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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews, MIFF picks & Luke Lorentzen interview

Jim Schembri

DANGER CLOSE: THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN ***1/2 (118 minutes) MA

Belated as it is, finally we have an excellent Australian feature film telling of the 1966 battle of Long Tan, an historic and bloody encounter in which about 100 Australian troops, supported by New Zealand artillery, held off thousands of Viet Cong in a rubber plantation.

The film is clearly designed as a tribute to the unfaltering courage of those men, yet it is not some hollow, patriotic flag waver, nor is there much glory in the outcome.

The battle scenes are vivid, graphic and often brutal, occasionally matching the vividness we saw in Saving Private Ryan. Pinned to the ground at close quarters, enemy machine gun fire from advancing Viet Cong troops spray the soldiers as they fight back with increasingly limited resources.

Almost as frightening are the stumblebum tactics of the Australian commanders whose orders are often defied by other officers in the interests of helping the soldiers in the field whose desperation they hear crackling over their radios. The chronic tension in the command structure and its impact on the battle is a big point the film clearly wanted to stamp on the public record.

After the initial set up of characters, the film spends most of its time covering the few critical hours of the battle as Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel from Vikings) leads his men into the depths of a rubber plantation to engage the enemy force, which turns out to be much larger than anyone expected.

Locked in combat and aided by a New Zealand artillery unit – they don’t say much but these lads can’t be faulted for their accuracy – the diggers scream for help as their ammunition and options run low. Other units advance, encountering their own skirmishes against a formidable and dauntless foe.

The impressive cast includes Richard Roxburgh (as the stiff Brigadier David Jackson), Daniel Webber, Luke Bracey, Sam Parsonson, Nicholas Hamilton, Stephen Peacocke, Myles Pollard and Matt Doran.

Boasting a healthy production budget of about $25 million – very rare for an Australian film – the film’s production values do waver.

On the ground the veracity is unquestionable, with thunderous artillery barrages, intense fire fights and likeable characters suddenly falling dead as bullets rip through them.

In the air, however, the limits of the film’s visual effects become a little too obvious, with digitally rendered jets and helicopters not quite hitting the photo-realism we have become so used to.

And, good as the film is, one would have hoped the makers could have run a red line through some of its war movie cliches.

We have that scene where a touching moment between two buddies is accompanied by the convenient dialling down of the noise and fury of battle; there’s the chestnut “so, tell me about your home” scene; there’s even a cloying moment where a digger shows inexplicable compassion to some enemy soldiers.

The film’s final tribute to those who fought and fell is also a tad over-cooked. Solemnity was no doubt the intention, but did we really have to hear the Redgum song? Quieter might have been better.

Wisely, the film side-steps any political framing of the events, which would have been distracting to the main story. The one statement the film does allow itself to make comes in the closing captions. It’s a piercing point intended to highlight the vast difference between the way the American and Australian governments regarded their soldiers.

Oddly, Danger Close has been subject to a complaint often raised about war movies – even great ones such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon  (cinematic brother to Danger Close), Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk – in that it only tells one side of a battle.

The trouble with this oft-cited criticism is that soldiers tend to experience only one side of a battle – theirs. This makes it nonsensical to fault a film that clearly intends to tell of the soldiers’ experience.

Proficiently directed by the prolific Kriv Stenders (Red Dog; Australia Day), written by Stuart Beattie (Tomorrow, When the War Began) and produced by Martin Walsh (who co-wrote and co-produced the 2006 doco The Battle of Long Tan) Danger Close is also something of a landmark.

Despite its mission statement to tell our stories, Australian cinema has thus far been remarkably derelict in its duty to tell the nation’s military story, with Vietnam getting very short shrift. Indeed, Danger Close could have – perhaps, should have – been made 20 or 30 years ago. (Still, better late than never.)

There were two very good mini-series made in the 1980s – Sword of Honour and Vietnam – but for a feature film about the Vietnam war you have to go all the way back to 1979 – that’s 40 years – for The Odd Angry Shot. (Tempting as it is to include 2012’s The Sapphires, that had a Vietnam sequence in it, but was not primarily about the war).

Hopefully Danger Close will find the big audience it deserves and trigger other films that tell of the horrors and heroism of our most regrettable war.

 

PALM BEACH * (97 minutes) M

As Woody Allen has demonstrated time and time again, there is as much milkable comedy and drama to be found amidst the woes and regrets of the upper class as there is anywhere else on the social ladder.

The only condition for any such exploration of first world problems, of course, is that the characters and their situations be interesting.

And there’s the chief problem at the dead heart of Palm Beach, a film so boring that after about 30 minutes you begin wishing for a meteor strike.

Set in a lush house in the lush province of Palm Beach in New South Wales, a group of old friends gather to celebrate the birthday of Frank (Bryan Brown), a wealthy, retired businessman who, way back in the 1970s, managed a one-hit wonder band whose members became life-long friends.

Among them are British lad Billy (Richard E Grant) and Leo (Sam Neill). They’re friendly at first, but soon their issues swell up and a smattering of conflict occurs.

There are secrets, betrayals, some rivalry, but none of it amounts to much. It’s a really irritating pattern in the film: some situation is built up and made a big deal of, then minutes later it doesn’t seem to matter. As long as there’s a bottle of white and a shrimp salad at hand, all is fine.

Nothing much is at stake in the film, not even the film’s central dilemma ignites much of a kerfuffle, concluding with a gigantic “so what?”

Watching a bunch of rich people whine over wine might have been bearable had the film had a lot more jokes and wit – where is the spirit of Neil Simon when you need him? – or even some vaguely engaging performances.

Unfortunately, the whole soiree is conducted with such a leisurely air and moves at such a sluggish pace by director Rachel Ward (who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Joanna Murray-Smith) that it’s hard not to spend most of the film thinking about your grocery list.

Side note: Though this year is seeing a fairly good crop of Australian films, the industry continues to have issues. Here’s one of them. Filmmakers often lament over how small the audience is for Australian films, yet this week we have two high-profile local films – Palm Beach and Danger Close – opening on the same day, both presumably vying for that small pool of filmgoers. Was there no way to give each their own weekend? Just a thought.

 

LATE NIGHT *1/2 (102 minutes) M

It’s a very strange world this dreadfully unfunny, off-key comedy exists in.

Late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (the usually wonderful Emma Thompson) is under pressure to hire a woman to her all-male writing staff, yet the only one she can find is an untested, inexperienced dolt called Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who wrote this mess) whose way into the show was via an essay competition.

Why the film didn’t take its cue from reality – where female comic talent is booming – is a mystery and surely a huge insult to the comedy women whose cause the film limply tries to champion.

There wouldn’t be a single minute of 30 Rock or Parks & Recreation that isn’t funnier and more relevant than this film and it’s fumbling attempt to pursue a “woke” agenda about diversity, gender equality, glass ceilings, male privilege and the rest of the items on the film’s must-mention list of bullet points.

What makes the film such a groan-worthy endurance test is that there’s no coherence in either the situation or the characters, with Newbury being a particularly confounding creation.

She’s mystified over her ratings decline yet cruelly fires writers on a whim. She has never had a meeting with her staff and is finally getting the message that news-based comedy might be a good idea for a nightly show. Based on this, we get no idea how Newbury could survive for a season, let alone a decade.

And if Molly is really such a hotshot comedy writer, could we not have been given more than one joke?

 

MIDSOMMAR **** (147 minutes) R

Lead by their Swedish friend, a group of American students travel to a remote, bucolic part of his home country where a disturbingly happy commune welcomes them with wide smiles, open arms and hidden intent.

What unwinds, with the help of home-grown drugs, odd sexual practices and a menacing sense of kinship is a disturbing and dark tale of manipulation, alt-religion, bizarre rituals and debauchery that might just leave you aghast.

Meticulously directed by Ari Aster (Hereditary), who also wrote the screenplay, the film runs counter to most horror-movie conventions.

The long running time is due to the careful setting up of a seductive counter-culture atmosphere, which helps establish a depth of character and a powerful, unnerving sense of place.

The scares – and they’re big scares – are not one-off shocks but signals of how much deeper into this deceptively idyllic, brightly lit horror the characters have descended.

At the centre of the piece is Dani (Florence Pugh from Fighting with My Family), whose trauma in the film’s opening reel fuels her psychological vulnerability. Apart from Pugh and Will Poulter (Maze Runner; Detroit), the rest of the cast are relative unknowns, and do great work.

Fans of the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man will appreciate Midsommar’s respectful nods in the manner it builds up its chilling atmosphere and delivers its deepest frights.

And take note of that R-rating. It’s earned.

 

BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE ***1/2 (103 minutes) G

Here’s a remarkable documentary about a remarkable woman, famous and highly praised in her time for being one of the pioneers of cinema in France and the United States, yet largely forgotten today, save for this deeply researched documentary that intends to correct the record.

In telling the story (via Jodie Foster’s narration) of how a lowly secretary saw the story-telling power of cinema in France, director Pamela B Green and her team construct a beguiling portrait both of the artist and of how she seemed to have been written out of history through a combination of carelessness and callousness.

As well as the testimonials from a slew of current filmmakers, Green injects a thriller element into the film by including her tireless hunting down of material and relatives, which has her criss-crossing back and forth across the map.

Snippets from those vintage films that have survived glow like beacons in the mist, throwing into focus what a prolific and adventurous director Guy-Blache was.

Despite what must have been a strong temptation, Green resists turning the film into a polemic. She merely makes clear the salient point that while Alice Guy-Blache was able to flourish in running a successful studio despite her gender, when it came to the recording of her accomplishments it was suddenly an issue.

Thankfully much of her material survives and Green re-assembles her life with deep respect and a palpable love for an artist who bypassed the dictates of convention and rewrote the rules to suit herself.

  

MIFF PICKS

THE NIGHTINGALE

After warming up with her tightly wound 2014 psychological frightfest The Babadook, writer/director Jennifer Kent goes next level with a searing Gothic revenge saga that unspools like the unholy offspring of The Piano and I Spit On Your Grave. Her colonial tale of an Irish lass (Aisling Franciosi) who goes hunting for an evil English officer (Sam Claflin) through the Tasmanian wild is masterful at every turn, with a gripping set-up and a ferocious pay-off that will leave you dumbstruck. A truly awesome film, in every sense of the word.

Screens: Wednesday 14 August, 9pm, Astor

FOURTEEN

The bonds of friendship born in early teenhood are tested over and over during the troublesome 20s of Mara (Tallie Medel) and her unstable, slacker BFF Jo (Norma Kuhling). A delicate, high-quality, low-speed drama, deftly directed by Dan Sallitt, who has a love for daring, well-judged jump cuts.

Screens: Sunday 11 August, 9.30pm, Kino

JUDY & PUNCH

There’s bound to be controversy over the final moments of this confronting film by writer/director Mirrah Foulkes, a seasoned actress showing a remarkable sureness of touch with her darkly humourous tale about homicide, domestic violence and small-town persecution. Mia Wasikowska is terrific as Judy, but Damon Herriman is great in the very difficult role as Punch in this macabre feminist fable. A dark treat.

Screens: Friday 16 August, 4pm, Capitol

MIDNIGHT FAMILY

A quietly disturbing documentary in which director Luke Lorentzen chronicles the working lives of a Mexican family who run a private ambulance in Mexico City, a place where the government could only marginally care less about providing medical services to its citizens. Prepare for some shocks and insights into life on the bottom rung. 

Screens: Saturday 17 August, 9pm, Nova

While in Melbourne to promote his film, Luke Lorentzen was kind enough to share some thoughts with us about how and why he made his powerful documentary.

Please enjoy.

 

Jim Schembri
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