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Monday
Feb182019

THE WAY WE WEREN'T

Stars: Fiona Gubelmann, Ben Lawson, Keith Powell, Amber Stevens, Alexandra Davies, Alan Simpson, Kristi Clainos, Alyssa Diaz, Ronnie Gene Blevins and Tobin Bell.
Writers: Brian DiMuccio, Aran Eisenstat and Rick Hays.
Director: Rick Hays.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Two adorably goofy, not-yet-their-adult-selves thirty-somethings meet cute and get hitched way too quickly in the silly but sweet (and surprisingly saucy) farce The Way We Weren’t, the feature directorial debut of industry tech veteran Rick Hays. Satirically acknowledging in name only the classic Streisand/Redford romance, this occasionally funny, energetically upbeat effort provides a solid vehicle for likable stars Fiona Gubelmann and Australian Ben Lawson, whose performances broadly embody all the things that can go wrong when you lie to a new partner, bed them then wed them with next to no rational thought. In other words, ‘Married at First Sight: The Movie’.

Plotting is a barely-there framework for all the rom-com convolutions viewers tuning into this sort of film will expect/demand. Charlotte has waited 14 years to marry a guy who is no longer interested in a life with her; Brandon is a commitment-phobe who can pull the babes but is deep in debt. When she does time after accidentally toppling her fiancé over a walking trail fence and he finds his latest conquest in passionate throws with another guy, fate brings them together - first online, where lying is standard; then, in person, where the lying continues, mixed in with him spending beyond his means and her vamping it up uncomfortably in the bedroom.

When the seriousness of their romance takes over, the myriad of lies become increasingly hard to conceal. The free-for-all comedy of the first half begins to take on a semi-serious tone by Act 3, which the script (penned by three writers no less, including director Hays) has most certainly not earned. But old pros Tobin Bell and Alexandra Davies, as Brandon’s hippy drug-culture parents, and that old chestnut - the uppity outdoor party featuring potential employers – combine to usher out The Way We Weren’t on the high that the best of the genre delivers.    

Despite its overall air of familiarity, there are some pleasingly left-of-centre flourishes that enliven the episodic plotting. The couple are drawn together in their love for a Swedish cop show, the central character of which narrates the early stages of the romance; Gubelmann’s comic timing is tops, whether taking relationship advice from a grade-schooler or reacquainting herself with the modern bro/dude’s bedroom expectations; and, a couple of sex scenes that are…well, let’s say ideally suited for the European market. The film veers into There’s Something About Mary territory with an extended gag about Brandon’s misshapen manhood.

Although clearly made on a non-studio budget, all tech contributions are top quality. The bouyant, colourful lensing of DOP Paul Toomey captures key LA locales in bright tones that ably supports the underlying sweetness of Charlotte and Brandon’s narrative.

Wednesday
Feb062019

THE LAST LAUGH

Stars: Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Lewis Black, Andie MacDowell, Richard Kind, George Wallace, Kate Micucci, and Chris Parnell.
Writer/Director: Greg Pritikin

A NETFLIX Original film; premiered on January 11, 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The streaming service acknowledges its growing grey viewership with Greg Pritikin’s road-trip buddy comedy, The Last Laugh. The free-spirited, somewhat flimsy premise is made entirely watchable, occasionally very enjoyable, by the chemistry generated by those two pros, Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss, who spice up that familiar ‘grumpy old men’ shtick with a blue (pill) streak of naughty talk.

That said, Pritikin (who knows ‘crude’, having co-written segments of the infamous Movie 43) never strays too far from the warm-hearted schmaltz and age-relevant melodrama, even when asking Chase and love-interest Andie MacDowell to trip on mushrooms. It is a remarkably odd sequence, one that employs grainy rear-projection and has the pair soaring above The Big Apple on a bike pedaled by Abraham Lincoln, but one that will play well with the drug-savvy ex-hippie/baby-boomer target audience.

Chase embraces all of his 75 years to convince as Al Hart, a legendary agent/manager who once boasted a client list featuring all the best stand-up funnymen on the circuit, circa early ‘60s. After another fall, he is convinced by his concerned granddaughter Jeannie (Kate Micucci) to explore retirement village living. It is during that first depressing round of visits to prospective establishments that Al is surprised by his oldest client, Buddy Green (Dreyfuss, a chipper 72 himself). Despite having quit the stand-up scene 50 years ago, Buddy’s re-energised friendship with Al leads to a plan to resurrect the former comedian’s career, with no less than a guest spot on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show the ultimate goal after honing some 'fresh' material on the road.

Of course, the whole narrative is pure blue-rinse wish-fulfillment fantasy. The humour is often obvious and simple; no Viagra gag is left on the writer’s table and ‘old people giving the finger’ is called upon, of course. But delivery and timing is everything and with comedy talent like Chase (his most understated and likable in years) and Dreyfuss (going all-in on every scene, recalling his Oscar-winning turn in The Goodbye Girl) working every inch of the frame, the result is more sweet sentiment and hearty guffaws than the material often deserves.

Such was the case with the output of the late Paul Mazursky, whose films could alternately soar (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice; An Unmarried Woman; Down and Out in Beverly Hills) and struggle (Moon Over Parador; Scenes From a Mall). The Last Laugh is dedicated to his memory; he was mentor and friend to Pritikin, who originally wrote the script for Mazursky and Mel Brooks. The young director nails more often than not the rhythmic banter of two elderly sparring partners/comrades, just as Mazursky might have.          

Netflix have shown considerable respect for the 50+ demo, with the series Grace and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and more recently, the Golden Globe-winning The Kominsky Method with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin reflecting mature themes and sophisticated comedy in equal measure. While The Last Laugh is not in the same league (it never presumes to be, to Pritikin’s credit), it is a warmly enjoyable romp for those in the armchair army who have mastered the modern remote control. (Photo credit - Patti Perret/Netflix)

Friday
Feb012019

I STILL SEE YOU

Stars: Bella Thorne, Richard Harmon, Louis Herthum, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Price-Francis, Hugh Dillon, Shaun Benson, Dave Brown, Sara Thompson and Thomas Elms.
Writers: Jason Fuchs; based on the novel ‘Break My Heart 1,000 Times’ by Daniel Waters.
Director: Scott Speers

Rating:★★★

There are still faint signs of life in the YA-adaption genre if the ironically titled I Still See You is any indication. Set in the wake of an ill-defined 'energy-pulse' disaster called ‘The Event’ that has left ghostly locals on every street corner, director Scott Speer’s reworking of the bestseller ‘Break My Heart 1,000 Times’ by Daniel Waters hits most of the creepy atmosphere, twisty mystery and teen romantic beats required to hold the target audience’s attention long enough – not always easy to do in the PG-rated supernatural-thriller game.

Continuing her ascent from Disney TV fame to big screen stardom, Bella Thorne (pictured, top) convinces as moody heroine Veronica, whose life starts to transform when visions of people past start to encroach on her real world. Known to the survivors as ‘Remnants’, the ethereal figures appear solid but soon drift away after re-experiencing their pre-ordained ‘loop’ – an echo of the final moments of their lives before ‘the incident’ doomed them.

Ronnie is visited in the shower by a hunky remnant we learn to be Brian (Thomas Elms), who leaves the word ‘RUN’ on her steamed-up mirror (both Thorne and Elms are captured by Speer's slightly leery lens in all their physical perfection). Engaging with equally moody, remnant-obsessed new student Kirk (Richard Harmon) to help her solve the mystery of the new vision in her life, secrets and lies begin to fold in on themselves in a narrative involving a series of unsolved murders that becomes increasingly convoluted. Along for the ride is Dermot Mulroney (pictured, below), bringing the credibility and integrity required of his paycheck presence as the teacher with his own secret, Mr Bitner.

The film is a polished visual spectacle given its snowbound middle-class suburban setting, with credit going to DOP Simon Dennis (The Sweeney, 2012; The Girl With All The Gifts, 2016) and his lighting team. Highlights include a visit to the disaster’s ‘ground zero’, which positively teems with remnants wandering the big city ghost town landscape; a series of spectral visits that haunt Ronnie during a high-school basketball game; and, a black-light bathroom sequence that unleashes the first of the films effectively staged jump-scares.

None of it will seem fresh to anyone over 20; revisit M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, obviously, and also Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 mystery What Lies Beneath for a big-budget studio spin on similar terrain. But the presence of the very appealing (and slightly too old for the part) Thorne, a bevy of chills that don’t rely on gore and a sentimental thematic thread that takes in paternal bonds and the power of memory, and I Still See You is an ideal early foray into the horror genre for the modern teenage girl and her slumber party pals.

Tuesday
Jan222019

EMOCEAN

With: Brent Bielman, Baptiste Gossein, Mike Prickett, Jeff Schmucker, Dave Kalama, Jamie Mitchell, Jamie O’Brien, Trevor Carlson, Jeff Clarke, Matt Becker, Andrew Brooks, Paul Witzig, sacha Guggenheimer and Dave MacAuley.
Writer/Director: Tony Harrington

Reviewed at 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 20 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour.

Rating: ★★★★½

Part lyrical ode to the lure of the sea, part giddy sports adventure travelogue, Tony Harrington’s latest epic ocean odyssey Emocean is as heartfelt a love letter as man has ever penned for The Big Blue. In seeking out the essence of our attraction to and affinity with the wild, natural wonder of the planet’s water environments, the legendary cameraman has profoundly defined humanity’s oceanic bond, while also redefining just how insightful and moving the sports-doc genre is capable of being. In the film's own words, "That metre, above and below the water, has got something special...".

Drawing upon his experiences exploring the world’s most majestic coastlines and a rolodex of global contacts whose lives are intricately linked to life underwater, Harrington finds tragedy, joy and wonder in the recollections of his interviewees. His film is most engaging when he tracks generational ties to the sea, such as the love that Western Australian pro-surfing great Dave MacAulay shares with his daughters, pro international Bronte amongst them; South Australian coastal conservation pioneer Andrew Brooks, whose vision preserved the beauty of vast waterfront bushland for surfers for years to come; and, fisherman Jeff Schmucker, whose family have lived off the bounty and beauty of the South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula for four generations.

Few documentarians can claim to have as unique an understanding of their subject’s psyche as Harrington clearly does. The families of surfers, fisherman, scientists or beach dwellers who view their connection to the ocean as integral to their very existence mirrors that of the filmmaker; in drawing out their experiences, he is exploring and questioning his own life choices in a manner that strengthens the community of which he is part. 

Most soulful of the on-camera personalities are those who have fallen victim to the dangers of the deep yet are still drawn to the life. Young French surfer Baptiste Gossein, rendered paraplegic surfing Teahupo’o, or cinematographer Mike Prickett, left wheelchair bound after rescuing his scuba partner but suffering a crippling attack of decompression sickness, aka ‘the bends’, open up to Harrington’s camera with a courage and matter-of-factness that is truly inspiring.

Of course, Harrington’s legend was built upon his surfing footage, and Emocean is most energised when it explores the compulsion that otherwise sane men have to surf waves four-storey’s high. To the surfing community, exploring the passion and personalities of such icons as Maverick’s groundbreaker Jeff Clarke, fearless conquerors of the Maui ‘Jaws’ swell like Trevor Carlson and Dave Kalama, and Pipeline great Jamie O’Brien will be worth the price of admission; the footage that accompanies their accounts of lives spent hurtling down the face of a water-walls that can reach 50-feet into the air is breathtaking (the frame-perfect editing of Trinity Ludlow Hudson is technically superb). Wipeout footage is used sparingly but delivers the bone-crunching feels when called upon.

There is an undeniable sense of destiny about Harrington’s assured direction and storytelling in Emocean, that his latest film is the one he has been building towards. It is a work that not only displays the consummate skill of a cinematic craftsman at the peak of his prowess, but also of a man who has tapped what is most profoundly essential to his life to help him forge his most potent creative statement to date.

EMOCEAN - Trailer from HarroArt on Vimeo.

Thursday
Jan172019

SALT BRIDGE

Stars: Rajeev Khandelwal, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Usha Jadhav, Kaushik Das, Shoorjo Dasgupta, Adam Grant and Mayur Kamble.
Writers: Abhijit Deonath and Shvetal Vyas Pare.
Director: Abhijit Deonath.

Rating: ★★★½

Examining the Indian immigrant experience from a fresh and personal perspective, director Abhijit Deonath melds traditional male role-model expectations with contemporary relationship melodrama to largely winning affect in his debut feature, Salt Bridge. Shot entirely in Australia, with Sydney and Canberra locales doubling as the fictional township of the title, the long-in-production independent project will play well with diaspora populations, who all-too-rarely get to see their transplanted lives in a thoughtful big-screen narrative.

Most recently, of course, Garth Davies’ hit Lion (2016) cast an eye over the Indian expat existence; central to Deonath’s plot are the shared themes of memory and reconciliation with the past (though far less overtly stated here). The director introduces his protagonist, thirty-something medical researcher Basant (Rajeev Khandelwal) staring longingly from a train window, his mind revisiting a moment long ago that still consumes him. Khandelwal is terrific, exuding the soulful sensitivity of a man burdened with a dark past, yet every inch the classic Indian leading-man type (his brooding pout recalling Hollywood actor Jason Patric in his prime).

With his equally-photogenic wife Lipi (Usha Jadhav) and listless teen son Riju (Shoorjo Dasgupta) counting on him to fulfill his potential and provide for their new Australian suburban life, Basant decides to take driving lessons with instructor Madhurima (Chelsie Preston Crayford). Also immersed in the migrant life (she’s a New Zealander, married to an Indian), the pair soon bond in the most charming and innocent of ways. One of N.Z.’s most accomplished young actresses, Crayford (What We Do In The Shadows, 2014; Eagle vs Shark, 2007) and her leading man share a lovely chemistry, ensuring their developing platonic friendship is entirely believable.

Soon, their friends and then the wider Indian society take an interest in the new besties, assuming the most salacious, and Basant finds himself outcast from his community, his family and, regrettably, Madhurima. Having posed the question ‘Can a man and woman just be friends?’, Deonath dissects the issue within the broader context of the modern male’s role in Indian culture. His script (penned with the assistance of Shvetal Vyas Pare) succinctly embraces the hot-button topic of toxic masculinity and India’s patriarchal traditions, but does so through the filter of western cultural influence. If the story structure and momentum occasionally stumbles (most notably, a confusing sequence in the wake of a near-tragedy at the film’s midway point), Deonath’s skill with character and dialogue more than compensates.

Deonath drives home his gender subtext by focussing Basant’s research work on mitochondria, the power generator of any complex living cell, the existence of which is maternally inherited. The nods to modern science extend all the way to the film’s title – a ‘salt bridge’ occurs in proteins, creating a bond between oppositely charged residues that are sufficiently close to each other to experience electrostatic attraction; it is a deft, if slightly highbrow way, of defining the relationship between Basant and Madhurima.

Salt Bridge is a commercially savvy undertaking as well, including an explosively colourful Holi celebration and some neat dance moves, although it is far too influenced by its western setting to go ‘full Bollywood’. Australian viewers will be bemused by the people-free (and very green) parklands, empty highways, pristine cityscapes and autumnal suburban streets that provide the backdrop for the drama; it is a perception of life on these shores that plays well overseas, but is a bit of a stretch to those of us caught in the metropolitan crush of everyday life.

All tech aspects exceed any budgetary constraints, with the film looking lived-in and real while still seeming professionally polished in every respect. Especially noteworthy is Miguel Gallagher’s camerawork, whose eye for finding beauty is even on-song when framing the not-always inspirationally picturesque national capital.

Tuesday
Jan152019

A BOY CALLED SAILBOAT

Stars: Julian Atocani Sanchez, Noel Gugliemi, Elizabeth De Razzo, Jake Busey, Keanu Wilson, Rusalia Benavidez, Zeyah Pearson, Lew Temple, Patricia Kalis and J.K. Simmons.
Writer/Director: Cameron Nugent

Rating: ★★★★

Like his eponymous ukulele-wielding protagonist, writer-director Cameron Nugent strikes the perfect chord with his feature-length debut, A Boy Called Sailboat. An understated, utterly beguiling dose of doe-eyed magic-realism, the Australian’s fanciful but sure-footed foray into one Hispanic family’s life in the U.S. south-west could not be more timely; in telling one small story, A Boy Called Sailboat also celebrates the common humanity that binds diverse communities.

Few depictions of life’s base pleasures – food, music, family and love – play out with such sweet-natured resonance as in Nugent’s narrative. The premise, like the lives led by the humans at its core, is simple; a pre-teen boy (the wonderful Julian Atocani Sanchez), blessed with both a vivid imagination and strongly-defined sense of family, stumbles on a small, discarded guitar and decides to teach himself to play, so that one day he may sing a self-penned song to his ailing ‘abuela’ (Rusalia Benavidez).

However, the lives of all around him – father José (Noel Gugliemi), mother Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo), best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), school crush Mandy (Zeyah Pearson), teacher Bing (Jake Busey), a local DJ (Lew Temple) and ultimately the entire population of his New Mexico suburb – are given greater profundity when they hear Sailboat play his uke and sing his song, a composition that renders anyone who hears it emotionally reborn. In a bold and effective device, every time the boy sings Nugent’s screen goes silent but for a single chord, thereby forcing his audience to bring their own definition of what most deeply stirs their soul.

A Boy Called Sailboat has many idiosyncratic beats and skewed nuances, the kind that need a strongly-defined real-world emotional connection to work. Ten minutes in, Nugent has filled his film with so many small, strange tics (a yacht being towed in the desert; a leaning home held upright by a single beam; a meatballs-only nightly meal; a soccer-obsessed kid who holsters an eye dropper) there is the very real threat that his vision will die the death of a thousand quirks.

Thankfully, Nugent proves himself to be a master of meaningful whimsy, in much the same way as Wes Anderson (a clear inspiration, especially his 2012 triumph, Moonrise Kingdom) or early Tim Burton (circa 1990s Edward Scissorhands). All his actors are attuned to his nuanced vision, especially a cameoing J.K. Simmons (pictured, above) as used-car salesman/life-coach Ernest; in one wonderful sequence, Nugent skillfully edits a series of reveals as the Oscar-winning actor monologues some life advice to young Sailboat, while the kid stares transfixed at…a sailboat.

Talent extends behind the camera, too, not only in the form of DOP John Garrett’s skill with sparse, hot location work. The production’s collaboration with classical guitarists Leonard and Slava Grigoryan has provided a soundtrack of wistful, lovely melodies, many traditional sea-faring tunes (‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’; ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’) in line with Sailboat’s oceanic obsession. All contributors reinforce the filmmaker’s remarkably assured stewardship, resulting in surely the most impressive calling-card film in recent memory.

      

Wednesday
Dec122018

UNDER THE COVER OF CLOUD

Stars: Ted Wilson, Colleen Wilson, Louis Modeste-Leroy, Jessie Wilson and David Boon.
Writer/Director: Ted Wilson.

Screening at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 10-25.

Rating: ★★★½

A bighearted ode to the often-satirised middle-class white suburban upbringing, multi-hyphenate Ted Wilson has crafted a warm, winning low-key gem of a movie in Under the Cover of Cloud. A largely-improvised drama about a writer’s struggle to find inspiration, starring the director’s family and shot verite-style in the suburbs of Tasmania, this meandering yet meaningful take on the ties that bind will reward those seeking a different sort of cinema experience.   

Physically recalling the Matt Day/John Polson type of understated leading man, Wilson plays a journo suddenly without a steady paycheck, facing what he senses is a turning point in his professional development. When that proves all too much for him to deal with (by mid-opening credits), he heads south deciding to write a book about his home state’s best Test cricket batsmen (perhaps a sly joke for cricket lovers, as there haven’t been too many top order players from The Apple Isle).

In a manner that recalls the free-form storytelling styles of Henry Jaglom and John Cassavettes, Wilson re-engages with his mum, siblings and their spouses, niece and nephew toddlers, in scene after scene that seem to be largely about family matters, good memories and happy times. Frankly, a couple of crying 4 year-olds aside, every one seems to be pretty happy in Under the Cover of Cloud (although the title, which certainly corresponds with Tassie’s chilly grey pallor, might also symbolise Wilson’s depressed mood).

Neither Wilson nor his narrative seem to be particularly interested in the book project; he asks every one he knows if they can connect him with Tassie cricketing icon David Boon, which sums up the plot. At one point, the dishevelled author-to-be (who seems to have only bought the clothes he travelled in) sits down to start work, until distracted by chickens. Wilson’s film is not about writer's block or the struggle to create, but about shared moments with loved ones that coalesce as a portrait of a man's formative years. He picks lemons with his mother, plays board games with his sister, digs in the sand with his nephews; these are the daily events that refocus a soul chewed up and spat back from the mainland.

Detractors will say the film resembles an essay on entitlement; Wilson constantly seeks reassurance and aid from his family, who also offer free board (despite his complaints about a cold room) and plenty of meals, while gracing everyone around him with observations on their lives. That he emerges as an empathic and relatable leading character (and man) is arguably one of the film’s more remarkable achievements.

The end justifies the means in Under the Cover of Cloud. There is too much sincerity, charm and insight in Wilson’s family dynamic for cynicism to derail his film. A final frame dedication, which crystallizes the writer/director’s motivation, is a heart-tugger; it provides an added dimension of bittersweet melancholy that reveals what an extraordinary collection of ordinary people The Wilson clan truly are.

Thursday
Nov292018

FIRST LIGHT

Stars: Stefanie Scott, Théodore Pellerin, Saïd Taghmaoui, Percy Hynes White, Jahmil French, James Wotherspoon and Kate Burton.
Writer/director: Jason Stone.

Reviewed at Monster Fest 2018 at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova on November 23.

WINNER: Best International Film, Monster Fest 2018

Rating: ★★★★

Millennial types that stare blank-faced and shrug when you mention the great films of 1970s Hollywood make a grab at one the decade’s best with First Light. In Jason Stone’s low-key, highly charged UFO drama, an alien encounter imbues an everyday suburbanite with an inexplicable connection to lights in the sky. Whether you know it or not, kids, you’ve now got your own generation’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic featured a thirty-something Richard Dreyfuss as a contactee strangely obsessed with visions of a distant mountain. ‘Thirty-something’ protagonists are way too old for the modern movie audience (unless they are comic-book hero alter-egos), so a savvy Stone has recast his lead as high-schooler Alex (Stefanie Scott). Also, ‘strange obsessions’ are hard to conjure, even for the modern effects wiz; having survived a near drowning via the visitation of glowing orb entities, Alex doubles-down on that distant yearning with telekinetic powers (good, especially when called upon flip ex-boyfriend’s cars) and high-radiation levels (bad, especially for…well, everybody).

Along for the ride is Sean (Théodore Pellerin), the audience conduit whose doe-eyed, unshakeable commitment to Alex provides the emotional core of Stone’s narrative. Scenes of the young man’s home life establish him as a teen of integrity and character; parent-less, he hangs with his smart-mouth, street-wise younger brother Oscar (a scene-stealing Percy Hynes White) and cares for his near-catatonic grandmother, whose arc is small but provides one of the year’s great movie moments.

Sean yearns for the closeness he shared with Alex once before, a wish that is granted after her near-death encounter, the bubbly teen queen now a sullen, silent introvert, clearly not herself. The pair are drawn into a chase drama enabled by rogue UFO chaser Cal (Said Taghmaoui) and driven by Federal agency head Kate (Kate Burton), their open road odyssey affording the actors space to build a warm, sincere chemistry. It also allows a further ironic nod to old-school Hollywood - Sean compares their plight to Bonnie and Clyde, to which Alex replies, “I don’t know who that is.” 

Stone opens on some thrill-inducing images of the orbs illuminating the early evening sky, before settling into a long passage of character definition and tension building - another common trait it shares with CE3K. If Stones skimps on the grand effects sequences that made Spielberg’s work so memorable, Stone doesn’t let us forget that his characters are always being watched. His expert use of drone footage to capture the ‘God’s eye’ perspective, or more precisely that of the inhabitants of the orbs, represents some of the most effective creative use of the technology yet.

In working through Spielberg’s familiar story beats, First Light plays like an American-indie-meets-X-Files spin on Romeo & Juliet; there are also some unmissable nods to John Carpenter’s Starman and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (two more ‘oldies’ the target audience won’t know), as well the inevitable and not unfounded YA comparisons that pitch it as, though remarkably better than, the Twilight series.

Also like Spielberg’s film, momentum drags a little in its third act when the G-men and their tech take over the film. It’s a minor period of disconnect in a film that mostly feels gritty, human and real, despite its otherworldly premise. First Light builds to a soaring denouement (pumped by some demographic-appropriate musical accompaniment from M83’s ‘Outro’) that reassures the audience that, in this world or beyond, we are not alone.

Friday
Nov232018

NIGHTMARE CINEMA

Stars: Mickey Rourke, Sarah Elizabeth Withers, Faly Rakotohavana, Maurice Benard, Elizabeth Reaser, Zarah Mahler, Mark Grossman, Eric Nelsen, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley and Annabeth Gish.
Writers: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril, David Slade and Lawrence C. Connolly.
Directors: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura and David Slade.

Screening at Monster Fest VII on Friday November 23 at Cinema Nova, Carlton.

Rating: ★★★★

The five-part anthology Nightmare Cinema continues co-producer Mick Garris’ dark obsession with short-form film narrative, the kind that he ushered to cult status as the driving force behind the TV series Masters of Horror. Rife with a degree of references, homages and nods that only a super-fan will fully appreciate, Garris has corralled a rogue’s gallery of international horror director heavyweights, resulting in a stylistically diverse creep show but one that sustains the shared goal of chills, thrills and giggles.

The deceptively simple premise features five would-be protagonists who stumble/are drawn into an empty picture palace, where visions of their own demise unfold before them based upon horror sub-genres. Argentinian filmmaker Alejandro Brugués (Juan of The Dead, 2011; ABCs of Death 2, 2014) starts the party with ‘The Thing in The Woods’, hurling young actress Sarah Elizabeth Withers into her own Friday the 13th–inspired battle for survival. Costumed to recall franchise favourite Kirsten Baker and facing off against a high-concept villain called ‘The Welder’ (Eric Nelsen), Withers (pictured, below) proves a good sport when the going gets gruesome, her director changing tact at the midway point from slasher tropes to something else entirely.

Brugues’ segment is a loving nod to 80s VHS nasties and could just as satisfyingly been conjured from the mind of longtime Garris cohort, Joe Dante. The beloved director of The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987) instead opts for a horror hospital riff called ‘Mirari’, in which a scarred woman (Zarah Mahler) reluctantly appeases the wishes of her handsome fiancé (Mark Grossman) and undergoes reconstructive work by the hands of Richard Chamberlain’s too-charming plastic surgeon. Dante indulges in some of the film’s most icky practical effects work while displaying his skill with the short-story format; Mirari recalls the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘Eye of he Beholder’, reigniting the debate as to whether Dante or Dr George Miller delivered the very best bits of Twilight Zone The Movie (1983).

It is following Dante’s segment that we are introduced to name player Mickey Rourke as The Projectionist, a Mephistophelian figure who oversees the unspooling of each film from his darkened booth and wanders the aisles of the cinema dispensing enigmatic menace. Rourke doesn’t have a lot to work with, unfortunately; he is no Cryptkeeper, guiding the audience on their fearful journey, or voice of subtext wisdom like Rod Serling. He largely lurks, albeit with Rourke’s still potent onscreen presence.

Nightmare Cinema settles into its truly horrifying groove with segments three and four, the most fearlessly ambitious of the compendium. In ‘Mashit’, Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura (Versus, 2000; Azumi, 2003; The Midnight Meat Train, 2008) unleashes the titular demon (pictured, top) on a morally corrupt Catholic school. The insidious Father Benedict (Maurice Bernard) and the nun-led-astray Sister Patricia (Mariela Garriga) are no match for a dorm of possessed children led by a horned, malformed deity from Hell or a director who can deftly deliver a jump-cut scare.

Hollywood’s most under-valued horror director, David Slade (Hard Candy, 2005; 30 Days of Night, 2007) provides the psychologically troubling vision, ‘This Way to Egress’. Shot in richly textured black-&-white, it stars Elizabeth Reaser (pictured, above; currently seen in the hit Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House) as a mother of two brattish boys slowly losing her mind in the waiting room of her ‘specialist’, Dr Salvador (Adam Goodley). As time passes, the pristine office surrounds become overwhelmed by a dark filth; the faces of those that she passes in the halls grow increasingly deformed. Slades’ film is a masterful take on mental health, depression, social disconnection; while it foregoes the visceral horror of the film to this point, it is a warped walk in a convincingly disturbing, Cronenberg-esque realm.

Finally, Garris himself steps into the director’s chair for ‘Death’, in which musical prodigy Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) starts to see dead people as he recovers in (another) creepy hospital ICU after a carjacking that claimed his parents. Hunted by the murderer (Orson Chaplin) and haunted by his mother (Annabeth Gish), Riley’s plight in the hands of Rakotohavana proves not only thoroughly creepy but also surprisingly moving; Garris nods to The Sixth Sense perhaps once too often, but does so with heart and conviction.

The all-encompassing title implies a genre of its own, so it is fitting that so much of Nightmare Cinema draws from then reinterprets the horror visions of filmmakers that have gone before, delivered by Garris and his peers with a true understanding of a horror fan’s fixation.

Wednesday
Nov142018

LETO (SUMMER)

Stars: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roma Zver, Filipp Avdeev, Alexandr Gorchilin, Alexander Kuznetsov, Nikita Efremov, Julia Aug, Elena Koreneva, Lia Akhedzhakova, Anton Adasinskyi and Vasiliy Mikhailov.
Writers: Kirill Serebrennikov, Michael Idov and Lily Idova.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Reviewed at the 2018 Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney; named the festival’s Best New Russian Film, 2018.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Evoking memories of a pre-Perestroika Russia where the youthful masses were unified and energised in their defiance of authority by the driving beats of a post-punk early-80s Leningrad music scene, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto is a free-wheeling, free-spirited, bittersweet remembrance of the people and passion that defined the decade for many young Soviets.

A pure celebration of driven talent and the transformative power of music, the latest from the provocative director of The Student (2016) proves a stirring ode to the subversive. Whether deconstructing the staid conventions of the ‘musical biopic’ or symbolically reacting against the Kremlin’s suppression of socially-conscious art, Serebrennikov and co-writers Michael Idov and Lily Idova have crafted a thrilling, relevant and deeply moving work despite, or perhaps because of, a narrow narrative focus.

The film follows three key figures in the thriving if heavily policed Leningrad music scene – the lead singer of hard-edged rock band Zoopark, Mike Naumenko (real-life rocker Roma Zver); his wife and muse, Natalya (the wonderful Irina Starshenbaum); and, charismatic singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoï (the striking German-born, Korean-based Teo Yoo). All became iconic figures in Russian pop culture - Tsoï would front the group Kino and pen the battle cry of the Perestroika movement,  ‘Khochu peremen (I Want Change)’; Serebrennikov’s film, named after Zoopark’s biggest hit, is loosely based upon Natalya’s best-selling memoir.

Their interactions don’t amount to searing drama. Mike recognizes Viktor’s talent and wants to share in his growth as a musician; Natalya, like anyone in Viktor’s realm, finds herself attracted to him; Mike sees out his wife’s attraction to Viktor, openly encouraging her to not deny natural feelings. The men write songs; Natalya balances a rock-wife lifestyle with a mother’s responsibilities; the trio, with some eccentric band mates in tow and the authorities watching their every move, strive to create, be seen, build a life together.

However, framed within DOP Vladislav Opelyants’ gorgeous monochromatic widescreen lens and exuding their enigmatic ‘rock star’ charisma in all its compelling glory, the audience investment in the intertwining lives and burgeoning creativity of the trio is profound. Most affecting is Starshenbaum as Natalya; the actress (bearing a remarkable resemblance to American star Mary Elizabeth Winstead) conveys both a strength and sensitivity that makes her central role as an inspiration for those around her entirely believable. Natalya’s own longing and determined path, when it emerges from beneath the self-absorbed creative destinies of the men in her life, proves deeply moving.

Dramatic impetus aside, the film is at its most engaging when it embraces its musical influences (notably Bowie, Blondie, T-Rex, though many are referenced). Defining songs of the period are reworked as musical numbers, at the indulgence of the characters and often sung by random strangers who drift in, then out of frame. Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ becomes a fierce, fantastic number set on a train carriage; Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ is belted out by bus commuters as Viktor and Natalya take in the city. A great sequence, set to Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, sees Michael envision classic album covers of the day brought to life by his friends and family in splashes of Super-8 colour footage.

There is a sprawling sense of time and place to Leto, which blows out the running to over two hours, yet there is not a frame of the film one would want to see excised. The anti-establishment themes and love-conquers-all story beats inherent to the rock/pop biopic genre have been previously explored in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), but rarely with such heartfelt melancholy, pained romanticism and evocative rendering of time and place.

The sly subversion that gives the film its bite has come at a price; Kirill Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since August 2017 for his perceived anti-Putin stance (the director could not attend the film’s Cannes premiere in May). While the authorities endeavor to stifle his political voice, his art and skill as a great movie storyteller speaks very loudly on his behalf.