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Hercules (2014) ★★

Directed by Brett Ratner

USA/98 mins/English

hercules

I rarely eat popcorn at the movies. I haven’t for over a year. This time, I did, and I’m so grateful I did, because it gave me something to do during this utterly flimsy film. The term ‘popcorn flick’ is widely tossed around to describe summer blockbusters, but when you find yourself more interested in how many kernels lay at the bottom of your box than with the characters in the film, it takes on a wildly different definition. This film, which has very little to do with the legend of Hercules, sees the titular demigod lead a small group of mercenaries through Greece, fighting other people’s battles in exchange for gold. The studio, stricken with sequel fever, have skipped the tale passed down for millennia and have instead crafted a barely-tangible epilogue, with Hercules as a grown man. He’s played by a muscle-mass with a face etched into it, otherwise known as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who loves to scream nonsensically into the wind at any given opportunity, modulating between a forced British accent and his natural stateside bass. The director, like Hercules, is a Hollywood sword-for-hire who has been absent-mindedly making tasteless garbage like this for whoever pays in bags of gold for years (Movie 43, say no more).

There’s little in the way of narrative that asks us to be beguiled  or enveloped. The jokes are witless, the story paper-thin, the mythology relegated to the footnotes. This is, simply, battle scenes strung together by wispy bits of dialogue that nudge us brainlessly along to the next set piece. The set pieces are sometimes fascinating, only in how inexplicable and bizarre they are. The first sees the mercenaries and their newly trained army fighting a horde of ghoulish zombies, green men who spring forth from the underground to ambush them. This scene features over one minute of screaming, little of which seams necessary. The interwoven story of a young prince and his mother seems as inconsequential as another story about a mercenary who turns werewolf-mad at night, apparently reliving battle-scars. I’ve read about PTSD but I didn’t know it could turn a man canine. Similarly unsettling is a bit about Hercules’ family, who were murdered by night, perhaps by him. Who knows? No one really knows how or why anything happens in this film; whether Hercules is half-man half-god or whether he’s just some bulked up dude with a cult following and a penchant for extravagant storytelling. That’s the film’s not so subtle message, that legends can be made by brute strength alone. This film not only asks you to leave your brain at the admission stand, it actually makes a rallying cry to abolish the brain altogether in favour of protein-fuelled brawn. John Hurt, as a king, yells for men to march “through the fire” that blocks them to kill Hercules, while Herc topples a gargantuan statue of a Goddess, ending the battle. Then every shouts “We love you, Herc!”, and the lights come up.

I believe we do, however, have a new drinking game: take a shot whenever The Rock laughs smugly in the face of a child. You’ll all be drunk. Perhaps not as drunk as the screenwriters were when they penned this thing. They are Evan Spiliotopoulos (a Greek, clearly with very little knowledge of his origins, who has been writing Disney sequels for years), and Ryan J. Condal, on his first notable work. Their source material is a comic book whose deceased author had asked for his name not to be mentioned in association with the film, for reasons that I’m sure are clear.

★★

Hercules is in cinemas tomorrow.

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Festival Footnotes: Revelation Film Festival, Part 1

The Revelation Film Festival came and went in such a flurry that I was unable to properly cover many of the films in extensive detail. To atone this, find below some (very) short impressions of films not otherwise covered during the festival. Many of these films, such as Finding Vivian Maier and Cold in July, may appear later in the year in release, at which point full reviews may also pop up. 

Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier (2014), directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

This documentary, about the life and times of renowned street photographer Vivian Maier, who found fame and success after her death in 2009, finds a subject seemingly made for the detective exposé format that so many modern documentaries take. Rather than providing an ample and considerate review of Maier’s work and art, Maloof, who discovered hundreds of thousands of Maier’s then-worthless negatives in a Chicago auction house, seems hellbent on uncovering the mysterious woman who fought so hard until her bitter end to remain unknown and reclusive. Her deeply moving portraits of everyday occurrences, displaying a dazzling aptitude for finding depth and tone in natural light, look astonishing on the big screen, but the filmmaker’s excuses to make this furiously determined documentary, which features friends, employers and now-grown children that she nannied (a profession she pursued in lieu of a photographic career), are slim pickings. When faced with the task of explaining to his audience why he is so adamantly exposing her, Maloof tells us that she may have abused children, and that perhaps she wanted to be discovered anyway. I mean, what happened to respect for the artist and the subject? Maier is without doubt a thrilling and intriguing one, shrouded in oft-gloomy mystique, but it’s hard to get past the fact that Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel, for whom Maier has already provided a trust-fund of royalties, are simply seeing dollar signs. In the words of one of Maier’s friends and employers, “She would have hated this”. 2.5/5  

USA/83 mins/English with some French (subtitled)

evolution of a criminal

Evolution of a Criminal

Evolution of a Criminal (2013) directed by Darius Clark Monroe

This Spike Lee produced debut from NYU Film School graduate Darius Clark Monroe takes the stigmatised image of a black man in an orange jumpsuit and unravels it almost completely, lending complexity and depth to the story of a child who evolves into an armed bank robber. The subject, most interestingly, is the filmmaker himself, who at NYU has learnt how to tell his story with nuance and emotional punch. This film teeters between being an exploration and an excuse, and thankfully it most often lands in the former category, Monroe probing his origins in an attempt to uncover what led him astray. He seems to have decided that money, or lack of it, is the driving factor behind his crime, and he weaves this political message (it’s no wonder that Spike Lee is attached) throughout, sometimes not so subtly; I have a feeling some viewers will find it perhaps too simplistic, or too on-the-nose. Shot on film, its grainy retellings and reenactments, as well as ferociously honest interviews with family members and others involved, will no doubt reap a powerful reaction. It’s at its most entertaining when, adversely, we learn how Monroe evolved into a filmmaker, and we’re even allowed the opportunity to see many of Monroe’s classmates’ reactions to the events of his past. It’s not an assured debut—heck, how can we expect Monroe to be assured when he’s working through his own murky past in a film debut—but it’s a skilful and honest one that reveals the dormant criminal and then asks us to trust him. I did. 3.5/5

USA/81 mins/English

Old Man

Old Man

Old Man (2014) directed by Daniel Schneidkraut (Australian Premiere)

What a strange beast this movie is: a three-hour odyssey through Boulder, Colorado, the home of filmmaker Daniel Schneidkraut. Shneidkraut looks partially on the old haunts of his childhood—the old movie theatres and record stores, the shop he first worked at, his old friends’ homes—these segments fascinatingly portrayed through still master shots overlain with sullen voiceover provided by the director himself. They’re long, cynical and dark ruminations without much care for nostalgia; there are wounds still healing in his past, that much is obvious, and he takes his time to unveil the source of his bitterness. I had the pleasure of attending the festival’s academic conference, where one delegate (Maija Howe, UNSW) presented a keynote speech on the aesthetics of home movies in the days of analogue film. She purported evidence of a “photographic hangover”, wherein the home movie maker is unable to relinquish the inhibitions of the still camera, focussing on live events without taking advantage of the moving format. Schneidkraut’s lengthy introduction to Boulder is home movie making appropriated for the big screen, evidencing the ways this hangover has influenced documentarians; they’re mesmerising highlights. The other parts of this film focus on Schneidkraut’s father, Andrew, the old man of the title and owner of the last record store in Boulder, which is running itself into the ground with debt and makes a slow turnover on days that aren’t Christmas or Record Store Day. This is shockingly personal material that asks questions about the hereditary nature of a dark mental state. Reflecting on his own inability to find a stable plane of happiness, Schneidkraut turns to ask what he may have inherited from his father. This is a messy film, often infuriatingly unfocussed and sometimes questionably open. It is doubtless worthwhile and certainly insightful. It’s as though Schneidkraut set out to make a sprawling masterpiece and instead made a film too personal to really show anyone, but I’m glad we have that opportunity. 4/5

USA/170 mins/English

The Last Goodbye

The Last Goodbye

The Last Goodbye (2014) directed by Samantha Rebillet (World Premiere)

This fleeting and warmly realised film is neither feature nor short, clocking in at 55 minutes, satisfying the stipulations of the Masters degree that it was made for. Director and actor Samantha Rebillet does something rare for an Australian film: she both gives and elicits natural and deep performances. It’s so nice to feel the thrill of recognition when these actors speak like we do, not over-acting their way off the screen, but giggling and guffawing and shooting daggers with their eyes, and all the textured emotions in between. The film tells of a daughter, played with beautiful insecurity by Natasha Bassett, who, after the death of her father, visits her negligent DJ mother (Rebillet) in Paris. This simple premise is shot on a handheld camera that mirrors the Dardennes and attempts to capture their warmth; it succeeds for the most part, and hints at very promising future projects for Rebillet and her crew. It’s about neglect and self-absorption and how these traits can effect loved ones, even unintentionally. Manifested on a small scale, these themes resonate really beautifully. 3.5/5

Australia/55 mins/English and French (subtitled)

American Mummy

American Mummy

American Mummy (2014) directed by Charles Pinion (World Premiere)

Low-budget horror is an ilk of its own standards, and so this terrible film should feel at home amongst its compatriots, no matter how horribly it presents itself. If you’re able to put your brains and standards aside for 82 minutes, you might find a vulgar and visceral thrill or two during one of the more creatively staged kills. Otherwise, it’s recycled teen movie tropes and a predictable Final Girl format for American Mummy, a film whose characters, stranded in the desert on an archaeological dig, die one-by-one at the hands of a cursed Aztec mummy buried in a rocky conclave. It’s bad enough that director Charles Pinion has cast some unlikely and attractive young actors as the experienced academic archaeologists, but his decision to film in 3D, despite the strictures of a tiny budget and small crew, mean that the film is widely staged and rarely evocative, his camera locked-off so as to not interrupt the complex 3D technology. This kind of film lends itself to gimmicky 3D effects, the kind that leap out of the screen occasionally like they did in the 50s, but Pinion has opted for the immersive experience instead, the 3D merely deepening the field of focus, adding little or perhaps actually limiting him further. It’s a schlocky, silly and tired film that takes it’s inspiration from the most obvious of sources; topless females, hackneyed Russian businessmen, horny underdogs and tacky VFX all feature prominently. I’m aware there’s an audience out there for this sort of trashy midnight-movie fare, and that a one star rating could very well be taken as a compliment by Pinion and his team. 1/5

USA/97 mins/English

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Charlie’s Country (2014) ★★★★

Directed by Rolf de Heer

charlie's country

In Charlie’s Country, David Gulpilil gives one the of the great Australian performances as the cheeky and irreverent title character. The film is a foray through the causal slipstream of Gulpilil’s later life, from his alcoholism and hospitalisation to his recent jail time. The film’s director, Rolf de Heer, making his 19th movie, co-authored the story with Gulpilil as a process of rehabilitation. Gulpilil was recovering after a stint in prison for drunkenly assaulting his wife—”he was in a bad way”, says de Heer—and wanted to get back on the straight and narrow. Feeling the obligations of his traditional community and the pressures of local stardom, Gulpilil turned to de Heer, a friend first and foremost, to reconnect with his great passion: performance. It’s so great then, knowing these facts, to see Gulpilil shine on the screen, giving a cheeky, irreverent and gritty performance, no doubt inspired by deep truths.

The film’s director, Rolf de Heer, is one of Australia’s most prolific. Here he directs a very specific story with the political invective of a blackfella’s perspective. It’s first half, set in the community where we initially find Charlie, at the height of the intervention, is raucous and rebellious Third Cinema, made in a first world country by a Dutchman. This bizarre circumstance, no doubt lending the film a fresh and balanced perspective, is supported by stunning widescreen camerawork lit by gleaming natural sources. Charlie swaggers through the town past the police station every day, hurtling cries of revolt in his natural tongue so that none of the whitefellas can understand him. After travelling with a pot dealer into the bush, he’s later approached by the same policeman, who asks him to, using his Aboriginal skill set, track their location. Gulpilil plays up the tokenistic Magical Negro stereotype (y’know, like how in Australia the young Indigenous boy stops a herd of cattle with his magical powers), pinpointing the exact location of the dealers by smelling the leaves on the ground, to the great astonishment of the policemen. “I don’t know how you do it, Charlie”, he says. It’s the white guys who are stupid in Charlie’s Country, but they also write the rulebook.

There’s a through-line of injustice running through the spine of this film. It’s got the postcolonial political willpower last seen in John Pilger’s Utopia, this time integrated into a fictional scenario to great effect. Charlie wants to feel like he has a home, and he can’t find one. Anywhere. His community, where he’s been placed and given shelter by the government, isn’t quite the paradise he grew up in. The Darwin Hospital, where his friend is being airlifted to, is far from the traditional country of his ancestors, where he one day hopes to return to the land. When Charlie’s gun is confiscated he’s told to apply for a license. “I am a hunter”, he cries, “not a Recreational Shooter”. When he crafts a spear for fishing, that’s confiscated too. The rigid and regulatory practice of the whitefella simply doesn’t allow for the old way. This film doesn’t shy away from shredding the optimistic romance of peaceful co-existence seen in too many politically correct films. Charlie’s determination, its guts, get it over the line.

Charlie’s Country‘s best scene is when Charlie attempts to relocate his lost paradise. Abandoning a stolen police car in favour of travel by foot, he ventures deep into the Arnhem Land to find his old home. Rarely has Australia looked so gorgeous and sumptuous, trees spearing out of the densely covered floor, light peeping through the clutter of trees and bushes, ripe with natural tucker. Charlie jubilantly celebrates, screaming, “I’ve got my own private supermarket” after months of hunger. The shot ends too soon, and the film takes a sad downturn as a rainstorm leaves Charlie cold, wet and sick.

Charlie’s Country falters slightly through its final act as , after escaping from hospital in Darwin, Charlie falls back into his old ways. Withdrawing money from an ATM he’s approached by a woman who’s banned from buying booze, and they enter a bottle shop together. Some months later Charlie’s still there, a Long Grasser, drinking in the bushes, addiction taking its toll. It’s so frustrating, as is the jail term shown in the film, which is edited as a repetitive montage so as to highlight the passing of time. Dealt with more swiftly and with greater purpose, these scenes would’ve made great contributions to the theme of displacement, especially considering their autobiographical nature, but they prolong the pain. The music and sound effects are too on-the-nose at times, and unnecessary aural cues and a strange and clumsy dream sequence don’t help. Gulpilil lifts the film above its material though, and makes even these moments, good moments in an otherwise great film, worthwhile. It’s a cliche, but this really is his film.

The title seemingly refers to the land that Charlie grew up in. Like Gulpilil, Charlie’s upbringing was far removed from the urban colonial towns and cities. After success in Walkabout, The Storm Boy and Crocodile Dundee, Gulpilil grew distant from that place. His life ever since, marred by alcohol and cigarettes, has been tumultuous. But where does he fit in? This film, brought to life by Gulpilil’s masterful performance, would tell us that neither the cities or towns of even the traditional lands feel like home to Indigenous Australians anymore. This is all Charlie’s country, but the whitefellas make the rules.

★★★★

Charlie’s Country is in cinemas now.

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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

bob and carol and ted and alice 2

“There’s often a lag of several years before a script finds it’s way to the screen,” writes David Bordwell, in an essay that rules out the possibilities of zeitgeist filmmaking. He was wrong in exceptions, the zeitgeist classics, of which Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is one. Paul Mazursky’s forgotten masterpiece paints an infectious and liberating portrait of middle-class living in the late 1960s, the era of sexual liberation. Infidelity was increasingly common, skirts were shortening exponentially, and pot was getting waaay stronger. Swinging was in the air, and in the gin. This is the atmosphere of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which came out the year it was made, and hit the nail (an audience waiting timorously for New Hollywood) on the head.

The film opens with a sweeping aerial shot of the California hills set to a remix of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. Buried in those very hills is an Esalen-style retreat where Bob and Carol Sanders (Robert Culp and the incandescent Natalie Wood) are partaking in a twenty-four hour group therapy session as research for an upcoming documentary. Their marriage is refreshed by an air of openness that liberates Bob to confess an affair, and, instead of divorcing him promptly, Carol is reinvigorated by his honesty. It strengthens their marriage. In the confines of a wooden shack, the group punch pillows, confront truths and stare into each other’s eyes (and into the camera, lending a great sense of intimacy). The reverberations of this quiet getaway can be felt all the way in Beverly Hills, where Ted and Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon) feel that their friends’ absurd new lifestyle is gimmicky, and borderline immoral. But the atmosphere of free love is hard to repress.

bob and carol and ted and alice 4

When we think of the sexual revolution, we inevitably jump to the hippies of Woodstock and the drifters of Easy Rider as a reference point. These presumptuous caricatures that underpin the generation exclude an entire class of Americans who were too old to be hippies and too young to be conservatives. The new values of the love generation seeped inconspicuously into the everyday lives of thirty-something capitalists who grew up with Eisenhower as President. What happens when the sexual liberation meets the bourgeoisie? That’s where Mazursky points his camera, and his ensemble shines in its presence. Elliott Gould is so funny as the unsettled Ted, who for every sarcastic eye roll gives a mawkish and insecure gesture. He’s all arms and legs and hair, and, when confronted with the manifestation of sexual openness, he looks in the mirror and sees himself unequipped to deal with it. Dyan Cannon, as his wife, Alice, is equally dismayed. Raised for conservatism, sex is for her an obligation or a privilege, not a sport. In her best scene, when a psychologist inquires as to what a “tata” might mean, she’s too shy to say. “What do your kids call it?”, she asks. “A vagina”. Her panic-stricken reaction is comedy gold. Natalie Wood and Robert Culp play the reformed couple with great confidence, too, but their co-stars steal the show.

What’s most striking about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is its uproarious humour. With humble beginnings in improv comedy, Mazursky seems to understand that modern tragedies are so often thinly veiled comedies. Humour is here a piercing weapon with which he dissects dissident new values. Many of the scenes are bedroom set pieces led by wonderful dialogue that unravel with moral temperance. Ted is high, and aroused, and Alice is turned off by Carol’s repugnant confessions. Ted either goes for a long walk to calm down or sleeps with Alice against her will. He wears her down, and when she finally submits she realises she’s out of contraceptive pills. It’s a hilarious scene, but behind its humour lingers a tough moral question about a false right to sexual pleasure and a woman’s right to choose. The characters are torn apart by the moral transgressions trickling through their elaborate summerhouses and into their bedrooms, a modern dolls house where honesty only fuels distrust.

The drama culminates at Las Vegas hotel, where the levee breaks and the usually conservative Alice lets her guard down:

“I feel like doing what we came up here to do.”

“And what is that?”

“Orgy! Have an orgy! Orgy! Orgy! Orgy!’

Mazursky takes his time to weave the timidly paced and quietly textured finale together, culminating to a somewhat ambiguous, yet playful, conclusion, topped off with a stunning coda that soars to Burt Bacharach’s ‘What the World Needs Now (Is Love Sweet Love)’, as sung by Jackie DeShannon. It’s ending is ham-fisted, no doubt, but it’s brimming with the endless possibilities of free love, but a chaste kind of free love that retains its middle-class charm and yet still boasts its openness, as people of all ages, sexes and religions face directly into the camera as they did at the beginning, in that little wooden cabin.

bob and carol and ted and alice

The film was a box office hit in 1969, earning almost $32 million at the domestic box office and collecting four Oscar nominations (including acting nominations for Gould and Cannon), supported by keen critical support across the board (including positive notices from Ebert and Kael). Mazursky, in a 2011 interview, remembered the sneak preview of the film in Denver. “Sitting on either side of me was Schneider and Jaffe, the two guys running the studio. They took me by the elbows on the way out, “35.6 domestic!” Mazursky recalls. “The audience went crazy in Denver. You couldn’t hear for ten minutes. Ten minutes! They were screaming and shouting.” Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’s resonance as a piece of filmmaking that perfectly captures a place and time ended there. It is hardly spoken of nowadays, and is almost impossible to find. With timeliness often comes an expiry date. Time rolls on and leaves a trail of debris in its wake, and if you sift through the rubble you might get lucky and find a bit of gold. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a sparkly, forgotten gem.

Reference: Bordwell, David. “An Excursion on Reflections and Zeitgeists.” Poetics of Cinema. USA: Taylor and Francis, 2012. 30-32. Ebook Library.

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RFF: Under the Skin (2014) ★★★★★

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

USA and UK/108 mins/English

under the skin

Under the Skin is remarkable in that it recontextualises the viewing experience almost completely. Director Jonathan Glazer never really makes clear the purpose of his strange and frequently infuriating film, but neither entertainment nor insight are part of his plan. Unlike so many recent sci-fi films, most of which aim directly for the abject shocks obtained by rattling the camera around and painting scenes in furious brushstrokes of madness, Under the Skin instead shows us our own familiar earth through alien eyes, taking an implicitly human experience and showing it with an austere lens that scours a small Scottish town in search of human flesh; it’s surreptitious pleasures derive less from the experience of watching, popcorn in hand, than from the unpacking of its parts in an attempt to uncover the brilliance that is beneath it’s dreary surface.

Made in an industry that demands exposition, Glazer gives us almost none. The story seen in this film has been culled from a larger narrative shaped by the usual sci-fi conventions, about an alien sent to earth to harvest human flesh, written by novelist Michel Faber. Glazer has left most of the explanation at the door for this largely wordless, inexplicably cruel outing. It isn’t, like so many of it’s predecessors, held down to the genre specifics that Christopher Nolan fanboys brawl over in online forums, giving qualitative judgements based on how much sense it makes. It’s opening sequence is a giveaway that we’re not headed the conventional way. What do we make of these startling first images? Is the ball of light amidst the black the alien descending to earth? Or is it a deconstructed camera lens, its dark rings encircling its glassy centre? Or perhaps it’s no mistake that these images refer to each other, and that as the alien hurtles down through space she aligns with the lens itself so that every image seen thereafter is distinctly otherwordly.

Scenes of our alien driving and walking through the streets of small-town Scotland are shot with such uniform humdrum, mostly for pragmatic means, with fitted go-pros and hidden cameras facilitating the risky exercise at play. The alien, embodied as a human woman, tempts men into her van and takes them back to her darkened flat, where, lured on by the flirty and increasingly scant alien, they sink into the oozing, tar-like floor. These scenes are visually striking, evoking the hallucenatory race through space at the end of Kubrick’s 2001, if anything, and yet they seem almost completely symbolic, practically meaningless as visual representations of a more literal and formal aspects of the novel. Despite their allure, they are the least interesting parts of this film.

Glazer is a successful music video and advertisement director with two previous features to his name, Sexy Beast, starring Ray Winstone, and Birth, with Nicole Kidman. Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson, perhaps currently the biggest female movie star, in a subversive turn that sees her shed her closely guarded privacy in aid of an art film in the truest sense of the term. Glazer perhaps unintentionally punishes those hoping to sneak a peak of Johansson’s rarely seen body with 108 minutes of distant, often cruel, realism, walking a boggling tightrope between Ken Loach and Kubrick whilst providing an indirect rumination on celebrity. It’s not a hard stretch to state that the alien’s descent could easily be taken as a metaphor for Johansson’s inconspicuous and oft-improvised drives through the Scottish town, passers by unknowingly mingling with the world’s biggest celebrity before a producer chases them down with a consent waiver. That she looks so ordinary—shapely, cheap—is a statement in itself, but all no doubt a part of her act as she walks amongst the plebs.

Johansson isn’t acting so much as providing herself as a conduit for this great non-character; one that is so unsure of its own peculiar behaviour and so lifelessly cruel. It’s a mostly stoic performance, but there are great moments underlined by shock, when our alien sees blood on her hand or discovers her vagina (or lack thereof). It’s a physical performance, not in that it requires great physical skill but in that Johansson, like the alien, is giving her body to the role, allowing her physical presence to be the centrepiece of a film that requires so little skill. She, as much as the alien, is fulfilling a mission.

Mica Levi’s score, seedy and frenetic, hints at Hermann’s for Vertigo, a reference that nudges me to wonder what Johansson’s creature would think of Scotty’s adventures in San Francisco. How strange our histrionics must be, how weird our sex, to someone (or something) that looks upon our existence with such negligence. Here we are, humankind, meat and nourishment for a planet far, far away, an animal farm revolting for an undisclosed something that could easier be fixed with the caring recognition of human essence; something even this hungry alien is capable of. Therein lies Under the Skin‘s message, one perhaps too cushy for fans of this intellectual arthouse fare: it’s what’s under the skin that counts.

And yet, as she, the alien, has her first proper sexual experience, it’s as though everything she knows is informed by movies like Vertigo. The caressing and undressing are routine for her, but penetration surprises her, as does the existence of her own genitalia. It’s as though those missing scenes, those imperturbable fade to blacks that merely suggest sex, have led her to obtain false ideals about the act. So much of how she acts is determined by the act of watching, of copying and enacting. When we first see her in public, she walks through a shopping mall and we see a woman having her make-up done at a store. And then we see our alien applying lipstick. Then there’s the scene where, for the first time, we see footage of women in all forms, superimposed onto each other until they’re an ectoplasmic entanglement, the alien’s face emerging from the warm blur as though, again, she is aligning or identifying with what she sees as familiar. Her time on earth is a performance of it’s inhabitants traits and qualities, brief visit for the purposes of harvesting flesh cut short by the fleeting feeling of sympathy and insecurity that knocks her from course, perhaps informed by movies. As in the beginning, with the confluence of lens and being, Under the Skin reminds us that behaviour is informed by what we see, and yet that the dignified qualities of empathy and respect spring forth from the feeling of being significantly other, from the understanding that the surface is but a fleshy sack for an equal soul.

Like Upstream Colour, one of last year’s best films, Under the Skin refuses to dwell on sense and spectacle, preferring instead a visual style that requires interpretation thanks to that same marriage of lens and meaning. It gives a phenomenological experience that appeals more deeply to human nature than to the inner comic book nerd; it’s smart and savvy and yet it asks us to outsmart it through interpretation alone, and that’s good sci-fi. What it achieves, through telling the story of a bloodthirsty alien, is an adverse view of earth and humankind: from a baby crying alone on a moonlit beach to a pillar of smoke emerging from a highland forrest canopy, never has earth looked so utterly alien.

★★★★★

 Under the Skin screened as part of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. It opens in limited release on July 17.

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RFF: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)

Directed by Brian Knappenberger

USA/105 mins/English

the internet's won boy

Even if you didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was, it’s likely he’s had an effect on your life in some way or another. The prolific internet genius was a co-founder of Reddit, developer of RSS, co-developer of Creative Commons and, perhaps most famously, a hacktivist, hell-bent on freeing up the world’s information kept tightly locked in the depths of corporate ownership. We first meet Aaron, in this comprehensive documentary by Brian Knappenberger, as an inquisitive little boy. As with many geniuses, Swartz could read well before kindergarten, and did so without prompting. It’s a trait that would continue through his childhood and adolescence, as we see his transform from a pudgy ethnic kid into a lanky and intermittently hairy man with great charismatic energy. Bored by the strictures of formal education and weighed down by the classroom, Swartz would follow the beat of his own drum right into his own undoing.

The bulk of this film recounts the events that would lead Swartz to hang himself in his Brooklyn apartment in 2013 at age 26. His crime is a dull and inoffensive one, and the film makes great pains to ensure that we’re reminded of the waste and injustice that has occurred in the case of Swartz’s life and trial as a criminal. Upon realising that the bulk of progressive human intelligence, academic journal articles and the like, was locked up by scholarly database JSTOR and its corporate entity and rendered inaccessible to the developing world, Swartz snuck into a storeroom at MIT, hacked their servers and downloaded as much of it as he could. Initially suspicious that this film had taken great leaps of bias, I’ve researched his crime. Confirmed: that’s it, that’s all he did. Rightfully, then, this film is filled with reactionary zeal. It’s a dramatic call to arms for the Internet Generation to take the privilege of the world wide web very, very seriously, and to question any and all authoritarian enclosures on this, our shared property. Whilst its specifics may appeal more potently to programmers and developers, it’ll safely land an emotional wallop with all audiences as it comes full circle to eulogise Swartz and his achievements.

Knappenberger takes a death-by-numbers approach, saturating us with talking heads, helpful graphics and archival material, as well as footage of Swartz before his death. We hear insights from everyone, from his immediate family to the inventor of the goddamn world wide web; it’s comprehensive, perhaps too much so, as it veers into the specifics of Stop Internet Piracy Act and other superfluous material. It recalls, at times, Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which goes to equal lengths to cover another expansive web issue: whistleblowers. But Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are different kinds of hackers. Their crimes had far-reaching consequences and were knowingly criminal, punishable by death (although thankfully acquitted). Swartz, as this film’s title lovingly permits, was a boy of more innocent intention than they, and for that his death feels closer to home. This film is a very good testament.

 

★★★★

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz screens as part of the Revelation perth International Film Festival. Session times and ticket details here.

 

 

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) ★★★★½

Directed by Matt Reeves

USA/130 mins/English (and Ape, subtitled)

dawn of the planet of the apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, amongst its other achievements, marks the coming-of-age of motion capture CGI. Andy Serkis, celebrated for his motion-capture performances as Gollum/Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Captain Haddock in Spielberg’s Tintin film and now as Caesar in the Apes franchise, has already made it an artform, but here he gives the most expressive and emotional performance by a non-human character in any film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the surprise hit of the 2011 blockbuster season, mixing it’s considerable intelligence with spectacular and controlled filmmaking, culminating into that magical moment when Caesar, an ape, screams the word ‘NO’ with climactic emotional fury. Dawn has so many of those moments, and it trumps it’s predecessor both in narrative and spectacle, bringing the reboot into maturity with its complex evolutionary drama.

The film opens with a graphic depicting the virulent spread of an epidemic across the globe, caused by human experimentation with apes, called the Simian Virus, voiced over by a mish-mash of news reports and eventuating to the near-extinction of the human race. There’s a whole film’s worth of material between drinks here, but I’m glad the studio have chosen to skip across the bullshit of yet another apocalyptic meltdown film; there’s plenty more to see at the tipping point, which is where this film begins. We’re launched into one of the most beautifully realised scenes in any studio film in recent years: apes hunting deer in the jungle. Director Matt Reeves (CloverfieldLet Me In) has created such an effervescent atmosphere, enveloped in fecund forrest, palpable humidity and misty terrain. The scene is almost without dialogue, the primates communicating through a fascinating and imaginative sign-language that is helpfully subtitled as they herd deer to the slaughter, shown through an evocatively controlled lens. The apes, with Caesar as their leader, have been living harmoniously for the ten years since Rise’s conclusion, developing intelligently as they built a kingdom against the rocky terrain made from branches, leaves and perpetually burning fire. Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer!?) gives birth to their second son, but quickly becomes ill. Elsewhere, Caesar’s firstborn and nephew are fishing at a stream when they encounter Carver (Kirk Acevedo), confirming the existence of humans, who were long considered extinct. Carver fires the first shot of many, sparking a war facilitated by fear, the very thing that caused Carver to shoot in the first place.

It’s almost disappointing when the film introduces its human cast, taking us far from the jungle into the now-defunct city of San Francisco, where humans are desperate to open a dam that will provide them with the much-needed power to continue their existence. The catch: the dam is locked up far into ape territory. The required over-blown, summer-film dialogue and the crummy confines of dilapidated city walls simply necessitate a grander narrative, one about the near-impossibility of peaceful co-existence. The beauty of having both ape and human characters is that the filmmaking team are able to show the good and bad on both sides, even going as far as to say that there’s good in the bad and bad in the good. Needless to say, there’s sufficient depth to carry the film through it’s whole 130 minute running time. Caesar forms a formidable bond with Malcolm (Jason Clarke, in a star-making turn), and their mutual trust is tried and tested to the extreme. The bad apes, stirred up by Koba (Toby Kebbell), also have human counterparts, led by the militaristic Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, with surprisingly little to do). The film’s most potent message lies therein, that a small cluster of patriotic mongrels can quell enough fervour to spark violence in the masses. Perhaps it’s latent in all of us, but Dawn reminds us that it’s whether we follow the Caesar or the Kobo, the Malcolm or the Dreyfus, that determines the mark we’ll make on this fragile planet.

If that sounds heavy-handed, then I’ll have you know that there’s enough spectacle and stirring drama in this film for it to join Spielberg’s best in the summer-movie cannon. Fiery battle scenes, riddled with automatic weapons, are shot in stunning 3D that well-and-truly proves its worth (and without darkening the image too much, either!), and builds to an epic conclusion that takes on Star Wars (or Lion King) complexion at the top of a tower, itself on the brink of explosion. Performances, including those on the peripheral from Kodi Smit-McPhee (he’s grown up), Keri Russel and Jon Eyez are all very good, but it’s the CGI that wins over, with the varied cast of primates—Serkis, Kebbell, Greer and Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan, a warmly realised character—hitting it out of the ball park. Rarely do films that require this much post-production animation feel so earnest and believable and strikingly real, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes its subject and its audience seriously, and delivers on nearly every level. If anyone’s going to get that coveted Special Achievement Oscar, which has lain dormant for twenty years now and is reserved for remarkable technical achievement, well, it’s gotta be Andy Serkis.

★★★★½

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas everywhere July 10.