Loveless

Quietly commanding and utterly compelling, this finely layered drama from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is an immensely powerful examination of regret and the consequences of compromise. Sustained by its performances and tone, the movie is a bleak, haunting experience that remains absorbing even when there seems, on the surface at least, to be very little happening. This is a film that will no doubt engender myriad emotional responses during the course of its running time, from anger to empathy and everything in between. Having been responsible for some of the most well received films of recent times with the likes of Elena and Leviathan, Zvyagintsev has produced yet another powerfully perceptive examination of contemporary Russia, this time via a recently divorced couple for whom resentment and hatred are the core of their daily existence in the small apartment they share with their young son for whom neither wants to take any responsibility.

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After a mesmeric opening shot that captures the brutal beauty of a Russian winter, we meet 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) as he exits school for the day with a smile on his face, taking his time to explore the creek and surrounds as he makes his way home. Although they are divorced, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) continue to live together whilst waiting for their apartment to sell, incessantly bickering whilst each is trying to palm responsibility for Alyosha on to the other. Both are involved in new relationships and neither sees their son as anything more than a hindrance to their future happiness. There are heartbreaking moments as Alyosha, unable to avoid overhearing the tensions on the other side of the wall as his parents try desperately to abdicate their parental responsibilities, sobs quietly in his room, all the while trying to make sure they don’t hear him crying for fear it will only strengthen their resolve. In these opening scenes, both parents present as reprehensible self-absorbed individuals, however when Alyosha disappears without a trace, Zvyagintsev slowly probes beneath the surface to reveal the circumstances – both at a personal and societal level – that has led to the disintegration of their relationship.

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As we spend more time with Zhenya and Boris and their respective new partners, we develop considerable more insight into them both as the script, written by Zvyagintsev in collaboration with Oleg Negin, delivers both dignity and complexity to the pair and the two performers are outstanding in bringing considerable nuance to their characters. Zhenya has found herself a stylish older new partner in Anton (Andris Keishs), while Boris seems to be punching above his weight with his heavily-pregnant girlfriend (Yanina Hope), although the mystery of Alyosha’s disappearance proves a significant test to the strength of both relationships. As the various authorities set about trying to find Alyosha, much of what transpires is reminiscent of the type of scenes we would see here in Australia or other parts of the world in such circumstances; teams of volunteers undertaking carefully orchestrated searches through abandoned buildings and bushland in search of anything that could shed some light onto his disappearance. The audience is never afforded any more information than those undertaking the search with regard to what may have happened to Alyosha and the narrative alternates between the efforts of those trying to locate Alyosha and the intricacies that both Zhenya and Boris face in trying to negotiate the new relationships in which they are both ensconced.

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What seems a small story on the surface, Loveless delivers a not-too-subtle critique on Russia at large; radio and television news programs emphasise the deep financial, geographical and generational divisions that have fractured Russian society. Set in a modern Russia that seems devoid of hope, and populated by characters who are swathed in sadness and emotional failure, Loveless is powerful, prophetic and perfectly performed; a remarkable achievement from a modern master.

Logan Lucky

Making his inevitable return to feature film directing despite his 2013 ‘retirement’ announcement that followed a particularly prolific period of three releases in quick succession (Magic Mike, Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra), Steven Soderbergh has opted for a low-brow version of his 2001 heist film Ocean’s 11 to mark his return to the big screen. In this instance though, it is a racetrack, rather than a casino, that is the target for a bold robbery; a plan hatched and executed by a decidedly different collective than that which populated Ocean’s 11 and its subsequent sequels. The biggest challenge in deciding how you feel about Logan Lucky might lie in trying to understand exactly what Soderbergh is hoping to achieve. Is he delivering respect or ridicule to the redneck world in which the film is set? It is really hard to tell whether Soderbergh wants us to see the southern hicks who populate the narrative as being underdog heroes or bumbling buffoons. Perhaps they are both and maybe that is the whole point, but it is hard to be sure.

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Certainly, Soderbergh has mined every aspect of redneck culture – motor racing (and NASCAR in particular), country music, southern accents, child pageants – in creating the world in which the various members of the crew assembled by Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) are entrenched. Furthermore, all of the characters are clichéd to the hilt; the school football star whose chance at the big time was cruelled by injury and the younger brother who joined the military to make his own mark, only to return minus his left hand; the sister who is all cleavage and mini-skirts and, of course, works in a beauty salon; the ex-wife who has found herself a new, richer husband; and the cute-as-a-button daughter over whom they all fawn, plus an imprisoned explosives ‘expert’ and his hillbilly brothers. It could be argued that Soderbergh is using these characters to challenge stereotypes and cultural elitism (after all, the robbery itself is quite a sophisticated operation that is every bit as improbable as any other film heist) and that is certainly something for which he should be commended. Of course, whether that message gets through to the audience is another question entirely and that is perhaps the biggest challenge the movie faces. Are viewers simply going to laugh at the slow-talking yokels and their crazy get-rich-quick scheme and remain oblivious to the social commentary regarding the way in which our perceptions of people are so often based how they dress or speak, or where they live?

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As a result of the knee blowout that ended his NFL aspirations, Jimmy is burdened with a permanent limp that serves as the catalyst for him being fired from his job with a construction company for liability reasons. Embittered and frustrated with his lot in life, he convinces his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) of the potential windfall that awaits them in the underground vault at the famed Charlotte Motor Speedway. A plan is hatched – which includes the need to bust Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of jail for the day to assist – and soon enough the elaborate operation is underway on the biggest day of the year at the track. Sure, the planning and implementation of the robbery is quite ingenious, but so much of what transpires is so beyond the realms of reality that you are both impressed and incredulous in equal measure. Whilst the quality of the core cast, which includes Katie Holmes as Jimmy’s ex-wife, goes a long way to overcoming any shortcomings in the screenplay (credited to a fictional Rebecca Blunt but likely to have been written by Soderbergh, who also served as cinematographer and editor here, as he has done previously), there is nothing that could mask the sheer ridiculousness of Seth McFarlane as race team owner Max Chilblain, with both the character and the performance ludicrous in the extreme and totally out of place in what is an otherwise subdued, but wryly funny piece of work. Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in The Avengers films) fares little better as Chilblain’s new age team driver Dayton White and Dwight Yoakim’s inept prison warden is a convenient construct in service to a convoluted course of events, while Katherine Waterston’s smitten nurse Sylvia seems as though she has lobbed on set from another movie altogether.

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Hilary Swank turns up in the final act as a federal agent investigating the robbery, while eagle-eyed NASCAR fans might spot several drivers in cameos as police officers and the like. For all the good things about Logan Lucky, there are oddities and absences aplenty that prevent it from emerging as amongst Soderbergh’s very best. After all, this is the man also responsible for the likes of The Limey, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Contagion and Traffic, for which he picked up an Academy Award. Humorous rather than hilarious, Logan Lucky marks a welcome, if not entirely satisfying, return for one of the most interesting and accomplished contemporary filmmakers.

Big Sound is Here Again

The most exciting week of the year for Brisbane music fans is almost upon us once again with the live music program of the Big Sound Music Conference and Festival showcasing more than 130 artists over four nights. Running from September 5 to 8, each day of Big Sound 2017 will feature an extensive selection of keynote presentations, panel sessions, workshops and master classes from artists and industry professionals (including the likes of Tina Arena, Archie Roach and Dave Faulkner), while each night will see Fortitude Valley come alive with showcase performances from local, national and international artists. Whilst the conference sessions are restricted to Big Sound delegates, the live music showcases are open to the public with one-night tickets from $45 and a four-night pass for just $85, which includes entry to the official Closing Night Party on Friday evening.

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Other than finding the staying power to get through each night of the festival, the biggest challenge at Big Sound is composing a schedule to catch as many artists as possible. This year again features a mix of established artists (Megan Washington, Oh Mercy and Abbe May), local favourites (Cub Sport, The Creases, Waax) international acts (Sløtface, Bespin) and the very best in emerging new talent, such as Tia Gostelow, Ruby Fields and Alex the Astronaut. With so many artists on show, the music spans all styles and genres to such an extent that if you can’t find something, or somebody, you like over the course of the festival, it is probably safe to say that you don’t like music.

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With performers at 18 different locations stretching from The Flying Cock to the New Globe Theatre, encompassing traditional venues such as The Zoo, Black Bear Lodge, Woolly Mammoth and The Foundry along with special outdoor stages at The Brightside and Ric’s Big Backyard, it can be a feat of significant stamina to catch all of the artists on your checklist each night, but such commitment to the cause is almost always rewarded.

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In addition to official Big Sound events, there are also a range of other live music performances over the four days, such as the free Footstomp Music artist showcases at Greaser Bar each night. For full details of the artist line-up, venues, conference/festival schedule and ticketing information, head to the event website of follow Big Sound (@BIGSOUNDmusic) on Facebook.

 

Queensland Poetry Festival

The Queensland Poetry Festival kicks off this week with four days of activities and events across several Brisbane venues, the majority of which are free. In addition to poetry readings and performances, the festival will also include panel sessions, book launches, live music, visual art installations and the 2017 Poetry Awards which will feature as part of opening night festivities at the Judith Wright Centre on Thursday evening (August 24).

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Also on Thursday night will be a tribute to Leonard Cohen, while other festival highlights include An Afternoon with Michael Leunig on Saturday (August 26), performances from the likes of The Bedroom Philospher (Justin Hazlewood) and Ben Salter, with the Queensland final of the Australian Poetry Slam to be decided on Sunday night.

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To check out the full schedule of events and venues, visit the QPF website or follow Queensland Poetry Festival on Facebook.

 

Wind River

Taylor Sheridan struck pay dirt with his script for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a taught, tense crime thriller set within the world of law enforcement infiltration of Mexican drug cartels and people smuggling operations on both sides of the Mexico-USA border. Following up with the Texas-set contemporary western Hell or High Water (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), Sheridan has made a somewhat drastic geographical change for his first outing as both writer and director, moving the action to the unforgiving winter landscape of rural Wyoming. Yet another crime drama, Wind River is much more contained than either of his previous two stories, despite the vastness (more than 2 million acres) of the Wind River Native American Reservation on which the story unfolds. The correlation between Wind River and the seemingly insatiable appetite for Nordic Noir – both on the page and screen – is hard to ignore given that a lot of what we see here draws on the same elements; isolation, distrust of outsiders, extreme weather and social disadvantage, particularly amongst indigenous populations. The film also explores masculinity, grief and the logistical and financial hardships seemingly inherent in so many rural and remote communities.

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In what is perhaps his most earnest performance to date, Jeremy Renner is tracker and hunter Corey Lambert, who stumbles across the body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) – a young local woman – in the freezing Wyoming wilderness and subsequently finds himself working alongside FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) in trying to identify the person, or persons, responsible for her death. The case is especially troubling for Lambert due to the death of his own teenage daughter in unsavoury circumstances two years earlier, a tragedy that resulted in the breakdown of his marriage. The inexperienced Banner is a fish out of water in this rugged rural outpost, arriving amid a snowstorm without any suitable clothing for the conditions and, with little understanding of the local people or the circumstances in which they live, her investigation draws heavily on the experience of Lambert and indigenous police chief Ben (Graham Greene). Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Alice (Tantoo Cardinal) have no idea who may have done it, but their drug-addled son sheds some light when he identifies Natalie’s boyfriend as a member of a security team that works for an oil company with an operation nearby.

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From this point, things move rather quickly and, when the intrepid trio reach the oil company site, a 10-man Mexican standoff ensues that is more comical than it was perhaps intended, particularly in light of the flashback scenes preceding it that show exactly what happened to Natalie. There are flashes of Tarantino and Peckinpah in these sequences, but the ultimate villain emerges as an over-the-top construct whose sheer lunacy seems out of place and undermines any social commentary Sheridan may have been hoping to deliver on the poor quality of life on Native American reservations and the plight of young women in these communities.

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Like Sheridan’s previous two films, Wind River is a neo-western story set amidst the treachery of life in the new frontiers of America. The murder-mystery storyline is engaging enough but the payoff arrives too suddenly, just when it seemed like it was building into something more complex and, as such, the film fails to subvert genre conventions in any meaningful way. The cinematography by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) captures the chilling temperatures and isolated feeling of its setting effectively, while Renner and Olsen are good as the mismatched partners who enjoy a nice chemistry with Ben, whose initial dismay at Banner’s appointment to the case makes way for respect and appreciation. Birmingham, who also featured in Hell or High Water, captures the stoicism and silent sadness of Martin to great effect, with Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Baby Driver) appearing in a small but pivotal role. Although more straightforward than his previous scripts, Wind River emerges as both brutal and beautiful, an above average procedural thriller that delves into the ugliest corners of the American experience.

Hampstead

The British film industry is much more diverse than Hollywood when it comes to making films for a broad audience demographic, which in turn provides greater opportunities for actors of all ages to secure substantial roles. Such is the case with Hampstead, a quaint romantic comedy set in the gentrified part of London from which the film takes its name. Directed by Joel Hopkins (Last Chance Harvey), who grew up in Hampstead, and inspired by the life of the late Harry Hallowes, this is certainly not the first film to feature the picturesque Hampstead Heath, although none have featured the inner-city nature reserve so prominently. Hallowes famously claimed squatter’s rights on a small parcel of land on the Heath and was awarded title to the site on which he lived in a ramshackle cabin after proving he had been residing there for more than 12 years. As is to be expected, the film takes some liberties in the telling of Hallowes’ battle to save his home from the scourge of developers, but it still emerges as an enjoyable underdog story.

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In the film, Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Calvary) is Donald Horner, an eccentric loner who, having lived harmoniously on Hampstead Heath for 17 years, is facing eviction from the property by developers looking to construct an apartment complex on the site. Diane Keaton is Emily Walters, an American widow (and a completely fictional character) who lives opposite the Heath and spies Donald from her attic window amid her own struggles to address the dire financial straits in which she finds herself following the death of her philandering husband 12 months earlier. Curiosity leads Emily to track down Donald who, of course, turns out to be a gentle man beneath his gruff exterior. Such a friendship never existed in real life, but this version of events sees Emily urging Donald to fight for the right to remain on the land, an alliance that puts her at odds with her snooty friends. The antagonism that Donald experiences from the local community is another aspect of the film that diverges from real life because Hallowes, by all reports, enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local residents, including filmmaker Terry Gilliam.

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Keaton imbues Emily with the nervous, awkward charm (and quirky style) that she has brought to so many great characters, although her apathy, lack of motivation and timid acceptance of the bullying dished out by neighbour and so-called friend Fiona (Lesley Manville) is infuriating at times, not to mention her willingness to suffer the lecherous overtures from creepy accountant James (Jason Watkins), a truly grotesque individual who seems out of place here. Whilst his character is obviously an oddity in the part of London that houses more millionaires than anywhere else in Britain, Gleeson never presents Donald as being somebody for whom we should feel sorry. He is quite a likeable guy who just prefers to be alone; until Emily comes along of course. The only other character of note is James Norton as Emily’s son Phillip, who pops up a couple of times to remind Emily how hopeless she is, while Hugh Skinner, Alistair Petrie and Simon Callow also feature in minor roles.

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An amiable, light-hearted comedy, Hampstead is a tale of two people who find each other in somewhat contrived circumstances and, even though Jenkins and scriptwriter Robert Festinger (who also penned the far superior and decidedly darker In the Bedroom) take a softly-softly approach with regard to the pressing issue of the gentrification blight that is engulfing cities around the world, there is a certain pleasure to be found in hanging with these two characters as they set forth on a path to self-realisation and a second chance at happiness. Sure, the ending is somewhat twee, but the two leads bring enough charm to compensate for any shortcomings.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Adapted from the comic book series Valerian and Laureline, the decision by writer/director Luc Besson to go with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as the film’s title is interesting because it fails to acknowledge the fact that the story is very much about a partnership in which both characters contribute equally to the narrative action. Furthermore, Besson is on record as declaring that one of the reasons the comics were so appealing to him when he discovered them in the 1970’s was the fact that “it was the first time we saw this modern girl kicking ass.” Perhaps it is fitting therefore that, given the less-than-inspired performance from Dane DeHann as Valerian, it is actually Cara Delevingne’s Laureline who is the saving grace in a film that becomes bogged down by the weight of its excesses. France’s most expensive film ever, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is brimming with elaborate costumes and effects, often to the detriment of the story and character development. While comparisons with other science-fiction films are inevitable given so much of what we see seems so familiar, the fact that the comic was first published in 1967 suggests that maybe it is Star Wars and Besson’s own The Fifth Element that have drawn their influence from the adventures of Valerian and Laureline, rather than the other way around.

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Valerian is very much of the Han Solo mould; cocky, careless and unable to admit when he is wrong. The problem is that DeHaan lacks the charisma that Harrison Ford imbued in Solo or which Chris Pratt brings to Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these characters combine witty repartee and delusional self-confidence with deeds of derring-do that make them a hell of a lot of fun. DeHaan is dull in the lead role here, delivering a one-note performance; every line delivered with the same po-faced sincerity. As such, it is left to Delevingne to carry the load and she is remarkably assured in what is very much the co-lead. Whilst the story is essentially about the efforts of Valerian and Laureline to save a rat-like creature that poops pearls, there are, of course, an array of obstacles (human, technological and extra-terrestrial) that need to be overcome if they are to succeed in their mission and subsequently neutralise a threat to destroy the space-station metropolis of Alpha, which is home to species from a thousand different planets.

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It goes without saying that there is an evil overlord whose actions have put Alpha in jeopardy, and in this instance it is Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) who, having ordered the destruction of the planet Hui some 30 years earlier, wants to eliminate the few remaining former inhabitants of the planet who managed to escape and are now living on Alpha. Rihanna features as a shape shifting burlesque performer named Bubble, jazz legend Herbie Hancock is Alpha’s Defence Minister and Ethan Hawke looks like he is having fun as a flamboyant club proprietor. Rutger Hauer makes an all-too-brief appearance very early as President of the World State Organisation and, given the state of local and international politics at the moment, the idea of Rutger ruling the world holds considerable appeal.

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Besson has enjoyed an eclectic career as a director, delivering a diverse collection of films – in both quality and content – that range from the superb Leon: The Professional, to animated adventure Arthur and the Invisibles, the biographical drama The Lady, mafia misfire The Family and the somewhat silly Scarlett Johansson-starring Lucy – and it is unlikely there is anybody else brave (or crazy) enough to bring Valerian to the big screen. As a risk-taker, Besson is prone to stumble on occasion but his ambition and audacity as a filmmaker are something to admire. With Weta Digital, Rodeo FX and Industrial Light and Magic joining forces to create the visual effects that infiltrate every scene, the world that has been created is a kaleidoscope of colour, action and digital wizardry that, whilst very impressive, doesn’t compensate for the lack of substance in the narrative. Delevingne brings the right amount of sass, spunk and sarcasm to Laureline and Owen is actually pretty good in a role that, in the wrong hands, could have easily tipped into parody (and not in a good way). Ultimately, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets emerges as a spectacular-looking confection that is enjoyable enough at the time but unlikely to leave a lasting impression.