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Film review: A Ghost Story


“… the reason for living [is] to get ready to stay dead a long time.” says William Faulkner, in his novel As I Lay Dying. This may perhaps be what David Lowery is driving at with his latest feature. A poem to human connection and legacy A Ghost Story powerfully evokes the notion that the sense of what one leaves behind is, not in who remembers you or for how long but, in the thing(s) they do to those you love.

A man (Casey Affleck) and a woman (Rooney Mara) live in a plain, ranch-style residence, somewhere. We do not know their names. He is a musician, although it is not clear what she does. One day, while canoodling during an intimate moment, she relates how when she was little she would hide a scribbled-note in some crevice each time before the family moved away.

The next thing we know, he is dead, slumped over a wheel, in an accident. After she has replaced the cover over his head and departed the morgue, the spirit of the deceased man rises, draped in the full-length sheet with two eye-holes. Wading, he returns dragging the white cloth about him like a wedding-dress to the house where he shall haunt from this point forward.

Held together without extraneous words or scenes in which hard-cuts are strategic as line-breaks, the movie uses time like meter and rhyme to dramatise the poetic narrative. Both long and short, time, here, moves forth and back and starts over, slipping then and stalling now. In one scene, the woman overcome by grief sits on the kitchen floor to eat a pie a friend has dropped off. She takes a mouthful. Then, another. Another. And again, whittling down the huge dish, for what seems like forever. Yet, other decades, indeed tens of decades unspool in seconds when the ghost travels into the future and the past to relive an unborn history or visit an obsolete fate.

Clothed in the same inscrutable linen for nearly the entire film Affleck astonishes with the range of emotions he manages to convey through neither expression nor speech. As the spread droops or holds we can almost discern the helplessness and anger, jealousy and affection breathing within the hollowness.

For all that has been said about Lowery’s startlingly low-tech choices in his production, sounds from Johnny Marshall’s design seem sometimes to come from outside the screen, right next to us, a creepy feeling in a story far more profound than creepy.

Inching ever closer to his lover’s outstretched hands while she lies listening to his last composition, in apparent desire for (re)connection, the ghost makes one reflect on why we do what we do when piece-by-piece we build on our work. And having to die twice to find rest from what his significant-other too has left (albeit concealed), he goes on to show us the reason for living could well be to leave behind what matters to whom that matter to you.


Theatre review: Mirror’s Edge

Mirror's Edge

“Who am I?” asks Kai (Rebecca Poynton), if internally to herself. An otherwise quintessential Aussie but for her yellow skin, the Melburnian arrives at Lake Tyrrell in the regional town of Sea Lake, angry and embittered by prejudices she has had to endure in a white country. Here, she encounters motel-operator, Leanne (Rachel Shrives), an ocker Australian trying to capitalise on the Chinese tourist-dollar, that has of late been seduced by the lake’s reflective waters and clear sky. Agreeing to a collaborative project to revive the “impossible” place draws not only Kai into an exquisite insight for herself, but (hopefully) also us for the nation as a whole. The unborn future is a much more promising world by the play’s end.

Calling back to mind one’s history, and noting our predicament at a time of unprecedented migration, to imagine a more prosperous and colourful multi-cultural melting-pot, underpins Kim Ho’s new play. This is a poetic piece that tucks today’s xenophobia beneath the desolation of a girl’s identity crisis. Its rigour and resonance go well beyond the country-specific context.

In keeping, perhaps, with the mythical powers of the body of water, the show brings together five distinct narratives across three hundred years into one smooth and fluid intersection.

A wealthy William Stanbridge (Martin Hoggart) in 1851 assures the aboriginal custodians of due respect for their culture and mores upon his acquisition of the land. His domestic help, Aoife (Eleanor Young), falls in love with Lao Ghit (Antonia Yip Siew Pin), a native Chinese panning for gold after losing her son. Xiao Yu (Jo Chen), a Malaysian overseas student in 1966 befriends Jasmin (Lucy Holz), a scholar who goes on to publish a research paper on Aboriginal Astronomy. Castor (Eden Gonford), an indigenous ranger, inspired by Jasmin’s publication vows to safeguard his ancestral territory  from “Chinese invasion”. And Kai presents as the juncture in which all the stories converge.

Bickering between the new business partners over the way Kai invariably believes her own kind is somehow better than the ordinary white person makes for rich metaphorical drama, with nuanced allusions to the ever-present stereo-typing of aborigines.

In one scene Lao Ghit relates her heart-wrenching account to Aoife wholly in Cantonese. While this seems to alienate the English-only-speaking members of audience, the move offers a taste of what it feels to be left out and marginalised.

Although Petra Kalive’s direction, like Ho’s writing, has a touch of the scalpel, the staging is tender and funny and steeped in eloquent symbols. The set sparkles as starlight projected on a shimmering backdrop is mirrored on the wet surface, characters sometimes seen behind the screen , as if they’re beyond the sky. There is no palpable change in lighting throughout the 70-minute production, making the jump in (or confluence of) time the stuff of hallucination.

A deft concept, Mirror’s Edge balances the magic of traditional beliefs with the hard, implacable reality we are confronted with. It gently persuades us that no conflict is irreconcilable through creativity and an open mind, not before, however, the quiet contemplation about who we are, but, most of all, can be.

Film review: A Quiet Passion

a quiet passion

Resistance vibrates right from the outset in the beautiful and plangent movie A Quiet Passion. There is, in the central character, little by way of subordination to religious authority. Stubbornly, social convention is questioned and subverted. And, gender stereotyping opens a new war to be waged in the frontiers of the 19th-century milieu. In other words, the latest feature by Terence Davis is demanding to watch.

The biopic, subtitled This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me highlights about 40 years in the life of the American poet, Emily Dickinson. It starts in the latter part of the 1840s when teenage Emily (played by Emma Bell) graduates from an all-girls’ seminary and returns home to Amherst, Massachusetts  where she (portrayed now by Cynthia Nixon) shall remain for the rest of her days.

Despite growing up in an ardently-Christian family in which the woman’s place is very much regarded to be in the home, Emily is resolutely opposed to allowing anybody, let alone God, compromise the “independence of [her] soul”. We soon come to know the poet will never marry even after the married pastor whom she adores leaves for another parish.

Alighting remorselessly for most of the film upon the interiors of the Dickinson estate with, subsequent to a youthful opera excursion, the absence of shops or any street, Davis trains the entire focus of his work on the depth of emotional range, Florian Hoffmeister’s lens capturing every tear brimming in the eye, a summery grin, or furrowed brow, as time manoeuvres itself into the narrative arc.

In one early scene, the camera pans from character to character in a slow clockwise motion, shadows from the fireplace long on faces reading by low lights, softly illuminating the mother’s melancholy (Joanna Bacon), before settling on Emily’s vicarious expression, the grandfather clock all the time ticktocking in the background that culminates in a resonant chime.

Retreating more and more into herself Emily becomes embittered when things around her begin to change: her father (Keith Carradine) dies, then her mother, and a close friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) who, in spite of  strong near-feminist attitudes, gradually displays a willingness to conform, for the sake of harmony, and weds — all for which the writer churns with the same unforgiving grief.

It isn’t that, Davis shows us, Emily cannot love or does not want to love, only the tension between raising a family and autonomy seems in her mind insoluble. However much she longs for human affection — a dream-like sequence plays out her unseen desires — the barrier Emily erects about her blocks out suitors who find themselves scorched by caustic remarks.

The tenderest moment in the movie occurs when in trying to comfort Emily, her sister Vinnie (magnificent Jennifer Ehle) says, “In matters of the soul you are rigorous,” to which Emily replies, “[That] rigour is no substitute for happiness.”

If I have one regret while watching A Quiet Passion it is the inability to delve more deeply into the poetry that is voiced over as a kind of internal monologue, given how it requires rigorous analysis. There is a lot of tenacity and conflict present here, and rarely do they cause such inner tremors.


Theatre review: (de)construct

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Watch us speak, watch us, hear us. We do, uncomfortable, though, it sometimes is, in Cera Maree Brown’s staging of her rich yet delicate play, whose title conjures the addressing of one’s multitude of selves, in order, perhaps, to define our authentic nature.

Four young people embark on a series of body movements in an expression of their unseen experiences. They lunge, writhe, spread their arms, this way, that, pluck their clothes, envelope themselves, gently then fast, nudging a toe into the ground, shuffle with force their agonising heels. You want to shout, “Stop! Go easy.” But we don’t, as they take their microphones at both ends of the stage, and we, too, settle down, released, if momentarily, from the visual anguish, to listen in to their conversations.

Working upon recorded exchanges amongst several individuals, Brown materialises their interior action into dance sequences, to capture the reality that straddles in the consciousness between emotions and behaviour. Jai Leeworthy, Lucy Pitt, Nabs Adnan, Antonia Yip Siew Pin are 20-something adults, of myriad backgrounds, anxious and occasionally desperate, clinging to their ideals in the face of an imperfect world, as they confront issues of identity and sexuality, struggling in an attempt to reconcile the conflict between desires and cultural norms, all the time longing for social acceptance, even when self-acceptance remains resolutely elusive.

In a memorable vignette, one of the immensely talented cast relates her trepidation about not being successful — the worry arising not for her own well-being, but — out of sheer reluctance to let her family down, portraying the all-too-familiar quandary between what one wants, what others want of them, and, indeed, what is ultimately good for us.

It is a powerful, undeniably intrusive, but dramatically effective piece, made only more potent  by Leeworthy’s lighting design that vacillates between white starkness and an ethereal sense of reverie. Isha Ram Das’ soundscape is also extraordinary, creating atmosphere imperceptibly like the best kind of film score.

These would, of course, be superficial without the piercing honesty, pain and desolation of the transcripts, and above all the performers’ superb execution, so true and absorbed that after they have torn down their thin veils of disguise — a break-through moment following endless tumult of tripping up over their fragmented personality — you feel you can glimpse the definition of their character glistening through.

Film review: My Cousin Rachel


“Did she? Didn’t she? Who is to blame?” asks pensive Philip (Sam Claflin), in the prologue of My Cousin Rachel, the latest feature by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), through which this sense of amorphous uncertainty shall resonate to the end. Each time Philip thinks he knows, something or somebody pulls the scenario out of shape. Here, after all, is a film of luscious inscrutability that entices us to probe conscience and ambition.

Philip, an orphan, was raised like a son by his wealthy cousin Ambrose in a large faming estate in 19th-century England, where women were considered dispensable. So, when he receives news his guardian is going to marry their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) in Florence, Philip is ambivalent. Subsequent letters from Ambrose telling of ill-health and torment only intensify his misgivings. And, arriving too late in Italy, in response to a hastily-scribbled message “Come quick!”, the hot-headed 24-year-old vows to exact revenge on the “woman that caused” Ambrose’s death.

Only, that woman turns out to be witty and poised, and Philip is surprised to find himself falling under her beguiling spell. The revelation Rachel is not a beneficiary at all in Ambrose’s will appears also to eradicate any sinister motivations.

Despite the seemingly innocent cinematography (Mike Eley) throughout — there is hardly any sex or cleavage, and save for the face not much bare skin either, for what is a dark and mysterious romantic drama — the movie does involve a great deal of allusions to raw passion. Gifting Rachel an elaborate pearl necklace that belonged to his mother, Philip petulantly says he wants her to wear it every night, which when combined with the older woman’s “Now go to bed like a good boy!” after kissing him on the mouth, carries every stirring of Oepidus complex.

Meanwhile, Rael Jones weaves his richly sensuous sounds (lush woodwinds and rousing piano and strings) through sweeping coastal vistas and tragedy, between alleged poison and voluptuous costumes, as chunks of juicy, red meat are torn inside panelled rooms, and secrets written on scraps of paper are tossed into open fires.

In short order, Philip upon coming of age endows the object of his affection with all that Ambrose had bequeathed to him, defying warnings of “unbridled extravagance” and “limitless appetite”, defying too his own observations of Rachel’s intimacy with “a very old friend”. Even when suspicions are later strengthened, the realisation that all the jewellery he bestowed on her she has returned once again undermines any deduction he — indeed, we — can draw.

Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier My Cousin Rachel is an impressionist portrait of love and perception and money. But, as indeterminate as when one examines an artwork up close it is, above all, a study of truth and of the human heart.

Theatre review: ODE


With a rapidly ageing population dementia has become more and more prevalent in our society; over 350,000 Australians are known to live with the debilitating condition. Karen Sibbing’s ODE offers a window into what that is like: drawing from the experience of watching her own grandmother succumb to it, she imagines a world as seen through the eyes of a sufferer. The result is devastating, but tender, bookended with an unmistakable impression of hope.

Lighting, under the skilful direction of co-creator Samara Hersch, turns into a powerful tool. In one — no, two — occasions the theatre is plunged for longer than anybody would be comfortable with into complete darkness, in which feelings of disorientation, of visceral susceptibility, desperation to want to find whatever trace of glow there is, seem to close in on us, like walls, like possibly the mental incapacity.

Near the opening of the 55-minute, one-woman show, the character relates a childhood incident where she witnesses the way her young brother’s wilful act of wandering off in a play-fair and getting lost yielded not punishment but a lollipop from their father. Despite carrying a brooding sense of premonition and whiff of unfairness — spoken in the present tense, perhaps to neutralise the influence of time — the fascinating anecdote conveys the idea of reward from tragedy that is premised on blessing in perspective.

For the rest, though, it is mostly through texture that Sibbing works. Small, intricate, observational details give us a glimpse of surviving with Alzheimer’s: hearing sounds in the head, having an imaginary friend in a toy, wolfing down handfuls of cakes on impulse, enduring bouts of frustration and anguish.

Whilst it is her grandmother whom she is depicting, Sibbing, we realise, has braided into the play her own anxieties of decline and ultimately of herself falling victim to this incurable illness.

The antics are theatrical but in all likelihood very real. A lot appears to happen and at the same time not much at all, like the ever-growing balloon that instead of popping sucks away, loses air, shrivels and limps, because that is probably life when you lose yourself.

Sibbing’s performance is outstanding: brave and heart-clutching and luminous, she embodies without reproach the volatile, vigorous, vulnerable part. The helplessness, as she stares into the distance, urine pouring down from between her legs, tears welling, is enough to make a stone weep.

Is it disconcerting? Yes, most definitely, for it forces us to confront manifestations of an unseen tormentor, so often untold.

Yet, there is a curious air of eerie magic permeating through the piece — amplified when the giant revolving image of a musical-box dancer projected on an opposite wall is the only illumination in the room — a magic none more precious than the gift eventually granted to Oma (grandmother), the gift of imagination, to which this timeless work is ode.

Film review: The Sense of an Ending


Consummate acting is in overflowing abundance in The Sense of an Ending. With deftness, Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a cantankerous retiree running a small shop that sells vintage cameras, while Charlotte Rampling is the self-assured Veronica, Tony’s first love from university, with whom he becomes reacquainted, decades after an ugly break-up by their former, immature selves. And the young actors portraying them — Billy Howle as the impetuous, book-hungry, sex-hungry Tony, and Freya Mavor, the alluring Veronica — hold their own, along with other performers in that 1960s sepia-photograph-toned milieu.

When Adrian (Joe Alwyn) joined his class at high school, Tony was at once impressed by the quiet boy’s deep and thoughtful intelligence, and quickly absorbed him into his clique. Later, the betrayal Tony felt upon realising the Cambridge-undergraduate friend he had so admired was now going out with his girl could only spill into a bilious tirade of written vitriol, the feeling made more intense by the lengths he believed he himself had to go, to have won Veronica — her body, if not her heart. An earlier bout of radical candour by the girl’s mother (Emily Mortimer) warning Tony about her child had clearly not registered.

The director, Ritesh Batra, in working with a screenplay by Nick Payne, based on Julian Barnes’ Booker-Prize winning novel, draws rich dynamics from unfolding revelations to bring closure to an unresolved pain. The idea of narrator unreliability — arguably, the essence of the book, which is summed up in its best quote, thus: History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation — although repeated on film is not satisfyingly borne out in the cascading drama, that shifts forth and back between present and past.

Batra is aided by cinematographer, Christopher Ross, who has a gift for both lucid, current-moment compositions, and memory-filtered wooziness. But, most of all, he is helped inestimably by his precious crop of cast who live out their characters as if they own the stories. Mortimer, notably, is captured in all her sensuous womanliness, like the faintest scent of rain in a haze of maybe-truths.

At the opening of the movie, Tony relates how he used to think of high school as a holding pen, where the cohort waited to be let out into university, not knowing, of course, that that too was a pen, into the world, itself again another, in much the same way the future flows out in ever-growing circles from events that have transpired, as we remember, or are able to put in words.

Theatre review: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon

I have noted before that one of the most delicious sounds in theatre is total silence among the audience. But this profanity-rich, joyfully-satirical work — led by an incandescent Ryan Bondy and, following the musical with every company so far, the talented A.J. Holmes —  rocks viewers through the entire running time into waves of raucous laughter.

The Australian Premiere of The Book of Mormon is a flashy and bright-eyed, fleet-footed charmer, glossily-attired and uninhibitedly open. There is not a hint of nuance nor restraint at any time at all to savour and parse.

It is a sensibility, however, that fits the portrait of neophyte Mormon evangelists coming to age in Uganda, where the eager graduates hope to convert poverty-stricken villagers, by way of being shining saviours of their unfound souls.

Despite the missionary centre’s decision to pair him with the bumbling, goofy dork Elder Cunningham (Holmes) and the tragedy of having been despatched to Africa rather than the land of his dreams, DisneyWorld Orlando, morally vain Elder Price (Bondy) is certain of his own gift to do God’s work and bring the Ugandans to eternal salvation. Only, the boys will soon learn the town in their charge is not only destitute, on the brink of famine, afflicted with disease, it is terrorised by a gun-toting warlord, currently on a campaign of mutilating female genitals.

After witnessing with horror the shooting of a civilian, Elder Price, in a crisis of faith, decides he shall pack his bags and leave the mission, after all. And Elder Cunningham, who has always been satisfied as his partner’s shadow, finds himself suddenly responsible for preaching the Book, of which he has never read, a story he now has to make up.

The creation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, aims to make a loud, emphatic statement about the idiosyncracies of the religion and, perhaps by extension, America’s idealistic superhero complex.

While not exploring what are painfully ripe personal accounts of the two main characters, embodied with verve by the brilliant casts (not to mention that of the repressed homosexual Elder McKinley, played by Rowan Witt) feels like missed opportunities in a show seemingly preoccupied with expressing every theological and behavioural farce perceived in Mormonism, it counts, for me at least, as another tool in the strategy of iconoclasm.

The set by Scott Pask is an impressive abstraction that captures the many layers of story-telling, transporting us without seam to bucolic Uganda from the sanitised Salt Lake City in Utah.  It is a dynamic world — an expansive colour scheme achieved magnificently through Brian Macdevitt’s lighting and Ann Roth’s costumes — populated by bursting spirits engaged in a choreography of boundless energy that tap-dance around the music like a divine couple.

There are songs of (twisted) inspiration, as one would expect, of blasphemy, of course, and, yes, of the heart. Love interest Nabulungi, gorgeously portrayed by our own Zahra Newman, the enchanting daughter of the village chief, turns out to be the catalyst to her people’s baptism. Best remembered for her emotional Sal Tlay Ka Siti, in which she sings of a place halfway across the globe her late mother told her about, she radiates in a supple performance, echoed by her sweet, wide-ranging voice.

Towards the production’s end, the President of the Church, on a visit to the continent, is confronted by the Africans’ dramatisation of their warped interpretation of the doctrine, in much the same way the Mormons in our midst have to, I’d imagine, contend with this irreverent Tony-awards-winning piece that has been a box-office sellout.

Although I know many Mormons must share my (other-times) preference for audience-etiquette, I am also quite confident the makers of this musical will continue to be rewarded at every staging with the very torrents they want.

Film review: Get Out

Get Out

Playing out in impoverished interiors and ostentatious exteriors Get Out is a doctor’s scalpel. Powerful and precise and revelatory the disconcerting tale about a romance-turned-nightmare exposes hypocrisy and prejudices bubbling away in black-and-white America beneath the (not-so-quiet) surface.

There are holes riddled all over the plot, sure, but because the film is well-acted and the soundscape (Joshua Adeniji is the sound effects editor) such a stealth weapon you don’t mind a bit of fantasy. The twang of trepidation, in fact, makes you almost grateful for the un-realness.

African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), has been dating Rose (Allison Williams) for a while, and the time has come for him to meet her folks.

At their magnificent country manor, with rambling gardens and smooth lawns, the warmth and hospitality of Dean (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon, and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), a psycho-hypnotherapist, seem to reinforce Rose’s earlier attempts to allay Chris’ misgivings about his race. Yet, for all the enthusiasm and liberal-minded talk, the household is served by two black domestic-helpers, whose peculiar behaviour he finds impossible to interpret.

Soon enough, the suave New-Yorker realises he will have to leave the premises come hell or high water, which he does, but not before a great deal of blood has been spilled.

A directorial debut by Jordan Peele, Get Out bewitches with a biting satire about the way white people may abuse their position and exploit the softer nature of others, using indoctrination or outright manipulation to their own advantage.

A horror story — unexpected twists of events betray a strong whiff of Hitchcockian cruelty — the movie pulls no punches on the practice of cherry-picking of the black culture by their fair-skinned counterpart. What is the most unsettling for me, though, is Rose’s sudden and absolute transformation, like land blackened by an everlasting eclipse.

Get Out!” turns out to be a desperate warning rather than an order. And even if it presents perhaps an uneven perspective of a society riven by racial tensions, the portrait of uneasy peace is deftly drawn. Diplomacy, after all, is not what the narrative hankers after; it just wants the surrender of your skull.

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