Detroit

Given the success, both critically and commercially, of her two previous films (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), the expectation surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s latest offering was always going to run the risk overshadowing the film itself. Furthermore, comparisons between Detroit and Bigelow’s two war films (which won seven Academy Awards between them) were inevitable and not altogether fair given that every film should be assessed on its own merits. Having said that, it is easy to understand why Detroit has been such a hotly anticipated release given that, despite the fact it is a historical drama set some 50 years ago, it is perhaps as much a window into the current social and political climate in America than either of her contemporary military dramas, if not more so.

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Based on true events that occurred during the 1967 riots which left much of the city a mess, Detroit concerns itself more with one particular incident that took place amidst the conflict, rather than delivering any over-arching narrative on the broader course of events, perhaps because are they are too large in scope to try and explore within the confines of a feature length running time. Whatever the reason, the absence of context – other than a brief animated sequence which opens the film and attempts, in just a couple of minutes, to explain how millions of African-Americans migrated from the south to cities in the north (such as Detroit) where they hoped to find jobs and a prosperous future, only to be faced with the same racism they had fled – does a disservice to the significance of what transpired over the five days of unrest that left 43 people dead and more than 2000 buildings destroyed. As such, when the story kicks off with the raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar that is widely accepted as the event that triggered the civil unrest, you haven’t developed any real sense of the tensions that had obviously been simmering for quite some time prior to this point. Bigelow only allows for a few scene-setting episodes to show the spread of the riot before shifting focus to the events at the Algiers Motel.

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When a guest at the motel decides, playfully but ill-advisedly, to fire a starter pistol out the window, the police and military personnel patrolling the surrounding streets assume they are being targeted and converge on the Algiers. Those partying inside in defiance of the chaos unfolding on the streets include two white women, a Vietnam veteran and members of doo-wop group The Dramatics. Krauss (Will Poulter), a bully cop who has kept his job despite having shot an unarmed looter in the back, leads the charge in trying to locate the weapon and identify the shooter. Except, of course, there is no real gun to speak of, a fact that Krauss simply refuses to accept as he sets about beating and berating the various ‘suspects’ with impunity. Poulter (We’re the Millers, The Revenant) delivers a remarkably unnerving portrayal of this sneering, hate-filled racist whose bigotry is as unrelenting as it is illogical. Many will find the vitriol and violence that spews from Poulter somewhat unsettling and there is a point where this extended sequence, which takes up the bulk of the running time, starts to become tedious despite the inherent tension that permeates the scene. The audience is never expected to understand Krauss’s mindset and the subsequent legal proceedings against the police officers, which apparently lasted for several years, are condensed to just a few minutes and will no doubt leave many bristling with indignation at the lack of consequences for Krauss and his sidekicks.

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Although featured heavily in the marketing material, John Boyega (Attack the Block, The Force Awakens) actually has little to do as Dismukes, a security guard who attends the Algiers in an effort to prevent the exact course of events that ultimately transpired. Anthony Mackie (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) features as one of those under assault from Krauss, as do Hannah Murray (TV’s Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now), the only two women with any significant screen time. Despite the superficial attention given to the political, social and historical contexts that are so critical in understanding how things had reached such a crisis point, Detroit still delivers as a powerful indictment of American race relations and a reminder of how little progress has been made in the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement authorities.

 

Ingrid Goes West

A movie that could not have been made before now, Ingrid Goes West delivers a scathing indictment of contemporary culture, particularly those Instagram and online identities who serve up every aspect of their life to the millions of gullible and delusional followers who are seemingly incapable of making any kind of decision for themselves; such as whether or not their choice of scatter cushions (or anything else similarly asinine) are ‘on trend’. Whilst these faux celebrities seem easy targets for ridicule, director Matt Spicer avoids the temptation of simply serving up a piss-take, instead delivering a powerful, biting expose that explores the darker reality for many who live vicariously through the artifice of these curated lives. Aubrey Plaza is remarkable as the eponymous Ingrid, a delusional young woman who just can’t help herself when it comes to falling under the spell of the latest social media darling dishing up all manner of wisdom and good taste.

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When we first meet Ingrid, she is crashing a wedding and assaulting the bride in retaliation for not being invited. We subsequently learn that the two women weren’t even friends and it was just a case of Ingrid interpreting her obsession with the bride’s Instagram feed as some kind of personal connection between them. After a stint in a psych ward, Ingrid returns to the house she shared with her recently deceased mother. Seemingly with no friends or family, it isn’t long before Ingrid finds herself under the spell of another social media celebrity named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Using money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to Taylor’s California neighbourhood and rents an apartment from Batman–obsessed aspiring screenwriter Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jnr). Before too long, Ingrid has wheedled her way into Taylor’s life and everything looks rosy, for a little while at least, until cracks start to appear in the various relationships and it become apparent that not everything is at it seems between Taylor and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell). Throw in Taylor’s boorish brother Nicky (Billy Magnusson) determined to expose Ingrid, and much emotional upheaval ensues.

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Perhaps best known as April Ludgate on television comedy Parks and Recreation, a role that has seen her subsequently declared the queen of deadpan, Plaza featured in supporting roles for directors such as Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress), Judd Apatow (Funny People) and Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) before landing her first lead in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed. Described by Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Shur as the weirdest girl he has met in his life, Plaza was flagged by MTV as the perfect choice to play sarcastic, cynical high school student Daria in a live-action version of the ‘80s cult animation, should such a movie ever come to fruition. Whilst she has built a career playing such unconventional types, this is a much darker turn for Plaza and she is pitch perfect as a lonely, damaged young woman whose single-minded determination to befriend Taylor knows no bounds.

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Plaza is unnerving at times as Ingrid stumbles from one embarrassing decision to another, leaving you conflicted about whether you should pity her or despise her because, although the inherent sadness of her delusional disposition demands our sympathy, there are many moments when she is infuriatingly selfish and self-sabotaging. Plaza makes Ingrid both hilarious and tragic and just when it seems as though she has  secured our sympathy, the final frames might just leave you feeling a sense of betrayal. Even though you realise that the ending is, in fact, the most likely scenario given what we know about Ingrid, it is no less infuriating when it happens, although not in a way that detracts from the movie. In fact, it is terrific that first-time feature director Matt Spicer (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Branson Smith) has opted to stay the course, rather than deliver a redemption story in which our protagonist undergoes some kind of transformation in the interests of leaving audiences feeling good about what the future may hold for Ingrid. With great performances all round, Ingrid Goes West is a timely reminder that the rise of social media, like any fundamental shift in social practice, has implications for those on the margins trying to find a place for themselves in a world in which personality is performative and social ‘worth’ is measured in ways we couldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago.

 

Home Again

Reese Witherspoon is a talented actress, as her Academy Award for Walk the Line attests, and she has accrued a fine body of work in both drama (Freeway, Wild) and comedy (Legally Blonde). Furthermore, she is a strong advocate for advancing opportunities for women in the film industry and I can only assume it is her desire to support first-time director Hallie Meyers-Shyer that has seen her take on the role of Alice Kinney, a recently-separated interior designer who returns to her childhood home, only to find herself living with three aspiring filmmakers. However, even Witherspoon can’t elevate the material to something remotely insightful as Meyers-Shyer seems unsure of exactly what type of movie she is trying to make. It’s mildly amusing at times, but could hardly be regarded as a comedy and there is no real dramatic narrative arc either, which makes the whole thing a bland, and somewhat befuddling, viewing experience.

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Having returned to Los Angeles from New York after splitting from her music executive husband Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice hits the town to celebrate her 40th birthday and finds herself in the sights of the much younger Harry (Pico Alexander), a wannabe filmmaker trying to secure backing for a film idea he has developed with friends George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff). Having been kicked out of their motel lodgings, the trio ingratiate themselves with Alice’s mother, Lillian (Candice Bergen), and within 24 hours find themselves ensconced in Alice’s pool house. As a relationship blossoms between Harry and Alice, jealousies flare and friendships are tested even before Austen arrives in town in a bid to reignite the relationship with his wife. Throw two cute-as-a-button poppets into the mix and you have all the ingredients for a clichéd, syrupy, sentimental concoction that fails to satisfy your cravings for something altogether more substantial.

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By far the biggest disappointment about Home Again is the missed opportunity to make something really interesting. An opening black and white sequence voiced-over by Alice tells of her childhood as the daughter of an acclaimed filmmaker and there is enormous potential here for a film that tracks the experiences of somebody growing up in such a world. Similarly, the setbacks endured by those trying to find their feet in Hollywood and the various people and personalities that come into play as they struggle to have their ideas heard could be great fodder for something interesting, but the three young men in Home Again are so devoid of any personality and so far removed from the reality that so many endure, it is almost insulting to those who have spent years toiling away in dead end jobs whilst waiting for an opportunity to showcase their talents. Then again, maybe for Meyers-Shyer – who is the daughter of directors Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, The Intern) and Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride, Alfie) – securing her break was as easy as this film suggests. Regardless, the fact that these guys seem determined to sabotage the opportunity afforded them is infuriating.

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Witherspoon does the best she can with the material and while Sheen is a fine actor, he is very hard to accept as a music industry player. He handles the arrogant, self-absorbed aspect of Austen’s personality just fine but he is simply not believable as somebody charged with identifying and fostering exciting new musical talent; more middle-aged try-hard than hip talent scout. Despite her limited screen time, Bergen steals all the best lines with a character whose life trajectory – an actress and wife of a revered independent film maker – is not dissimilar to her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wolff emerges as the least annoying of the three men, largely because he is the only one not pining for Alice’s affections. Presenting more like a hodge-podge of ideas than a cohesive whole, Home Again is as inoffensive as it is underwhelming.

48 Hour Films

Making a film in 48 days can be hard work, but doing it in 48 hours seems almost impossible, right? Well, not for the teams who took part in the Brisbane 48 Hour Film Project earlier this month.

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Presented with a list of compulsory elements (a character, a prop and a line of dialogue), each production team then had just 48 hours to write, shoot and edit a short film over the course of a single weekend.

Public screenings of the 28 completed films will take place next Monday (October 23) and Tuesday (October 24) from 6.00pm at Event Cinemas Myer Centre, with the awards ceremony to follow on Thursday evening (October 26) from 7.00pm at the Start Up Stadium in The Precinct, Fortitude Valley.

For more information about competition and the films in contention, or to purchase tickets to a screening session, visit the 48 Hour Film Project website or on Facebook.

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.

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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.