Rogue One

A story that stands on its own but also connects perfectly with the existing films in the franchise, Rogue One is everything you could want in a Star Wars prequel. Whilst familiarity with the previous films and the broader world(s) in which they are set will give you an added insight and appreciation of what transpires, a franchise first-timer should also find this plenty enjoyable. This is a completely new story that sheds light on what transpired prior to the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, which is the first of the films to be released but the fourth (now fifth) chronologically in the series. Other than the absence of the opening text crawl that is synonymous with the series (an omission that will no doubt leave many diehards apoplectic), Rogue One has almost everything – both good and bad – that we have come to expect from a Star Wars property. Although populated by a collection of new characters, everything else is instantly recognisable; from the music to the costumes to the iconic figures whose likenesses have filled toy boxes and adorned bedroom walls for more than 35 years. Whilst it would be giving too much away to say exactly who pops up as the events unfold, there is no spoiler alert needed in declaring that Darth Vader’s significant presence is as welcome as always for anybody who has grown up on a diet of Galactic Empire versus Rebel Alliance.

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As was the case with The Force Awakens, there is a female character front and centre of the narrative here and Felicity Jones is surprisingly effective in action hero mode as Jyn Erso, a young woman recruited by the Rebel Alliance to retrieve the design specifications for the Death Star, a weapon developed by the evil Empire with the capability of destroying entire planets. Other than a brief opening scene featuring Jyn as a child who escapes when her scientist father Galen Orso (Mads Mikkelson) is taken against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to lead the team developing the Death Star, the story follows Jyn’s attempts to retrieve the plans, a mission she has accepted only because of the opportunity it presents to rescue her father from Krennic’s clutches. As is Star Wars tradition, our hero is accompanied by a motley band of rogues who bring particular attributes to the party. In a homage to legendary Japanese samurai film Zatoichi, one of her companions-in-arms is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who wields a staff and bowcaster to remarkable effect, although it has to be said that the stormtroopers of the Empire are perhaps the most inept fighting force ever committed to celluloid. With elements of western and war films in the mix as well, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) successfully melds the conventions of multiple genres to create a hugely entertaining summer blockbuster that is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.   

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Mendelsohn, harnessing all of the menace he brought to TV in Bloodline and then some, is one of many Australians to have featured in the franchise films, with the international cast also including Diego Luna as intelligence officer Cassian Andor, Wen Jiang as freelance fighter Baze Malbus and Riz Ahmed as fighter pilot Bodhi Rook, whose defection from the Empire sets the whole series of events into motion. Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa, with Forrest Whittaker also featuring as resistance fighter Saw Gerrera. The digital resurrection of Peter Cushing (using actor Guy Henry and motion capture technology) as Grand Moff Tarkin will divide audiences and, whilst it is far from convincing in its execution, the filmmakers obviously felt the character needed to be included given his connection to the Death Star.

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Whilst the Disney acquisition of the Star Wars properties was (understandably) a cause for some initial concern about the future direction of this venerated pop culture phenomenon, thus far at least they have proven respectful to the history and hysteria that surrounds it. Perhaps most surprising of all is the fact that the company who single-handedly developed a genre of films in which damsels in distress are rescued by white male princes has taken the lead in developing a film with a strong female lead and a multi-cultural cast that flies in the face of industry practice. Here’s hoping that the box office success of Rogue One brings an end to the antiquated idea that only white males put bums on cinema seats.

La La Land

It is not surprising to learn that this third feature from Damien Chazelle, and the follow-up to the award-winning Whiplash, is also garnering plenty of critical love because La La Land is like nothing we have seen for quite some time. Filled with song and dance numbers and many moments of mirth, this is a rollicking romantic musical that, whilst set in contemporary Los Angeles, is very much rooted in the past, both stylistically and conceptually. Whilst revelling in its reminiscences of a bygone era in Hollywood – the so-called Golden Age of studio production between the 1930’s and the end of the 1950‘s – the film is not so reverential in its representation of modern Hollywood, satirising the superficiality of the industry today. The film opens with a marvellous musical number that incorporates singing and dancing with elements of parkour and acrobatics, all seemingly captured in one shot, the camera sweeping over, around and between cars and the 100 dancers who perform in the scene. Even if there is a cut or two hidden in there somewhere, the sheer scale of the scene is remarkable and required the closing of a section of LA’s 105 freeway for an entire weekend.

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It is during this elaborate opening that we meet Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), characters whose first interaction is nothing more than to flip the bird at one another as they negotiate their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Mia is an aspiring actress and playwright who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot whilst attending endless auditions. It is during these various audition scenes that Chazelle delivers a cynical take on modern Hollywood as Mia’s efforts are summarily dismissed by the arrogant power trippers on whose shoulders her aspirations rest. Sebastian is a pianist and jazz purist who is very particular about the music he listens to, the music he plays and where he plays it, except a lack of demand for traditional jazz sees him stoop to playing Christmas Carols in a restaurant and keyboards in an ‘80’s cover bend just to make ends meet.

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Gosling and Stone have worked together on screen on two previous occasions (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad) and their chemistry is a very large part of makes La La Land soar. When Mia and Sebastian encounter each other for a second time, the interaction is brief and hardly the type of moment likely to inspire romantic yearnings, yet they do fall in love and their romance is played out through a series of song-and-dance numbers. The fact that neither Stone nor Gosling are great singers only adds to the authenticity of these otherwise unrealistic moments, but the two performers compensate for any technical deficiencies with an abundance of charm. The songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are tender and catchy and lack the earnestness that has sometimes plagued more traditional musicals. In fact, there is a lot of humour throughout the piece that adds to the charm of these characters and their circumstances; the search for Mia’s car after a party in a street where every car is the identical hybrid model is particularly amusing given what it says about Hollywood types.

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There are small roles for Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sister and JK Simmons (who won an Academy Award for his role in Whiplash) as the restaurant owner who has no tolerance of Sebastian’s free jazz stylings. Whilst both have proven themselves great performers in a variety of productions, neither have much to do here as it is music star John Legend who has the most significant supporting role. Although the film soars on the back of the performances from the leads, the choreographers, costume designers and production design team have also played a huge role in making La La Land such a treat. The film looks as fabulous as it sounds, the screen bursting with colour and bristling with energy. La La Land is a bold, stylish, wholesome, highly original piece of cinematic joy that pays homage to a celebrated period in Hollywood history, whilst remaining very much embedded in a contemporary world, albeit one in which people spontaneously burst into song, and dance amongst the stars.

Ali Barter Returns

Having performed at The Zoo during Big Sound two years ago, Ali Barter returned to the same venue on Thursday night (December 15) for a headline show on the back of two strong EP releases and plenty of airplay on Triple J.

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A combination of catchy pop gems, acoustic balladry and some genuine rock and roll, Barter delivered a terrific set to a very enthusiastic, if smaller than expected, crowd.

A gallery of images from the show are in the gallery.

Personal Shopper

It is certainly hard to categorise the latest film from Olivier Assayas, a most unconventional study of a young American woman living in Europe who works, as the title suggests, as a personal shopper for a celebrity, a job that consists entirely of sourcing suitable clothes – usually on loan – for her employer to wear at the endless appearances she makes each day. It is a job that might look appealing – and I can certainly imagine there are many people for whom spending their days day visiting fashion outlets and designers would be heaven – but Maureen (Kristen Stewart) finds it deeply unsatisfying, perhaps in large part due to the fact that Kyra, the person for whom she works, is a somewhat unpleasant entity. On the upside, Maureen’s work allows her plenty of time to moonlight as a medium, a skill-set she shares with her recently deceased brother, Lewis, who died from the same heart condition that also afflicts Maureen. Communicating with dead people aside, there are obvious similarities between Stewart’s character here and her role in The Clouds of Sils Maria, her previous collaboration with Assayas that netted her a Cesar Award. Obviously those who admonish the idea of communicating with the dead as hokum might find it hard to invest too much in Maureen’s efforts to make contact with Lewis; the pair having made a pact that whoever dies first is to send a message from the ‘other side’.

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Despite the otherworldly elements within the narrative, descriptions of Personal Shopper as a ghost story are perhaps a little bit misrepresentative of what is going on as it is never entirely clear whether what transpires in Maureen’s efforts to communicate with Lewis are supernatural or psychological. Of course, those who don’t believe in the idea of ghosts and the like will no doubt see Maureen’s desire to communicate with Lewis as a psychological disorder rather than a genuine ability to engage with the spirits or other such manifestations of life after death. When she perceives a series of text messages as having been sent by Lewis, questions about her state of mind certainly do begin to manifest. The text messages soon take the form of a series of orders that push Maureen to challenge herself and engage in acts of rebellion, such as trying on the various outfits she has acquired for Kyra. It has to be said that, given that it is obvious to the viewer who is responsible for sending the text messages, it is a little surprising that Maureen is not able to identify the source until they reveal themselves.

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As was the case in The Clouds of Sils Maria, things happen without explanation and it is often unclear what has transpired. Throughout the film, Maureen engages in several Skype calls with her boyfriend who is working in Oman, but there comes a point very late in the film that leads you to question whether he even exists. This is one of numerous ambiguities that Assayas (who also wrote the screenplay) leaves unresolved and his approach to editing also sees several scenes cut short without offering any definitive resolution to the sequence of events. Perfectly cast as the fidgety, mumbling Maureen, Stewart is in every scene and is a mesmerising presence on screen, often elevating an otherwise mundane moment with the merest gesture that emphasises her character’s discomfort with herself and the world around her.

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With elements of a murder mystery, ghost story, psychological thriller and character study of a young woman struggling to understand her place in the world, Personal Shopper explores grief, loneliness, identity and the culture of celebrity that certainly places the film firmly within a contemporary world that we recognise. This film will be different things to different people and that may be both its greatest strength and biggest failing. It might be hard to pin down because, let’s face it, there aren’t too many films that combine elements of horror and fantasy within a Paris-set satire of the fashion industry, but it is not hard to enjoy it, in large part due to Stewart’s performance and Assayas’ willingness to experiment with form, both narratively and visually. A disjointed effort that asks more questions than it answers, Personal Shopper is an intriguing, if not completely successful, attempt to transcend genre at a time when so few filmmakers seem willing to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling.

Daughter

The Iranian film industry might be small, and it might be subjected to excessive scrutiny and restrictions at a governmental level, but it certainly punches above its weight when it comes to producing quality cinema. Producing directors such as Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiorastami, Asghar Farhadi and Reza Mirkarimi, Iran seems a fertile breeding ground for filmmakers who can overcome whatever obstacles that may exist to deliver stories that possess universal appeal. With Daughter, Mirkarimi has crafted a narrative that explores the tensions between a strict father who wants to protect a daughter who is desperate for a little independence. This basic narrative premise is nothing new as we have seen many films that have followed a similar narrative trajectory and explored similar themes, albeit with variances in tone and technique, from the trite (10 Things I Hate About You) to the tragic (The Virgin Suicides), so it really comes down to the direction from Mirkarimi and the performances of his cast if Daughter is to stand out from the crowd.  Fortunately, both are superb and Daughter soars as a moving and amusing drama that examines the struggles for young people in breaking free from the influence and expectations of their parents, particularly within a traditional culture where gender and generational expectations are entrenched in almost every aspect of day-to-day life.

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The daughter of the title is Setareh (Mahoor Alvand), a young university student who lives with her family in a town situated in southern Iran. Saterah’s father Ahmad (Farhad Aslani) is a senior manager who works long hours at the huge industrial plant that seems to be the lifeblood of the city and the sheer size of the facility is beautifully captured by cinematographer Hamid Khozouie Abyane. Ahmad is strict and authoritarian both at work and at home, but there is a softer side to him that slowly reveals itself as events unfold. When Ahmad forbids Saterah from flying to Tehran to farewell a university friend, she decides to go anyway with a plan to return home before Ahmad is even aware she is gone. When a dust storm grounds her return flight though, Ahmad learns of her deception and engages in a typically alpha male course of action; hitting the highway for an all-night drive to retrieve her.

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It is when Ahmad arrives in Tehran that we learn more about issues from his past and how these complex and complicated family dynamics have shaped his personality more so than religious doctrine.  Yes, Ahmad is a traditional, Islamic father, but this is not presented as a stereotype. He is an absorbing character and the film becomes as much about Ahmad as it does Sateram, which only serves to strengthen the narrative. Furthermore, the group of friends with whom Satera spends a boisterous lunch challenge the more typical media representations of Muslim women. These are young women with aspirations and their frank conversation covers topics such as education, relationships and their various interpretations of freedom. Whilst it would be easy to suggest that such a story is one that draws on the specific cultural tenets of Islamic culture, any suggestion that the film is testimony to the oppression of women in Iran would be absurd.  After all, a patriarchal cultural structure in which parents assert their values and beliefs on their children is not the exclusive domain of Islamic society.

Striking and captivating, it is not surprising to learn that the film, its director and stars have picked up several awards at various international film festivals. Aslani, in particular, has been celebrated for his performance, and rightly so given his ability to deliver a moment of emotion (anger, confusion, sadness, regret) without saying a word, but Alvand is equally impressive as the daughter who simply wants to spread her wings a little. Mirkarimi obviously has no interest in presenting Iran as an ‘exotic other’ and the scenes in Tehran show the Iranian capital as a modern, bustling metropolis that could just as easily be any city in Europe or elsewhere. He also resists the urge to wrap things up neatly, leaving many questions unanswered and a distinct lack of clarity with regard to the fate and future of the characters. On many levels, Daughter is an extraordinarily well-made addition to the ever-expanding canon of Iranian cinema.