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Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Thursday
May182017

LOVE AND SAUCERS

Featuring: David Huggins.
Director: Brad Abrahams.

Rating: 4/5

Director Brad Abrahams makes a lot of smart storytelling decisions from the very first frame of his documentary Love and Saucers, an account of one man’s ongoing and intimate experiences with beings of unidentifiable origins and of the struggle to reconcile a ‘normal’ life with the intrusion of denizens from beyond our realm.   

From his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, 72 year-old artist David Huggins makes the fantastic claim directly to camera that, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial.” A natural camera presence that imparts his abduction memories with a compelling earnestness, Huggins timelines key moments from his childhood during which groups of ‘greys’, mantis-like insectoids and hairy beasts with glowing eyes would visit him on the grounds of his family home in rural Georgia. The purpose of the visitations is finally revealed when, alone in a wooded clearing, a pale-skinned seductress named Crescent engages the teenage Huggins and the coming-together of human and alien species takes place. 

Abrahams is entirely aware that such claims are usually met by the wider population with derision and only serve to conjure notions of B-movie/pop-culture silliness. His camera floating towards the front door of Huggins’ home just as the visitors might, the director’s opening salvo of imagery and audio cues embraces this cynicism, interspersing recollections of the encounters with zooms and jump-cuts that play like comic-book panels.

He reveals that Huggins is a sci-fi nerd, with a collection of over 2000 films (on beautiful VHS, no less), many of which deal directly with themes of alien visitation (Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, 1951), interspecies genealogy (Bernard Kowalski’s Sssssss, 1974) and otherworldly home intrusion (Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, 1944). The filmmaker almost seems to be setting his subject up for a takedown, positioning Huggins’ as a man living a sheltered life, perhaps unable to disengage from some form of childhood trauma (a boozy, womanising father who tended towards intolerance and violence is recalled).

But the Canadian-born director, who brought a level-headed decency to his 2015 swamp-monster doco short Swan Song of The Skunk Ape, has loftier ambitions than scorn and cheap thrills. As hinted at by the title, Love and Saucers is a heartfelt profile of an entirely ordinary man, albeit one whose life has been shaped by extraordinary events. Abrahams curbs the stylistic flourishes of his first act and embraces the softer, genuine emotions and real-world sensations that Huggins lives as his relationship with Crescent extends into adulthood. Although claims of hybrid children and visitation phenomena in the heart of New York City are no less astonishing, the human bond that Huggins shares with his decidedly non-human circle of friends dissolves any remaining fissure of viewer disbelief or ridicule.

Love and Saucers also speaks directly to the curative relationship between the artist and his art. Huggins recalls his relationship with the visitors via canvas, his simple yet striking surrealist oils capturing the detail behind the encounters and freeing him of deeply embedded memories. These include some graphic renditions of the intricate physical relationship he shared with Crescent; the X-rated Files, as it were.

Abrahams doesn’t ignore the abduction phenomena, acknowledging that much of the imagery and emotions that Huggins imparts is common amongst abductees. The production references the works of the late author and experiencer expert Budd Hopkins and the observations of Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Texas’ Rice University to give credence to the details in Huggins’ recollections and to counter any concern that his beliefs are the result of emotional or psychological stresses.

Ultimately, these sequences merely enhance the purely humanistic perspective that Abrahams seems most determined to impart. As intrinsically fascinating as first person accounts of extra-terrestrial interaction prove to be, it is how one man has dealt with such moments that most enthuse the filmmaker. In a film with an act of intergalactic seduction at its core, it may be the image of an elderly man sitting contentedly in a car after his first gallery showing that resonates most profoundly.

Love and Saucers: Trailer from Brad Abrahams on Vimeo.

 

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Monday
May012017

EVENT ZERO

Stars: Ash Ricardo, Zoe Carides, Paul Ayre, Andy Rodoreda, Anna Houston, Raelee Hill, Harry Pavlidis, Yure Covich, Alan Lovell and Nicholas Hope.
Writers: Greta Harrison and Matthew C. Vaughan

Director: Enzo Tedeschi

WORLD PREMIERE. Reviewed April 30 at the The Arts Centre Gold Coast, as the Closing Night film of the 2017 Gold Coast Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

The crisp, crackling action pulse of Enzo Tedeschi’s hugely enjoyable directorial debut Event Zero is destined to satisfy genre fans, who will inevitably gravitate towards its slick production values and relentless pace on streaming platforms globally. Unexpectedly but no less deservedly will be the following it engenders amongst arthouse audiences, primarily those attuned to the acid-tongued skewering of the Harbour City’s shallower end of society and the darker, more disturbing shades of modern political immorality.

Tedeschi and his scripters Greta Harrison and Matthew C Vaughan (tellingly, both Melbournians) open with a blast of purely kinetic cinema, staging a train wreck within Sydney’s subterranean transport grid that unleashes a deadly viral strain. The director is clearly at home in the electrified dark of the underground; he produced Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 found-footage shocker The Tunnel. Tedeschi and his co-writer on the hit film, Julian Harvey, formed the ‘Event Zero’ timeline in the narrative’s previous incarnation as an award-winning 2012 web-series.

Tedeschi utilises multi-tiered character arcs to paint a picture of how the modern Australian metropolis reacts under threat. Spearheading the local government response is Deputy Premier Pamela Laird (Zoe Carides), an idealistic presence faced with the big business influence of altogether untrustworthy powerbroker Langston Charlesworth (Nicholas Hope). Swept up in the tragedy is middle-class dad Jack Winston (Andy Rodoreda), who is left a widower by the outbreak, and whose grief is co-opted by self-serving anti-Muslim agitator Dave Colton (Yure Covich, charmingly despicable in the pic’s best performance).

The heroine that binds the sweeping, occasionally manic story threads is fiery, tough-talking AFP officer Leyla Nassar (a terrific Ash Ricardo), who finds herself entwined in the high-stakes drama when her Muslim leader father Yusuf (Harry Pavlidis) is mistakenly labelled the ‘terrorist’ responsible for the attack. The narrative maintains a compelling momentum, establishing dramatic tensions that suit both the effective use of genre tropes and the deeper thematic questions it poses. Tedeschi plays loose and fast with logic at times and some plotting requires that leap-of-faith moment reliant upon audience goodwill, but so relentless is the action one can’t begrudge the production a few cut corners.  

The inordinately smart subtext at play in Event Zero is most clearly personified in the form of Nick Maricic’s douchey hipster influencer, Pax. The characterisation is broadly comical, that kind of ‘plot device’ voice that can steal scenes when played to the hilt (Brad Pitt in True Romance; Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights), and Maricic gives it his all. But Pax is more than just ‘comic relief’; he is an easily identifiable Sydney archetype. As is Covich’s racist mouthpiece; or, Raelee Hill’s brazenly ambitious political PA; or, Alan Lovell’s greasy palm cop boss; or, Anna Houston’s fear-mongering TV hostess, Elizabeth Haines (a sly dig at 60 Minutes’ matriarch, Liz Hayes?). Although pieces of an action movie puzzle, the characters in fact serve to potently mirror the moral emptiness of modern Sydney’s social and political fabric.

Most profoundly, Event Zero has taken on a perspective that the director and his team could not have envisioned. Tedeschi stages chilling moments of racially motivated violence, of social deconstruction brought upon by nationalistic fervour; the script conjures a world of heartless men performing heinous deeds to further privilege and entitlement. As recently as only a few years ago, this imagined world could only believably exist within the construct of a breathlessly staged genre movie scenario; in 2017, that scenario has become inconceivably real in light of the Trump/Brexit/Alt Right new world order. The film never fully forgoes its primary aim of being rattling good popular entertainment, but timeliness has afforded Event Zero a pertinence that it embraces with a loud, coherent voice.

 

Friday
Apr072017

DANCE ACADEMY

Stars: Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Thomas Lacey, Alicia Banit, Dena Kaplan, Keiynan Lonsdale, Nic Westaway, Tara Morce, Julia Blake and Miranda Otto.
Writer: Samantha Strauss
Director: Jeffery Walker.

Rating: 4/5

Balancing the expectations of small-screen fans and bigscreen newcomers as deftly as a well-executed arabesque, Dance Academy lovingly follows the cherub-faced teens of Australia’s internationally popular TV series (2010-2013) as they rite-of-passage into the realities of reconciling artistic dreams with the onset of young adulthood. Destined to be a slumber-party staple for years to come, the combination of an engaging young cast, moving and understated melodrama and sensationally staged dance sequences make for a commercially potent package.

In the 18 months since the class graduated from National Academy of Dance, fortunes have varied for the key characters. Tara (a terrific Xenia Goodwin) has struggled to recover physically and mentally from a crippling back injury; her bf Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) has channelled his passion into the next generation of dancers, tutoring a harbourside dance class; Abigail (Dena Kaplan) is determinedly sticking to her dreams of dancing lead for the National Ballet Company under ice-queen Madeline Moncure (Miranda Otto, playing to the back row as the film’s closest thing to a villain); and, bombshell Kat (Alicia Banit) has found stardom in the US.

Having knocked back a million dollar payout for her injuries, Tara gambles on her dream and heads to New York where she reconnects with Kat and fallen teen idol Ollie (Keiynan Lonsdale), whose been reduced to the same round of thankless chorus auditions as Tara must endure. It takes the reappearance of series’ favourite Ben (Thomas Lacey), whose own plight puts all other concerns in perspective and refocusses the chemistry and dynamic of the group, to help Tara redefine her goals and ambitions. Oz acting greats Julia Blake and, fittingly, Tara Morice, star of the iconic 1992 dance pic Strictly Ballroom, impact in support roles.


In the hands of alumni helmer Jeffery Walker (director of 8 episodes) and writer and co-creator Samantha Strauss (scribe of 23), this exercise in brand upsizing avoids any notion of ‘cynical cash-in’ by affectionately crafting warmly relatable characters and a (mostly) believable narrative. Australian cinema has a chequered past with TV-to-film reworkings. Michael Carson’s Police Rescue (1994) embraced the larger canvas, resulting in a pleasing if low-key actioner and the late Steve Irwin’s daft family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) was pleasing enough, but more often adaptations resemble stitched-together episodes (Number 96, 1974) or, worse yet, risible misfires that kill off any lingering goodwill (Kath and Kimderella, 2012).

While maintaining the heart that helped make it a small-screen hit, Dance Academy looks every bit the sumptuous bigscreen drama. The film is rich in tech assets, with the dance-friendly widescreen cinematography of 47-episode veteran Martin McGrath (Proof, 1991; Muriel’s Wedding, 1994; Swimming Upstream, 2003), original score by Oscar-nominated David Hirschfelder (Shine, 1996; Elizabeth, 1998) and the precise editing of Nikola Krulj and Geoffrey Lamb all strengthening the legitimate franchise potential. It is a clearly achievable goal, with every frame exhibiting the same crowd-pleasing qualities as profitable properties Pitch Perfect and Step Up.

Saturday
Apr012017

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Featuring: Mark Henderson, Sibylle Günter, Eric Lerner and Michael Lebarge.
Writer/director: Mila Aung-Thwin.

Rating: 4/5

Harnessing the power of the very star that ensures our planet’s survival provides a captivating premise for Mila Aung-Thwin’s documentary, Let There Be Light. Following driven, visionary scientists as they work towards the long-term goal of a global energy grid powered by hydrogen fusion technology, the Canadian-based filmmaker has crafted an elegant, insightful and entertaining work of understated urgency.

That urgency is conveyed in Aung-Thwin’s opening salvo of images. The sun is seen as a perfectly spherical mass, fizzing with energy. The clearly defined edge of our galaxy’s largest object is a stylistic representation that recalls the smallest - the atom, the building block of life. The director then morphs a series of earthbound images that mirror the same round shape, drone-shot from high above in an effective application of the ‘God’s Eye View’ camera perspective.

The message is clear; as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, the implementation of new, clean energies is an issue of biblical importance. Look no further than the film’s title for further evidence of that.

 
The primary focus is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (I.T.E.R.), a massive undertaking that has drawn together great thinkers from 37 countries. The international body must solve the mammoth logistical and scientific task of constructing ‘Tokamak’, an ‘artificial sun’ that creates magnetically-charged hydrogen gas via the smashing together of immense heat and chilled water. The passion to find a fusion-based solution to our energy concerns is captured not only in the dedicated ITER team but also in their interaction with the fusion scientists working on the W7-X Stellerator, under the brilliant German physicist Sibylle Günter, and smaller-scale operations whose often eccentric but brilliant overseers are just as obsessed with the end goal.       

Tech talk is kept concise and focussed, the production more concerned with the scale of the undertaking and the personalities involved than providing tuition in thermonuclear physics. Aung-Thwin and his DOP/co-director Van Royko find beauty in the most unexpected places; amidst the steel and concrete vastness of the ITER construction site, chief scientist Mark Henderson connects with the workers who don’t fully understand what it is they are building but find pride knowing it is for future generations the world over. Man’s long struggle to conquer fusion practicalities dates back decades, a history captured in beautifully animated interstitials. 

Most rewardingly, Let There Be Light deals with the intellect of our finest minds in a warmly humanistic manner, with special regard for the hope they afford future generations. As one learned participant states with resonance, “We have to prove we have the intelligence to prevent our own extinction.” The stakes are high; not just for the ITER team, who deal daily with the pressures of commanding one of mankind’s most expensive scientific experiments but also for the population of Earth, whose survival depends upon the understanding, acceptance and implementation of a clean, renewable fuel source.

 

Monday
Mar272017

78/52

Featuring: Walter Murch, Elijah Wood, Osgood Perkins, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell, Mick Garris, Danny Elfman, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Stephen Rebello and Marli Renfro.
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe.

Rating: 4.5/5

The images and emotions instantly conjured when one hears the words ‘the shower scene’ are reason enough for the existence of Alexandre O. Phillipe’s absorbing documentary, 78/52.  From Robert Bloch’s source novel, Saul Bass’ pre-production storyboarding and the precision of its staging, to the impact it had on audiences and the legacy it has forged, no scene in world cinema history has impacted the medium like Alfred Hitchcock’s butchering of Marion Crane by the blade of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Having dug deep into film pop-culture with previous works The People vs. George Lucas (2010) and Doc of The Dead (2014), the director turns his insightful fan-boy gaze up a notch in this forensic-like examination of the minutiae of the Bates Motel murder. Not all of the content will be revelatory to hard-core film buffs (Hitch’s use of Hershey chocolate sauce; the censorship-pushing flashes of the bare skin of Janet Leigh’s stand-in, Playboy bunny Marli Renfro), but no film has stared so deeply into the long shadow cast by onscreen violence as Phillipe’s often-mesmerising study (fittingly lensed in beautiful monochrome).

Deriving its title from the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits that ‘Hitch’ employed to change the course of film storytelling, the documentary, like Anthony Perkin’s iconic protagonist, exhibits two distinct personalities. It is first and foremost the great ‘Making of…’ dissection, an infinitely intricate journey into the minds and methodologies that created the sequence. Phillipe has assembled a battalion of industry giants to breakdown its staging, including editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now; The Conversation); horror heavyweights Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris and Neil Marshall; composer Danny Elfman; author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho); and such esteemed minds as journalist Stephen Rebello and critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (whose recollections of attending the 10am screening in Times Square on the first day of release are priceless).

78/52 is also an examination of the power of Hitchcock’s film to enthral and terrify every generation since its release, remaining hypnotically watchable to this day.. As has been repeatedly stated, the initial release of Psycho rocked American cinemagoers to the core; Phillipe goes a step further, implying that it played a significant role in ushering out the dangerous naivety of a nation basking in post-WWII glory and forging a path for the social upheaval of the 1960s. Mirroring the means by which later generations first encountered its horror, the director has several of his contributors sit before a TV screen, in a dreamlike recreation of a late-1950s living room, and take in the film for the umpteenth time. Hipster icons Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah, founders of the cutting edge production outfit Spectrevision (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; The Greasy Strangler) share a couch and riff on the vice-like grip Hitchcock’s masterwork holds to this day.

This stylistic flourish ensures the doco avoids becoming a stuffy exercise in academia, along with some well-placed humour. Watching Marion do some basic maths in her notebook ledger, Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood (director of the well-received 2016 thriller, February) wryly comments, “this is a really old film,”; playfully recalling days of being all but nude in front of the notoriously lascivious director, the delightful Renfro is a joy.

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is a giddy, engaging study in filmmaking bravado and of the passionate response such ambitious talent and dark psychology is able to evoke. It works ingeniously because it is simultaneously the voyeur and the subject of the voyeur’s eye; we are watching Norman with the same pulsating thrill as he feels watching Marion through that hole in the wall. 78/52 peels back and peers deeply into half-a-century of cinephile adoration for Hitchcock’s groundbreaking take on Oedipal psychosis.

Saturday
Mar182017

BLOODLANDS

Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.

Rating: 4/5

‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.

Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).

Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.

The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).

A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.

Wednesday
Mar152017

A CURE FOR WELLNESS

Stars: Dane DeHann, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna and Magnus Krepper.
Writer: Justin Haythe.
Director: Gore Verbinski.

WARNING: CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Rating: 1.5/5

Reteaming with screenwriter Justin Haythe, the scribe who spewed out the notorious flop The Lone Ranger, lies somewhere in the middle of the list of bewilderingly bad decisions Gore Verbinski makes in his latest career-killer, A Cure for Wellness.

A groaningly pedestrian, chill-free, faux-Gothic head-scratcher that manages to be both convolutely labyrinthine and entirely pointless, the latest from The Pirates of the Caribbean director blathers on loudly and incoherently for two achingly uninteresting hours. The final 30 minutes (yes, it clocks in at an unforgivable 2½ hours) might have provided some unintentionally hilarious OTT entertainment value had it not revealed the darkly misogynistic heart that drives the pretentious ‘fountain-of-youth’ nonsense.

Once-hot Dane DeHaan carves a red line through his career trajectory as Wall Street douchebag Lockhart, an upwardly mobile young financial exec who agrees to head to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and recover the firm’s CEO, who has holed up in the centuries-old facility. Following a spectacularly staged car accident (a high-point, despite yet another awkwardly CGI-rendered reindeer), Lockhart soon finds himself confined within the walls of the hospital, an exuberantly over-designed facility whose cinematic qualities almost justify the entire films existence.     

So begins a seemingly endless session of our protagonist hobbling through corridors and opening doors, having ambiguously meaningless conversations with elderly patients and getting into ponderous passages of ceaselessly dull dialogue with the administrator, Dr Volmer. This pointy-featured creep is provided a full repertoire of villainous tics and lip purses by Jason Isaacs, a career ham delivering a performance that may have proved a lot more fun had it served an equally self-deprecating master.

But A Cure for Wellness provides no such levity; Verbinski takes all the haughty melodrama, grand staging and occasionally gruesome flourishes as seriously as Shakespeare. Scenes extend beyond their natural flow with frustratingly inconsequential payoffs. Exploring a steam bath facility that begins to resemble a tiled version of the hedge maze in The Shining, Lockhart turns one corner…then another…then another; an off-limit section of the facility is similarly explored in boring detail, at a point in the narrative when tension should be building to a crescendo. The crux of the mystery that drives the film’s meagre momentum is so utterly lacking, it reveals all that has gone before to be little more than one red herring after another. Themes or subtext hinted at –memories of guilt, sins of the father, the curse of aging, and so on – are so underdeveloped as to not warrant consideration.

The reason the film deserves no break at all is the lecherous path charted for the sole female lead, Hannah. Played as a wispy early-teen innocent by 24 year-old Mia Goth, the character recalls Sissy Spacek’s virginal Carrie in her wide-eyed confusion about the onset of early womanhood. But unlike Carrie, who gets her own back via vengeful telekinesis, Hannah’s first cycle (horribly over-staged in a wading pool filled with Verbinski’s and Haythe’s ridiculously overused metaphor of choice, the eel) leads to violent disrobing and incestual rape, her small, naked breast centre-of-frame as she struggles to escape. There is no redemption for Hannah, unless one considers the role she plays in making her film’s hero look more heroic a sufficient character arc. It is an abhorrent gender representation that caps off one of the most distasteful and obnoxious studio offerings in recent memory.

 

Thursday
Mar022017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann and John C Reilly.
Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Rating: 3.5/5

The latest incarnation of moviedom’s iconic great ape is the sole convincingly emotional character in Kong: Skull Island, a decibel-defying mash-up of grand-scale monster movie, grunt-level military fantasy and state of the art effects showcase. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has the good sense to leave his human stars alone to earn their paycheques, instead ensuring the big, beautiful visual thrills of Hollywood’s umpteenth monster-monkey movie are delivered in spades.

As the Vietnam War effort winds down, crypto-zoologist Bill Randa (John Goodman) grasps his last opportunity to oversee a military-led exploration of Skull Island, an uncharted South Pacific jungle paradise. Soon, he and offsider Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are on the high seas, under the slightly-too-twitchy eye of career soldier Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson, bringing his unhinged A-game) and the heavily armed troop of future dead people. Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston as dreamboat tracker James Conrad (who, oddly, does little tracking) and Brie Larson as tough gal photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Braving a massive storm front and emerging over the spectacular environment (mostly Australia and Vietnam), Vogt-Robert’s indulges in what amounts to helicopter porn, his whirring camera putting you in the cabins of the aircraft, capturing both the scale of the expedition’s journey of discovery and the terror as the angry ape brings the squadron mercilessly back to earth. A wondrous CGI creation that conveys both body (muscle and hair convinces) and soul (yes, they get the eyes right), the majestic monkey doesn’t take kindly to being flushed out by Randa’s dirty-bombs. Desperate to regroup, the survivors make their way through jungles filled with all manner of fantasy-sized beasts, most worryingly the breed of subterranean screeching lizard-things who share some personal history with the tall, dark leading man.

The production’s website boasts that the narrative is “an original new adventure”, and that is true; there is little of significance that ties Kong 2017 to past versions of the classic adventure story. The ‘Beauty and The Beast’ heart of Kong mythology, embodied by Fay Wray in ’33, Jessica Lange in ’76 and Naomi Watts in ’05, is hinted at but never fully developed. Turning Oscar’s cache into cash, Larson only has two key scenes with Kong. She does all she can with her feisty photog, which mostly means reinforcing the feisty and straining to find chemistry in the couple of meaningful scenes she has with her other leading man. Hiddleston conveys Conrad’s alpha male qualities via a series of square-jawed, chest-out moments, as if he is posing for his action figure mould, which is actually all that is required in the context of what is going on around him.

Film and audience alike are grateful for the arrival of John C Reilly as the WWII pilot Hank Marlow, who has survived on the island since his plane was downed there in 1943. The actor provides great comic relief just as the film needs it, but also highlights (via an admittedly exciting prologue) one of the many illogical developments in the script written by the trio of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly; what strategic military value would an air battle have over an island so remote as to remain undiscovered for another 30-odd years?

Less artful but more fun than the producer’s last monster reboot, 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island neither demands nor encourages intellectual engagement. What it strives to be is a big, loud, bloody action-adventure, the kind of mid-March blockbuster that signifies the awards season is over and the heady days of summer movie going are nigh. One of Jordan Vogt-Robert’s directing strengths is that he has the chutzpah to forego otherwise crucial film staples as character dimensionality and subtext, but confidently delivering chest-thumping mass entertainment.