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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews & Rodd Rathjen interview.

Jim Schembri

JOKER ****1/2 (122 minutes) MA

At a time when Big Hollywood seems mired in a crisis of creativity, along comes a relatively low-budget studio film boiling with fresh ideas and genuine daring.

One of the great things about Joker is that it’s not so much a rebooting but a rethinking of the iconic Batman villain. Technically part of the Batman franchise and the DC Extended Universe, Joker is, in fact, about as anti-franchise a film as you could get in terms of texture and tone.

The other great thing is the mesmeric performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Often caked in garish make-up and subject to involuntary bouts of cackling, he delivers a singularly committed, totally compelling turn as a deeply damaged individual with chronic mental issues and a need to be loved in an increasingly hostile and hateful world.

Worlds away from the caricatures delivered by Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, 2016) and Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989), there is a spiritual link to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), though Phoenix delves much deeper into the disturbed psyche that turns him into a true urban horror.

In a bold move, especially for a studio film, director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Fighter), has stripped away all preconceptions about the character and rebuilt him from the ground up.

Plugging the film directly into the social-realist tradition of 1970s American cinema, the story is set in 1981 with Gotham City – a barely veiled New York – ensnared in a garbage strike, a crime wave and growing disrespect for authority, especially the police.

Into this steaming stew of urban discontent we meet life-long loser Arthur Fleck, a professional party clown with dreams of being a stand up comic. He shares a squalid apartment with his mum Penny (Frances Conroy) and just can’t get a handle on how to behave around people.

Medication and mental health services don’t help much and as Fleck’s prospects become more dire and his world becomes darker he fixates on local tonight show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who has humiliated Fleck on national TV.

With enough motivation for two villains, Fleck becomes more and more delusional as the city’s streets fill with rioting citizens, all donning clown masks.

Graced with gritty, verite cinematography by Lawrence Sher (War Dogs) that often makes the film look like it was shot in the 1970s, Phillips and Phoenix conjure the most original origin story we’ve yet seen emerge from the comic book movie genre.

As violent and as thematically dark as it often is – the story really drills deeply into Fleck’s tortured psychology – the film has moments of sheer brilliance and real bravery, especially when it comes to seeing the world from the point of view of somebody who is clearly deranged, as in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver (Scorcese is one of the film’s producers).

From the outset of the film’s production, Phillips was determined to avoid comic book cliches, side step fanboy expectations and defy any obligations to fit into the DC movie universe, thus freeing himself and his crew to deliver something truly unique, and at a relatively low cost. (The film’s reported budget of about $60 million is Uber fare compared to the $2-300 million price tag on most comic book films.)

Job done. He’s not only achieved that but has done it so well it’s almost impossible to connect this film with the comedy Hangover trilogy he was responsible for.

As far as unexpected takes on well-established franchise figures goes, Joker stands proudly alongside Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film Logan.

As a deeply compelling origin story, Joker definitely stands alone.

 

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN *** (94 minutes) M

Replete with archival footage, concept drawings and , director by Alexandre O. Philippe (who made the fabulous 2010 doco The People vs George Lucas) takes a deep dive into the making of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien and explores why this film – now 40 years old – remains such a pop cultural touchstone that refuses to age. Artists HR Giger and Francis Bacon and director Scott are all highlighted, yet the film’s chief purpose is to pull focus on the work of the late Dan O’Bannon (died 2009) who first dreamt up the idea. Amongst the interviewed is Veronica Cartwright, who was splashed with more blood than anybody during the famous chestburster scene. A must for fans.

  

THE SOUVENIR **1/2 MA (120 minutes) MA

With more rhetoric than ambition, naive young filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) enters a mediocre film school with plans to shoot a drama set in a dying docklands district. Into her life and crammed flat comes Anthony (Tom Burke, from The Musketeers & War and Peace), a laconic foreign office worker and renown moocher whose sophisticated facade hides a slacker with a drug problem. The nuance-rich, slow-burn direction by Joanna Hogg (who also wrote) really works for about the first hour before a dramatic inertia sets in and turns the enterprise into yet another mumblecore dirge about drug addicts. Rare for an arthouse film, Hogg is actually putting the finishing touches on a sequel.

 

RIDE LIKE A GIRL *** (98 minutes) PG

Though the production of Rachel Griffiths inspiring, undemanding feel-good family film has nothing to do with Disney, it could easily be mistaken for a Disney film. And that’s no diss.

In retelling the true story of Ballarat jockey Michelle Payne, who became the first female to ride the winner of the Melbourne Cup in 2015, Griffiths (working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie) has shaped a winning girl-against-the-world tale of personal triumph that dutifully follows all the family film conventions to deliver something satisfying and heartfelt.

It’s an impressive debut for veteran actor Griffiths, who embraces the need for big moments, over-sized emotions and clear-cut characters with a warm confidence, creating an easily relatable story bolstered by a sturdy central performance by Teresa Palmer as Payne.

We meet her as a young, sparky girl full of the type of ambition TV news crews love. The youngest in a motherless family of ten, she is made more than aware that boys traditionally have the running when it comes to horse racing.

Still, her father Paddy (Sam Neill in a role that fits him like a favourite cardigan) is happy to impart the exact type of movie-dad encouragement that will help her hurdle her insecurities and flaws – which are duly highlighted in the film – and follow her dream of winning the Cup.

Swiftly paced and sculpted to a very friendly running time, Ride Like A Girl is a solidly entertaining film graced with an underlying set of progressive values about equality, talent, respect and tolerance.

Notably, Payne’s brother Stevie, who has Down Syndrome and was a big part of her success, is played by the real Stevie, heralding another step forward in the portrayal of people with disabilities on film.

Much can be made for how “with it” the film’s values are, but you know what? When you boil everything down everything in Ride Like a Girl  comes down to the good old Aussie ethos of giving someone a “fair go”. If the movie champions any one value above any others, it’s that.

Nothing happens in this film dramatically that isn’t driven by the Aussie tradition of setting aside prejudices and custom (however reluctantly) to allow somebody to have a crack at something, provided they’ve demonstrated genuine talent.

Sure, we see Payne receive guffaws of exclusion in the film but they’re never more than hot air that evaporates the more she proves herself. And the film doesn’t patronise her. When she screws up, she pays.

In telling of Payne’s triumph the film, thankfully, holds firmly to the principle that just because a film has a strong female lead doesn’t mean it is automatically obligated to reflect some faddish feminist agenda (provided you can discern one).

Indeed, one of the terrific things about the film is how it’s primed as an aspirational story about individual triumph rather than as a singularly feminist one.

While Griffiths naturally highlights the male domination of the sport and Payne’s determination to break through it, her bumpy ascent is based on merit and the respect she earns comes as a result of hard-earned success.

The film has been criticised for not being more politically “woke” and for not getting into the nitty gritty of the horse racing industry, given how the film’s premiere was protested by animal rights activists.

The answer to all such carping is simple: it’s nonsense. If you begin to go off on such digressions you’d be making a different film.

Another notable thing about Ride Like a Girl is that it serves to reminds us all, as did Oddball and Paper Planes, that the Australian film industry can, indeed, knock out a decent family film when it puts its mind to it.

Furthermore, how great is it that Michelle Payne’s story wasn’t allowed to fade away and become some distant memory before somebody got around to making a film about her?

In that regard the film follows the American model of celebrating your heroes promptly, and in a way that is enjoyable even to those who might not ordinarily care much about this school of sport.

 

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK * (108 minutes) M

You’d have to be part of that treasured horror movie demographic who jumps with fright whenever somebody spills a box of popcorn to get much spook value out of this slice of sub-Stephen King schlock. The basic story involves a bunch of kids – kids! kids! It’s always kids! – who stumble upon a haunted book in a haunted house that gives the filmmakers sufficient excuse to conjure up a load of singularly unscary ghouls. The film actually starts out OK on Halloween night in 1968 as a group of nerds strike back at their bully tormentors. Things rapidly deteriorate from there. This mess is directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal (anyone remember the fun Trollhunter from 2010? That was his puppy) and is produced by – wait for it – Guillermo del Toro. That should be warning enough.

  

THE DEAD DON’T DIE ** MA 105 

The prospect of a zombie apocalypse film by veteran arthouse filmmaker Jim Jarmusch –  Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc – sounds almost too enticing. Regrettably, the execution just doesn’t do justice to the concept.

Set in a small town, the locals (including Bill Murray and Adam Driver as cops) have to deal with the Undead rising from graves after a polar fracking operation goes bad.

The leisurely pacing that has become Jarmusch’s signature works well early on but not when things need to get nasty. Not helping matters is a stupid device where certain characters break character and talk through the “fourth wall” – the invisible one between the film and the audience – at the audience about the film. A stupid idea that makes a bad film worse.

  

THE GOLDFINCH * (149 minutes) M

A dismal, interminable drama about a painting called The Goldfinch and the effect it has on snooty New York teen Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars) as he tries coping with the loss of his mother to a terrorist bomb and an ex-alcoholic father (Luke Wilson). It’s very hard to reconcile how the film’s director John Crowley also made the 2015 charmfest Brooklyn. Please don’t waste your time, all 149 minutes of it.    

  

UGLY DOLLS ** (87 minutes) G

Oh dear. Even undemanding kids in need of distraction might find it hard not to get restless during this word-heavy, woke animation about a group of Ugly Dolls (based on the toy line) who want to be deemed pretty enough to go out into the real world and be assigned a child. The messaging comes with sledgehammer subtlety, the visuals offer a world of candy-coloured dullness and, despite a stellar voice cast – Kelly Clarkson; Jane Lynch; Wanda Sykes; Blake Shelton; Pitbull; Emma Roberts; Gabriel Iglesias; and Nick Jonas – veteran animator and director Kelly Asbury (Smurfs: The Lost Village; Shrek 2; Spirit; Gnomeo & Juliet) just can’t bring the affair to life. Wait for the stream.

 

BUOYANCY ***1/2 (92 minutes) M

The brutal nature of the modern slave trade in South East Asia is exposed in often shocking and violent detail in Australian director Rodd Rathjen’s  extraordinary, gruelling debut feature.

Seen through the eyes of impoverished 14-year old Cambodian boy Chakra (Sarm Heng) the simple story follows him as he leaves home in search of a better paying job that will help his family.

Lead by promises of lucrative factory work Chakra arrives in the city but promptly finds himself ensnared in the human slave trade.

Soon Chakra becomes virtually imprisoned on a small fishing trawler captained by a brutal thug called Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro), a criminal whose favourite type of on-board discipline involves dismemberment.

Survival becomes Chakra’s key concern as he curries favour with the crew, presenting them with the best fish from each load of sealife they dredge up from the sea floorm most of which will become pet food.

We see the youthful light of Chakra’s soul slowly darken as his innocence ebbs away and he realises the cost survival will exact.

There are some pretty intense scenes of violence in the film but, as with Jennifer Kent in The Nightingale, Rathjen has an instinct for knowing just how much to show to deliver full impact without needing to go graphic.

The film often takes on a lyrical feel in stretches where there is little dialogue and the boat is framed by a picturesque sea. Cinematographer Michael Latham captures the cruel irony of how the horrors and deprivations that take place on the boat are framed by the exotic, indifferent beauty of the locale.

Though it is not stressed strongly enough, the film’s drama is intended to show us the first link in the supply chain of products that end up on our supermarket shelves, and the slave labour involved.

The film is designed to deliver a powerful anti-slavery message and has received wide acclaim. At the Berlin Film Festival Buoyancy won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and it will be Australia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar (where it will compete for a berth on the short list with about 80 films from around the world).

Fresh from the film’s packed sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Rathjen was eager to speak to us about the making of the film, the difficulties of production and what impact he hopes it will make.

We also spoke to supply chain expert Kate Skattang to pull focus on the slavery situation around the world and especially in South East Asia. She explains how recent legislation will compel companies to closely examine their product supply chains to help expose and eradicate slavery, though it’s early days yet. At a guess, the global slave market involves around 40 million people.

The link to her interview appears towards the end of the Rodd Rathjen interview.

Jim Schembri
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