‘West of Sunshine’

west of sunshineDesperation rears its ugly head as Damian Hill (Pawno, The Death & Life of Otto Bloom) juggles work, a gambling addiction, a $15,000 debt payable to a loan-shark by close of business and a day to be spent with his adolescent son.

It’s a small, warm-hearted feature from first-time feature filmmaker, Jason Raftopoulos, shot in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, with the focus on Hill and real-life stepson Tyler Perham. Whilst West of Sunshine would have benefitted from a harder look at gambling addiction and the impact it has on family and friends, the film is ultimately an intimate exploration of fatherhood.

Rating: 59%

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‘Ash Is Purest White’

Ash_Is_Purest_WhiteIn spite of a powerful central female protagonist in Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart, Shun Li and the Poet), director Zhangke Jia (PickpocketMountains May Depart) and his latest film is a fascinating but odd misfire.

A woman used: Tao Zhao spends time in prison for her man, small-time gang leader, Fan Liao (Black Coal Thin Ice, The Master). Only there’s no sign of him on her release. She sets out to to find him.

A romantic tragedy, Ash Is Purest White is a mix of gritty social realism (when it is at its best) and surreal strangeness (mass shadow dancing in the town square to Village People’s YMCA). Zhangke Jia explores how everyday people were affected by major political and cultural changes in China 20 years ago at the the turn of the century in his films – and Ash Is Purest White continues that exploration.

Rating: 40%

Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Brothers’ Nest’

brothersnestposterReal life brothers Shane and Clayton Jacobson team up to present an enormously entertaining family murder dramedy.

Things are just not going right for the brothers. The wife has left the not-so-bright Terry (Shane Jacobson – Kenny, The Bourne Affair), taking the kids with her whilst the older, more controlling Jeff (Clayton Jacobson – Animal Kingdom, Just Between Us) has lost his job – again. Now mum has months to live and their stepfather is threatening to sell the family home and move back to Queensland. But Jeff has a plan.

A slow beginning (just the two bickering brothers) evolves into a gloriously dark, mordant comedy, beautifully contained within the confines of an isolated weatherboard farmhouse.

Rating: 62%

‘Cargo’

cargoposterThe ‘Z’ word may not be mentioned, but enjoyable Australian film Cargo firmly falls into the zombie-horror genre, but with more than a little social commentary.

With suggestions of fracking and other environmental abuses the cause of the epidemic that has decimated the country, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Black Panther) searches the outback for someone to look after his baby daughter.

Developed from a seven minute short by directors Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling (both making their feature film debut), whilst Cargo is occasionally plot and dialogue creaky, Freeman instils an engaging level of pathos to proceedings. And the final minutes are stirring and moving.

Rating: 61%

‘Breath’

Breath-New-Film-PosterA sensitive adaptation of Tim Winton’s prize-wining novel, debut feature director Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada, TV’s The Mentalist) captures beautifully the complexities of coming-of-age.

Quiet, twelve year-old Pikelet (newcomer Samson Coulter) and his best mate, the thrill-seeking Loonie (a superb debut from Ben Spence), discover the joys of surfing, mentored by one of the world’s best, Sando (Baker himself). But friendships become strained in the  search for danger.

A poetic love story (of friendship, of family, of oneself, of the ocean itself), Breath is a stunningly shot step back into the 1970s. Winton is a writer of intrinsically Australian stories with universal resonance – Breath is honest, nostalgic and visually beautiful.

Rating: 75%

‘Sweet Country’

Sweet_Country_(2017_film)In spite of the expansive 1920s-set Australian outback, director Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, The Turning) creates a claustrophobic manhunt as ‘black fella’ Sam (newcomer Hamilton Morris) is tracked cross-country by a posse for killing ‘white fella’ Harry March (Ewan Leslie – The Daughter, Dead Europe) in self-defence.

Artfully conceived and shot (the Northern Territory landscape is the star), the Australian western boasts a plethora of strong performances (including Sam Neill – Jurassic Park, The Daughter – as a man of God in a Godless town and Bryan Brown – Breaker Morant, Australia – as the vindictive local lawmaker).

It errs on slow and serious at times, but Sweet Country is nevertheless a powerful and engrossing Australian film.

Rating: 68%

‘Three Summers’

three-summers-posterSince the early 80s, British comedian and writer Ben Elton has worn his politics and heart on his sleeve. Classic TV series such as The Young Ones, Blackadder and Comic Relief attest to this.

An older Elton may have mellowed, but his Australian feature debut Three Summers retains sociopolitical grandstanding (indigenous land rights, refugees) along with several swipes at the establishment. But in a more genteel, easy to digest manner than the manic Elton of old.

Set at a weekend folk festival over three years, stories intertwine as performers and audience members return year after year. A rom-com is at the heart of Three Summers and whilst, by year three, the energy of the film is on the wane, the comic timing from the likes of Magda Szubanski (Babe, TV’s Kath & Kim) as the on-site radio presenter makes for an enjoyable and good-natured couple of hours.

Rating: 60%

‘Mountain’

mountainA gloriously immersive and poetic documentary, director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest) takes us on a journey through our fascination in the stunning majesty that is the world’s highest peaks.

With a beautifully modulated commentary from Willem Defoe, spectacular cinematography from Renan Ozturk (Sherpa, Valley Uprising) and a truly soaring soundtrack from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Mountain literally leaves you gasping for air – whether it be at the clouds rolling into the Himalayan valleys, the intense close ups of rock climbers on sheer rock faces in Monument Valley or mountain bikers travelling hell for leather on narrow paths high in the Austrian Alps.

It’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive in the extreme – and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major have never sounded or ‘looked’ better.

Rating: 61%

‘Namatjira Project’

00001-002A meandering, unfocused documentary, the Namatjira Project explores the legacy of one of the earliest successful Australian aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira. The first indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship back in the 50s, his extended family has battled to reclaim their heritage since his death in 1959.

The problem for Sera Davies’ film is its failure to determine its main subject. Is it Namatjira himself? His family? The battle to regain copyright? Or is it simply following the theatre production that is Albert’s life (a superb performance by Trevor Jamieson – Rabbit Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae)? The result is a frustrating mishmash of unresolved questions.

Rating: 53%

‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%