Playing it Safe on the Streets of Melbourne

Play it Safe feels like a breath of fresh air amidst the Australian films of this and recent years. It’s a not a great film, but it’s an encouraging and admirable one that feels like it is attempting something few others have been allowed to. It’s a film that looks at the lives of young people, something that much to my own bafflement is rarely seen on Australian screen (actually, it’s not all that surprising given how long it can take a local film to get off the ground – filmmakers are no longer in their 20s by the time they get to make it and are either dealing with their childhoods or more mature themes). It’s a film that some might mistake for slight, but instead is just more concerned with smaller moments in the life. Moments that other movies might not think are important, but which feel keenly observant when viewed by people for whom little moments are the fabric of life.

Director Chris Pahlow has a history in music videos and has taken his cinematic inspirations from the American independent cinema scene, recalling most of all of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. From Sherwin Akbarzadeh and Jaque Fisher’s crispy grey-toned black and white cinematography to even similar story beats of late twentysomething life-hopping, it nonetheless lacks the strengths that come with an established screenwriter and team of performers like that film had.

playitsafe01What the film does have going for it and what is ultimately Pahlow’s finest achievement is its very real sense of its time and place. This feels like a movie about modern people who look and sound and talk like real people existing in an unengaged Melbourne. I’m not going to admit I did not see myself in some of the characters here, feeling restless in a city, trying to find our place in a city that we are so routinely told has everything we could want yet which we still find lacking. Pahlow’s film captures the quiet side of the city, the highways and train-lines and poorly-attended weeknight bars with such a delicate grace that suggest he has a real talent for seeing the city and its people in a fresh way that hasn’t been done time and time again. Like other local youth-oriented flicks Love and Other Catastrophes, Burke & Wills, Further We Search and Occasional Coarse Language, Playing It Safe is more concerned with recreating that feeling of what it means to simply attempt an existence. It’s a fine debut and one that suggests stronger things are on the horizon.

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A Film is a Naked Director

It’s impossible for Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person to not be taken in by audiences as above all a time capsule. Emerging in 2015, 40 years after its initial completion due to legal and personal wrangling, the film’s primary service and entry point to modern audiences will likely be as a never-before-seen look at a time and place that in the years since has been romanticised and obituarised beyond rational comprehension. The film, and the story behind it for that matter, is far more interesting than that though and watching it now is a curious thing indeed for not just those time capsule elements that are indeed fascinating, but also for its historical context as an important work of non-fiction filmmaking due in large part to the radical formal experiments that Blank employs in the aid of what could have been a fairly rudimentary documentary about a genius but rudely temperamental artist that merely copies the structure of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back.

A Poem is a Naked Person was completed in 1974 from some 60 hours of footage filmed by Blank while on the road in Oklahoma with blues and folk rock singer Leon Russell and his entourage. Disagreements between Blank and Russell lead to the film being effectively blackballed from release over rights issues and was only ever shown with Blank in attendance and with proceeds typically going to charity. He continued to tinker with the film until his death in 2013 and now, thankfully, has been allowed to see the light of day with the help of Blank’s son Harrod, an author and occasional filmmaker, as well as Leon Russell, who has admitted to not liking the film.

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Lawrence Johnston’s Latest Buzzes Bright with Neon

It takes a special filmmaker to do what Lawrence Johnston does. There are certainly no Australian documentarians working today that I can think of doing what he does. He takes subjects of such a niche and specialised variety and treats them with the utmost of dedication and care by compiling sprawling cinematic examinations that strike at the historical heart of his subjects while also allowing for delight, fun, and even whimsy. Like prior films Eternity, Night, and Fallout, his films take life’s anecdotes and create a visually resplendent film, cinematic poems if you will, that fly in the face of what documentary cinema typically is in Australia. Neon is more traditional in structure and certainly less abstract than Night or Eternity, but no less a fluttering of style and panache that somehow makes the subject sing.

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Putting on the Ritz with Magic Mike XXL

This review is reworked from the original featured at SameSame.

Channing Tatum is back with his buddies – and minus his shirt – and they’re going on the road in Magic Mike XXL. Let’s start for a moment with that title, which is so keen at setting the goofy tone of the whole enterprise as well as following in the grand tradition of sequel titles actively referring to a character’s genitals like Goldmember and, ahem, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold*. A franchise spin-off featuring Joe Manganiello’s ‘Big Dick Ritchie’ would see roman numerals back in a big way.

Now, as crazy as it is to imagine anybody being on the fence about whether they will venture out into the cold winter night to get all hot and bothered at the multiplex, we still have to try and say something to earn our money. “Earning money” is certainly something that Tatum and co. do here as they parade around in as little clothing as possible to work up your thirst. In the first five minutes alone we get a healthy dose of Tatum’s sweaty arms and thrusting hips as well as Joe Manganiello’s bare butt. Throughout you’ll see Matt Bomer down to his g-string, Adam Rodriguez shooting whipped cream from his crotch, and some of the finest fit stripping extras up there on the big screen. Channing’s charm is the film’s best asset beyond his bare flesh because it would be easy to be turned off by a film full of the sort of douchebag muscle queens you find at the gym on a daily basis, but while he may look like Kryten from Red Dwarf’s human cousin, but he still has the appeal of the high school jock that is nice to everyone and who everyone likes. Consider Zac Efron in Neighbours, but if he was actually a person you’d like to hang out with beyond locker-room ogling.

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The Troubled Musical Tribute to ‘Amy’

This review was originally published by The Film Experience.

Given what director Asif Kapadia was able to accomplish with the otherwise (to me) uninteresting world of vroom vroom speed racing in Senna, logic would dictate that when handling a subject of great interest to me that the results would be even more outstanding. That doesn’t quite prove to be the case with Amy, another scrapbook collection of archival footage presenting the life of somebody who lived fast and died young, Amy Winehouse, but one which lacks quite the same verve of the director’s predecessor.

Kapadia is in the unique position of making a documentary about somebody whose life isn’t just rife for the Hollywood biopic treatment, but which actually feels like it already has been. Is her story not almost note-for-note for Mark Rydell’s The Rose with Bette Midler? It’s curious as a viewer of a documentary to feel as if I’d seen it all before in a fiction film (albeit one highly inspired by a real life person) and being disappointed because it comes off second best.

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Jurassic World Reboots in Plastic

This review was originally published by Weekly Gravy.

Somebody let the dinosaurs into the liquor cabinet. Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park turned 21 last year and, just like anybody allowed to drink for the first time, it’s gone a little bit awry. With Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow makes a defiant display of wannabe maturity, but his film is ultimately a bit of a mess as it so desperately attempts to replicate the popular original, but does so without any of the class that Spielberg brought to his ground-breaking special effects extravaganza of 1993. Perhaps in returning to the franchise, the powers that be shouldn’t have handed over the reins to somebody with such little experience – this is only Trevorrow’s second feature after the low-budget indie Safety Not Guaranteed, which is a bizarre leap. Maybe someone who had the honed skills equivalent to Spielberg when he was at the top of his blockbuster game should have been the one in charge.

Certainly somebody with more experience would have spotted the myriad of problems inherent in Jurassic World, most of which can be laid at the feet of the screenplay. A screenplay that took four people to write, which is an alarming statistic. When the script isn’t simply recreating famous scenes from the original with less engaging characters who speak a lot and yet say so very little, it’s blindly ignoring plot holes and conjuring up half-baked ideas like breeding raptors to take on terrorists, which is just as silly as the gymnastics routine from the first sequel The Lost World.

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Terminator Genisys trumps Jurassic World‘s Referential Reboot

This review originally appeared on Weekly Gravy.

There’s something about the Terminator franchise that I truly dig. I like that it doesn’t pretend its science is anything other than ridiculous coming out of the mouths of muscle-bound beefcakes, yet still takes its concepts of ethics and cause-and-effect seriously. I like that, apart from the dour-faced Salvation, these films are aesthetically exciting, filling the screen with eye-popping action set-pieces and visual effects that allow us to actually see and follow what’s happening, rather than throwing graphics at the screen and expecting audiences to nod in glazed-eye approval. Perhaps most of all, I just like films with some actual imagination behind them. I can forgive the lapses into bad acting and nonsensical dialogue if it feels like somebody behind the scenes spent longer than a nanosecond on devising ways to entertain an audience rather than simply doing the same as before (like The Avengers: Age of Ultron) and expecting it not to notice.

It’s true that not a whole lot of Terminator Genisys makes sense when held up to close inspection, but part of the beauty of time travel is that doesn’t really need to. It makes sense in their world so, really, I’m not going to waste my energy attempting to decipher it. Where I thought it succeeded was in crafting a story that actually builds upon the themes of earlier franchise entries while being allowed to become its own thing (at least The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment DayRise of the Machines, Salvation and the TV-series The Sarah Conner Chronicles have been more or less scrapped from the timeline).

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