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***1/2 (out of five)

First time feature film director William Oldroyd’s vivid, vibrant Lady Macbeth is not based on the Shakespeare play but on the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, from a screenplay by fellow debutante Alice Birch. It’s about a woman who refuses to play by the rules, and the film electrifyingly does the same.

Oldroyd had a terribly small budget but has delivered a full-throated period melodrama; the way his limited resources have informed his artistic choices should put Lady Macbeth on film schools’ syllabi the world over. He couldn’t afford a score, so has made a virtue of barely using any music at all; his production design budget being minuscule, he’s imprisoned his characters in a world of their own austerity.

Florence Pugh, a young British actress about to become a star, plays Katherine, a young North English woman sold, along with a parcel of land, into marriage in 1865. Her new husband is the alcohol-riven wanker (literally) Alexander, who lives on a very austere estate with his despicable mine-owning father Boris and their various servants. When – thankfully! – both Boris and Alexander are called away for a few weeks, Katherine and the servants get up to no good, with serious consequences galore.

The film crackles with immediacy. The actors’ words echo sharply in the near-empty, soulless wooden rooms; clothes are dirty and the cold is tangible. This is the miserable part of England, the damp foggy boggy musty part: think moors, Heathcliff, the opening scenes of An American Werewolf in London. It’s period, but not BBC or Merchant Ivory or even Downton Abbey period; we almost feel the presence of the scrappy filmmakers on the other side of the camera, daring to spend a penny where others have spent a pound, and it’s exhilarating.

Pugh is fantastic, as immediate a nineteenth-century rebel as you could imagine; her line readings never betray the period yet feel bracingly modern. The whole film, indeed, pulls off that remarkable trick; every stitch of every bloomer and ruff feels authentic but the energy feels current, even though the cinematography and editing is formal and precise.

It’s that same crackling zip that ran through Clerks, Primer, Paranormal Activity and other high-achieving ultra-low budget labours of love and ambition; necessity really can be a mother of invention, and Lady Macbeth is inventive indeed, crisp, thrilling, sometimes very funny, and sharp as milk thistle. Unburdened by political correctness thanks to its source material, it offers a villainess who is totally willing to take us with her as far as our consciences allow, and then keep going. In a fresh 89 minutes we get a whopper of a tale.

Crew photo inc. Will Oldroyd

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*** (out of five)

Everyone loves a good cheap and cheerful, low-down and nasty noir (or at least I do). Noir is itself a sub-genre of thriller, I suppose, and within noir there’s what I’m going to call highway noir (aka, to some degree, as neo-noir).  These are films that don’t actually have a lot of night scenes, instead usually offering the deep blue skies and bold orange sands of the American western desert to provide their high-contrast cinematography. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, remade 1981) took place along the highways, and there are plenty of modern iterations, such as Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and, of course, John Dahl’s masterpiece from 1994, The Last Seduction.

These films aren’t politically correct; there are hookers (at least with hearts of gold), men who hit women (and hookers, with hearts of gold) and femmes fatales. There is usually some graphic violence, a few bodies, misplaced sexual desire, a big baddie worse than the little baddies, a bundle or bundles of cash – often in a bag or a briefcase – and a dubious job gone wrong, such as a hit, often for the cash in the bag. All these elements, plus, of course, blue skies, desert sands and highways, are present in Christopher Smith’s Detour, which also adheres to an admirable genre quality, brevity, clocking in at a sweet ninety-seven minutes.

There are two twists here. The first is that this is a British film, shot primarily in South Africa (!), although it is fully set in and around Nevada. The second is that Smith, known for his tricky takes on low-budget horror such as Creep, Severance and his best, Triangle (2009), fancies up his pretty standard highway noir story with what can only be called the Sliding Doors trick: at the first act turning point, when our protagonist makes a life-altering choice, we then follow two alternative narratives for the rest of the film. This being noir, of course, all choices are bad choices.

The gimmick isn’t really necessary, as the rest of the elements are all in place including some good performances, especially from Brit Bel Powley as – yup! – a hooker with a heart of gold. But it doesn’t hurt either. The film goes down like sweet syrup. There’s no reason to see this one in lieu of some of the better ones mentioned above, but if you’ve seen all those, you’ll probably get on just fine with this. Like its characters, it puts on no airs or graces: it is what it is.

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*** (out of five)

David Harrower has expanded his internationally successful stage two-hander Blackbird for Benedict Andrews’ film version, now called Una: he gets our two lead characters occasionally out of the factory break room they have their devastating encounter in; he adds more chapters and more “story”; and – most critically – he and Andrews include a huge swathe of flashbacks to the events the characters spent the play recalling, which, if you’ve seen the play, may surprise or even shock you.

Blackbird, the play, is about the confrontation between 27 year old Una and 55 year old Ray; fifteen years ago, when she was 12 and he was 40, they had a three month sexual relationship that ended with his four year imprisonment. Now she has surprised him at his place of work, and the past is going to get dredged up for our somewhat lurid and dreadfully sad entertainment. These are shattered people with shattered lives and seeing each other cannot bring out much good.

Given a fine production, this is a brilliant play. I saw one, under Cate Blanchett’s direction at the Sydney Theatre Company, and it was a profound evening in the theatre. Harrower’s coup de theatre five minutes from the final curtain is jaw-dropping: he brings on an actual twelve year old girl, and suddenly the reality of the relationship we’ve just spent a couple of hours visualising hits home. We’ve been tricked into believing in a love affair, when all that’s really been on stage is the wreckage of crime.

In the film, we see multiple flashbacks of the “affair”, with twelve year old Ruby Stokes playing a young version of Rooney Mara’s older Una. This obviously jettisons the impact the play’s ending had, and the impact of the film as a whole, for the sequences between Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray and Stokes are never as disturbing as that moment allowed our brain to create. It’s a big literal choice that may very well have been the wrong one, and when Andrews tries the trick again, using standard cinematic language, it simply fails. We’re over being shocked about something we’ve already spent three acts being shocked about.

Indeed, considering Andrews made his theatrical reputation as a provocateur, it’s strange how safe Una is. The subject matter is intense, inherently distressing, taboo – but the film backs away from many edges which, frankly, I was expecting it to leap from with gusto. Perhaps I was bringing my own expectations about what a “Benedict Andrews movie” should be, having seen many “Benedict Andrews productions” on stage. The writing here is what pushes the envelope, not the direction.

If he’s unwilling to embrace his inner Gaspar Noé, at least Andrews, making his feature film debut, lets his Kubrick fantasies run wild. He utilises a very cold, formal shooting style and a stark deployment of sound (including Jed Kurzel’s superb creepy score) that evokes the chilly Kubrickian atmospheres of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and the cool severity of Shane Carruth. Twice, Andrews deploys a wide-screen symmetrical image, with perhaps a tiny zoom in, to instigate dread, and, given we’ve grown up on The Shining, it works. This style places him in my wheelhouse, and certainly puts him on my director radar. The film is rather slight, but the talent on display carries depth.

In two very tricky roles, Mara and Mendelsohn are compelling and believable, but both performances feel somewhat effortful. Harrower’s dialogue sounds, to my ear and memory, often directly lifted from his stage script, but of course it’s been cut way down, and it feels like the actors feel the burden of filling in the missing lines with physical intensity, as though they’re clenching their guts as they talk. Andrews is famous for his brilliant stage metaphors – in his German production of Blackbird, Ray spilled water and then desperately tried to mop it up, a wonderful little microcosm of his life – but his film is very, very literal, surprisingly so, and unfortunately, to its detriment. Una is stylish and precise, painful and attractive, but it shows us enough to stop us imagining the worst.

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Watch CJ’s review of this film on WATCH THIS.

***1/2 (out of five)

Pete Gleeson’s creepy fly-on-the-wall portrait of mining-country Australia (specifically, the area called Goldfields in Western Australia) is an eye-opener, even as it feels like it’s pulling its punches. It isn’t quite the documentary equivalent of Wake In Fright (or Hostel, for that matter) but it certainly has pungent things to say about isolation, masculinity, alcohol and Australia. If it bends over backwards not to decimate its subjects, it also can’t help it when they implicate themselves.

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Comfortable, lucky, Sydney-based me had no idea that young female backpackers are constantly being given short-term deployments to isolated outback mining-town pubs, where the local workers await their arrival as “fresh meat” (a term literally uttered ravenously by one of this film’s charming denizens). Such is the case with Lina and Steph, who – having had their credit cards stolen and their savings drained in Indonesia – are sent to work on a three-month contract at the insanely named Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, as isolated and barren a place as might exist on earth (but only 39kms from Kalgoorlie!) There, they are slobbered over by grotesqueries masquerading as men, and, were it not for the sense of camaraderie the viewer feels with Gleeson himself (they’re being filmed, therefore Gleeson is there, and we assume Gleeson is a nice enough guy) we may very reasonably fear greatly for their safety.

There are jaw-dropping moments galore, and not a lot of salvation. Lina and Steph’s journey is not so much towards greater understanding or cultural awareness as it is towards failure and escape. And who in the world could blame them? The Hotel at Coolgardie is hell with beer.

There is one moment where Lina seems in real danger, and the camera lurches forward, as though Gleeson has made the decision to intervene. One can only imagine the moments left unfilmed, in the undocumented version of this story, which repeats itself, in three-monthly cycles, out there in the red dust, where the men wait for young travellers like mangy dogs for carrion.

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**** (out of five)

Laura Poitras is the most fascinating filmmaker on the planet. That’s a big claim and I stand by it. I was able to say the same thing about Michael Moore during his Bowling For Columbine / Fahrenheit 911 period. With the one-two punch of Citizenfour and now Risk, Poitras has peeled back layers of international secrecy, conspiracy, surveillance and hypocrisy, leaving me terrified.

Of course, she couldn’t do it without her subjects, Edward Snowden (Citizenfour) and Julian Assange (the subject of Risk) but it says an enormous amount that they both chose her to not only document their journeys but become complicit in them. In doing so she has become a globally vital voice, a filmmaker of absolute influence, with the CIA, FBI and other files to prove it. She is an enemy of the United States so that we may bear witness to its intrusions.

Citizenfour was her immediate revelation – her camera was rolling in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room as his whistle blew, and the world wondered who the hell he was – while Risk is her epic, spanning a shooting period from 2006 to, well, perhaps last week (like so many political documentaries right now, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate moment to end on except to cut to a black screen with updated white text and let you rush out to plan your child’s safety). There is an astonishing moment where the two films directly intersect – where Assange watches the Snowden affair blow up on television, and then we cut to the interior of Snowden’s hotel room from Citizenfour – that cements her unbelievable abilities as a global witness.

We see all of Assange’s lairs intimately – including daily life at the estate in Norfolk and, fascinatingly, his living situation within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His room is tiny and he works out in a bathroom. Any images we may have had in our head – of hotel-like conditions – are blasted to smithereens. It is not an enviable existence. We hear Assange candidly on the “Swedish situation”, including a jaw-dropping session with his lawyer as they discuss the two women who brought charges against him. And we are led to at least a strong hypothesis of the relationship between Assange and his brilliant 2IC, Sarah Harrison, who emerges – for this critic at least – as heroic.

Assange is pissed off at the film and Poitras, and WikiLeaks’ lawyers are suing her, claiming – among other things – that she has put Assange, Harrison and others in serious jeopardy by editing the film (or re-editing the film, after a screening in Cannes in 2016) in New York City rather than the contractually-agreed-upon Berlin (where Poitras lives in self-exile for her own safety). This dispute invades the film itself and gives it the feeling of being a living document, something that may be altered again. This is, in itself, electrifying. But there is another revelation in the film – a deeply personal one about Poitras – that shakes the relationship of filmmaker to film even more distressingly. It is sensational and disturbing, but it has only deepened my understanding of Poitras. She may seem able to be in two countries at once; she may be single-handedly using film to reveal the depths of the United States’ security malfeasance; but she is also unalterably human and prey to the weakness of the species.risk

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**1/2 (out of five)

Nick Bloomfield is not the greatest documentarian, even if he’s one of the most famous. He made his significant name with provocative titles such as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, putting himself into the picture with his signature boom mike and even-more-signature idiosyncratic British drawl (if you’ve seen the work of Louis Theroux you’ll be hip to Bloomfield’s early style). He stays out of Whitney: Can I Be Me, his feature doc on Whitney Houston, but, as with the majority of his work, he takes a point of view; trouble is, as with much of his work, that point of view is muddy and obtuse.

Whitney’s death is the big feature here, and the film is framed as something of a detective story, not a “whodunnit?” but a “howdidit?” Unfortunately, the answer is pretty clear: long term drug use killed the deceased, Your Honour, case closed. So Bloomfield, seeking to spice things up, dwells on the love triangle at the centre of Houston’s universe – between herself, husband Bobby Brown, and best friend and possible lover Robyn Crawford – with diminishing returns, as we realise that Crawford isn’t going to appear on camera.

Her absence leaves a gap too thematically large for the many talking heads to fill; it’s kind of like a piece of journalism missing the most important source. There is a lot of footage from Houston’s final tour – seen for the first time – that certainly shows both the astonishing talent and the ravages of addiction, and there are often terribly sad revelations, such as the on-camera admission by Houston’s mother Cissy that she could not abide homosexuality on her daughter’s part. But Houston herself remains a weirdly remote, distant figure, which is a big problem for the subject of a feature doc.

The overwhelming feeling this film provokes is sadness, and not just because of the drugs and the brilliant life cut short. There isn’t any celebration here; like a lot of Bloomfield’s work, there is only casualty.

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*** (out of five)

Richard Gere continues his post-leading man career investigating the lives of New Yorkers and their relationships to money, power and ethics in the ludicrously over-titled Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (let’s call it Norman for short), an intriguing and undeniably original little oddity from New York-born, Jerusalem-based director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort).

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is a self-described “consultant”, President of “Oppenheimer Strategies”. While he has a high-falutin’ sense of purpose, his actual professional existence consists of desperately trying to connect people in order to curry their favour. He literally works the streets, loitering near places of power, worming his way into the rooms that may lead to the rooms adjacent to the rooms where it’s happening. The title describes him as a “fixer”; the Roman and Greek comedy theatre had a similar stock character type, the “Parasite” or “Flatterer”. He big-notes himself, is obnoxiously obsequious, and – worst of all – lies, all in the seemingly vain pursuit of feeling important.

Then, perhaps inevitably, one day one thing finally leads to another. He meets and performs his cringe-worthy sycophancy on a visiting Israeli Deputy Minister; three years later, that man is Israel’s Prime Minister, and not only hasn’t he forgotten Norman, his memories of him have softened into an overly generous affection. Norman finally becomes influential, without any skills or abilities, and his “moderate rise” must lead to a “tragic fall”.

As I’ve said, it’s an original story. The closest similar film I can recall is Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) in which Peter Sellers played an uneducated, intellectually-challenged but beautifully spoken gardener whose horticultural tips are mistaken for wisdom and who ends up advising the President of the United States. But in that film, Sellers’ character Chance was an innocent; Gere’s Norman is absolutely complicit in his own rise, however unwarranted, and, unlike Chance, we are rooting for his fall.

At least, I was. I found Norman so deeply disagreeable that the first act of the film almost drove me from the theatre. However, once the story kicked in (and, particularly, once the excellent Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi came onto the scene as Micha Eschel, the deputy minister) I found myself drawn in. Like Being There, Norman is constructed and presented as a bit of a fable, with simple, recurring visual motifs and warm, overtly romantic cinematography. And, with its conceit of a ludicrously under-skilled man assuming a position of unearned influence, it has acquired, between shooting and release, a depressing relevance.