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last update 12.Oct.14
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Charlie’s Country
dir Rolf de Heer
scr Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil
prd Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
with David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu, Luke Ford, Peter Minygululu, Bobby Bunungurr, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Frances Djulibing, Gary Sweet, Ritchie Singer
release Aus Oct.13 aff,
UK Oct.14 lff
13/Australia 1h48

london film festival
Charlie's Country Slow and observant, this drama might test the patience of viewers who need a driving narrative to hold their interest, but this film is bursting with pungent issues that have resonance far beyond the aboriginal history of Australia. And it's anchored by yet another fine performance by David Gulpilil.

In a remote Outback town, old-timer Charlie (Gulpilil) trades banter with the white cops, his fellow elders and pretty much everyone he meets. He was once given a house by the Australian government, but it was overrun by his family, so he lives in a lean-to on the edge of town. When he and his pal Pete (Djigirr) go hunting, they get in trouble for their patched-together car and unlicensed guns. And the friendly cop (Ford) won't even let Charlie hunt with a spear. So he decides to go native and return to his roots.

Every element in this story echoes with the injustice of an interlocking culture applying its rules to the invaded populace, then treating them like inferiors who can't even decide for themselves whether they want to drink alcohol. Charlie's attempts to maintain his identity are constantly scuppered by policemen, officials and doctors who can't pronounce his real, "foreign" name. And even though he continually reminds them that they're on his land, he's always in the wrong.

Gulpilil gives Charlie a wonderfully cheeky sense of humour, poking fun at the irony of the injustice. But his inner rage boils over and, by never appearing strident, Gulpilil lends dignity to Charlie's rants against land grabs, work exploitation, unfair restrictions and the "white man's junk food" that has made everyone chronically ill. These things are tempered by other factors, including the reality behind Charlie's memory of living in idyllic nature.

Finely shot, skilfully edited and packed with colourful side characters, the film is mesmerising for viewers who want to look deeper. Most interesting is how it helps viewers understand why people in this situation often turn to drunken laziness. Filmmaker de Heer isn't letting them off the hook, but he is acknowledging a much deeper truth about human self-worth that echoes in every country on earth. With a desire for belonging and purpose so deeply built into the human psyche, it's no wonder that disenfranchised people even in the world's most developed communities are adrift.

15 themes, language, violence
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The Dead Lands
dir Toa Fraser
scr Glenn Standring
prd Matthew Metcalfe, Glenn Standring
with James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Rena Owen, Raukura Turei, George Henare, Calvin Tuteao, Jamus Webster, Bianca Hyslop, Isabella Rakete, Matariki Whatarau
rolleston and makoare
release UK Oct.14 lff,
NZ 30.Oct.14
14/New Zealand 1h39

london film festival
The Dead Lands What starts as an intriguing fable about early life in New Zealand spirals quickly into a rather dim-witted action movie. But the Maori setting and culture add plenty of intrigue, and the plot has the heft of an enduring legend. So even though it's all faintly ridiculous, it's easy to just sit back and go with it. And fans of the haka will love it.

A long-standing treaty between two tribes is broken when the war-mongering Wirepa (Tuhaka) makes up a reason to slaughter a neighbouring tribe led by Chief Tane (Henare). The sole male survivor is Tane's 15-year-old son Hongi (Rolleston), who sets off on a hopeless mission to honour his father and ancestors. Daringly, he enlists the help of a feared warrior (Makoare) whom everyone thinks is a flesh-eating monster. And together, these two take on Wirepa and his gang in a land where the dead are involved in the fates of the living.

The sense of history is strong, with a terrific use of local language and customs, as well as a gorgeous wilderness setting that ranges from mountain forests and scrubby flatlands to the stormy ocean. If only the filmmaking was as careful with the story's place and time. These muscly men wear clothing that is clearly made by a movie costume designer: their carefully crafted raggedy loincloths are about as authentic as Raquel Welch's fur bikini in One Million Years BC. And the film only has one tone: super-serious.

All the macho glowering and chest-pounding is played dead straight by the up-for-it cast, who at least manage to find some emotional subtext in their characters' internal dilemmas. The leads are solid as the three warrior types: tough youngster, grizzled elder and brooding thug. All three actors find moments of insight, although the rare glimpses of earthy humour feel like they snuck past director Fraser, who clearly wanted to keep everything blunt and po-faced.

As the story progresses, intriguing themes about the importance of living up to the expectations of predecessors are abandoned in lieu of intensely brutal action. The battles look intriguingly choreographed, using Maori weapons and fighting styles, but they're so harshly over-edited that it's impossible to see much of what's happening. And in the end, the plot progresses to the requisite showdowns right on schedule. Rather that find something thoughtful, Fraser ends with a final shot that feels like it wouldn't be out of place in a Transformers movie.

15 themes, language, violence
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The Duke of Burgundy
dir-scr Peter Strickland
prd Andrew Starke
with Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso, Zita Kraszko, Monica Swinn, Eszter Tompa, Kata Bartsch, Gretchen Meddaugh
knudsen and d'anna release US 23.Jan.15, UK 20.Feb.15
14/UK Film4 1h46

london film festival
The Duke of Burgundy After Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, no one expects British filmmaker Strickland to make a straightforward movie, and this is far from the mainstream. Yet despite its superficially shocking premise the film is actually about the core elements in any relationship, and this is beautifully revealed through vivid filmmaking and raw performances.

Young maid Evelyn (D'Anna) cycles through the woods to the home of her moth-expert mistress Cynthia (Knudsen), who puts her through her paces with unusual coldness, ultimately punishing her when Evelyn fails to wash a pair of underpants. But through this entire scenario there are glimpses of something else going on and, sure enough, this roleplay is how these women express their relationship. Only it's Evelyn who's actually calling the shots. And through both public interaction with other scientists and private encounters it becomes clear that Cynthia has unmet needs of her own.

Shot in the style of a 1970s Euro-lesbian romp (complete with a retro title sequence that credits the perfume), there may not be a single man on-screen, but the story is recognisable to anyone who has faced expectations in a relationship. Everyone knows what it's like to try to please someone, bending personal desires to another person's wishes while trying to retain some of yourself in the process. This central idea seeps through every pore of the film, right to the intensely dreamlike final sequence. And Strickland never lets up on the feminist stylings.

D'Anna and Knudsen give startlingly layered performances, constantly letting the masks slip just a little bit. Both of them find astonishing emotional strength along the way, letting waves of happiness and pain wash over their faces while they try to pretend that nothing is happening. But this isn't a story about repression, it's about communication and the struggle couples have to make their singular desires meet somewhere in the middle.

Technically the film is a marvel that really needs to be seen on the big screen. Shot in Hungary, Nic Knowland's gorgeous soft-focus cinematography captures vivid textures from the forest leaves to Cynthia's stockings. And Strickland's sharp ear makes sure the sound mix is packed with telling hints and witty asides. In fact, the entire film is packed with blackly hilarious moments, mainly as characters let the real world infringe on the artifice. It's the kind of movie that frequently sends chills down the spine, then leaves the audience with plenty to chew on.

18 themes, sexuality
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United We Fall
dir-scr-prd Gary Sinyor
with Jack Donnelly, Ryan Pope, James Rastall, Jonathan Broke, Matthew Avery, Dana Haqjoo, Robert Portal, Anouska Mond, Grace Bishop, Freya Parker, Sushil Chudasama, Arina Ii
donnelly release UK 17.Oct.14
14/UK 1h26
United We Fall A bone-dry sense of humour helps overcome the fact that this comedy is based on a wobbly premise, a mock-documentary that fictionalises a real football team using just five actors and no match footage at all. It also should really have been released during the World Cup. But at least it's funny.

Four years after attempting to win the triple championship, five members of Manchester United reunite to talk about it. As they narrate their three epic clashes in 2010, it becomes clear that Olly (Donnelly) is more interested in creating himself as a brand than in playing football; Northern boy Danny (Pope) is hasn't reconciled his newly rich lifestyle or his sexuality; Stevo (Rastall) is a far too ready with a practical joke; German goalkeeper Kurt (Broke) has a system that isn't flawless; and Ghanaian Kwasi (Avery) has conflicting interests in sex, rapping and Islam.

As they pick through their failures, each actor offers hilariously astute observations that are so dry they're easy to miss. Rather more obvious are three other witnesses: the bigoted Prime Minister (Portal), a corrupt football official (Haqjoo) and a sexy assistant (Mond). Each recounted anecdotes is a carefully crafted joke with a pithy punchline. The problem is that none of these characters are remotely believable: all are self-deluded idiots, which makes what they say amusing but never lets the set-up gain any traction.

It certainly doesn't help that none of the matches were recreated. Avoiding all TV footage completely undermines the idea that this is supposed to be some sort of a documentary. It only cements the feeling that these guys could probably never survive on a football pitch, let alone make it to the European Cup. So even if the actors' performances are dead-on comedy turns, filmmaker Sinyor kind of leaves them hanging out to dry.

That said, the film does touch on some huge issues in an off-handed and sometimes very funny way, even if each character was clearly conceived to address a specific topic. Bullying is probably the central issue, and it's oddly played for laughs as the players describe the appalling things they've done to each other. Even after Danny bravely comes out as gay, he's subjected to a series of grotesque pranks that don't seem to bother him because it's part of the football world. Which is probably a lot more telling than the filmmaker intended it to be.

15 themes, language
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