Blade Runner 2049

Perhaps one of the most anticipated sequels of recent times (amongst film buffs and sci-fi nerds at least, as box office figures suggest the mainstream viewing public hasn’t shared such enthusiasm), Blade Runner 2049 satisfies most in the way that it is nothing more, or less, than we could have hoped from such an undertaking, which is great. In the hands of director Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival),  this continuation of the story contains most of the elements that made the first film so exceptional, although it is cinematographer Roger Deakins who is perhaps the real hero in his stunning rendering of a not-too-distant future that is bleak and eerily beautiful all at once. As was the case in the first film (released in 1982), rain is ever present in the neon-saturated vision of Los Angeles in which a new breed of bio-engineered synthetic humans known as replicants work as blade runners, the title given to those responsible for tracking down earlier versions of their kind who have managed to thus far avoid detection and mandatory decommissioning.

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A perfectly cast Ryan Gosling is a blade runner known only as K and the film opens with him tracking down a replicant (Dave Bautista impressing in a small role) living a peaceful life and seemingly little threat to anybody; but rules are rules and he has to go. What K discovers in the course of this mission kick starts what becomes a detective story as he sets forth on an existential quest in search of answers to the mysteries of his own past (about which he knows nothing because all of his memories have supposedly been implanted). This ultimately leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the central figure from the first film; a former cop and blade runner who is now living in exile. Those who have been besotted with the ambiguities from the first film probably won’t find the clarity they seek because once again there is nothing definitive offered with regard to whether Deckard is, in fact, a replicant, although I think Villeneuve’s film makes it much easier to mount an argument challenging such a notion, but it is far from conclusive.

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There are times when the stunning visuals, production design and musical score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) threaten to overwhelm the action and there are certainly some characters and story elements – such as K’s virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) – that seem more about hypothesising on the nature of future technology than serving any narrative imperative. However, there are some strong female characters in Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), while Sean Young’s Rachael is resurrected from the first film and there has been conflicting reports about just how much of a role, if any, the notoriously outspoken, career-sabotaging Young actually played in the CGI-rendering of the character.  Gosling is pitch perfect as the emotionless, clinical replicant who starts to question the nature of his own existence, while Jared Leto features in a role seemingly made for his particular brand of weirdness and the likes of Edward James Olmos and Barkhad Abdi also appear briefly.

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Thankfully, Villeneuve has not set out to try and improve upon, replace or remake the original. He has made an entirely new piece that complements and enhances Ridley Scott’s first screen incarnation of Phillip Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like Scott’s masterwork, Blade Runner 2049 muses on the nature of humanity and poses more questions than it answers. Philosophical and no doubt more accessible for those already familiar with this world, it doesn’t matter that this might fall marginally short of the impeccable standard of its predecessor, because Villeneuve has constructed a piece of art that that stands tall as a great film in its own right.

Hounds of Love

If the thought of Dale Kerrigan from The Castle as a sexual predator and serial killer is likely to mess with your head, or break your heart, Hounds of Love is probably not for you. Perhaps best known for his comedic turns in movies (The Nugget, Take Away) and myriad television performances, Stephen Curry has proven himself equally adept at drama (The Cup),  although never before with a character quite as dark and disturbed as the manipulative, malevolent John White. Written and directed by first-timer Ben Young, Hounds of Love delves into the dark underbelly of Australian suburbia as White and his wife Evelyn (a de-glamorised Emma Booth) prey on teenage girls with most sinister intent.

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It is 1980-something in the suburbs of Perth where John and Evelyn prey on their victims, of whom there have been several prior to the series of events to which we become privy. Evelyn is a much more reluctant participant than her husband – her motivation resting on her desire to please him rather than the type of perverse pleasure that he draws from the encounters – but given it is only her involvement that enables John to access to the young women he keeps confined to a boarded-up bedroom in their otherwise unremarkable house, her culpability cannot be dismissed even though Young pitches her as a victim. The director has pointedly contended that, whilst the film has been marketed as such, he doesn’t see Hounds of Love as a horror film and, whilst that is a reasonable assessment, he does rely on the conventions of the genre, most noticeably the way in which the young victims are presented as being responsible for the horrors that subsequently befall them. The film opens with John and Evelyn watching a group of girls playing netball – a scene that plays out in agonising super slow motion – before they lure one of them into their car under the pretext of a lift home. Whilst we don’t learn of the fate of this particular young woman until later in the piece, it is the next victim around which the story revolves.      .

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Vicky Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) splits her time between her wealthy easygoing doctor father Trevor (Damian de Montemas) and her much more circumspect mother Maggie (Susie Porter), with whom she enjoys a somewhat strained relationship. When Maggie forbids Vicky from attending a party, she does what any self-respecting teenager would do and sneaks out regardless. Now, of course, such an act of defiance cannot go unpunished and, soon enough, Vicky finds herself bound, gagged and subject to all manner of deprivations. In the sanctity of his home, John is a brutish, manipulative psychopath, yet when he ventures outside, we discover that he is an object of ridicule in the neighbourhood and subject to bullying at the hands of the local drug dealer. The worrying thing is that this is almost offered as an excuse to justify John’s abhorrent behaviours. Furthermore, Young presents the indifference of John and Evelyn’s neighbours as being complicit in the horrors that Vicky (and those before her) endures, the specifics of which are easy enough to imagine even though they are never shown.

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Curry and Booth are eerily effective in the leads, although almost everybody suffers at the hands of a screenplay that lacks clarity and a narrative that doesn’t always follow a logical trajectory. There is plenty of tension in the final moments though as a three-way stand-off develops inside the house as Maggie and Trevor search desperately for Vicky sans any assistance from the police, who have declared Vicky’s disappearance (and those of all the missing girls whose pictures adorn the walls of the police station) as an act of teenage rebellion. Cinematographer Michael McDermott captures the tedium of Australian suburban life to great effect and the design team has deftly recreated the hideousness of 1980’s design and style. An ugly and uncomfortable movie despite Young’s efforts to spare us the gory details, Hounds of Love suffers from its desire to elicit sympathy for two particularly nasty predators.


Final Portrait

It seems that Geoffrey Rush is the go-to man when it comes to casting the crazy genius. Whilst the level of crazy has varied from those who are merely eccentric, left-of-centre and a little bit odd to others who are stark raving mad, Rush has proven equally adept across the spectrum. Whether it be piano virtuoso David Helfgott or theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, comedian Peter Sellers or libertine philosopher Marquis De Sade, Rush has never shied away from the scrutiny that inevitably accompanies any characterisation of real life characters. In Final Portrait, it is Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti who gets the Rush treatment in this latest directorial effort from Stanley Tucci, his first since 2007’s Blind Date. Giacometti, if this representation is to be believed, was a talented painter and sculptor riddled with self-doubt who worked at an infuriatingly slow pace, preferring to spend his time in the company of others, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Annette (Sylvie Testud).

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The film covers a period of just a few weeks in the life of Giacometti, told from the point-of-view of American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer, with little to do other than look pretty), a friend of the artist who agrees to sit for a portrait, a commitment that Giacometti assures him will require no more than a few hours of his time. However, the project ultimately drags on for weeks with Giacometti constantly berating himself and insisting that he needs to start again. It is very difficult to determine how much time the pair spent together in the studio because each of the sessions only occupy a minute or two of screen time (presumably much, much longer in reality), making it seem as though Giacometti gives up before he even really begins. It is also difficult to determine whether Giacometti’s inability to get the painting finished is because of a genuine dissatisfaction with the work or whether it is because he simply likes Lord’s company, which is certainly the case when it comes to Giacometti’s portrait sessions with Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a young prostitute with whom he enjoys a relationship, the nature of which, like so much of what we see, is never articulated clearly.

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Albert and Caroline are certainly very affectionate towards one another and whilst  we see nothing that suggests they are engaged in a sexual relationship, there are obviously assumptions that can be made given her line of work and with Tucci, who also wrote the screenplay, offering little by way any clarity in this regard, such postulations are all we are left with. Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) is terrifically understated and almost unrecognisable as Giacometti’s brother and collaborator Diego, a perpetually patient presence resigned to Alberto’s eccentricities and insecurities who developed a reputation of considerable renown as a sculptor in his own right.


Whilst the design team have recreated the ramshackle studio in which Giacometti worked with considerable accuracy, Tucci has compromised the authenticity of the piece by presenting the dialogue in English despite the fact that, according to various testimonies from people who had interactions with him, Giacometti could not speak a word of it. As such, whilst there is a significant physical resemblance between Rush and Giacometti, there is never a point when watching Final Portrait in which you lose yourself enough in the events to shed the lingering sense that there is something not quite right in Rush’s rendition of a character whose language no doubt formed a very large part of the way in which he expressed himself. For those who can forgive Tucci his willingness to sacrifice authenticity in a bid to entice those viewers for whom a foreign-language film is a fate worse than death, Final Portrait should prove enjoyable enough in the moment, but is unlikely to leave a lasting impression.


It is always amusing when a film somehow manages to generate a wave of rhetoric and faux outrage upon release and few have had such a polarising effect on audiences in recent times than this latest offering from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream). Some of the commentary has bordered on the hysterical and there seems to be a belief among many (including critics who should know better) that the quality of a film (and this film in  particular) must be judged more on how it makes you feel than how technically and artistically accomplished it may be. Hating Mother, or any other film, for whatever reason doesn’t mean that the film is somehow diminished as a work of art. After all, no artist has an obligation to produce work that makes the audience feel good and to assess the worth of a work on such a basis seems devoid of logic. Although Mother is populated by vile characters engaging in all manner of hedonistic debauchery that may leave some people feeling decidedly uncomfortable, and perhaps even somewhat discombobulated, the film is an impressive piece of work. Is it Aranofsky’s best? No. Is it better than most of the cookie-cutter claptrap coming out of Hollywood?  Absolutely!

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Interestingly, all of the grotesquery that pervades the film is seemingly drawn from the stories and characters of the bible, from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel and Ash Wednesday, with the most obvious allegorical element being Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as either Gaia (Mother Earth) or the Virgin Mary, depending on your interpretation. Bardem, whose character is only ever identified as Him, is a revered poet struggling with writer’s block, while Lawrence’s Mother is his much younger wife who possesses an almost Stepford-like devotion to the house they share. When strangers Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) – ostensibly Adam and Eve – arrive at the doorstep and are invited to stay by Him, tensions mount as the houseguests go beyond boorish and brazen in their disdain for Mother. Harris looks suitably gaunt for a man battling an unspecified illness, while Pfeiffer has never been this nasty on screen before and it is good to see her play a character who goes beyond self-absorbed, taking nastiness to a whole new level. Needless to say, they are unable to resist the temptations that lurk in the writer’s study (the Garden of Eden?) and there are no surprises for guessing what happens when their two sons (played by real life siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and a fight ensues. If you think this gives too much away, you are very much mistaken because none of this prepares you what happens through the second half of the film.

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Mother is highly stylised and has been decried by some as pretentious and self-indulgent, but I’m not sure that such accusations are reasonable. Despite the $30 million budget, it seems unlikely that Aronofsky was ever expecting this to attract a mainstream audience in large numbers, although he may well have convinced the studio backers otherwise. It is an audacious film and, to their credit, the various performers seem to have given their all in the name of realising Aronofsky’s unique vision, which seems to also take aim at contemporary issues such as the cult of celebrity and the expectation that the famous must forgo their rights to privacy and dignity in the service of the mob who feel they are owed for their devotion.

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The labyrinthine house is a character in itself, a mysterious bleeding hole in the floor open to all manner of interpretation. The film draws from horror tropes (isolated location, home invaders, hidden basement rooms) but could never be considered a horror film as such. There is plenty of disturbing moments to be sure, but Mother is most frightening in what it has to say about the perils of idolatry in all its forms. This is a perverse, powerful, prescient piece of work from a filmmaker who has a history of delving into the darker recesses of humanity (obsession, addiction, physical and psychological collapse), all of which are on display in abundance here.

The Dancer

The casting of French actress-musician Soko in the lead role is perhaps the biggest strength of this biopic that explores the life and work of Belle Epoque dancer Loie Fuller. In a film that has seemingly taken many liberties with the facts, Soko manages to make the central character a sympathetic figure despite a refusal to compromise that pushes her to the brink of physical and psychological collapse. Helmed by first-time feature director Stéphanie Di Giusto, The Dancer is an ode to creativity and perseverance, celebrating the determination, influence and work ethic of an unconventional artist whose real talents lay in developing unique costume, stage and lighting designs that elevated her performances into a mesmerising display of colour and movement unlike anything that had been seen before. The film does drift into melodrama towards the end, particularly with regard to the relationship between Fuller and the manipulative Isadora (Lily-Rose Depp), but it is a powerful performance from Soko that ensures the film serves as a worthy tribute to an iconic, pioneering artist.

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In an opening sequence that covers a lot of territory in a very short space of time before the opening credits and is, apparently, completely fictional and somewhat removed from the reality of her upbringing, we are introduced to Loie as a 20-something living a hardscrabble existence with her father Ruben (Denis Menochet) somewhere in the American Northwest at the back end of the 19th century. When Ruben is shot and killed (the reason for which is never revealed), Loie makes her way to New York where she takes up residence with her mother Lili (Amanda Plummer), who is a devout devotee of the Temperance Union, an evangelical Christian women’s organisation committed to a life of purity. Seeking a career as an actress, it is during a theatre performance that a wardrobe malfunction proves serendipitous; the catalyst for the creation of the Serpentine Dance that captivates audiences and ultimately secures her a spot with the famed Folies Bergere in Paris.

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The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Loie relies on heavily her expansive dress, elaborate staging and expensive lighting to compensate for her shortcomings as a dancer. Ultimately though, it is the combination of all the various elements that make her performances so spectacular. What is perhaps most impressive about Loie is her refusal to succumb to the torturous physical toll that the performances necessarily demand of her, as though she is punishing herself in some way. When Loie is approached by the Paris Opera to present a performance, she gathers a collective of young protégés that includes Isadora, a beautiful and immensely talented dancer who captivates Loie both professionally and personally. This relationship is not handled particularly well by Di Giusto and ultimately only serves as a distraction, for both Loie and the movie audience.

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As Loie’s benefactor of sorts, Gaspard Ulliel’s Count d’Orsay is an extremely strange character indeed. Physically presenting as a cross between Dick Dastardly and the bad guy from kids TV show Lazy Town, the perpetually ether-sniffing d’Orsay spends much of the film lusting after Loie yet is seemingly impotent. It is his influence that secures Loie her utmost opportunity, yet he makes a spectacular exit from her life at the moment of her greatest triumph. Of the supporting players, Melanie Thierry fares best as Loie’s wrangler Gabrielle, while it is always great to see Plummer (The Fisher King, Pulp Fiction) on screen, although her role here is somewhat inconsequential. The dance sequences are presented in such a way by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Irreversible, Spring Breakers) to capture the mesmerising beauty of Loie’s performances and Soko effectively imbues the insecurity, single-mindedness and quiet despondency of her character. Regardless of the fact that Di Giusto has been somewhat loose in her rendering of the events of Loie’s life, The Dancer is a thoughtful and engaging biopic about an artiste who perhaps deserves one more moment in the spotlight.


Patti Cakes

Stories about those for whom music – and rap/hip-hop in particular – have proven an escape from economic and social marginalisation are plentiful and several have already been committed to celluloid via real life re-enactments of the lives of performers such as Eminem (8 Mile), NWA (Straight Outta Compton) and 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Whilst this first ever feature from writer/director Geremy Jasper follows a very similar narrative trajectory as these other films, it is a significant point of difference that the rapper at the centre of the story is Patricia Dombrowski (aka Patti Cakes), a young, overweight white woman struggling to be taken seriously in what is undeniably the most misogynistic of all music genres.  Although this is a fictional story, there seems little doubt that the treatment dished out to Patti is reflective of the struggles women face in trying to break through the wall of machismo that serves to subjugate female voices. In one scene, when Patti upstages a posturing pretender in an impromptu rap battle, she is dismissed with a head butt and a tirade of vitriolic abuse.

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Played with tremendous gusto by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, Patti is a hard working and thoroughly likeable young woman who lives in New Jersey with her deadbeat mother Barb (Bridgett Everett) and ailing grandmother (an aged-up Catherine Moriarty). Once on the cusp of her own success as a singer, Barb has now resigned herself to a routine of drunken nights and a struggle to stay one step ahead of debtors. As she necessarily takes on more responsibility in the wake of Barb’s inability to make ends meet, Patti’s rhymes become her only respite from what is an otherwise dismal existence. Trying to have her voice heard (both literally and figuratively), Patti and her sidekick Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) team up with Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious and unconventional musician, to produce an album under the somewhat naff moniker of PBNJ. However, in the face of myriad setbacks, Patti struggles under the weight of pressure in trying to balance her work and home responsibilities with her dreams of success. Far from the romanticised renderings of New Jersey that the likes of Bruce Springsteen have invoked in song, Jasper paints New York’s nearest neighbour as a wasteland of decay and despair.

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Macdonald certainly doesn’t wilt under the pressure of taking on the lead in her first feature film role, delivering a wonderfully brazen performance as Patti (who performs as Killa P), handling the determination, vulnerability and despair of her character with equal aplomb. However, pretty much every other character is burdened by cliché, a lack of nuance and, with the exception of Moriarty (Raging Bull, Cop Land), unconvincing performances. Everett struggles to make Barb believable and Jheri is an amalgam of various middle-eastern stereotypes, while a late-in-the-piece character transformation comes across as an exercise in playing it safe rather than any narrative necessity.

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Patti is a victim of the failings of others and her biggest challenge lies in convincing herself that she is good enough to secure a future for herself that offers more than tending bar in a low-rent establishment or waiting on guests at fancy parties. Whilst Patti is desperate to secure the attention of her rap hero O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), it is a fellow female rapper who ultimately provides her with an opportunity to showcase her talents and, unlike the true life tales that are the basis of other films of this type, we bring no pre-existing knowledge about the trajectory of the characters fortunes to this story, and Jasper doesn’t offer any definitive answers with regard to whether Patti reaches a level of success that enables her to break free from the shackles of social disadvantage. Despite its shortcomings, there is a lot to like about Patti Cakes, not the least of which is a breakout performance from another Australian seemingly on the cusp of big things in Hollywood.

Big Sound Shots

Big Sound is done for another year with Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley hosting more than 130 new and established Australian and international artists across 18 venues over three nights. Always one of the highlights of Brisbane’s live music calendar, this year saw an expanded schedule of showcase performances staged in conjunction with the Big Sound Music Conference.


Photos from all three nights of the festival have been uploaded to the gallery.