Don’t Tell

Set and shot (partly at least) on location in Toowoomba, this powerful Australian drama tracks the real-life legal proceedings that proved the catalyst for the downfall of Governor-General Peter Hollingworth and the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Adapted from the non-fiction book by lawyer Stephen Roche, who is played by Aden Young (Black Robe, Beneath Hill 60) in the film, this first feature from first-time feature director Tori Garrett effectively tells the harrowing story of Lyndal (Sara West), an individual fighting for justice against an organisation that is hell bent on denying any culpability for the abuse that Lyndal suffered at the hands of a housemaster at Toowoomba Preparatory School in 1990. Despite the fact that the perpetrator Kevin Guy is dead, Lyndal is haunted by the abuse to which she was subjected and her subsequent reliance on drugs as a coping mechanism has fractured her relationship with her parents (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks).

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Objectivity is difficult in light of such heinous behaviour from the school and Anglican Church in denying the allegation and trying to discredit Lyndal, but Garrett and the screenwriters (Anne Brooksbank, Ursula Cleary, James Greville) have done a good job in resisting the urge to launch an all-out assault, allowing the actions and attitudes of the church hierarchy to demonstrate their callous disregard for Lyndal and other students who suffered similar indignities during their time at the school. Garrett captures how the legal system is an environment devoid of emotion and the courtroom scenes are lacking the histrionics and bluster that are typical of legal dramas out of Hollywood, and that’s not a bad thing at all. However, that is not to suggest that these scenes lack power, particularly with a couple of Aussie screen legends in Jack Thompson and Jacqueline McKenzie locking horns as the opposing barristers. Thompson’s Bob Myers is the level-headed pragmatist who tempers Roche’s emotional idealism, while Mackenzie is tasked with trying to mitigate the damage to the church, a task that becomes more difficult as the level of their complicity is revealed, forcing Hollingworth, who was the Anglican Archbishop at the time of the assaults and was aware of the accusations against Guy, to step aside as Governor-General. It is always great to see the likes of Thompson and McKenzie back on screen, with Rachel Griffiths also featuring as Lyndal’s psychiatrist.

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Fabulous on television in Rectify, Young is terrific here as well as Roche, a man seemingly prepared to sacrifice everything in the interests of securing justice for his client. However, it is West who shines brightest as the damaged yet determined Lyndal, a young woman who has nothing left to lose. With better material at her disposal than her previous outing in Bad Girl, West delivers a dynamic performance as a young woman struggling to cope with the psychological damage inflicted upon her and, in this instance, we understand what drives her characters reckless behaviours. There are some strong performances amongst the supporting cast as well, including Robert Taylor (The Matrix, Kong: Skull Island) as the school principal Robert Brewster, whose indifference and inaction enabled Guy to prey on students. In a particularly powerful moment in the witness stand, Brewster acknowledges his culpability for the first time. Gyton Grantley takes on the unenviable role of Guy, a truly despicable individual who abused his position of trust to prey on young girls with impunity for several years before taking his own life.

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Narratively, there are no real surprises in store because the events have been widely documented through media coverage of the proceedings and the political machinations that followed, which include the introduction of the Blue Card monitoring system for people working with children and, of course, the Royal Commission that has subsequently (and not surprisingly) uncovered widespread abuse in various schools and institutions across the country. Whilst Don’t Tell serves as a damning indictment of the way in which young people have been subjected to mistreatment at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them, the film focuses (necessarily) on one particular case and we need to remember that there have been hundreds – maybe thousands – more children subjected to similar abuse whose stories might never be told. This is an important story about a particularly disturbing course of events in Australia’s history but Garrett, whose background is in television, handles the sensitivity of the material very well and extracts great performances from a stellar cast which, combined with crisp cinematography from Mark Wareham (Jasper Jones) makes this a highly accomplished film that is uncomfortable viewing at times but emerges as an emotionally rewarding piece of cinema.

Bad Girl

Whilst Australia has a knack of producing low budget thrillers and crime dramas, many of which have launched the careers of those behind and in front of the camera, Bad Girl falls short in its capacity to reel you in and keep you interested in the plight of the characters. There is superficiality in the characterisations that make it hard to understand the motivations of the various players. We are given little information about events that have taken place prior to the point where the film kicks off and therefore it is impossible to understand, or care much about, the actions of the two teenage protagonists or the supporting characters. First time writer-director Fin Edquist has the crux of a good film here, but it just doesn’t realise the potential of the premise and ultimately feels as superficial as the house into which Amy (Sara West) has just moved with her parents Peter (Benjamin Winspear) and Michelle (Felicity Price).

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The family relocation coincides with Amy’s release from juvenile detention and, needless to say, Amy is less than impressed with the decision by her clueless parents to set up camp in a modernist, open-plan house in the Australian countryside that Peter has designed. By presenting Amy as a generic teen troublemaker, complete with piercings, green hair, secret drug stash and corny dialogue – “I dunno. I guess I’m just bad” – Edquist seems to believe this is enough to convince us of her bona fides as a particularly problematic teen rebel. The problem is that we never get any real understanding of the course of events that landed her in jail and much of her behaviour upon arrival at the new abode is in reaction to being uprooted from her life in the city and plonked smack bang in the middle of nowhere, a move that seems more to do with Peter wanting to use the house to showcase his architectural skills to potential clients than anything else. The only real insight we get into Amy’s past is the fact that she was adopted by Peter and Michelle about 10 years earlier. However, the fact that Peter is a jerk (and Winspear’s performance lacks any nuance whatsoever that might make his character in some way sympathetic) makes it pretty easy to see why Amy might not be particularly keen to stick around.

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It is when Amy makes her bid for freedom that she encounters Chloe (Samara Weaving) for the second time (having previously crossed paths when Chloe approached Peter and Michelle to offer her services as a cleaner) and a tenuous friendship begins to form with an undercurrent of sexual attraction that comes to the surface. As the power balance starts to shift, tension builds as it becomes apparent that there is more to Chloe than meets the eye. However, just as the relationship between Amy and Chloe is building towards something really interesting and intense, the story conspires to separate them for a lengthy period, which only serves to sap the film of much of its energy. The two girls are the strength of the film and switching the focus from them to Michelle and Peter is an opportunity lost.

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Perhaps it is budget constraints or a lack of oversight during pre-production, but there is a lot left unsaid that certainly could have made it much easier to care about the various participants in the drama. At the end of the day, not even a score by Warren Ellis can prevent Bad Girl from playing out like a 90-minute episode of Home and Away and there are even a couple of River Boy-esque types living on the neighbouring property who clash with Amy and her family. If nothing else, it is a considerable achievement from Edquist to get the film into cinemas given the current domination of overseas content on local screens and whilst the Western Australia-shot film collected some gongs at their state film awards, it is just a shame that Bad Girl doesn’t pack more of a punch.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

There is nothing about this second film iteration of Guardians of the Galaxy that should come as a surprise to anybody familiar with the first instalment or the Marvel cinematic universe more broadly. The characters are the same – well, the good guys anyway – and the tone is in keeping with the light hearted nature of the first film. Sarcasm and witty repartee abound as the motley group of five again find themselves embroiled in all manner of mirth and mayhem. Unlike so many orgiastic CGI superhero blockbusters that take themselves too seriously, it seems the intent here is to simply be as entertaining as possible and writer/director James Gunn has not only created a whimsical world that delivers in the action stakes, but he also goes out of his way to make us care about a group of characters who are, on the surface at least, a pretty selfish bunch.

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The film opens with a spectacular, and no doubt expensive, credits sequence that sees an elaborate battle unfolding in the background as the camera tracks Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. Seemingly oblivious to the other characters being thrashed, flung and generally debased at the hands of a giant lizard-like adversary, Groot dances and prances in what is perhaps the only moment in the entire film where he doesn’t present as utterly annoying, although the initial appeal of this scene lessens after a while. The Groot character is all but superfluous in everything that goes on, other than a moment when his diminutive size proves useful and there are many times when I found myself wishing with every fibre of my being that death would become him but, this is a superhero film and we all know that superheroes never die, so I guess we are stuck with him for at least one more film (Gunn has declared that a third instalment will be the last, but it is hard to imagine the studio pulling up stumps if the money keeps rolling in).

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On a job for the Sovereign race, who are led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), Peter Quill/Star Lord, (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) have agreed to defend a valuable collection of batteries from a predator known as Abilisk in exchange for the release from prison of Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The mission seemingly goes off without a hitch, until Rocket reveals he has stolen some of the batteries on the way out, putting the Guardians in the sights of Ayesha and her golden army. Whilst hiding out from Ayesha, Peter encounters his dad – a Celestial named Ego (Kurt Russell) – for the first time and inevitably finds himself torn between his biological father and the makeshift family he has formed with his fellow Guardians. Michael Rooker also turns up as Yondu, the blue-skinned Ravager who raised Peter but now finds himself in exile. Pratt, Saldana and Bautista slip easily into the characters once again, but is the latter who brings most of the levity to proceedings as Drax, the monotone man-mountain whose complete lack of a social filter makes for very some very blunt, and quite humorous, interactions. Russell is fine as a character whose proportion is beyond anything you can imagine, with Rooker and Gillan also particularly good in supporting roles. In fact, Nebula is perhaps the most interesting character of all and Gillan mines the emotional fragility beneath her cyborg-like exterior to great effect.

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Some of the jokes wear thin upon repetition – such as Rocket trying to wink – and the movie runs far longer than it needs to, suggesting that perhaps Gunn and his editors succumbed to the pressure of the Marvel powers-that-be to wring every inch of action out of the scenario. Whilst there is an emotional spine to the proceedings that superhero films generally lack, Gunn is a little heavy-handed in beating the family drum, trying to force an emotional investment in the characters when he doesn’t need to because the camaraderie of the group is well established from the first film. To Gunn’s credit though it feels as though each member of the Guardians is more developed this time around, rather than simply having Pratt at the centre of all the action. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is a sequel that effectively draws on the elements that made the first film so successful but still emerges as an entertaining romp in its own right, although the less said about Sylvester Stallone’s laughable cameo the better.

Get Out

When it comes to the critical discourse that has surrounded Get Out since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the fervour has been unrelenting with the film drawing praise from numerous quarters, almost to the point of hysteria in some cases. So, when it comes to evaluating this first feature from director Jordan Peele, there is a sense of anticipation and expectation that makes it’s hard to approach the text with objectivity. Although billed as a horror film by some, Get Out is more a thriller with a smattering of comedic moments and a bit of bloodshed. It is also a film that is difficult to discuss without giving away key plot points that comprise some of the biggest surprises. However, anybody familiar with The Stepford Wives will no doubt identify some key similarities between the two films, which is why it is surprising to see Peele’s film being hailed for its originality. Having said that, completely original ideas in contemporary cinema are very rare indeed and Peele certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to draw inspiration from the films of previous eras.

Get Out poster

The series of events take place over the course of a weekend as Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) accompanies his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents. In addition to all the usual stresses that go with such an occasion, Chris is particularly concerned about the fact that Allison has not told her parents that he is African-American. Upon arrival at the Armitage family estate, Chris is greeted warmly by Rose’s parents – surgeon Dean (Brad Whitford) and psychotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) – but it isn’t long before he senses something is amiss, largely through the strange behaviour of the groundsman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). A party the following day only serves to expose Chris to more odd characters, played by the likes of Stephen Root and Lakeith Stanfield but, as is the case so often in such stories, our protagonist doesn’t heed the warnings and soon finds himself in all sorts of bother when it turns out that – surprise, surprise – something sinister is afoot. Of course, the real action begins once Chris discovers what is really going on and plots his escape.

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Peele disrupts the mounting tension at regular intervals to return to the city for a series of comedic interludes as Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery) becomes increasingly concerned about his buddy’s welfare. Having advised Chris not to go in the first place – albeit because he believes all white people want black sex slaves as opposed to any tangible evidence he might have that suggests any threat – Rod becomes increasingly concerned when he can no longer make contact with Chris and his subsequent effort to get the police involved in rescuing his buddy is perhaps the funniest moment of all. Whilst Howery is a lot of fun in the bumbling sidekick role, less effective as Rose’s antagonistic older brother Jeremy is Caleb Landry Jones. Whilst the way Jeremy reacts to Chris might make sense once we learn more about what is going on, his aggressive demeanour during dinner only undermines the efforts of his parents to lull Chris into a false sense of security.

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There is plenty to like here and there are some surprises as suspense turns to revelation even though, as we might expect, there is a considerable degree of implausibility. The ending is energetic and reasonably succinct, although there is a key element of the narrative the remains unresolved, which might bother some more so than others. A satire about covert liberal racism, Get Out rattles with provocations, exploring social class, the way black culture is exploited by white society and the kind of fears and suspicion that still permeate black-white relations. Yes, it is an impressive debut and box office figures suggest it has most certainly struck a chord with audiences, but I would suggest that perhaps some critics have been somewhat overly exuberant in their exaltations about the film and, whilst Get Out is entertaining, well made and sufficiently different from typical big screen fare to be worth your time and money, I am not convinced it is the masterpiece that some critics would like us to believe. Perhaps Chuck D and Public Enemy said it best with their 1988 decree that we “don’t believe the hype.”

Big Music Weekend

There was heaps of live music across south-east Queensland over the Labour Day weekend and two of the biggest events were absolutely free.

Surfers Paradise Live delivered three nights of free live music in Cavill Mall, which featured performances from more than 25 artists, including the likes of Ivey, Tigertown, The Veronicas, Mental as Anything and Eskimo Joe.

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In Brisbane on Sunday, the Stones Corner Festival also provided a feast of free music with an impressive line-up of performers such as Sahara Beck, I Heart Hiroshima and Regurgitator.

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A selection of images from Surfers Paradise Live and the Stones Corner Festival have been added to the gallery.

Raw

A visually striking celebration of female power, Raw is a remarkably assured feature debut from yet another exciting young(ish) female director. It is hard to imagine that a body horror movie about a teenage cannibal could be so utterly mesmerising in its vivid imagery and hypnotic beauty, but 33-year-old French writer/director Julia Ducournau has constructed a nightmarishly beautiful coming-of-age drama that explores sexuality, identity, body image and conformity. In her first ever major role, Garance Marillier delivers a daring and powerful performance as Justine, a brilliant student embarking on a course of study at a prestigious veterinary college, the same school her parents attended and at which her older sister is also enrolled. Ducournau asks a lot of Marillier and the 19-year-old actress delivers in spades with a character whose emotional arc spans innocence, bewilderment and repulsion on her journey to self-discovery. This is a story about the importance of realising who you are and embracing your true identity, even if that identity just happens to be one that finds human flesh particularly tasty.

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Upon arriving at the university, Justine’s first surprise comes when she learns she will be sharing her dorm with a guy.  “I’m gay and, as far as the college is concerned, that is the same thing”, responds Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) when Justine declares that she requested a female roommate. Almost immediately, Justine finds herself thrust into a series of humiliating hazing rituals at the hands of the senior students, one of which requires her to eat a raw rabbit kidney. A devout vegetarian, Justine is faced with a crisis of conscience and it is only at the urging of her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) that she succumbs. The side-effects are almost immediate with Justine breaking out in a skin-peeling rash that leaves her writhing in itchy agony. It is the first of several grotesque indignities that Justine will endure as she comes to terms with her physical and psychological transformation into somebody far removed from the awkward, innocent young woman she was upon arrival. Justine’s lust for flesh also triggers some hitherto latent carnal desires, resulting in one of the most vigorous de-flowerings seen on screen.

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The way in which cinematographer Ruben Impens uses colour and light, combined with an eerily effective score from Jim Williams, creates an enduring element of mystery and menace throughout. The school itself is not a particularly pleasant place – from the architecture to the teachers to the ritualistic debasement of new students – and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ben Wheatley’s Highrise at times. That is not to say the film itself is ugly, because there is a hypnotic beauty in the fluid camera movements and striking images that contrast with the more brutally blood-filled moments of which, it must be said, there are not too many. Ducournau takes her time in revealing Justine’s evolution and she isn’t afraid to play for laughs; a waxing scene goes horribly wrong in one of the funniest moments that also serves as the turning point in Justine’s transition to fully-fledged carnivore.

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It is not the cannibalistic elements that are the most troubling because Ducournau has shown great restraint in that regard; it is the hazing scenes that stand out as being over the top. Even though it is one such ritual that triggers Justine’s hankering for human flesh, some of these scenes seem beyond what even the most tolerant university would ever allow and they certainly didn’t need to be so extreme to service the story. That aside though, Raw is an otherwise excellent examination of the transition from girlhood to womanhood as our young protagonist discovers a sense of empowerment. Through it all, Justine maintains a recognisable humanity that makes her eminently likeable despite her newfound fetish, which is simply another hurdle she has to overcome in her quest to find her place in the world.

Berlin Syndrome

After delivering an outstanding feature film debut in 2006 with Somersault, Australian director Cate Shortland opted against following in the footsteps of her contemporaries and heading to Hollywood, instead turning to Europe in search of opportunities. In 2012 she delivered Lore, the well received WW2-set drama in which a teenage girl sets out to save herself and her siblings from the advancing Allied armies, and now, after another lengthy break between projects, Shortland returns with her second German-Australian co-production. Starring Aussie actress Teresa Palmer, whose career also kicked off in 2006 when she made a stunning debut in 2:37 after being cast on the spot with no audition and no previous acting experience, Berlin Syndrome begins as a holiday romance that quickly descends into a tense, claustrophobic thriller in which Clare (Palmer), a naïve tourist from Brisbane, finds herself at the mercy of psychologically scarred high school teacher Andi (Max Reimelt). Adapted from a book by Melanie Joosten and with a title that is obviously a play on Stockholm Syndrome, the term coined for a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors, there is nothing new in the narrative premise of young woman being held against her will – we have seen Room and 19 Cloverfield Lane cover similar territory in recent months and you can even add Don’t Breathe to such a list – so this needs to be special to stand out from this crowd.

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The key difference between Berlin Syndrome and these other films is that Clare willingly accompanies her captor to the apartment in which she will subsequently be detained for an extended period, a passionate one-night stand becoming a nightmare of humiliation and degradation. It is when wandering the streets of Berlin that budding photographer Clare meets Andi who, it must be said, doesn’t present as particularly charming. However, intoxicated by the adventure of her first overseas experience, Clare falls under his spell and abandons her hostel accommodations to accompany Andi to his apartment within an otherwise abandoned building. The morning after a night of steamy sex, Clare awakens to find that Andi has departed and left her locked inside the apartment with her mobile phone having been stripped of its SIM card. From this point, she finds herself at the mercy (or lack thereof) of her captor, who carries on with his daily routines – work, visiting his father – and whose demeanour fluctuates between affable homeliness (Do you like pesto?) to violent perversion.

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Shortland switches between Clare’s increasingly perverse captivity and Andi’s reasonably normal exterior life but never makes any attempt to make Andi sympathetic, offering very little by way of an explanation for his behaviour, other than resentment at his mother having abandoned the family. Shortland does a good job of maintaining tension throughout, but the apartment is filled with potential weapons that Clare could use to incapacitate Andi and make her escape, so you need to be prepared to overlook such gaps in logic to accept what transpires, which is easy enough to do with a low-key, yet powerful, performance from Palmer, who also starred recently in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Starting out soft-spoken and introverted, Clare’s inhibitions disappear out of necessity as she realises that even if she does scream, there is nobody around to hear her. Palmer handles this transformation very well, taking her character into places that some actresses would consider as being too vulnerable.

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The story ultimately plays out as a retort to the idea of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, because Clare never develops any attachment with her oppressor. Yes, she is compliant in the interests of self-preservation, but she never elicits any empathy for her captor. The production design delivers an effectively foreboding atmosphere but neither both Palmer nor Reimelt allow the confines of the space to diminish the scope of their performances. Perhaps my biggest bugbear with the film is that it is never really clear what Shortland is trying to say. If she is making an effort to examine the minds of captive and captor, she has failed to present enough information about either of them for the audience to really understand what makes them tick. Unsettling and confronting at times, albeit not as graphic as it might have been in other hands, Berlin Syndrome is a tense thriller that marks a welcome return from one of Australia’s best filmmakers.