Captain Fantastic

The idea of Viggo Mortenson as a father raising a tribe of kids in an off-the-grid self-sufficient lifestyle hints at something really interesting and, whilst there are some really enjoyable moments in Captian Fantastic, ultimately the film fails to fully realise the potential of the premise. That is not to say this is a bad movie because there is much to like, but it just seems as though writer/director Matt Ross has taken the easy option in the interests of trying to mould an unconventional story about unconventional characters into something that will still satisfy those viewers who like their film narratives to follow a somewhat predictable and, dare I say, happy trajectory.

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Deep in the forests of Washington State, Ben Cash (Mortenson) is a devoted father, committed to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education. The children do not go to school, but they are very intelligent, albeit without any understanding of how the world works beyond the regimented routine that Ben has instilled in them; hunting, physical training (in various forms from gruelling runs, to mountain climbing to hand-to-hand combat) and reading (philosophy, literature) are the staples of each day. They do not celebrate Christmas, instead choosing to celebrate events such as Noam Chomsky’s birthday because, unlike Jesus or Santa Claus, Chomsky is real and important. Ben’s wife Leslie (Trin Miller) has been hospitalised, forcing the family to embark on a road trip aboard the Partridge Family-style bus that is their only means of transportation. The tension of the story lies in the conflict between Ben and his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) about the way in which the children are being raised. Much argy-bargy ensues as the arrogant, wealthy Jack threatens to have the children removed from Franks care. It’s hard to delve into much more detail without giving away key plot developments, but in Ben and Frank, Ross has constructed two alpha male characters that could not be any more different.

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Even though we only ever see Leslie in flashbacks/dream sequences, she is very much at the core of the tensions as Frank holds Ben responsible for the circumstances that have led to her hospitalisation. In that regard, the film fails as an exploration of mental illness as it descends into nothing more than two men at loggerheads about what is best for a woman who is never really given any voice of her own. Frank is a reprehensible construct whose superciliousness is too extreme to be taken seriously and Langella’s considerable talents are wasted on a character whose every action is driven by jealousy and an overwhelming sense of superiority. He wants to take the kids from Ben as revenge for what has happened to Leslie. To be fair, Ben is also a somewhat extreme character, but at least he is driven by a genuine desire to protect his family from a world that he sees as toxic; socially, politically and environmentally. Much like Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast, in his efforts to protect his children, Ben might actually be putting them at risk.

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Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine presents the north-west landscape as both menacing and majestic, while Ross’s music choices are unconventional, mostly diagetic and absolutely inspired. A funeral scene that might typically play out as a moment of sombre reflection is actually a moment of uplift and inspiration through the use of Guns n Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine. Mortenson is perfectly cast in the lead role and delivers another typically solid performance, while the six young performers – George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell –  are universally impressive as the Cash children, whose ages range from 8 to 18. As the oldest, Mackay’s Bodevan has the biggest narrative arc as his desire to attend college is in conflict with Ben’s views on formalised education, but all of them enjoy moments in the spotlight. Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn also feature as the sister and brother-in-law who represent the exact type of banal, vacuous existence that Ben is so desperate to avoid. Amusing, emotional and thought provoking at times, Captain Fantastic is an entertaining romp that is let down by the compromise of the ending, seemingly with an eye to the mainstream of which Ben would want no part.

Big Sound Snaps

No event brings Fortitude Valley to life quite like Big Sound. Whilst there is always plenty happening in Brisbane’s entertainment and live music precinct, including great annual events such as Valley Fiesta, it is only Big Sound that brings artists, music industry representatives and fans together for a feast of  live music over three nights. Wednesday and Thursday evenings feature official Big Sound showcase performances from 150 artists at 15 different venues, with Friday night set aside for the official closing party at The Triffid.

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Throw in the increasing number of pre-festival shows, industry showcases and post-festival events and there is now a week of live music on offer. The 2016 event again featured great performances from an eclectic batch of bands and artists.

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Photos from the three nights of Big Sound 2016 have been posted in the gallery, with images captured at the Night Before Big Sound at The Foundry available here.

The Space Between

The title of this first ever Australia-Italy co-production could easily refer to the myriad spaces between those moments when something actually happens. First time feature director Ruth Borgobello – a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts – has crafted a film that looks beautiful but is lacking in emotional or narrative heft. Themes such as aging, grief, sacrifice and love are touched upon but never really explored in any depth. In fact, other than a couple of brief moments that draw an emotional reaction, the whole thing plays out as a somewhat stilted story that never looks to be leading anywhere interesting and ultimately doesn’t. In fact, when the ending comes, you are never likely to give another thought to this couple who engage in one of the most tepid on-screen couplings we have seen for quite a while. A complete lack of chemistry between Marco (Flavio Parenti) and Olivia (Maeve Dermody) renders their relationship unconvincing, which makes it hard to care too much what happens to them or between them.

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Marco is a talented chef who, having abandoned his job in New York following the death of his mother, has returned to his home town of Udine in Italy where he works in a factory and takes care of his father. He and his friend Claudio (Lino Guanciale) hold elaborate dinner parties and it is at one of these soirees that he meets Audrey (Patricia Mason), an Australian restaurant owner who offers him an opportunity to work in Melbourne. As luck would have it, tragedy strikes and Marco finds himself struggling to cope with the fallout when he comes across Olivia – another Australian just in case there was any doubt about the funding arrangements – who is in town to sell an apartment that belongs to her grandparents. Perhaps the most frustrating failing of the piece is the lack of personality that afflicts so many of the other characters that permeate the narrative. With the exception of the elderly couple who run a hotel visited by Claudio and Olivia, there is nobody who possesses the level of flamboyance and charisma we might typically expect from a film set in this part of the world. Sure, you don’t want people presented as ethnic stereotypes, but the supporting players here are all so dull that it is excruciating. Furthermore, we don’t even find out the names of some of them and/or what their relationship is to Marco and each other.

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The northern Italian architecture and the cobblestone laneways, which look particularly fetching at night, are captured to great effect by cinematographer Katie Milwright (Looking for Grace) and, as such, The Space Between looks suitably romantic. It’s just a shame too much time is spent on dream/flashback sequences rather than developing the relationship between the two leads. Neither character is fleshed out in any great detail, but Olivia in particular is a mystery. We learn little about her other than the fact she likes to help herself to other people’s stuff, a proclivity which results in the only real moment of tension between the two. Despite supposedly having fallen for each other, neither Marco nor Olivia seems particularly upset when it appears as though they could find themselves living on opposite sides of the globe.

The film touches on the efforts of those wanting to protect the legacy of somebody after they have died and this is perhaps the most interesting, and emotionally complex, thread of the narrative so it would have been good to see Borgobello, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mario Mucciarelli, place greater emphasis on this aspect of the story. As an Australian production (well, partly at least) directed by a new female filmmaker, this is the type of movie that you really want to like and, whilst there is plenty to admire in the aesthetics, there just isn’t enough substance to make this The Space Between – the fifth feature with this title in the last six years or so – particularly memorable.

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The Space Between will feature during the 2016 Lavazza Italian Film Festival at Palace Barracks from September 28 to October 19. For festival information, including session times and ticketing, head to the festival website.

Big Sound Starts Now

The annual Big Sound music festival gets underway tonight (September 7) in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Featuring more than 150 bands and musical artists across 15 venues, Big Sound is a feast for live music lovers.

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Amongst those performing over the two nights of the festival are Alex Lahey, Tkay Maidza, Vera Blue, DZ Deathrays, Olympia and The Gooch Palms. The full schedule of performances is available here.

Caxton Festival Music Line-Up Locked In

A stellar live music line-up for the 2016 Caxton Street Festival has been announced, with Last Dinosaurs headlining a bill that also includes Urthboy, Stonefield, Cub Sport, Elizabeth Rose and The Creases. More than 15 musical artists and DJ’s will perform throughout the day, with a new dance stage to feature this year for the first time.

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The festival, which features a cornucopia of seafood, street food and gourmet gastronomic offerings from myriad bars, restaurants and food outlets in the Caxton Street precinct, will take place on the Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend (Sunday, October 2).

In addition to great food and music offerings, there will also be an abundance of pop-up bars throughout the event showcasing a variety of wines, beers and assorted refreshing beverages.

For more information about the 2016 Caxton Street Festival, head to the event website or follow Caxton Street Festival on Facebook.

The Shallows

Since the unbridled mania of Jaws in 1975, all who have tried to emulate its success have fallen short and this latest attempt at recapturing the magic formula of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster is no different. If you can accept Blake Lively as both a doctor and a skilled surfer, then you are probably not likely to worry too much about any of the other improbabilities that pervade this offering from Spanish producer/director Juame Collet-Serra. Despite the premise in which a shark menaces a surfer just 200 metres or so from an isolated beach, this is a far more sedate work than Collet-Serra’s recent outings; Liam Neeson actioners Non-Stop and Run All Night.  However, being more subdued doesn’t necessarily mean this is any more logical or enjoyable. To be fair though, whilst this is flawed in many ways, it is still infinitely better than other recent renderings of sharks on screen, including Shark Night, the abominable Sharknado series or even Aussie offerings such as Bait and The Reef.

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Given that the actual likelihood of falling victim to a shark attack is highly improbable and that any such attack isn’t likely to present the narrative complexity needed to sustain a feature length film, all filmmakers – Spielberg included – have had to take liberties with their portrayal of these creatures, making them much bigger, meaner and more persistent than the reality of the species. Such is the case here as Nancy (Lively) is harassed by an oversized predator that has seemingly overdosed on angry pills. In a bid to connect with her recently deceased mother, Nancy has ventured to the same remote Mexican beach that her mother had visited many years earlier. Joining a couple of locals in the water, the opening segment of the film is simply a montage of surfing imagery as Nancy (no doubt a combination of CGI and surfing stand-ins) takes on the barrels that break off shore. Before long, the others head back to the beach and Nancy finds herself in the company of a shark lured to the area by a whale carcass floating nearby. Despite the abundant food that the carcass offers, the shark takes a fancy to Nancy instead and a battle of wits begins.

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Having suffered a nasty gash to her leg in her initial encounter with her stalker, Nancy takes refuge on a rocky outcrop that will be submerged come high tide, drawing on her medical expertise (how convenient) to treat the wound whilst working out exactly how she is going to escape the predicament in which she finds herself. A nearby buoy offers her best chance of survival, provided she can make it without being chomped by her great white adversary. The action amps up at this point as Nancy finds herself under attack, clinging desperately to the beacon as the shark becomes increasingly aggressive. This also means that things become somewhat sillier, Nancy setting the ocean on fire at one point before the showdown comes to a somewhat ludicrous end.

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There are a few other characters that appear very briefly at various stages, but ultimately it is Lively who is front and centre of The Shallows, featuring in every scene and spending much of her screen time muttering to herself or the injured seagull that shares the rock with her. Filmed on the Gold Coast and Lord Howe Island, the photography from Flavio Martínez Labiano captures the beauty of the locations and, thankfully, he and Collet-Serra resist the temptation to have the camera linger over Lively’s body excessively despite the skimpiness of the bikini that serves as her costume for all but a few minutes. There is certainly an effort to present Nancy as something more than just sex appeal, although Lively isn’t entirely convincing in the more intense moments. The means by which she communicates her predicament to those on the mainland is quite clever though and brings a contemporary spin to proceedings. As was the case with Jaws all those years ago, the biggest problem lies in the fact that the shark just doesn’t look convincing, which makes it hard to generate the requisite level of fear for the fate of the protagonist. Dinosaurs are no problem, but it still seems as though creating a realistic-looking shark still lies beyond the capabilities of CGI practitioners.

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.