David Brent: Life on the Road

In David Brent, Ricky Gervais has constructed a character that allows him to push the boundaries of good taste by presenting Brent as completely devoid of any self-awareness or understanding about what might be likely to cause offence. Through Brent, Gervais can go far beyond what he might be able to get away with in real life. Brent does not discriminate; offending everybody he encounters in this sequel-of-sorts to The Office, the television sitcom in which we first met him as the clueless, despised office manager at Wernham Hogg Paper Company. Picking up some 10+ years later, Brent has endured a nervous breakdown and is now working as a travelling salesman for Lavichem, a company that sells cleaning and hygiene products. Still based in Slough, the Berkshire town that was also the setting for The Office, Brent has aspirations of rock stardom despite a distinct lack of talent. Filmed in the same mock documentary style as the television series, Life on the Road is sporadically funny as it follows Brent on his self-funded concert tour with his band Forgone Conclusion, desperate and delusional in his bid to secure the interest of a record company.

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Following an opening montage seemingly designed to make us understand how funny tampons are (who knew?), we reconnect with Brent at the offices of Lavichem where he is the subject of ridicule amongst his long suffering co-workers, almost all of whom find his non-stop banter – laden with sexist and otherwise offensive comments – unbearable. There are exceptions of course; the mousy Jo’s (Pauline Gray) affection is obvious to everybody but Brent himself, receptionist Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) finds him infinitely more tolerable than the boorish bully Jezza (Andrew Brooke) and the equally annoying Nigel is perhaps the first real friend that Brent has ever had. Of course, any efforts to make Brent aware of the inappropriateness of his behaviours in the workplace fail to sink in.  Soon enough, it is sayonara Lavichem as our intrepid dunderhead cashes in his leave and pensions to hit the road in pursuit of his musical dream, accompanied by a new side-kick in the form of mixed-race rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), who serves as a convenient alibi anytime Brent unleashes with a burst of casual racism.

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Johnson, who is the most interesting character of all as he tries to balance his loyalty to David with his own musical ambitions, serves as a conduit between Brent and a band that is nothing more than a collective of musicians happy to tolerate his ineptitude and lack of musical talent for the money. Brent organises an elaborate tour bus (even though none of the gigs are more than a couple of hours from home) from which he is banished and, with the band members refusing to even drink with him unless they are paid to do so, there seems little doubt that Gervais is targeting the pretention that exists amongst certain individuals within the music industry. The tour inevitably descends into farce with empty venues and spiralling overheads leaving Brent to count the costs, albeit much too late in the piece. Brent remains a sharp tragicomic creation whose on-screen resurrection will no doubt satisfy fans of The Office and maybe secure a few new converts along the way. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, but most of the funniest parts come via the songs, such as Equality Street and Native Americans, two tunes that Brent espouses as anti-racism anthems but are the exact opposite, while Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds is all kinds of wrong.

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Rather than our pity, it seems that Gervais, who also wrote, directed and produced, wants us to like David Brent and that is a very big ask indeed. Sure, his mockers are presented as macho bullies, but Brent remains an irritating, ignorant buffoon for whom sympathy is hard to muster. Does he really deserve to be happy given that he remains blissfully unaware of just how obnoxious he is? As such, the final frame will leave people divided, their level of satisfaction with the ending no doubt aligned with just how loathsome they see him to be. It’s not as funny as the best bits of The Office, but Life on the Road has enough moments of mirth to justify Brent’s resurrection for a new generation.

High-Rise

This take on  J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel by director Ben Wheatley has proven a polarising viewing experience, in much the same way Ballard’s novels seem to divide readers into two very distinct groups; those who love them and those who loathe them. Variously described on the one hand as “chilly”, “alienating” and “an incoherent wreck of a movie” and as “coolly immaculate” and a “masterpiece” on the other, the truth lies, at the risk of sounding clichéd and non-committal, somewhere in between.  Whilst I have not read the novel from which the film had been adapted, I am familiar with other works from Ballard and there is no doubt that this film captures the hyper-stylised dystopic visions that are synonymous with his work. Much of Ballard’s writing attacks the existing structures – social, political, cultural – that serve to propagate inequality and individualism and that is very much the case here.

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The eponymous tower is a social experiment of sorts; a building that, quite literally, mimics the social hierarchy of contemporary western society. Although clearly a vision of the future in the sterility of the architecture, the production design very much reflects the 1970’s setting; the clothes, the cars, the furniture and even the fact that everybody, including nine-months pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), smoke continuously. The wealthiest residents live on the highest floors, while the middle-class are confined to the lower levels, with the building’s architect and overseer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) occupying a vast penthouse atop the tower, complete with expansive courtyard. Not long after Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) takes up residence in his 25th-floor apartment, a series of power outages become increasingly frequent and elongated and it isn’t long before the building – which houses 2000 residents – descends from civilisation to barbaric hedonism and plunges into chaos.

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Anybody acquainted with Ballard’s work should know what to expect and the opening line of voice-over dialogue – …as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months – ensures that anybody who chooses to stick around for the duration has no real cause for complaint about the content that follows. The hunter-gatherer savagery that ensues should come as no surprise as the residents adopt a kill-or-be-killed mentality as a means of survival. In fact, the events are not dissimilar to those of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Week-End in which a trip to the countryside is thwarted by an endless traffic jam that evolves into chaos, cannibalism and murder. The problem with High-Rise lies primarily in the pacing. So much time is spent introducing the various occupants (and perhaps necessarily) that when the darkness (both literal and psychological) descends, it happens at a rapid montage-like pace that serves the needs a of feature-length running time but suggests the descent into madness happened over a matter of hours rather than months.

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Despite the violence and depravity that ensues, there is a (very) dark humour that pervades the goings-on and makes it possible to endure the extreme narcissism and moral decay of the building’s inhabitants. Whilst mostly reprehensible types, there are some likeable characters in the mix, such as young Toby (Louis Suc), the shy young son of Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a goodtime girl whose free-spirited ways mask her inner demons. Perhaps the most enjoyable character of all though is Fay (Stacy Martin), the young woman who works the checkout at the supermarket on level 15. With obvious connections to Freudian theory, High-Rise serves as a premonition of the selfish society that has, to a large degree, manifested itself within western culture. Sure the nature of the events that take place here are extreme, but they serve as a metaphor for a society in which self-indulgence and nihilism have reached epidemic proportions. Technically and aesthetically, the film is splendid and whilst there are some performances that are less than convincing, the likes of Miller and Hiddlestone deliver in their respective roles. Darkly subversive, High-Rise is a melding of 70s nostalgia with a deranged, dystopian vision, all accompanied by a stark version of Abba’s SOS (courtesy of Portishead) that is as much unexpected as it is effective.

Music Festival Fever

The next month or so is shaping up as an exciting time for live music lovers, with no less than three festivals to be staged in south east Queensland. In addition to the annual Big Sound live music extravaganza, two outdoor festival events will be staged on the Sunshine Coast, featuring some of the best bands and artists from across Australia and overseas. The Maroochy Music and Visual Arts Festival is a one-day event staged on a former golf course near Maroochydore, while the Caloundra Music Festival will take place over four days at Kings Beach.

Big Sound Live

This annual event just gets bigger and bigger and the 2016 event will feature more than 150 local, national and international artists at multiple venues in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley over two nights on September 7 and 8. Staged in conjunction with the Big Sound Music Conference, the festival provides artists with an opportunity to showcase their music to fans, fellow musicians and industry representatives.

Participating venues this year include The Zoo, The Foundry, The Empire Hotel, Heya, The Press Club, The Woolly Mammoth, The Elephant Hotel, Ric’s Café, Brightside, Oh Hello, The Flying Cock and The New Globe Theatre.

Big Sound

Featuring on the massive Big Sound program this year are the likes of Alex Lahey, DZ Deathrays, Babaganouj, Ecca Vandal, The Gooch Palms, Vera Blue and Olympia.

On Friday night (September 9), The Triffid will host the official Big Sound Closing Party at The Triffid to wrap up proceedings with Lahey amongst those on the bill.

Maroochy Music and Visual Arts Festival

Those lamenting the end of Big Sound for another year can extend their week of live music merriment by heading up the highway on Saturday (September 10) to Maroochydore for a one-day outdoor festival staged on a site that is destined, apparently, to become the new CBD of the Sunshine Coast.

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Lahey will also feature at Maroochydore, along with Matt Corby, Peking Duk, George Maple, Allday, City Calm Down and Client Liaison.

Caloundra Music Festival

Kicking off on Friday, September 30 and running until Monday, October 3, the Caloundra Music Festival will see almost 100 performers converge on Kings Beach for four days of music under the sun. Unlike a lot of festivals, Caloundra brings together artists new and old, ensuring there is something to please all ages and tastes across the four festival stages over the duration of the festival.

Caloundra

As such, the likes of Michael Franti, The Preatures, Paul Dempsey, Ladyhawke, Kate Miller-Heidke, The Beautiful Girls and Band of Frequencies will feature alongside veteran artists such as Icehouse and Darryl Braithwaite.

For information about each event, including artists details, performance schedules, transport and ticketing information, click on the festival logos above.

Suicide Squad

I can’t help but think that those behind the transfer of comic titles such as Suicide Squad to the big screen are of the belief that (financial) success is guaranteed regardless of what they do, because that is the only way to explain how a film so lacking in so many areas can find its way into cinemas. Whilst a concept might work in comic book form, that doesn’t mean it will translate effectively into a film, but it’s hard to say whether that is the problem here, or whether it is simply the fact that the execution is so poor. Dreadful dialogue, ridiculous characters and a narrative that makes little sense combine to ensure that Suicide Squad falls well short of being the sexy, subversive super villain story that so many were hoping it would be.

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The problems are evident from the outset as we meet the various characters imprisoned in a highly secure facility. Director David Ayer attempts to divulge back stories for some of them, while we are left completely oblivious about others. Sure, we delve briefly into the past of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Deadshot (Will Smith) but why does Killer Croc look the way he does? Whilst devotees of the comics may be familiar with the history of each character, those experiencing them for the first time get little insight into each member of the group. Ayer might have been much better served using this film primarily as an origin story, introducing the characters and reaching further into their backgrounds before bringing them together as a collective of bad guys commissioned to undertake black ops missions in return for clemency. The truncated and disjointed approach that has been taken in exploring the psychology and pathology of the characters provides little insight into the members of the eponymous squad.  In an effort to fit so much in, every narrative development is rushed, such as intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) having her plan to recruit the world’s biggest super-villains as a vigilante force approved with nary a skerrick of oversight or accountability.

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Featuring prominently in the pre-release marketing, Robbie’s Quinn is so child-like in her persona that it is impossible to find her sexy without feeling decidedly disgusted with oneself, while Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is perhaps the most offensively idiotic Australian character ever committed to celluloid. It beggars belief that Courtney would take on a role that has seemingly been designed to present Australians as boneheaded mutton chop-adorned bogans. It is hard not to feel sorry for Cara Delevingne in her role as June Moon/Enchantress. Having shown some promise in her transition from modelling to acting in Paper Towns, Delevingne is lumbered with a villain whose sheer ludicrousness is only surpassed by the ‘brother’ she resurrects and the zombie-like creatures that she unleashes on Midway City.

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In a movie in which the pre-release marketing material proved far more interesting than the film itself, it transpires that Jared Leto’s Joker, despite being the subject of much online argy-bargy, is one of the more tolerable characterisations in the film. Joel Kinnaman is wooden as Rick Flag, Davis looks utterly disinterested, Karen Fukuhara is grossly under-utilised as the sword-wielding Katana and Ben Affleck’s Batman adds little. Smith, meanwhile, is still yet to produce anything as good as his performance in Six Degrees of Separation some 20+ years ago. Even the stunts and special effects, whilst spectacular enough, are nothing beyond the level of technical wizardry we have already seen myriad times before. Given that Ayer is also responsible for a screenplay filled with cringe-inducing dialogue, he really has nobody to blame for this mess but himself. Sure, there was no doubt plenty of pressure from the studio, but ultimately the buck stops with the director. Much anticipated and full of potential to be something really interesting, Suicide Squad has emerged as a muddled mess in which the soundtrack – featuring the likes of Kanye West, Queen, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Etta James, Grimes and Eminem – is the best thing about it.

Jason Bourne

Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have reunited to bring superspy Jason Bourne back to the big screen and it is business as usual for the on-the-lam former operative whose disjointed memories of the past once again serve as the trigger for the series of events that unfold in each of the franchise instalments. In fact, the opening moments of Jason Bourne see our titular hero in the midst of a series of flashbacks to events that precede even the first film; specifically the death of his father and his recruitment into the Treadstone project. Living off the grid since learning the truth of his progression from David Webb to Jason Bourne through the course of the first three films (two directed by Paul Greengrass and the other by Doug Liman), Bourne is a loner who ekes out a living as a street fighter when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reaches out with information about what really happened to his father.

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In the midst of implementing yet another top secret surveillance project in cahoots with tech entrepreneur Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is far from happy to learn of Bourne’s re-emergence and dispatches a nameless asset (Vincent Cassel) to eradicate the threat. It is everything we expect from a Bourne film with fights aplenty, innumerable violent deaths (including plenty of innocent bystanders), subterfuge, crazy car chases and rapid-fire editing courtesy of Christopher Rouse. Par for the course in a Bourne story, there are those within the CIA at loggerheads with the old heads and on this occasion it is Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who seizes upon the situation to advance her own personal agenda. With Damon confined to minimal lines of dialogue, much of the film revolves around the battle of wits between Lee and Dewey.

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As is his wont, Greengrass weaves contemporary issues into the narrative, a chase scene through an anti-austerity riot in Athens a case in point. The street fires, water cannons and sirens create an electric atmosphere, with Rouse deftly cutting between aerial surveillance footage, handheld cameras and long-lens searches through the crowd. From this point, the pace rarely lets up with Cassel’s assassin pursuing Bourne from Athens to Berlin to Las Vegas, collateral damage aplenty along the way. The film also touches on issues such as citizen surveillance at the hands of the authorities, with Kalloor locking horns with Dewey over a deal to have surveillance technology embedded in his Deep Dream social media platform, apparently the result of a debt that harks back to his start-up days. As a character, Dewey is somewhat a caricature and is hardly a stretch for Jones, having played craggy, cranky types such as this many times before. Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Trishna) on the other hand is good as a man who finds a conscience seeping under his arrogant exterior.

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There is sense of sameness about Jason Bourne that is hard to ignore, with few surprises in how things pan out, all told in the distinctive Greengrass style. Yes, it is fast and furious, but those who claim that the breakneck editing from Rouse is a lazy approach are wrong because the more cuts required, the more work for the editor. However, there is no doubt that there are times when such an approach only serves to render the action somewhat disjointed.  At the end of the day, this is everything that franchise devotees might realistically expect given that both Damon and Greengrass had previously declared no interest in revisiting Bourne. Vikander’s character is perhaps the most interesting of the ensemble as the Swedish actress continues her rapid career ascendancy. Lee is a duplicitous dame whose motives are never really clear and, given the Bourne penchant for killing off their female characters, any appearance she makes in subsequent films may be very short lived indeed. Lacking originality in narrative and execution, Jason Bourne is an action film dressed up as a political thriller that would like us to believe it has something important to say about the state of the world. As such, it’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly insightful either.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

The biggest disappointment of this long awaited transition to the big screen is the over-emphasis on celebrity cameos at the expense of what has traditionally made the television series so hilarious, namely the nonsensical, delusional, self-absorbed behaviours of Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) and their complete inability to function in any way that remotely resembles rationality or regard for anybody other than themselves. Sure, the whole story here revolves around their efforts to avoid being held accountable for yet another calamity of their causing, but there are so many characters shoe-horned into the story that the two leading ladies never really get a chance to riff for any extended period of time. The basic premise – Edina accidentally kills supermodel Kate Moss in an attempt to secure her as a client for her PR agency – is simple enough and typical of the type of farcical fuck-up that (usually) makes Edina such a hopelessly likeable loser. The problem is that this story is really no more expansive than a typical episode of the show, so heaps of superfluous and stultifying scenarios are thrown into the mix to extend the running time to feature length.

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When Edina and Patsy are together, the cluelessness they share in their assessment of themselves and their place in the world is, for the most part, very amusing. Likewise, their mean-spirited interactions with Edina’s daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) are familiar and funny, while fans of the series will no doubt enjoy visiting all the old characters they remember, such as long-suffering personal assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks) or Edina’s ex-husband Marshall (Christopher Ryan) and his domineering wife Bo (Mo Gaffney). It is the inclusion of so many other characters, seemingly in an effort to draw in those not familiar with the show whilst also satisfying the expectations of diehards, that eventually weighs the piece down and ultimately leaves the whole thing feeling contrived and more than a little off-kilter. Having sent Moss hurtling into the Thames, our two penniless protagonists head to the south of France to evade arrest, escape the media storm and track down one of Patsy’s ex-boyfriends who they see as a ticket to living the high-life happily ever after. With no money of their own, they co-opt Saffron’s 12-yer-old daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) into their scheme. Despite being acutely aware just how unhinged the two women are, Lola cannot resist an opportunity for adventure.

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It goes without saying that nothing goes according to plan and the sheer hopelessness of the two women makes it easy for those trying to track them down, amongst whom are singer/actress Lulu – playing herself as one of Edina’s two remaining clients – and Saffrons’s policeman boyfriend Nick (Robert Webb). The likes of Jon Hamm, Rebel Wilson, Barry Humphries, Joan Collins and Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) feature in small roles, while Glee’s Chris Colfer delivers a performance so awful that it is difficult to endure, while myriad fashion industry types such as Stella McCartney, Jerry Hall, Lily Cole and Suki Waterhouse also feature. Heck, even talk show host Graham Norton, former Spice Girl Emma Bunton and internet parasite Perez Hilton appear briefly.

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Anybody who loves the BBC television series will want to love Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but the reality is that the two are very different beasts. Yes, Jennifer Saunders is the driving force behind both, writing and serving as Executive Producer on this occasion but simply unable to consistently capture the magic that makes the television series so hilarious. The making-it-up-as-they-go sloppiness that works so well on television becomes laboured over the course of 90 minutes. Overloaded with star power when all that’s needed is the delusional Edina and Patsy delivering a barrage of caustic barbs at Saffron (a fantastic character played wonderfully well by Sawalha over the 20+ years since the show started) and others, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie tries too hard to be too many things to too many people and, as a result, has likely failed to leave any of them completely satisfied.

Sing Street

Whilst John Carney might has proven himself to be a bit of a jerk with his recent attack on Keira Knightley, there is no doubt that the Irish filmmaker has an uncanny ability to capture the romantic magic of music. Announcing himself with his 2007 Dublin-set drama Once, which picked up an Academy Award for the original song Falling Slowly, Carney followed up with the underappreciated Begin Again in which Knightley plays a singer-songwriter who teams with a disillusioned record company boss to create a series of recordings that incorporate the sounds of daily life in bustling New York. With Sing Street, Carney returns to Dublin and again places music at the forefront of a narrative that plays out as a whimsical, witty romantic drama set in the 1980’s and drenched in the very best, and worst, of the music of the era. In addition to the music, the other standout from this is the performance of the largely unknown cast of young performers, led by 17-year-old Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in his first feature performance.

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Like so many young people, Walsh-Peelo’s Conor relies on music as an escape from the miseries that otherwise pervade his life; an escape from the tensions of his parents’ collapsing marriage and from the torment he endures at the Christian Brothers school to which he has recently been transferred. However, it is when Conor meets the mercurial Raphina (Lucy Boynton) that he finds himself in a pickle, having invited her to star in a music video for his band; a band that doesn’t exist. In fact, whilst Conor loves listening to music and gorging on the emerging art form of music videos, his musical skills are rudimentary at best, a failing that his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) doesn’t see as a problem because, after all, “the Sex Pistols couldn’t play either”. Having rounded up a motley bunch of neighbourhood misfits, Sing Street is formed and Conor, who finds himself a dab hand at song writing, sets about penning some original songs, primarily to impress the alluring Raphina.  As his home life becomes even more splintered, Conor seeks solace in the company of his band mates and the girl with whom he is smitten.

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It goes without saying that the road to romance does not run smoothly as Conor has to overcome a series of setbacks to win the hand of the damsel whose distress is masked by a persona that exudes confidence. All the characters that orbit Conor are clichés and none more so than Barry (Ian Kenny), a skin-headed thug who torments Conor at school as a result of the abuse he cops from his own father. However, despite the poor character development for many of the players, it is impossible not to get swept up in this wonderfully uplifting story about love, friendship and the power of music. The ‘80’s soundtrack – Duran Duran, The Cure, The Clash, Joe Jackson and many more – is fabulous and the original tracks written primarily by Carney, Gary Clark and Glen Hansard, and performed with considerable aplomb by Peelo, are terrific. The rollicking Drive It Like You Stole It is way better than so much of the schlock that currently populates commercial radio airwaves.

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Whilst Walsh-Peelo delivers a remarkably composed performance as the love struck teen for whom music presents as a potential pathway out of the mire and towards something much more meaningful, it is Boynton who really stands out as a young woman who is delusional and damaged yet utterly delightful in the way she embraces Conor and his clueless cohorts. Raynor also impresses as Jack, a 20-something stoner who, despite not having a job or any real prospects, has somehow amassed a killer record collection. Sure, Sing Street is rough around the edges at times with some scenes looking as cheaply staged as the music videos the boys make, along with some chronological liberties taken with the music referenced throughout, but it is such a feel-good frolic that these shortcomings are easily overlooked.