. Directed by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, it may have been considered unfinished at the time of his death but the editing work is seamless: you’d never guess it wasn’t considered a complete piece of art. Jóhann’s creative prowess obviously extends further than his music; it is a tragedy that we dill never see or hear anything from this man.

The score’s power is amplified exponentially by the very real shots of stone monuments that were built in what was Yugoslavia. The gradual, purposeful direction of the images and how they connect with the sound has been done with obvious care, resulting in a powerful experience.

It feels sadly fitting then that this in the film that Johann will be remembered for, and it is incredible. It is certainly not a conventional film, as rather than using an existing structure, Johann creates his own world, each stone monument studied using minimal camerawork and very slow use of zoom.

Literally a meditative experience, the pulse of the film feels reminiscent of the slight alteration of consciousness one can feel after a long period of meditation. Like most of his scores, a high quality subwoofer is essential to enjoy this as intended, including the physical sensations that are a result of his sonic exploration.

In some ways, this score is a departure from his well known scores, Arrival , Mandy and Sicario perhaps the most well known. As well as writing with Yair Elazar Glotman, the thick atmosphere rarely falls often due to the unexpected emotive string and choir sections who create an overwhelming atmosphere that at times feels desperate and lonely.

The grainy 16mm grainy black and white presentation of old monuments somehow looks futuristic and otherworldly, apt considering Tilda Swinton’s unwavering, emotionless narration of what the future of humanity looks like according to the novel of the same name.

It is an incredibly expansive sci-fi saga, yet Johann impressively strips it down to the bare essentials, doing it so well that you want to hear it again and/or immediately find the book to read yourself. His prose doesn’t waste a word.

His direction of the narration, music and images is executed with masterful rhythmic precision that becomes a powerful cinematic achievement and a testament to the creative mind that the man possessed.

Two years after his unexpected death, Last and First Men is, put simply, the perfection of minimalist artistic expression. Better yet, it is 70 minutes of quintessential Jóhann Jóhannsson.


French Film FESTIVAL: DEERSKIN (LE DAME) [2019]


Quentin Dupieux has never been one to shy away from absurdity, most of his work lavishly bathing in it as if there is nothing strange to be seen. This is the attitude that the film and it’s protagonist absorb: despite the consistent weirdness, both the film and characters never suggest that anything at all could be amiss.

Similar to many past Dupieux plots, Deerskin is far from meaty and is defiant in its ignorance of conventional cinema. Diving into the story from the confusing opening scene, Georges (Jean Dujardin) is compelled to drain his savings account to buy a deerskin jacket from an old man who seems happy to part with it. Despite being slightly short on the asking price, Georges is offered an old camera as a part of the deal.

It should come as no shock then that a man offering a camera with the sale of a deerskin jacket immediately establishes the foundation for an endlessly bizarre tale. The man describes the camera as digital, a modern piece of equipment, though its looks saying otherwise. Georges though is taken aback by the jacket, buying it without a second thought..

As soon as Georges is alone with the jacket, he begins to talk to it in an amusingly matter-of-fact way, as if it is a sane thing that any person may do. This is the first scene in which the deadpan nature of the film becomes very clear, and very funny. As the two converse, it becomes clear that the jacket, or Georges (or both?) has a single, simple wish: to be the only jacket left in the world. I’m sure there is some subtext behind this concept, but I am somehow equally sure that it is simply Dupieux creating his brand of weirdness.

The camera soon becomes an important part of this goal, though Georges doesn’t seem to know why he is filming. The delightfully dark, quirky humour takes a hard turn toward a darker road once violence becomes a key part of what he films. This very dark, humourous atmosphere increases as the film moves forward, but importantly, it never loses sight of its intentionally absurd nature.

Every scene, every line and every bloody, violent action are consistently depicted as mundane and uninteresting.

When Georges meets bartender Denise (Adèle Haenel) who asks about his work as a filmmaker after seeing his camera, they team up as she claims that editing film is a ‘hobby’ of hers. A quick yet amusing anecdote about her editing Pulp Fiction into chronological order is a perfect metaphor for how the film plays out after the two meet. The balance of power, of control, slowly shifts.

Obsessed with the jacket and its demands, the fact that Georges wife seems to be divorcing him, or at the very least has closed their joint account, is barely in his peripheral vision. The real world no longer interests him, as he must eliminate every jacket he can find.

Georges is soon out of money and spins tales to Denise about uncommunicative producers as he asks her for money to continue shooting. This is where the balance of power begins to slowly move, as despite her funding his confused film, he is far from thankful. The partnership weaves a complex web, leading to increasingly strange and dark results.

While Deerskin is certainly no exception to Dupieux’s past cinematic approach, in comparison to some of his work it initially feels a little tame. However, the execution of the often unnerving actions add increased punch. Unsurprisingly, this is amplified by Jean Dujardin’s performance as Georges, his deadpan expression oddly captivating as it contrasts starkly against his near-constant erratic behaviour. It is hard to believe this is the same man who played the lead in Polanski’s recent historical film.

At 74 minutes, the film flies by as the story begins from the opening moments, its sense of humour darkening with the rest of the film and the atmosphere this conjures equates to an experience that only Quentin Dupieux could create. Is there a meaning to its ending, or to the kid whose staring enrages Georges for no rational reason? While the answer to these and other similar questions is most probably an emphatic no, Deerskin will not disappoint fans of Dupieux. The director must be commended for not only remaining steadfast in his approach to film, but also for expanding on this style, adding depth to a seemingly arbitrary, irrational film.



HARPOON [2019]


 

Harpoon is director Rob Grant’s most conventional film of his decade-long career given his past experimental approach to film-making. Harpoon is hardly experimental and therefore much more accessible, though it retains the staunchly independent qualities that define his work. This latest effort possesses the barest of plots: the basic notion of survival when stranded at sea. The unique approach to this simple narrative renders the narrative meaningless. Anything more would complicate this very funny experience.

Why? He and co-writer Mike Kovac take this typically dramatic situation and flip it onto its head, morphing it into a black comedy, poking fun at this common basis for a story: remaining unpredictable as a result. It is clear that the film never takes itself seriously, which is made very obvious from the beginning: the opening moments feature a serious, violent altercation between close friends. As this is happening, a narrator casually lets us know what is happening and why. The tone of his voice is perfect, sounding uninterested and sometimes sarcastic. The contrast of his care-free narration and what is happening on screen couldn’t be bigger, added to this is that while hilarious, it creates a legitimate feeling of suspense.

After this opening sequence, the three friends set sail for what we are told is their favourite activity – whether this is fishing or simply being at sea is never addressed, cementing the absurdity of the entire situation they find themselves in when out at sea, the boat refuses to start when it’s time to head home. Richard (Christopher Gray), the boat’s owner, is far from the sharpest tool and assuming their trip would be short lived, provisions are low. The radio barely works. Making this situation a hilarious predicament is quite the achievement. 

No matter how serious the situation becomes, Grant masters the film’s comedic tone. His sarcastic narrator adds to the absurdity. Once they realise that they are a serious predicament, the film becomes increasingly void of any nuance. Most noticeable is their extreme overreactions to the situation they find themselves in. The comedy becomes increasingly dark as their actions gradually rise in intensity.


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Given the style of comedy, it is hard to see Grant expanding his audience with this film, and it doesn’t seem that he cares. This attitude to film-making is rare and should be commended: it is hard to think of many names who deliberately create films that won’t be box office hits. A thoroughly independent director, the lower budgets he operates five-beer1with don’t pose any obvious problems as what he sets out to achieve doesn’t require large names or large casts. Three low profile actors are more than enough for Harpoon to work its magic. It obviously isn’t for everyone, but the crowd it aims at, those with dark and twisted senses of humour, are guaranteed a fun 90 minutes. We need more directors like this, as the film proudly stands out as a film unlike any other.


Five beers out of a six pack.

5/6


 

BEASTIE BOYS STORY [2020]

Ignoring typical tropes of most documentaries, The Beastie Boys Story is refreshing in its presentation as it is delivered similar to a comedy show, being presented to a live audience. Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, the remaining members after the passing of MCA (Adam Yauch) to cancer in 2012, speed through almost three decades of Beastie Boys history.

While the documentary could have been twice as long given the impact of the band and the decades they remained together, Spike Jonze effectively directs the roller-coaster ride that the band rode from 1983 to 2009. From being high school kids, playing hooky and discovering new punk bands to becoming one of the most important bands in music, Jonze crams as much information as possible into its two-hour runtime, Mike D and Ad-Rock doing their best to cover as many important moments 

The central motif that never feels out of place are the many examples of how important the late Adam Yauch was to the band’s success. ‘An enigma’ who never took a break from exploring all that life had to offer, both musically and otherwise, he consistently surprised even his two best friends, one of many examples being when he bought himself a giant double bass and was instantly able to play it.

It should be briefly noted that these are very hard instruments to play!

The loving tributes are spread out evenly amongst the film as the two remaining emcees reflect on everything from when they first met to the last show they played. Their early success and subsequent dissapointment when it didn’t continue is explored, as well as how they matured as musicians and people, becoming comfortable with their own ideas and eventually deciding that they wouldn’t let anyone stop them from playing whatever they damn well pleased.

In the one direct tribute to their lost friend, Mike D talks glowingly of how much fun they were having in 2009, running around a grocery store in Tennessee filming their single ‘Too Many Rappers’ with fellow legend of the genre Nas, a single that remains a favourite of mine. 26 years after Adam first decided they should start a band, they were still having a blast. After this though he highlights the strange feeling of not knowing that a certain show that year was going to be their last at that time. Its a deep wound that obviously still pains him to this day.  

The emotion displayed speaks to the theme of friendship that runs through the film’s veins. The Beastie Boys were more than a band, they were best friends who spent more time with each other than with their families. Their bond and the fact that no member was ever replaced in 26 years can arguably supersede their musical accomplishments on display, though this depends largely on existing knowledge of the band.

Far from a simple tribute, Beastie Boys Story is a humorous, interesting and informative film. Spike Jones, who shot multiple videos for the band, holds back his characteristic creative flourishes to focus solely on the band’s bond. Very funny cameos by (obvious fans of the group) Steve Buscemi, Ben Stiller and comedian David Cross, who poke fun at the two mid-credits, are the proverbial cherry on top.

 

AUSSIE CLASSICS: CHOPPER [2000]

Originally written as a bite-sized review for THOMAS J: My Journey Through Film, aka digitalshortbread.com

If you haven’t seen Chopper, watch it.

A movie that will forever linger in your brain, it is also perhaps the quintessential Aussie film, a preservation of the ‘occa’ culture that is sadly suffering a slow death chiefly due to political reasons whose details that are best saved for another day.

‘Taking the piss’, insulting your mates for laughs over a barbeque, the almost dead notion of mateship between every person – friend or stranger, not to mention the very black humour that is the name of the game in this dramatised biopic, are all represented in this eccentric barrel of laughs. Of course though, there are much more demented themes on show, but even these somehow render Chopper the embodiment of our laid back culture and its unique sense of humour – perhaps most funniest when old Chop-Chop shoots a man, only to drive him to the hospital immedietely afterwards.

A noticeably beefed up Eric Bana plays the larger than life character in a career best performance. It wasn’t long before this that he was limited to Australian TV soaps. It is hard to see this fact given the almost scary depiction of a legitimate maniac.

It is worth repeating that this essential Australian cinema; if you haven’t seen it, I envy you: if only I could go all Men In Black on myself and wipe the memory of all the viewings so I could see it for a first time again myself. I remember where I was and who I was with when I first saw this. It’s that type of movie. Or perhaps my sense of humour is too demented for its own good.

Bana truly inhibits the character of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, an often psychotic Australian vigilante and ‘legendary criminal’ who was responsible for an unknown amount of deaths. He claims the number is 19, but he was only tried for one attempted murder, a charge he beat before moving on to become a best-selling writer while in prison for other criminal activity. A best-seller, as he laughs, “who can’t even bloody spell”.

During his first venture into crime he would assault drug-dealers, the scourge of the earth in his opinion, often using torture to force more money out of them. Apparently he was fond of blowtorches and bolt-cutters. He took a step up when he decided take on the criminal underworld of Melbourne. Unsurprisingly, he went about this violently.

All up, the guy is what I’d call a bloody good bloke.

For a 94 minute film, Chopper has a truly (and literally) insane amount of action, blood, and thoroughly memorable scenes with quotes that will stick. There is no bloated, two hour-plus slog to be found here, this is efficient filmmaking done right and a direct result of this is that the violent impact is maximised.

We first visit Chopper in prison, where the humourous nature of the film is quickly established, despite the fact than an ear is removed from its owner not far from the beginning. But even this scene is quite funny in how the script has been written.

Soon the violent criminal underworld becomes the principle backdrop, Bana constantly on-screen. His immensely dramatised depiction of Mark Read, coupled with the true to life unpredictable and violent personality of the subject, is a big reason why this flick is so goddamned unrelenting yet hilarious.

Its impossible to know what this crazy bastard is going to do next, but you can be pretty sure that it will include some form of violence. But thanks to a top-notch screenplay, involving Chop’s wild mood swings that funnily enough could be described as violent themselves, quieter scenes possess the same intimidating-as-all-hell feeling. Even if you’re laughing.

Mark Read was one of a kind, and there is no doubt that the5.5 beer - no beer top film is too – how dramatised his personality is portrayed though is an unknown. One could compare Chopper to Winding Refn’s Bronson in some ways: the black humour, the violence, the notoriety of the subject. But even with this comparison, the differences outweigh the similarities. Chopper is arguably the best Australian film of decade (and no, Fury Road doesn’t count) and every cinephile should add it to their watchlist, if only to see Eric Bana play a part unlike anything else he has done. That and, well, as mentioned, it couldn’t be more Aussie in every conceivable way.

5 and a half beers out a sixer.

5.5/6


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THE PAINTED BIRD [2019]

Original review written for Cinemaaxis.com

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Not unlike Pasolini’s ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’, The Painted Bird film will be known by some as ‘that three hour child torture movie’, ‘child torture porn’, or a similar, basic summary along these lines. I hope I am wrong, but despite knowing what they were going into, last year’s Venice premier prompted several walkouts. True, the torrid and almost creative way in which the child protagonist is tormented by almost every person he meets is rather confronting and not for everyone.

The Painted Bird is a spiritual successor to 1985’s Come and See (indeed, the latter’s young protagonist Aleksey Kravchenko is cast here as a direct tribute) as it too follows an aimless, assumedly orphaned child (Petr Kotlár) in an unnamed part of Eastern Europe amidst WWII: ‘The Bloodlands’. Given this premise, director Václav Marhoul chose to use ‘Interslavic’, an amalgam of several Eastern European languages, effectively covering this vast area.

Like Come and See, we witness consistent horrid events from the point of view of a child, and among its many themes which an entire essay could cover, the innocence of the child finds him seeking refuge from people similar to those he has just escaped from. His childish innocence also finds him trying to help the few who haven’t harmed him, only to worsen their situation. Each of these are to forget. 

Additionally, being shot over the course of three years, the young protagonist visibly ages within the film, while psychologically his aging is a powerful comment on the development of personality being based largely on childhood experiences. This notion culminates in the film’s unforgettable final sequences. Other extensionalist themes weave their way into the film, especially the metamorphosis of ordinary civilians’ behaviour due to a war they want no part of. These civilians that Joska meets as he seeks shelter are suffering from poverty as well as a war that rages around them. Superstition becomes scarily illogical and is often is the cause of Joska being accused as the reason for their suffering. Why else would an outsider wander into their struggling village? It is a frightening depiction of war turning ordinary civilians into cruel people, many of whom are instantly judgemental of any person unknown to them. Joska is a personification of the feared outsider, the fact that he is a child increases the recurring thematic wallop of what living in The Bloodlands during the war did to people. Whether these people weren’t like this prior to the war remains an unanswered question of great importance.

As if all this weren’t enough, hammering the point home is that one of the very few people who show him pity isn’t a civilian, but a soldier. The act is so foreign to Joska that at first he struggles to understand what is happening.

The cinematography is intentionally shot in black and white using high contrast; picturesque landscape shots are beautiful yet harsh, creating two instances of contrast within single shots. It is quite a feat, and their placement relate to the film with masterful touch.

The beauty is in direct juxtaposition to what is happening on (and off) screen. The same can be said for Kotlár’s almost complete lack of facial expression despite what he is experiencing. Subsequently. the few times we do see a very subtle change on his face, it is amplified, and if such a change is a major, sudden deviance, the emotional result is immediate. It’s gut-wrenching, almost violent in nature.  Conversely, in an odd way the harshness of the aforementioned shots play against instances where Joska is able to escape a captor, which are arguably instances of beauty within a film void of anything resembling a true instance of it. The same can be said for the few who do not exploit him.

Make no mistake, this is more than a film. Confronting feels like a crude understatement as this is a deeply layered three hour nightmare of the type that refuses to leave you in peace. Important to understanding the film’s understated thematic elements is a basic understanding of what historian Timothy Synder referred to as The ‘Bloodlands’: a large area stretching from central Poland to eastern Russian, encompassing parts of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States. From 1933 to 1945, according to Snyder approximately 14 million people native to their countries lost their lives. Most were without a uniform and bore no emblem or allegiance to one side. While many of these deaths were at the hands Stalin and Hitler’s forces, more importantly, surviving non-combatants were also far from innocent. This last fact was obviously the main influences for the civilians’ behaviour and their treatment of Joska.

For a film of such minimalism, its capacity for heartbreak is undeniably powerful, which brings back to mind the masterful use of juxtaposition within a long, slow film. It is no surprise then that comparisons to Tarkovsky have been made, and not simply due to the similarities to Ivan’s Childhood.

He had a rare ability to subtly create unique, atmospheric films where the overused word ‘epic’ genuinely applied. A similar feeling is evident throughout The Painted Bird: its inexplicable atmosphere is heightened by sparse dialogue, a slow pace and no soundtrack to speak of. Endless iconic scenes of Tarkovsky films spring to mind when considering these qualities.

Obviously not for the squeamish, this searing portrait of living withinsix beer(1) the Bloodlands engraves a bright potential future for both Marhoul and the non-professional actor Petr Kotlár. Many will lambast the film, but given the background of the area it is based in, the blood it has seen, an awareness of this turns the film into a haunting, unforgettable experience of a childhood filled with terror and the consequences of this. Like most of Tarkovsky’s work, pondering on its psychological musings is difficult to avoid. However, despite the slow pace and horrific scenes, the ultimate difficulty is to look away.

An easy full six pack, and after sitting through this nightmare rendered terrifyingly real, you will definitely savour each drop.

6/6


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