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the best documentary to hit our screens so far this year
Easily the best documentary to hit our screens so far this year, this engaging, insightful, inspiring and surprisingly entertaining documentary takes a look at the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a long serving and influential justice who sits on the bench of the US Supreme Court. At the age of 84 she is still full of energy, conviction and ideals, and she shows no sign of slowing down. A diminutive powerhouse with a sharp legal mind, she has become a significant voice of dissent and liberal perspectives on an increasingly right-wing bench. But she is determined to stick around as long as she is able that President Trump cannot replace her with an ultra-conservative judge. This slickly packaged documentary is a labour of love for the filmmakers Julie Cohen (American Veteran, etc) and Betsy West, a former documentary producer making her feature directorial debut here. The pair trace Ginsburg's rise from humble beginnings as the daughter of an immigrant family through the various challenges she faced as one of the few female law students at Harvard University in the 1950s through some of her key civil actions she tried before the Supreme Court which resulted in landmark decisions. She was a passionate advocate for equality and defender of women's rights. She never argued in anger but preferred to persuade others with her well written arguments and voice of reason. What also comes across is her wry and self-deprecating sense of humour and the film is often very funny. This is a straightforward documentary that unfolds in chronological fashion. Cohen and West have deftly incorporated plenty of archival footage along with candid and revealing interviews with family and friends and colleagues to give us this comprehensive and respectful look at her life and legal legacy. The film also examines her personal life, focussing on her relationship with her loving and supportive husband Marty, himself a respected lawyer, who passed away a few years ago. The film opens in striking fashion with a montage of angry, right wing commentators denouncing Ginsburg as a "monster", before slowly revealing her true nature as a judicial activist and champion of equality. RBG celebrates Ginsburg's life, her achievements and her passion for justice and equality, and is well worth catching. RBG hits cinemas ahead of the dramatized version of her life which stars Felicity Jones as the younger Ginsburg.

Ocean's Eight

This female centric caper comedy is light weight stuff, but is also a lot of fun
Last year we had the all-female remake/reboot of the 80s cult comedy Ghostbusters, which opened to lacklustre reviews and box office returns. And now we get this all-female reboot of the comic crime caper Ocean's Eleven. The original Ocean's Eleven was basically an excuse for Frank Sinatra and his "rat pack" pals to hang around Las Vegas and make a movie. Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake was basically an excuse for George Clooney and his pals to hang around a film set and have a bit of fun. This remake is basically an excuse for a stellar ensemble of actresses to hang around, wear gorgeous costumes and have a bit of fun. And they obviously enjoyed themselves here. Ocean's Eight centres around a well-planned heist with the usual split-second timing, complicated scenario, and the occasional hiccup in the otherwise well-oiled plan. This female centric caper comedy is light weight stuff, but is also a lot of fun. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of the recently departed Danny Ocean, has just been released from prison after serving a six-year stint. She made the most of her time inside though, planning an elaborate scheme to steal a fortune in jewels during the annual glitzy gala ball at New York's Metropolitan Museum. Debbie begins to assemble her team, which includes her best friend and partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett). The rest of the team includes gifted hacker 9 Ball (played by singer Rhianna); fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter), who has fallen out of favour and is heavily in debt to the IRS; soccer mum Tammy (Sarah Paulson, from The Post, etc), who has a garage full of stolen goods; Constance (rapper Awkwafina, from Bad Neighbours 2, etc,) a gifted pickpocket; and Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweller with some mummy issues. Their target is a $150 million necklace that will be worn by celebrity actress Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway). Bullock brings a tough edge to her performance here as Debbie, who keeps essential elements of her plan close to her chest, but she also inject a touch of vulnerability. Blanchett coasts along in cruise control in a role that hardly taxes her, while Hathaway has a lot of fun here as Kruger and seems to be sending up her own screen image to boot. Bonham-Carter looks a little like Cindy Lauper here with her gaudy dress sense. A host of celebrity cameos from the likes of Anna Wintour and B-list actors during the Met ball add authenticity to these scenes. James Corden has fun as a bumbling insurance investigator. Elliot Gould's cameo as Reuben provides a solid link to the Clooney films, as does a strategically placed photograph, but this film stands on its own. The pleasure of films like the Oscar winning classic The Sting and American Hustle was in watching the elaborate and complicated con come together and unfold on the screen. The script has been written by director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games, etc) and Olivia Milch, although one wishes that they had fleshed out some of the supporting players in more detail. Ross maintains a breezy pace throughout. The film has been slickly edited by Juliette Welfling (Dheepan, etc). Cinematographer Eigil Bryld (In Bruges, etc) has shot the film in slick and glossy fashion.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

reasonably effective horror movie that will appeal to those who liked The Conjuring and Insidious
The original Ouija, released in 2014, cost some $5 million to produce and ended up grossing some $100 million at the box office, so it's no wonder that production company BlumHouse went back to the well for a second helping. But as the title suggests, Ouija: Origin Of Evil is more of a prequel than a sequel, but in terms of scares and delivering the goods it is far superior to the original. The film is set in Los Angeles in 1967, half a century before the events of the original. Financially strapped widow Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser, from The Twilight Saga, etc) and her two daughters run a seance scam in which they offer comfort and solace to the bereaved and lonely. Alice buys an Ouija board, the newest trendy toy for teens looking for a bit of excitement, hoping to use it to boost her business. But when she and her daughters use it they unwittingly invite a malevolent demon into their home. Before long, her youngest daughter Doris (newcomer Lulu Wilson) is possessed by a demon. In desperation, Alice turns to Father Tom (Henry Thomas, best known for his role in the classic ET), the principal at the parochial school attended by her older daughter Pauline (Annalise Basso, from Oculus, Bedtime Stories, etc) for help. Director Mike Flanagan has spent ten years in television honing his craft, and has since built up quite a repertoire of horror films, including the creepy Oculus. He seems to prefer an old school approach to his horror and doesn't overwhelm the material with flashy CGI effects and green screen work. Ouija: Origin Of Evil does have a few effective moments of shocks, and Flanagan does manage to build up the tension. But Ouija: Origin Of Evil is fairly clichéd, and Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (Oculus, etc) tick off all the right boxes here - haunted house, a family terrified by supernatural forces, a young child possessed by a malevolent spirit, spider walking up the walls, a friendly exorcist - but he also tends to telegraph some of his punches. The film is derivative and clichéd, and borrows from numerous other horror films. Fans of the genre will recognise many of the references - for example when the kindly priest steps out of his car and walks towards the house, audiences will spot subtle allusions to The Exorcist, one of the modern classics of the genre. Flanagan also suffuses the material with an old fashioned aesthetic that perfectly captures the era. Even the opening credit title card is reminiscent of the 60s. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari gives the film the look and feel of something shot in the 60s with its colour palette. Patricia Farrell's production design also reeks of authenticity and perfectly captures the era. Reaser brings plenty of spunk and attitude to her role, and makes for a strong and likable heroine. Basso makes the most of her role as the feisty and rebellious Pauline. Newcomer Wilson is a standout as the possessed Doris, and creates a truly frightening character and one of the more creepy child characters the genre has produced. Thomas has a warm presence and brings intelligence and depth to what could have been a fairly colourless and clichéd role. Ouija: Origin Of Evil is a reasonably effective horror movie that will appeal to those who liked The Conjuring and Insidious and their ilk. It doesn't matter if you haven't seen the original either, as Ouija: Origin Of Evil stands out on its own. However, a brief post final credits sequence features horror veteran Lin Shaye (from the original Ouija, Insidious, etc) and provides a contextual and thematic link to the original.

Boys in the Trees

quirky surreal Australian coming of age tale
Boys In The Trees is another local coming of age story that joins a growing number of recent Australian films exploring familiar themes of the pain of growing up, friendship, angst, romance, the loss of innocence, memory. However, this one is suffused with a surreal quality, quirky touches and an unsettling supernatural element. It has been described as The Lost Boys meets Donnie Darko, a rather apt description. It is set in suburban Adelaide on Halloween night in 1997. The film follows Corey (played by Toby Wallace, from Galore, etc) as he hangs around with his skater friends, led by the bullying bogan Jango (Justin Holborow). Corey is a more sensitive teen and a keen photographer and is reassessing his direction in life. He has set his sights on going to New York to further his ambition, a decision that doesn't sit well with Jango, who has no idea of what his future holds. During the night, while Jango and his gang, known as gromits, egg houses and have fun at the local skate park, they cross paths with Jonah (Gulliver McGrath, who has worked with the likes of Spielberg, Burton and Scorsese), a loner and outsider who has been mercilessly bullied throughout school by Jango and his destructive cronies. But when they were younger Corey and Jonah used to be best friends, almost inseparable, as they went on adventures together. But something happened that drove them apart. On this night, Corey reluctantly agrees to walk Jonah home out of a strong sense of guilt, and is forced to confront the demons of his past and comes to terms with his betrayal of that friendship. The journey through the night is filled with metaphorical monsters and painful revelations. There is also a vaguely homoerotic nature to the relationship between Corey and Jonah. Boys In The Trees is the feature film debut for former DJ turned filmmaker Nicholas Verso, who has worked on numerous television shows like Conspiracy 365, Nowhere Boys, and has directed a number of well received short films, including 2014's The Last Time I Saw Richard. His films often deal with troubled teens and issues of sexuality and identity, themes that surface again in Boys In The Trees. He has a unique and deeply personal take on the coming of age genre. Verso gives the film an air of melancholy and nostalgia and touches of introspection. It also has a darker tone and gritty aesthetic that is influenced by the likes of Richard Kelly rather than John Hughes. But it does tend to meander a little in the middle and loses focus for a while, and Verso goes in for some heavy handed symbolism. And some of the dialogue is a little cyptic and obtuse. The film was set in 1997 because Verso believes that that was one of the last times that teenagers had that sense of innocence and freedom, when they were able to be alone in the night. This was time before mobile phones, the internet and social media began to dominate their lives. Verso gives the film an air of melancholy and nostalgia and touches of introspection. It also has a darker tone that is influenced by the likes of Donnie Darko. The film is steeped in nostalgia for the 90s with lots of cultural references and iconic touchstones, and the action is even complemented by a great soundtrack of 90s rock that will resonate with a certain demographic who grew up during that period. Verso draws nice performances from his young cast. Rising young star Wallace gives a nuanced and quite mature and insightful performance as Corey, who hides his own insecurities and doubts beneath a cynical outlook. Mitzi Ruhlmann (from The Code, etc) is also good as Romany, the goth girl who is also keen to leave this small town for something bigger and more exciting, and she has big dreams and shares a similar outlook to Corey. McGrath brings a vulnerability to his performance as Jonah, while Holobrow brings some nuance to his performance as the insecure Jango and makes him more than just a one dimensional bully. Boys In The Trees is a film of great ambition, and, although not entirely successful, Verso must get kudos for trying. The film is certainly stylish with lots of visual flourishes and quirky surreal touches that set it apart from a lot of other local coming of age tales. Much of the film takes place at night, and there is some eerie and atmospheric cinematography from Marden Dean, who shot the evocative and haunting Fell.

Killing Ground

taut thriller
A weekend camping trip to the beach turns into a battle for survival in this from Australian writer/director Damien Power. Ian (Ian Meadow) and Samantha (Harriet Dyer) head off for a camping trip in the hopes that the time together away from the city will allow them time to heal their relationship. When they arrive at the remote camping ground they find another tent erected, but it looks abandoned. Then Ian and Sam stumble across an abandoned child and discover a murder scene. They become hunted by a pair of psychopathic hunters (Aaron Pedersen) and Aaron Glenane. This is the debut feature film for Power, a short film maker whose Peekaboo screened at the St Kilda Film Festival a couple of years ago. The initial inspiration for the film came from a vision Power had of an orange tent in the middle of nowhere, but it has taken him a decade to flesh out the concept and bring it to the screen. Power cites films like Straw Dogs and Michael Haneke's Funny Games as influences on the film, although this is not quite as compelling nor as unsettling with its depiction of violence. The film has been nicely shot on location at Macquarie Fields, outside of Sydney, by Simon Chapman (The Devil's Candy, etc). Power brings some tension to the frantic chase through the bush land. Power uses a nonlinear narrative style that moves back and forth, slowly revealing the fate of the first family, which adds a frisson of tension to the material. Cast against type Pedersen is quite menacing here, while Glenane (Deadline Gallipoli, etc) is quite scary as Chook, the small town psychopath.

Diamond Island

stylish looking film, handsomely shot
This is the debut feature film for director Davy Chou, whose previous film was the documentary Golden Slumbers looking at the systematic destruction of the once thriving Cambodian film industry under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. Diamond Island looks at the growing divide between the rich and the poor and life in the city and the country in contemporary Cambodia. Youths leave their home in the country and migrate to the city where they find menial work on construction sites, building the luxury apartment blocks for the city's elite. Our central character here is Bora(Sobon Nuon), who has left his family farm behind and moved to Phnom Penh. He reconnects with his estranged older brother who moved to the city five years earlier. He tells Bora about his mysterious American sponsor who looks after him and provides him with a good life. We never meet the sponsor and there is something vaguely unsettling about the nature of his relationship. We mainly see events through Bora's eyes. Chou's style here is low key and he maintains a deliberate and measured pace. The film lacks narrative momentum and not a lot happens on screen. But this stylish looking film is a social portrait and offers plenty of revealing and intimate insights into life in Cambodia today and gives us a glimpse into a society in transition. It has been handsomely shot by cinematographer Thomas Favel (who worked with Chou on his documentary).


amusing and deeply affecting and bittersweet comedy/drama
Winner of five Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars), this bittersweet comedy/drama about two men and a dog screened during the recent Spanish Film Festival earlier in the year. It was one of the more popular films in the festival and now it gets a cinema release. This amusing and deeply affecting film deals with universal themes of friendship, mortality, coming to terms with death, and it is sure to appeal to audiences. Julian (played by Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin, from Wild Tales, etc) is an Argentinian actor who has relocated to Madrid where he performs regularly on stage and television. He has been diagnosed with cancer, and after undergoing chemotherapy for a year he has decided to stop the treatment. He is resigned to his fate and sets about setting his affairs in order. Most importantly though he is trying to find someone to care for his beloved pet bull mastiff Truman, and has approached neighbours and strangers. His childhood friend Tomas (played by Spanish actor Javier Camera, from Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, etc) relocated to Montreal but arrives in Madrid for a surprise visit. he hopes to change Julian's mind and convince him to go back to treatment. Tomas is sensible and restrained whereas Julian is more volatile and emotional in nature. Over the course of the next four days the two men reconnect as they wander the streets of Madrid, talking about their lives, loves, regrets and the future. There is also a side trip to Amsterdam where Julian briefly visits his son, whom he hasn't told about his decision. Truman is largely a two hander as it follows the two friends, although there are a few secondary characters with whom they briefly interact, including Julian's concerned and embittered sister Paula (Dolores Fonzi). The film has been directed by Cesc Gay (A Gun In Each Hand, etc), who handles the material in understated and sympathetic fashion. A droll vein of humour permeates the material. Gay, who co-scripted the film with Tomas Aragay, avoids becoming too sentimental, although the ending is effectively moving. The pacing is leisurely and gives audiences plenty of time to identify with Julian and Tomas. Camera and Darin are two of the most popular stars in their respective countries and they develop an easy going rapport here that seems natural. Gay's warm, honest and humorous script gives the two actors plenty to sink their teeth into and they reveal different layers to their characters. Darin is reunited with Gay, who directed him in A Gun In Each Hand, and he delivers a soulful and subtle performance here. Camera's low key and sympathetic performance here as the stoic Tomas offers a nice contrast. And the dog who plays the titular Truman is also superb; with its sad eyes and hangdog expression it has a warm and humorous presence. Gay and his cinematographer Andreu Rebes (A Gun In Each Hand, etc) make the most of the scenic Madrid locations, which add to the film's winning flavour. Truman is a winning, low key and moving variation on the familiar buddy comedy sub genre.


Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick). When photographer Taryn Brumfitt had her babies she worried about the changes in her body. Brumfitt posted a before and after shot of her body on line, and was surprised at how quickly the images went viral. She also received hundreds of emails and on-line comments from women talking about the whole issue of body image. This is an issue that affects practically every woman and as Brumfitt points out, nearly 91% of all women hate their bodies. To maintain the perfect body is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice and obsession with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Brumfitt's documentary aims to inspire women of all ages to embrace their body with all its imperfections rather than buy into the whole obsession with beauty. Ours is a society obsessed with celebrities, and consequently a host of women's magazine perpetuate stereotypes and promote the unrealistic ideal of a perfect figure through photo-shopped images. This is, in turn, promoting an unhealthy lifestyle amongst younger woman. Inspired by the many responses to her online posting and the many questions raised, Brumfitt set off on a long journey to find some answers. It was a long journey that took her around the world to Hollywood, where she met talk show host Ricki Lake, to Berlin where she met actress Nora Tschirner, and to New York where she took part in a photo shoot with noted photographer B Jeffrey Madoff and a bunch of women on different shapes and sizes. One of the strangest characters she encounters though is Harnaam Kaur, a bearded lady who talks of her struggle to find acceptance and to fit in with societal expectations. Embrace is as much an activist film trying to make a change in our perceptions as it is a documentary, much like Damon Gameau's That Sugar Film from last year, although not as generally entertaining. This is a film that speaks passionately to female audiences. Brumfitt's ultimate message is that the fashion industry itself needs to undergo a radical shift in how it addresses issues of beauty. Embrace is the most successful crowd funded Australian documentary, and, despite its limited cinema release, will undoubtedly reach and inspire its target audience.


powerful, uplifting and moving drama... another winner from New Zealand
Twenty years ago Lee Tamahori gave us one of the best films to come out of New Zealand with Once Were Warriors, an exploration of masculinity, violence, family and Maori pride. After flirting with big budget Hollywood action films like Along Came A Spider and the Bond adventure Die Another Day, etc, Tamahori returns home for this powerful, uplifting and moving drama set in rural New Zealand in the early 60s that shares a number of similar themes, although it is nowhere near as gritty or disturbing. Based on a novel written by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), this drama centres around the Mahanas, a sheep farming family ruled over by their overbearing and brutal grandfather (Temuera Morrison). But Mahana is also a wonderful coming of age story as fourteen year old Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe) begins to stand up to the grandfather and question some of his beliefs. The consequences of his defiance though lead to rift in the family but ultimately to a reconciliation and the revelation of some long hidden secrets about the truth behind the family's long running bitter feud with their neighbours, the Poata family. John Collee's script does contain the occasional cliché, but this is a superb and entertaining drama. The film looks gorgeous thanks to the widescreen cinematography of Ginny Loane (Shopping, etc) who captures stunning vistas of the windswept countryside and hilly terrain. Reunited with Tamahori, Morrison, best known for playing Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors, has a fierce, commanding and intimidating screen presence that is put to good use here as the strict patriarch. In his first film role, newcomer Keefe is also a revelation with a strong and intelligent performance in the pivotal role of Simeon, who shows strength and the qualities of manhood demanded by his grandfather. Mahana (aka The Patriarch in some territories) is another winner from New Zealand, whose film industry continues to punch above its weight.


gut wrenching moments,... but great sensitivity and understanding
Charlton Heston, the Oscar winning actor and one time President of the powerful lobby group the National Rife Association, once declared: "From my cold dead hands." And while America awaits sensible legislation and gun control laws, more innocent victims are lost in senseless massacres from people who probably should not have had access to a lethal weapon in the fits place. In his gun control documentary Bowling For Columbine Michael Moore used humour as a weapon and as a powerful tool in his cry for tighter laws on gun ownership. There is precious little humour to be found in this raw and emotional documentary from director Kim A Snyder that looks at the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a perfect and safe little town in rural Connecticut. On the morning of December 14, gunman Adam Lanza shot his own mother and then drove to the nearby school where he opened fire, killing 20 young children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. Snyder comes into a community still raw with emotion, grief and a palpable sense of anger at yet another senseless slaughter of the innocent. Snyder (who worked as an assistant producer with Jodie Foster on the comedy Home For The Holidays) incorporates lots of newsreel footage here along with some intimate interviews with first responders, the local priest, and William Begg, the ER doctor who talks about the traumatic impact of the bullets on the young bodies. Snyder also connects with three families affected by the tragedy - the Bardens, the Hockleys and the Wheelers - who all lost a child in the massacre, and they talk openly and honestly about how they are trying to move on from the loss. Snyder obviously has an agenda here as she tries to put the focus firmly on the emotional and controversial issue of gun control and the inadequacy of legislators to address the problem. There are some gut wrenching moments throughout, but she handles this material with great sensitivity and understanding. This is a study of a community torn apart by tragedy and attempting to rebuild their lives and find some positives. If this incident doesn't change America's attitude towards tighter gun laws then possible nothing ever will. And despite President Obama's attempts to change the laws yet again the US Senate backed away from tighter gun laws.

The Devil's Candy

The Amityville Horror meets Metallica
A variation on the home invasion thriller, The Devil's Candy is the sophomore feature from Australian director Sean Byrne (2010's The Loved Ones). A film about parenthood, murder, madness, possession and heavy metal music, it is best described as The Amityville Horror meets Metallica. Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) is an artist who moves his family into a large farmhouse in rural Texas where he has more freedom to continue his work. And the house comes with a dark history, as the psychotic Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince, from Heavy, etc) killed his parents. Both deaths were ruled accidental and the house was put on the market. But soon after, Ray knocks at the door, and wants back in his house. Ray becomes obsessed with Jesse's goth metalhead daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco, from David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars, etc). Meanwhile Jesse is haunted by the same bizarre voices that drove Ray to kill his parents and he becomes obsessed with a somewhat dark themed painting. Ray is a nasty piece of work, and a killer of children. Vince is perfectly cast as Ray, with his lumbering gait, his untidy red jumpsuit, his empty gaze and intimidating manner he brings this hulking man child to life. Embry is largely cast against type here, and with his beard and long hair vaguely resembles a Jesus-like figure, which complements the more religious undertones of the film. Glasco is also very good as the Zooey and brings a feisty quality to her performance. As he demonstrated with his first film, Byrne is adept at gradually building up the suspense and uneasy atmosphere before unleashing a rather violent climax. He suffuses the home invasion tropes with a touch of the supernatural. However, the horror here is a bit more restrained and less graphic than the torture porn of The Loved Ones. The discordant aural soundtrack provided by Sunn O)))) adds to the gradual air of uneasiness. Hopefully it's not another six years before Byrne makes another film.


unexpectedly compelling and entertaining
New Zealand journalist David Farrier (tv series Short Poppies, etc) has made a career out of looking at the weird side of life. But even he was unprepared for the fallout after stumbling upon a website about "competitive endurance tickling" in which young men were paid to be tied up and tickled, complete with some videos. Although the on-line videos were pretty harmless, they piqued his curiosity and Farrier decided to find out more. But when he contacted Jane O'Brien Media to try an arrange an interview he was harassed and threatened with lawsuits from a high powered US firm. Their secretive and aggressive manner intrigued Farrier even further and he tried to probe beneath the surface. He and his collaborator, writer/filmmaker and computer expert Dylan Reeve, discovered a vaguely sinister to this tickling fetish as they travelled to Los Angeles and New York. Farrier talks to a couple of former tickle participants who talk about being blackmailed and threatened. What began as a light hearted investigation into something that initially seemed vaguely homoerotic but innocuous turned into a thriller as Farrier and Reeve tried to probe a web of corporate paperwork to find out the identity of the mysterious figures behind Jane O'Brien Media. By turns amusing and gripping, Tickled gives us a look at the darker side of the internet and a vaguely unsettling subculture, and explores themes of power, control, harassment, fetishism, corruption, and criminal activity. This is the first feature length documentary from Farrier, and he has an amiable screen presence, but he also demonstrates a dogged sense of purpose as he refuses to back down from threats and intimidation as he gets closer to learning the identity of the person behind this unusual enterprise. A strange and decidedly weird little documentary that is unexpectedly compelling and entertaining.

Skin Deep

will remind audiences of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy
This low budget female centric film from director Jonny Leahy, a recent VCA graduate, is an honest and comical urban comedy/drama looking at the developing friendship between two troubled young women from different backgrounds. Leah (newcomer Zara Zoe) is a young woman who has been diagnosed with terminal melanoma, who has a chance encounter with the troubled lesbian Caitlin (Monica Zanetti). It's a meeting that sets the two off on a journey through the streets of Newtown as they learn to embrace life and face the future. Written by star Zanetti, the script for Skin Deep has a deeply personal and semi-autobiographical feel to it as it was based on her own experiences of dealing with melanoma. There have been a number of female centric films dealing with lesbian relationships, from 1995's The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love through to last year's more explicit Blue Is The Warmest Colour and even the recent Carol. Skin Deep deals with Caitlin's sexuality in a positive light, and there is a touching scene towards the end involving a discussion between her and her father. But there is no sex in Skin Deep; rather Zanetti's nuanced script explores female friendships, mortality, sexuality and the emotional journey of the two protagonists as they talk about their lives and fears. The meandering and leisurely pacing, the dialogue driven narrative and the insights into the characters as they wander through the city streets at night will remind audiences of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. Skin Deep is the debut feature film for director Jonny Leahy, who has years of experience from working behind the scenes as part of the camera crew on television shows like Changi and Fireflies, and films like The Night We Called It A Day and Albert Nobbs, etc. His direction is unhurried and measured. Leahy and his cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson (Wildside, etc) have shot much of the film on the streets of Newtown itself, lending a rich authenticity to the journey of the two girls. Zanetti delivers a fine performance as the aggressive, troubled Caitlin. Newcomer Zoe seems a little tentative in early scenes, but she grows more comfortable and assured as the film progresses.

Graceful Girls

an assured directorial debut
I didn't know much about the "sport" of calisthenics before entering the cinema to see this documentary. Calisthenics is a discipline unique to Australia, and it combines elements of ballet and gymnastics with colourful costumes and superb choreography. Calisthenics can be performed by individuals or by groups with perfectly choreographed routines. And every year an annual Most Graceful Girl competition is held in regional Ballarat, and this showcase is apparently a very prestigious event and the competition is fierce. Graceful Girls is an assured feature length debut for documentary filmmaker Olivia Peniston-Bird, who has extensive experience as a second assistant director working on films such as the dark thriller Sexy Beast, etc. Peniston-Bird initially set out to make a short documentary about Regent Calisthenics, a very successful and well known training facility that has dominated the competition. Regent was established over fifty years ago by Enid Synnott. The school found its greatest success under the guidance of her daughter Diane, a legendary coach who is a perfectionist and hard taskmaster but who also has a droll sense of humour and is a wonderful personality. But then the Regent school closed down, until recently it was reopened by her daughter Brooke, who juggles teaching youngsters with her hectic schedule of performing in mainstream theatre shows. Three generations of the one family involved in the sport of calisthenics was the hook that attracted Peniston-Bird. But while working on that film, she learned of Brianne Lee, a 26-year-old primary school teacher who had been the runner-up in the Most Graceful Girl competition three years in a row. And the one year that she did win the title it was taken away because of a technicality over the way the points were awarded. Lee was about to give up calisthenics altogether but reluctantly decided to try for one last shot at the title. Will it end in triumph or tears? This element brings a touch of suspense to the documentary as we follow Lee's preparations for the final. Peniston-Bird juggles the two main strands beautifully. There are some insightful interviews with both Dianne and Brianna that reveal their passion for calisthenics, and we also get to meet an 11-year-old future champion. Peniston-Bird gives us some exciting montage sequences showing rehearsals, training routines, glittering costumes and lots of tears and tantrums. Graceful Girls is very much an observational, fly on the wall documentary that gives us some insights into this little known world of competitive calisthenics. Drawing upon archival material and photographs, Peniston-Bird gives us a potted history of both calisthenics and the Synott family. She captures the colour and excitement of some complex routines as well as giving us insights into a couple of the central personalities at the heart of the documentary. Given that calisthenics is still basically a niche activity, Graceful Girls may not appeal to everyone. However it will certainly be a must-see for that demographic that loved Strictly Ballroom or the superb ballet documentary First Position, which was a big influence on the

Another Country

an eye opening journey
Another Country is a documentary that looks at the impact that the white man's culture has had on thousands of years of aboriginal culture. "Our culture doesn't fit your culture," says narrator David Gulpilil. The film is the result of a collaboration between filmmaker Rolf de Heer, his partner Molly Reynolds and Gulpilil himself, who have previously collaborated on the features Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country. Like Ivan Sen's fictional Toomelah, Another Country takes us inside an aboriginal community to witness their daily lives but gives us a first hand account of a lifestyle that is slowly being eradicated. The film has been shaped by Gulpilil's own observations of aboriginal life on the settlements and isolated communities established by the seemingly benevolent government. The sale of alcohol was banned, and all the residents were issued with food cards which could be used at the local supermarket. Gulpilil acts as the narrator and his dry, droll narration and rich, warm tones draw us into this deeply personal and reflective exploration of the consequences of the government's well-meaning policy of self-determination. His tone is informative rather than confronting and he tries to break down some cultural barriers between white culture and indigenous culture. Gulpilil slowly elucidates some of the problems facing these communities that have been established by white politicians who have little understanding of the their traditions or culture. Essentially a nomadic people who would hunt for food they have little use for houses, cars or even supermarkets to buy their food from. He also elaborates on the concept of obligation, in which if someone asks to borrow a car they cannot be refused. More often than not the car is returned broken and virtually unusable. Another Country takes audiences on an eye-opening journey through the small and remote community of Raminging, where he was raised. Raminging is situated some 400 kms from the nearest town and is accessible only by a dirt road that gets flooded our during rainy season. We get a potted history of the town, and we observe the inhabitants going about their lives and get a sense of their disrupted lifestyle and the rhythms of life in this remote community. The biggest worry is that the younger generation are losing touch with their history and centuries of tradition. There is one scene where a number of local youths perform a dance, but rather than the traditional music of their culture the background is hip hop music. But ultimately the film is optimistic in its outlook.

Force of Destiny

a dour and bleak experience
Paul Cox is a perennial favourite of the Melbourne International Film Festival. His 1979 feature Kostas was the first Australian film to open the Festival. The auteur's 47th feature fittingly opens the 64th MIFF. Force Of Destiny is his most personal and intimate film to date as it draws upon his own experiences while undergoing a life saving liver transplant a few years ago. Cox draws inspiration from his book Tales From The Cancer Ward, a diary in which he recorded his fears and confronted his own feelings of mortality. Cox's surrogate here is Robert (played by David Wenham, a regular in his films), a sculptor who is diagnosed with liver cancer and given six months to live unless a donor organ can be found. While he waits, Robert reconnects with his family on a deeper spiritual level. He also finds a second chance at love and happiness with Maya (Shahana Goswani), a marine biologist who works at the local aquarium and is fascinated with Robert's work. In a parallel subplot Maya's beloved uncle back home in India is also dying of cancer. Wenham delivers a subtle and nuanced performance as a man confronting his mortality. Force Of Destiny explores themes of death and mortality, which gives it a sombre note. This also makes it a bit of a downer, especially for an opening night film. But many of Cox's familiar preoccupations - the beauty of art, relationships, love, spirituality, humanity - are all very much in evidence. But there are also a number of stylistic flourishes and impressionistic touches that unnecessarily stretch the material out by 20 minutes or so. Cox's films have always been something of an acquired taste, and Force Of Destiny is something of a dour and bleak experience that is unlikely to win him any new admirers.

Gayby Baby

heartfelt and sensitive documentary
Debate continues regarding the issue of marriage equality and same sex marriage, particularly here in Australia where our conservative politicians are slow to react to the change in public consciousness on a global basis. And those opposed to the concept still bandy about concerns about "the welfare of the children" and the lack of either maternal or paternal influences. Those who still harbour concerns about the damage caused to society by same sex marriage would do well to check out Gayby Baby, a warm and fascinating new documentary from first time feature filmmaker Maya Newell. This largely crowd funded film offers up a sensitive and heartfelt look at four 12-year-olds who are being raised by same sex parents. The kids seem rather well-adjusted and normal, and are being raised in nurturing environments. All of the kids are wrestling with their own problems with the help of their same sex parents, but the issues they face on a daily basis are no different to those confronting kids in traditional family structures. The four kids have vibrant personalities that come across, and Newell wisely uses the children's perspective to shape the material. We meet Gus, a boisterous youngster who is heavily into WWE wrestling, but is also exploring his masculinity, although his two mothers fear that he may be a little too violent when it comes to playing. Matt seems very mature for his age, and he is wrestling with doubts over both religion and politics, as they seem to emphasise ideas that are in contrast to the beliefs of his two mothers. A high point for Matt though comes when he attends a dinner with Prime Minister Julia Gillard with his two parents as they discuss marriage equality. At that time Gillard was opposed to the concept of gay marriage. Ebony is interested in pursuing a musical career, and wants to win a scholarship to a prestigious music school in her neighbourhood. She gets support from her two mothers despite their pressing concerns over the health of their youngest child who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy. Graham is the adopted son of a male couple and has some learning difficulties which they are working to overcome. But then the family is forced to move to Fiji for work, which complicates matters as his parents are forced to conceal the nature of their relationship due to the social and political climate. The issue is a deeply personal one for Newell, who was herself raised by same sex parents. She has observed the four families over a period of time and has gained some intimate insights into their lives. Newell had a wealth of footage to draw upon in the editing room, and she has developed a number of narrative strands and themes to follow. The film has a nice unhurried and laid back style. Newell eschews the traditional documentary format; there is no narrator, rather she lets the stories unfold before the camera with her fly on the wall approach.

The Invitation

slow burn horror and tense psychological thriller
The Invitation is the new psychological thriller from Karyn Kusama (the superb Girlfight and the awful, messy sci-fi action thriller Aeon Flux, etc) and is a study in delusion, paranoia and suspicion. This is a slow burn horror story about a reunion of old friends that goes horribly wrong. Will (Logan Marshall-Green, recently seen in Madame Bovary, etc) has reluctantly accepted an invitation to attend a dinner party reunion with some old friends at the house he once owned with his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard). But since their divorce Eden now lives in the house with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met on a retreat in Mexico while recovering from a nervous breakdown. Will is still grieving over the tragic death of his son, and is in a fragile emotional state. He begins to feel that something is not quite right about the gathering, but is he unnecessarily paranoid or does he have reason to be concerned? There are early portents that something is wrong, and a palpable air of uneasiness and distrust soon overtakes the gathering. When the hosts insist on playing a rather unsettling parlour game the awkwardness further enhances the growing sense of uneasiness. Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Crazy/Beautiful, the dire buddy cop comedy Ride Along, etc) have created a cast of oddball characters to add to the creepy atmosphere. Most of the cast is not that well known, which works in the film's favour. John Carroll Lynch has a vaguely sinister and menacing presence as the mysterious stranger Pruitt. The action is confined to a single location and Kusama makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, slowly ramping up the tension until the film bursts into full on mayhem and carnage. The impact of the final shot is devastatingly effective as the full horror of what is happening is revealed.

Being Evel

fascinating, exhaustive and well researched, and entertaining documentary
This is a fascinating, exhaustive and well researched, and entertaining documentary about the flamboyant daredevil motorbike riding Evel Knievel. Born Robert Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana, he became world famous as Evel Knevel, given to dangerous stunts like jumping over buses and his flamboyant appearances on television. He was the iconic hero America needed during troubled times. He has been the subject of many other documentaries, but unlike previous films Being Evel is not simply a hagiography, but rather offers up a detailed and revealing a warts and all look at Knievel and shows his darker nature and volatile personality. There is his vicious attack on Sally Saltman, his former press agent, with a baseball bat that landed him in jail. Knievel lived much of his life in the public eye, so there is a wealth of archival material for veteran documentary director Daniel Junge (A LEGO Brickumentary, etc) to draw upon. The film shows many of his spectacular stunts and some sickening footage of his many crash landings. But the centrepiece of the film centres around his much publicised failed attempt to jump across the Grand Canyon in a purpose built miniature rocket, and we get plenty of juicy revelations and speculation about what went wrong here. And a number of friends, family members and colleagues recall colourful and lively anecdotes about the man. Jackass's Johnny Knoxville is obviously a huge fan, and here he waxes lyrical about the man and his achievements, and acknowledges the impact Knievel had on the establishment of extreme sports. Actor George Hamilton, who played Knievel in an awful 1972 biopic and who is one of the producers of this film, recounts a fascinating anecdote that illustrates Knievel's sense of his own infallibility and his growing paranoia and egocentric behaviour. One of the more entertaining documentaries screening at MIFF, Being Evel demystifies the complex, complicated and deeply flawed man behind the legend and is a lot of fun to watch!

A Perfect Day

ironically titled pitch black comedy
M*A*S*H in Bosnia? It centres around Mambru (Benicio del Toro) and B (Tim Robbins), a couple of aid workers in the Balkans during the conflict of the 90s. Working with an NGO known as Aid Across Borders, they deal with the horrors of the war and the vicious consequences of ethnic hatred almost on a daily basis. The film begins with the pair trying to raise a morbidly obese body from a well in a remote village before it can contaminate the water supply. A lack of suitable rope hampers their mission thus setting them off in search of equipment. Further complications arise when the UN administration specifically forbids them to remove the body for fear of upsetting the locals. The UN adviser who is compiling a report on the team's efficiency is "conflict evaluator" Katya (former Bond girl Olga Kuylenko), who had a relationship with Mambru that ended badly. Tension is in the air as they set off with their interpreter Damir (Fedja Stukan) and new recruit Sophie (Melanie Thierry) on a journey that reveals some of the horror of war. And Nikola (Eldar Reisdovic), an orphan boy they come across, puts a more human face on the carnage and adds a more sympathetic element to the material. A Perfect Day is the first English language feature for Spanish director Fernando Leon de Aranoa (Barrio, Familia, etc), and he maintains a light touch throughout. He mixes black humour with an exploration of the absurdity of military authority and the futility of war. Black humour at the expense of military authority and the helplessness of the UN is reminiscent of the classic M*A*S*H. In one of his better performances for some time Robbins is excellent here with his irreverent sense of humour and acerbic observations, while Del Toro's swarthy presence, cynicism and ironic detachment adds gravitas. Their banter is amusing, and alleviates some of the tension of the dramatic journey through this war torn countryside. Alex Catalan's superb cinematography of the arid mountain landscapes and war devastated backdrop further enhances this enjoyable comedy/drama. This ironically titled pitch black comedy has been one of the early highlights of MIFF.

Les règles du jeu

remarkably upbeat, often very funny and crowd pleasing documentary
Anyone who has had to deal with Centrelink and the various job seeking agencies will understand the frustrations of the levels of bureaucracy involved in trying to help job seekers. It is a problem not just pertinent to Australia, but it is a situation seemingly repeated in many other countries. This enjoyable and observational documentary from the filmmaking team of Patrice Chagnard and Claudine Bories (Les Arrivants, etc) follows a handful of disenfranchised and inexperienced teens who are looking for work in the depressed job market of northern France. They have been forced to use the services of Igneus, a job consultancy firm that gives them support and training and helps them develop the necessary skills to apply for jobs and cope with interviews, creating CVs and even learning how to dress appropriately for the workplace. The kids develop an uneasy and often prickly relationship with their mentors who try to inculcate them with the rules and procedures of the workplace and ready them for employment. However, they receive a monthly payment of 300 euros if they meet their weekly appointments and can demonstrate their job hunting efforts. Not all of them are enthusiastic participants and often find flimsy excuses to miss their regular appointments. And they have a hard time understanding the jargon spouted at them. Kevin lacks self-confidence, while Hamid has an attitude problem. The most memorable of the characters here is Lolita, a frumpy and surly girl with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, a slouched posture, a troubled past which she is reluctant to talk about, and a massive shoulder bag in which she carries around most of her daily needs. But she slowly grows in confidence as the film progresses. The film is divided into neat little chapters, and the headings provide clues to the behaviour of the chosen subjects. But Rules Of The Game is also remarkably upbeat and often very funny and a crowd pleaser.


revealing and disturbing look at a horse race like no other
Twice every year the Italian city of Siena hosts the Palio, the oldest horse race in the world dating back to 1400. It is a horse race unlike any other. It's a bare back horse race consisting of several laps around the town's central piazza. Even a horse that has lost its jockey can still win the race! And losing jockeys can be viciously attacked by the crowds. The city is divided into 17 districts, and each district competes for prestige and pride. For the residents of Siena the Palio is a metaphor for the vagaries of life and represents a microcosm of life and traditions of Italy itself. But the outcome of the race is more often than not determined by strategy, bribery and corruption, and side deals between the various jockeys and racing teams. In this fascinating documentary, director Cosimo Spender (Without Gorky, etc) takes us behind the scenes for this revealing and disturbing look at the tradition of corruption that has dominated the sport. He briefly gives us an overview of the history of the sport, and we meet some of the legendary past figures from the sport. In the lead up to the 2013 event Spender has been granted an unprecedented level of access to some of the competitors. He follows several of the competitors, including the arrogant veteran jockey Gigi Bruschelli, who has won 13 Palios, and his younger protégé and main rival Giovanni Atzeni. Atzeni is in it purely for the sport and the thrill of racing, unlike the venal champion who has ruthlessly dominated the sport. Spender and his team of cinematographers and editor (Valerio Bonelli) have captured the frenetic adrenaline-charged and pulse pounding excitement and brutal spectacle of the race itself, but it is the behind the scenes machinations that provide most of the intrigue and drama. Lovers of horses though should be warned that some scenes here could prove distressing.

Simindis kundzuli

minimalist filmmaking, but spectacular visuals
In the middle of the Enguri River in a remote region of Russia, the floodwaters produce small islands that are capable of producing corn crops. An unnamed elderly man (Ilyas Salman) plants corn on the island and builds a small rustic hut where he spends his time tilling the crops and waiting for them to flourish. He is accompanied by his teenage granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili). It is a rather dull existence for the pair, more so for the girl who has to go without the usual creature comforts. The river itself forms a border between Georgia and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, and the two nations are involved in an ongoing conflict. Gunshots occasionally reach the pair from across the river on the mainland, a reminder of the civil war happening elsewhere. But the conflict doesn't really touch the couple until a wounded soldier washes ashore one night. They nurse him back to health while wary of the occasional boat patrol passing. Corn Island is a poetic and visually stunning story about the cycle of nature, of the human cycle life and death and of man versus nature. This slow burn and minimalist drama from Russian director George Ovashvili has little dialogue, and relies mainly on the spectacular visuals to tell the story. Corn Island has been beautifully filmed by Elemer Ragalyi, whose sweeping cinematography gives the film an epic scope.

Freedom Stories

Freedom Stories remains remarkably upbeat and optimistic, compassionate and sensitive
Documentary filmmaker Steve Thomas has been interested in exploring the plight of refugees who have spent time in enforced detention after arriving on Australia's shores by boat from war torn countries like Afghanistan or Iraq. His previous films include Hope, which followed Iraqi refugee Amal Basry, a survivor of the SIEV X disaster in which some 350 refugees drowned, and 2001's Welcome To Woomera, a look at the notorious detention centre in a remote and harsh location. It was there that he met a number of refugees, and was moved by their stories. Many of them arrived at the time of the Tampa controversy and were confined to detention centres in Woomera at the time of the riots and protests. Thomas visits many of these former refugees as they establish a new life in their new country. Filmed over the course of four years, Thomas follows thirteen refugees, and uncovers some common threads in their stories as they talk of their struggles in coming to Australia and their struggles to adapt to life in Australia. But not all of their stories are as interesting or as compelling. When they arrived here most of them were identified merely by a number. But now they have worked hard to establish themselves and their identity in their new home, and Freedom Stories sets out to acknowledge this. We meet people like Mustafa, a refugee from Afghanistan, who was ten when he arrived in Australia and spent several years in Woomera. His younger brother, of whom he is obviously protective, was actually born in detention. Mustafa now works as an apprentice mechanic, and many of his customers are unaware of his background. There is also Amir, who works as a real estate agent, and Arif, who worked as a tiler, and one of his first jobs was decorating Molly Meldrum's pool area. He has since gone on to establish his own business. Many of them still bear the emotional scars and are traumatised by their experiences in the cramped conditions of these detention centres. Some still suffer from anxiety attacks and depression. Often the words of his subjects appear on the screen to emphasise certain key points. Despite the hardships most of the refugees endured, Freedom Stories remains remarkably upbeat and optimistic. Thomas is compassionate and sensitive. He adopts a rather informal and laid back style here as he gently questions his subjects about their experiences that gives the material a more intimate feel. The film lacks the usual histrionics and strident tone that surrounds the refugee debate. Freedom Stories is not overtly political in nature and doesn't really engage in the ongoing debate about asylum seekers, offshore detention or the controversial border protection policies of the government. The film has a rather unusual structure and it unfolds in largely nonlinear fashion. Thomas introduces us to his subjects and teases us with some information about their stories before moving on to another story. It may have been better if Thomas had selected a handful of the more interesting refugees and explored their story in more depth. In the second half of the film he returns to revisit many of them to see how their lives have progressed. This occasionally gives the material a disjointed feel. It may have been better to have explored each individual story in more detail and depth in one single segment. One gets the feeling that much of the material would be better suited to a television documentary series.

Speed Sisters

fascinating documentary offers insights into a Palestine we rarely see
It's rare to see women in the testosterone fueled world of racing cars, and even rarer to find females in the world of car racing in the patriarchal Arab world. But this fascinating documentary from first time feature director Amber Fares introduces us to four fast and furious females from Palestine who feel the need for speed and who live their passion as drift racers. Marah, Noor, Mona and Betty are the Middle East's first female team of drivers, and their manager is the equally formidable Maysoon. They had to overcome a lot of prejudice and entrenched tradition and societal expectations when they set out to prove themselves as race car drivers. Racing opened up a new world for them and their families and provided them with a number of opportunities they may otherwise not have had. Breaking down barriers, they are regarded as local heroes by some. They race under the auspices of the Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Federation, which was founded in 2005. Despite being the reigning champion, Marah is the more hot headed of the four and often clashes with the head of the Arab racing federation and has numerous problems with their rules. But the four also retain touches of their femininity through regular manicures, retail therapy and dreams of marriage and raising a family. Although they are friends, there is also a keen sense of rivalry amongst them as they compete to see who is the fastest. But Fares also takes us for a more intimate look at their personal lives and their families, who are supportive of the girls and their ambitions, and gives us some insights into Palestinian culture that we rarely see. Not just a sports documentary, Speed Sisters is also an exploration of gender roles, changing attitudes and society in the Arab world where some freedoms are curtailed. Revheads will enjoy the adrenaline charged car racing action, the smell of burning rubber. There is some beautiful cinematography from Fares herself and Lucy Martens, that gives us a strong sense of place. We get a glimpse of life in Palestine itself, a troubled city with its military checkpoints, its hideous wall that divides it, the regular patrols of soldiers, and the constant threat of attack and shelling from Israel.

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