Sunday, 25 June 2017

SFF 2017: The Rest of the Fest

Sydney Film Festival '17 has wrapped, so here's some capsules for the remainder of the movies that I caught this year (you'll find reviews for THE UNTAMED and THE LITTLE HOURS below this).

Simon Rumley's FASHIONISTA is his most assured film since debuting with the singularly weird THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. Anchored by an awards worthy performance from Amanda Fuller (and a welcome return to the genre for STARRY EYES' Alex Essoe), FASHIONISTA begins as a fairly straightforward narrative, but soon fractures into a multi-timeline mindfuck which will have you straining to keep up with all the threads. Movies like this can be a chore, and this screening did have more than its fair share of walkouts, but I found Rumley's arthouse horror tribute to the films of Nicolas Roeg to be a very rewarding trip.

LADY MACBETH is director William Oldroyd's first feature, and on his first outing he's crafted a period thriller that's bound for cult status. It features a riveting performance from Florence Pugh as feminist firebrand Katherine, as she rebels against misogynistic oppression in the loveless marriage that she's been sold into. The part must have been a dream role for Pugh, as it follows a sensational arc that sees her going from hapless victim to mischievous rebel to triumphant avenger to... well, that would spoil the fun! Hers isn't the only scene stealing to be savoured either, with Paul Hilton and Christopher Fairbank turning in deliciously vile turns as Katherine's husband and his industrialist monster of a father. Sumptuously shot exteriors of moors and woods, and the gloom-filled interiors of Katherine's mansion-cum-prison (all captured with available light) give the film a perfectly Brontë-esque atmosphere, albeit one with a bit more murdering than your usual bodice-ripper.

After writing the superb screenplays for SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER, expectations for Taylor Sheridan's first time out as both writer and director have been incredibly high. Did he deliver? Yes and no. WIND RIVER's characters and dialogue are decidedly more Hollywood-generic than the above mentioned masterpieces, but there's too much that does work in Sheridan's snowbound thriller to call it a disappointment. The characters aren't all weak, and in the film's meatiest role Jeremy Renner turns in his most satisfying performance since THE HURT LOCKER. Ben Richardson's location cinematography (in a very cold looking Utah) is absolutely stunning, making this required big screen viewing. Seriously, if you're planning on see this, do so on the biggest and best cinema screen you can find. All that aside however, WIND RIVER succeeds mostly because as a high-stakes cops vs criminals thriller it really delivers the goods when it counts. I'm talking gruesome procedural detail, harrowing tension and some cheer-worthy and very cathartic violence. Based on this I think we can expect good things from Sheridan in the future.

If you've been paying attention, you'll know that I've got my gaze firmly fixed on Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose SUSPIRIA remake is currently in post. His latest film, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, is a coming of age romance that is as close to perfection as the genre gets. Guadagnino captures that feeling of nostalgia, the bittersweet elation and pain of sexual awakening and first love, but without the sentimentality that so often pervades movies of this type. It's also refreshing to see this well-trodden material depicted from the standpoint of a young gay man, and to that end both Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet (neither of whom are gay as far as I know) create a chemistry that just bleeds off the screen. Pure, honest, unpretentious and moving, this is one hot Italian summer holiday that you need to take.

Sofia Coppola's first genre film is a dreamily languid affair, dripping with as much Southern Gothic atmosphere as its woods drip with Spanish moss. THE BEGUILED, a remake of Don Siegel's 1971 Clint Eastwood starrer, opens with Colin Farrell's wounded Union soldier finding refuge in an almost abandoned girl's school, situated alarmingly close to the Virginia battlefield he just deserted. The remaining Southern belles (a small group of teachers, students and the school's head mistress) are at first wary of their captive guest, but caution for this charmingly hunky enemy soon gives way to lust... and lust to games and betrayal. There's an almost somnambulistic quality to THE BEGUILED, so much so that I found myself drifting off a bit in the first act, but this is obviously calculated to make the jolt that is to come that much more alarming. Elle Fanning, fresh of the set of THE NEON DEMON, and Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst turn in solid performances, but it's Nicole Kidman's austere, repressed madame who steals the show here. Despite good reviews, I don't think this is Coppola's finest moment. It's a good film to be sure, but considering the potential of the subject matter I found it to be a bit slight. That said, there's plenty to enjoy here, with its strongest asset being an often hilarious comedic streak that I wasn't expecting at all.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


Come (cum?) for the slimy, multi-tentacled sex alien, stay for the tragic human drama.

Amat Escalante's THE UNTAMED (LA REGIÓN SALVAJE) is a complex drama about sexuality, desire, and the damage that can be done - to oneself and others - when a person's needs go unfulfilled or are rejected. The story follows unhappily married Ale, whose selfish husband Ángel is secretly fucking her gay brother, Fabián. This already bad situation is made nastier by the fact that Ángel is outwardly homophobic, and is torn apart by self-loathing for his uncontrollable urges. Into this toxic mix stumbles Verónica, a stranger with a dark secret that will change the lives of Ale, Ángel and Fabián forever.

Oh, and THE UNTAMED also features a creepy, Lovecraftian alien, marooned on Earth when the meteor it inhabited fell here, finding refuge with a kindly biologist and his wife. We never learn much about this mysterious creature, whether it needs to feed or reproduce for example. Its only biological function that we are made privy to is its desire to sexually "bond" with a human host, a highly invasive act that can result in either intense pleasure for its host, or an outcome that's far less desirable.

You should have worked out by now that the alien is a mirror for all the human drama that's unfolding around it. An allegorical entity that is a pure distillation of primal sexuality and its power to heal, elate, obsess and destroy. The creature's motivations for wanting to copulate (if that's even what it's doing. Perhaps it's communicating or just doing research?) are never made clear. Just like lust and love, it's kind of senseless. A force of nature. It just is.

The remarkable thing about THE UNTAMED is that I would estimate the creature's screen time to come in at well under a minute. The film could have the entire alien thread edited out and remain a satisfying non-genre work with a reasonable running time. Performances are good across the board, working off of Escalante and Gibrán Portela's solid screenplay, but without question the real star of the movie is that fleetingly glimpsed monster.

Although comparisons to Cronenberg are unavoidable, this thing is actually ripped straight from Andrzej Zulawski's  POSSESSION, a bold reference that's made explicit in the film's end credits. There's a shot in THE UNTAMED that's so cool because it's basically an update on the money shot from POSSESSION, and this particular moment is an absolute stunner. That and another SFX shot that precedes it by a minute or two are the most beautifully fucked-up and fantastic images that I've seen in a sci-fi horror film this year. Long after I've forgotten the rest of THE UNTAMED, those two images will remain indelibly burned on my mind's eye.

Saturday, 10 June 2017


Sydney Film Fest 2017 is now well underway, and last night I ventured out into the rainy cold to catch the first of seven movies that I'll be seeing, Jeff Baena's THE LITTLE HOURS.

This fluffy comedy took me by surprise. I was expecting something feather-light, at best an amusing extended gag, at worst something along the lines of forgettable stoner-comedy YOUR HIGHNESS. I'm happy to report that THE LITTLE HOURS bears no resemblance to that movie, and although it is indeed an easily digested little morsel, there's more than enough meat on its bones to elevate it above the feature length skit that some people are writing it off as.

Based on one of the stories from THE DECAMERON, Baena's bawdy tale follows horny servant boy Massetto, as he flees for his life from vengeful Lord Bruno into the "refuge" of a convent full of equally horny nuns. THE LITTLE HOURS immediately establishes its connection to Pasolini's '71 masterpiece, and '70s cinema in general, with an opening credits sequence ripped straight from that decade (but not from IL DECAMERON). Thankfully that's where the faux-vintage aesthetic ends, and it should go without saying that other than the same source material, this movie has little in common with Pasolini's film. If I were to dissect Baena's influences here, I'd go with a melange of Monty Python, nunsploitation and contemporary raunch comedy.

So what was it that surprised me about this film? I was expecting it to be funny of course, and in that it certainly delivered, with Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, John C. Reilly, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci,  Aubrey Plaza and Dave Franco all drawing huge laughs from last night's audience. However, where it caught me off guard, grabbing my full attention, was in its sudden left turn into tripped-out witchiness, and in the touching and even magical quality of its final moments. Add to that some very '70s-authentic location cinematography (Tuscany, Italy, with one shot featuring a hilariously obvious power line lurking in the corner) and a lovely score, and you've got a foul-mouthed, fucked-up and ultimately feel-good confection that tastes better than it might look.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


The other night I had the privilege of seeing the great Total Control perform live, an experience that I'd long ago resigned myself to missing out on, due to my late arrival to the Henge Beat party. Many thanks to the folks at Repressed Records for making this possible as part of their 15th anniversary Vivid Festival bash. Seeing punk bands at the Sydney Opera House has its own novel appeal too: cultural gentrification maaan! It's not the first time for me either, having seen Melt Banana in the bowels of the SOH a few years ago. The boys from Melbourne played a powerful but brief set, cut short by the need to protect the fragile ears of our glorious leader who resides just a bit down the harbour at Point Piper. Yeah, fuck you too Malcolm.

Oh, and check out this sick-ass t: