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Thursday
Aug172017

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE

Stars: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Emily Robinson, Jessica Gomes, Kaleti Williams and Adam Goldberg.
Writers: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen.
Director: Mark Cullen.

Rating: 3/5

As the afternoon orange bathes California’s Venice Beach neighbourhood, imagine Hudson Hawk barrelling along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, collecting John Wick as he enters from Brooks Avenue, before both are rammed by the Inherent Vice bus on Main. The resulting tangled mass in the middle of the intersection would be Mark and Robb Cullen’s Once Upon a Time in Venice.

Conjured as a free-spirited vehicle for the charms of their leading man in his wisecracking heyday, the brothers Cullen reteam with Bruce Willis to try to right the wrong that was 2010’s Cop Out, the Kevin Smith-directed travesty that put a handbrake on Tracy Morgan’s film momentum. Mark’s directing debut is equal parts crime thriller, family drama and Cal-noir detective story, complete with some tone-deaf stereotyping and cute dog moments. The goofy, off-kilter riff on LA sleaze fits within a genre highlighted by better films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pinchon adaptation, The Coen’s The Big Lebowski or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Renny Harlin’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, too, but whether that was superior is a maybe).

Like the traditional fairy tales from which the film takes its title, Once Upon a Time in Venice has a storyteller, in the form of John (Thomas Middleditch), a nerdy intern/protégé for ex-LAPD cop Steve Ford (Willis), a not-very-successful private-eye sliding further into the underworld morass he mostly frequents. The film opens with a patently ridiculous sequence in which Ford, having bedded his client’s daughter Nola (Australian supermodel Jessica Gomes), escapes her family thugs by fleeing naked into the night on a skateboard. The entire gag takes a long while to play out (the money shot - close-up on a set of buttocks most definitely not those of the 62 year-old Willis), though it is infused with the kind of nutty energy that Willis last exhibited in his 1991 megaflop, Hudson Hawk (a film that has since acquired an army of ‘guilty pleasure’ defenders, including yours truly).

Things get personal for our hero after heavies working for local drug kingpin Spyder (a very funny Jason Momoa), rough up the family home of Ford’s sister, Katey (Famke Janssen, deserving of better) and niece, Taylor (Emily Robinson). When they dog-nap the beloved pet, Buddy, the PI undertakes a series of schemes and capers that land him deeper in the mess he has created. All the while, a frantic Ford is working a case involving land developer ‘Lew the Jew’ (Adam Goldberg), whose deal is being scuppered by a mysterious graffiti artist painting X-rated murals of the real estate tycoon (a subplot as puerile as it sounds, though undeniably funny in parts).    

Filling out the ‘old chum’ role here that Danny Aiello played in …Hawk is John Goodman, bringing some welcome comedic skill as Dave, an ageing holdover from 70’s Venice hippy/surfie culture on the verge of losing everything (including his mind) in a messy divorce. He is one of several known names who front up for bit parts, probably because they all live within blocks of the production’s West coast locations; among them are Elisabeth Rohm, Kal Penn, Adrian Martinez, Christopher McDonald and, for a few utterly bizarre seconds, David Arquette.

Only occasionally exhibiting the advance of time, Bruce Willis clearly enjoys an all-too-rare opportunity to flex his brand of on-screen comedic skill. One can see the smooth charm of Moonlighting’s ‘David Addison’, the slapstick energy of Blind Date’s Walter Davis and the scummy antihero of Bonfire of The Vanities ‘Peter Fallow’ in Ford. You may find yourself muttering, “He’s still got it,” if only because, not for the first time in his career, he elevates what could have been misguided chaos into something entirely watchable, even likable.

Tuesday
Aug082017

TEXAS HEART

Stars: Erik Fellows, Daniela Bobadilla, Kam Dabrowski, Lin Shaye, Johnny Dowers, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Clark and John Savage.
Writers: Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith.
Director: Mark David.

Rating: 3.5/5

A genuinely warm affinity for red state Americana and a flair for strong characterisation generally counter the occasional detour into bumpy narrative terrain in Texas Heart, director Mark David’s solidly staged and well-acted neo-Western. One can easily envision the likes of Montgomery Clift, Robert Mitchum and Walter Brennan filling key roles in a dusty 1950s horse-opera version of this low-key but engaging small-town story.

As Peter, an LA lawyer who has no qualms about servicing the legal needs of disreputable types, Erik Fellows (pictured, above) balances square-jawed movie-star appeal with an empathetic quality that affords him viewer’s goodwill. When a witness stand meltdown derails his defence of the son of an underworld matriarch Mrs Smith (Lin Shaye, having fun playing to the back of the theatre), Peter is marked for murder and must flee his West Coast lifestyle, relocating incognito to the backwater burg of Juniper, Texas (played by Charleston, Mississippi).

Pitching himself as New York novelist ‘Frank Stevens’, Peter fends off the ‘city slicker’ jibes and soon acquaints himself with the lives of the locals. Key amongst them is Tiger (a fine Kam Dabrowski), a young man of challenged mental capacity, and Alison (the captivating Daniela Bobadilla; pictured, below), the homecoming queen burdened with a troubled home life. When Alison goes missing and a case is made by Sheriff Dobbs (Johnny Dowers) against Tiger, Peter drops his façade and takes on the case for the defence.

Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith’s script teeters on the brink of stereotype at times, but they imbue their characters with an integrity that overcomes the familiarity. The accomplished cast, including Jared Abrahamson (as ill-tempered jock boyfriend Roy) and John Savage (as Alison’s damaged, drunken father Carl) are given enough quality dialogue and conflict to spark the narrative at opportune moments.

Although the title conjures a sprawling landscape, Texas Heart is a film that works best in tight, two-character scenes, such as when Peter connects with Tiger at a football game, or Alison and Peter share their dreams on a late night drive. One particularly impactful sequence, in which Dobbs bullys and coerces Tiger into a confession, inevitably recalls the plight of Brendan Dassey, the 16 year-old youth convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of Teresa Halbech in 2005, whose manipulation by law enforcement officers was uncovered in the landmark documentary series, Making a Murderer.

The genre machinations of the plot are less involving and, at times, not entirely convincing. There is little tension generated by the presence of Mrs Smith’s two burly hitman, who only manage to track Peter down after the lawyer blows his cover in an ill-advised television interview. The director wraps up the criminal element story strands rather perfunctorily, suggesting his heart was far more invested in his characters than the structure that binds them.

Which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. A finer, more compelling and ultimately satisfying drama than it’s initial premise might suggest, Texas Heart is destined to find acceptance and appreciation from those seeking quality alternatives via their home-viewing platforms.

 

Saturday
Jul222017

DUNKIRK

Stars: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy and Harry Styles.
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan.

Rating: 2.5/5

State-of-the-art filmmaking and showy narrative technique meld uncomfortably with some hoary old war movie clichés in Dunkirk, the latest exercise in borderline bombast from Christopher Nolan. Despite being more aesthetically pleasing than Michael Bay’s garishly executed Pearl Harbour, Nolan’s big film in service of a small story has more in common with that much-maligned war pic than more serious minded award season contenders of past years like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli or Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The enormous undertaking of evacuating 400,000 allied troops from the French port city as Axis forces encircled them is one of the defining moments of World War II. Nolan sets up the immensity of the event with steely grey vistas encompassing the troops as they wait for their rescuers, their despair growing with each wave of terrifying Stuka dive-bombing assault. These establishing shots offer the kind of scale and artistry that have emerged as Nolan’s stock-in-trade but as his narrative unfolds, it becomes clear the director is not particularly interested in the practicalities of troop withdrawal.

We are led through the shivering battalions by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who has survived a tragic opening sequence by outrunning his doomed squad before queue-jumping his fellow soldiers by pretending to be a medic then hiding amongst the wooden structure of the evacuation point to ensure his spot when the boats arrive. These hardly seem the actions of a leading man in a tale of heroism, his thin characterisation further hampered by the scale of the production mounted around him. Tommy is joined by a silent French infantryman (Damien Bonnard) and a brash Brit named Alex (Harry Styles, ok in a role that doesn’t ask much of his developing acting chops), bonded by their survival at any cost instincts.

Tommy’s story is folded into three other sub-narratives that intercut in that non-linear manner by now very familiar to Nolan’s fervent fan base. Mark Rylance is Dawson, a patriotic Brit who, with his sons (Barry Keoghan; Tom Glynn-Carney) is amongst the many brave homelanders that set sail for Dunkirk to help recover his fighting countrymen; Tom Hardy is Spitfire pilot Farrier, who darts back and forth across the skies over the beach with his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden), dispersing ME-109’s and Heinkel bombers with ruthless efficiency; and, Kenneth Branagh who, as the evacuation’s senior office-on-point Commander Bolton, is responsible for much of Nolan’s occasionally clunky expository dialogue.

Nolan’s obsession with his fractured narrative structure perfectly suited his past works Memento and Inception (his best film, by some measure). The mechanism muddled the ambitious but fatally flawed Interstellar and is entirely unnecessary, even flagrantly indulgent, in Dunkirk. The showy, jigsaw-puzzle challenge the storytelling poses undermines involvement, only serving to draw attention away from the plight of his protagonists and onto the storyteller himself; one can picture Nolan in front of a chalkboard strategically plotting his structure with cool academic efficiency. Surely the filmmaker’s insistence upon imposing his favourite device upon all his narratives is edging towards Shyamalan-like overkill (and the inevitable marketplace backlash).

As in past efforts, the director relies upon a dense soundscape to throw a blanket over his plotting, leading to the now familiar “I can’t understand what they’re saying!” comments often associated with his work. Muddying up the mix is an overblown score by Hans Zimmer, which determines every scene, however intimate, must build to a crescendo, leading to series of ‘big moments’ that the narrative does not earn. By the time the director reacquaints himself and his audience with the benefits of a more conventional denouement, any investment in the character’s journey has long since dissipated; scenes of ‘big emotion’ in the third act feel capital-C ‘contrived’.

Where the film soars is as an aerial spectacle. Recalling the thrilling dogfight sequences of Guy Hamilton’s 1969 wartime classic Battle of Britain, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith capture the nerve-shredding experience of life as a Spitfire pilot, the planes and the airmen afforded the kind of exhilarating hero-worship that is sorely missing from the rest of Nolan’s chilly, unaffecting opus.

Saturday
Jul082017

FIVE FAVOURITES FROM MELBOURNE'S FESTIVAL OF FACTUAL FILM

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Festival Director Lyndon Stone and his programming team have collated a catalogue of factual films that have wowed audiences at the planet’s most prestigious 2017 documentary showcases. SCREEN-SPACE got a peek at this year’s line-up and offers our opinion of five films that deserve attention, discussion and sold-out auditoriums. Each is a unique vision, certain to engage, infuriate, inspire and enlighten, as all good documentaries should…

MISS KIET’S CHILDREN (Dirs. Peter Lataster, Petra Lataster-Czish; The Netherlands, 115 mins; pictured, above)
A Dutch school marm exhibits a warrior’s spirit, a saint’s heart and...well, a great teacher's patience in this understated yet soaring study of what the term ‘assimilation’ means to a classroom in Holland. Refugee children, each displaying resilience and depth of character beyond their years, are captured with an extraordinary intimacy by the lens of husband/wife filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czish. The politics of age and gender are glimpsed in the kids’ behaviour; most profoundly, the impact of the conflict they have fled is slowly expos ed by the filmmaker’s sublime technique. When awkward pre-teen Jorg reveals why he might be less studious than is expected of him, have the tissues ready.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 13 @ 6.30pm.

PLAY YOUR GENDER (Dir: Stephanie Clattenburg; U.S.A.; 80 mins.)
While the gender divide within the American film industry has made headlines of late, little mention has been made of the fact that only 5% of the producers working the panels in the music industry are women, or that only 20% of published songs are by women lyricists. Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr and first-time director Stephanie Clattenberg pair up to pile revelation upon revelation in this blood-boiling expose of the music sector’s traditional gender bias and ‘glass ceiling’ mindset. That such a film needs to exist in this day and age is outrage enough; that it runs rich with passionate, talented, intelligent woman who have seen their careers hindered by sexism and misogyny demands action. Features such groundbreaking artists as ‘Hole’ bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and drummer Patty Schemel; Sara Quin of ‘Tegan and Sara’; and, ‘The Stolen Minks’ frontwoman Stephanie Johns.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 1.45pm.

THE ROAD MOVIE (Dir: Dmitrii Kalishnikov; Belarus; 67mins)
The dashcam phenomena has swept Russia and its territories; insurance scams, police misbehaviour and road rage incidents has led to almost every car being fitted with a windscreen lens. So director Dmitrii Kalishnikov had a lot of footage to work with when he conceptualised a vision of modern Russian life as captured by the population itself. Of course, he indulges in the extraordinary – truck crashes, speedsters on snowy roads, cows being hit (they walk away, incredibly) and the ‘comet footage’ that went viral. But The Road Movie is at its most compelling when it focuses on the voices of the unseen within the vehicle. Waves of emotion emerge in an instant; moments of terror, exhilaration, hilarity, even first love unite in a flowing cinematic essay. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Russia’s favourite dashboard gadget has delivered a forceful social experience.
Rating: 4.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 9.30pm.

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (Dir: Leslie Iwerks; U.S.A.; 96 mins.)
She is La grande dame of the American restaurant landscape, the matriarch of a New Orleans culinary clan that has shaped the nation’s cuisine for a century. Ella Brennan makes for a mighty cinematic figure, her iron-willed charisma ideally suited for Leslie Iwerks’ boisterous celebration of spirit, showmanship and determination. Occasionally it teeters on hagiography; viewers aren’t left wondering what a wonderful time is to be had at Brennan’s legendary Big Easy establishment, Commander’s Palace. It’s a minor complaint; one can’t begrudge the party atmosphere Commanding The Table captures and the extraordinary legacy Ella and her clan have forged.
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 12 @ 6.00pm.  

DOGS OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Mary Zournazi; Australia/Greece; 58 mins.)
They have become the spiritual symbol of modern Athens, guardians of the streets who exist with dignity intact and the acceptance of the population. First-time director Mary Zournazi captures the stray dogs of the Greek capital with a deeply respectful and compassionate lens, acknowledging the hope they represent to a people who themselves are often portrayed as the ‘stray dogs of the EU’. Most affectionately, Zournazi relates the legend of Loukanikos, a magnificent beast who would fearlessly lead those protesting the government’s austerity measures against riot squad heavy-handedness.  
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 16 @ 9.30am.

(SCREEN-SPACE Managing Editor Simon Foster is a judge at the 2017 MDFF and will be a guest of the festival)  

The 2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL screens from July 9-16. Session, venue and ticketing information can be found at the events official website.

Tuesday
Jun272017

FAGS IN THE FAST LANE

Stars: Chris Asimos, Matt Jones, Oliver Bell, Sasha Cuha, King Khan, Aimee Nichols, Puggsley Buzzard, Luke Clayson, Justine Jones, El Vez, The GoGo Goddesses and Kitten Natividad. Narrated by Tex Perkins.
Writers: Josh Sinbad Collins and Steven G Michael.
Director: Josh Sinbad Collins.

WORLD PREMIERE: June 27 at The Astor Theatre, St Kilda.

Rating: 4/5

Primed to fearlessly thrust its phallic fixation into the faces of wildly enthusiastic midnight-movie crowds the world over, Fags in The Fast Lane is a terrifically tawdry, gloriously distasteful celebration of giggly homoeroticism and punkish shock tactics. That it also works well as a bold statement in favour of personal expression and acceptance feels like an added bonus, given its main aim is clearly to entertain and disgust, usually in that order.

Although it defies categorization at every turn, the DNA of director Josh Sinbad Collins’ comedy/musical/splatter/soft-core romp would include the cult classic Flesh Gordon and the lo-fi genius of Mike and George Kuchar. Collins has drawn upon edgy pop culture influences (the ‘Sin City’-inspired opening, for example) to craft a super-hero/revenge narrative about a goofy he-man vigilante named Sir Beauregard, aka The Cockslinger, played by Chris Asimos. The actor is the perfect central figure to bring Collins’ frantic vision to life, his appearance not unlike a muscle-bound Sacha Baron Cohen (comic timing intact).

With a trusty ensemble that includes sidekick Reginald Lumpton (the imposing Matt Jones), converted homophobe Squirt (Oliver Bell) and Persian princess, Salome (lithesome beauty Sasha Cuha), Beau sets off after the ‘Grotesque Burlesque’ troupe The Chompers, led by Wanda the Giantess (Aimee Nichols), whose raid upon the GILF Pleasure Palace has snared them the priceless jewels of madam and Beau’s mother, Kitten (legendary B-queen, Kitten Natividad, in her heyday the muse of sleaze maestro Russ Meyer).

The quest allows for the bawdy band to visit the Bollywood-themed den of iniquity, The Bang Galore, where they meet the distraught Hijra (Indian rock legend King Khan), who joins the gang hoping to recover his stolen Golden Cock, a metallic dildo with supernatural powers. The journey takes them via a swamp, populated by penile-shaped flora and fauna, and the Thunderdome-like ‘Freaky Town’, where The Cockslinger’s gang and The Chompers finally face off.

Collins brings a dazzling sense of invention to the design work on the Fags in The Fast Lane, employing everything from handcrafted puppetry and miniature work to slick animation and desktop effects enhancement. The production matches the OTT enthusiasm of the acting troupe with set dressing and costuming (courtesy of the director’s partner, Barbara ‘Blaze’ Collins) that references tiki culture, Aztec influences, drag queen excess and good ol’ B-movie cheese’n’sleaze.

The all-or-nothing energy of Fags in The Fast Lane is no surprise given the crew list features some of Melbourne underground cinema’s high-profile names, amongst them DOP Stu Simpson (director of El Monstro Del Mar and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla); script editor Lee Gambin (author and head of the popular Cinemaniacs collective); and, actor Glenn Maynard (…Vanilla; Mondo Yakuza). The shoot also represents a fitting farewell for Collins’ now-shuttered nightclub The LuWOW, which served as an ideal backdrop for several of the scripts vividly imagined settings.

Certain to become a must-own for student digs across Australia is a soundtrack that includes The Mummies, Hot Wings, Sugar Fed Leopards and The Seven Ups; music cred is upped even further with the involvement of TheCruel Sea frontman Tex Perkins, who narrates The Cockslinger’s journey.

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.

Sunday
Jun182017

MIYUBI

Stars: Owen Vaccaro, P.J. Byrne, Emily Bergl, Richard Riehle, Ted Sutherland, Tatum Kensington Bailey, Lindsay Arnold, Noah Crawford and Jeff Goldblum.
Writer: Owen Burke
Directors: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael.

Screened at VR Experience Lounge 2 at The Hub, Sydney Town Hall, as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Both a sweetly nostalgic love letter to 80’s family rituals and a satirically acidic spin on the fleeting nature of consumer culture, the 40 minute virtual reality ‘feature’ Miyubi is at once warmly familiar and dizzyingly groundbreaking. The story of a toy robot whose life cycle lasts the attention span of a pre-teen boy, this captivating comedy-drama represents one giant leap towards a feature film future that includes unlockable narrative strands and 360-degree perspectives.

Once the goggles and headset are strapped on, the viewer becomes the titular android, a birthday gift for a precocious youngest boy (Owen Vaccaro) that is unwrapped to his unbridled glee sometime in 1982. Recalling the sibling dynamic of Spielberg’s E.T., his older brother (Ted Sutherland) is the wannabe-cool older brother stereotype, while doe-eyed moppet (Tatum Kensington) is the cute kid sister. Filling out the house is the increasingly desperate dad (P.J. Byrne), whose over-eager longing to be his son’s best friend is at odds with his job ‘s travel commitments; a mom (Emily Bergl), who has found the middle-class, wallpapered nirvana of her dreams; and, Grandpa (the wonderful Richard Riehle) whose fading memory and repetitive wartime recollections are testing everyone’s patience.

Miyubi’s journey unfolds as a series of reboots; during the downtime, the robot powers up, runs increasingly troublesome diagnostic checks, and re-emerges into a world in which his value as both a piece of hardware and a friend is waning. The plight of Miyubi echoes the emotional centre of Pixar’s Toy Story, in which Buzz, Woody and the gang are soon shunted for newer, cooler upgrades. At first the object of Grandpa’s derision and contempt (he fought the Japanese, he likes to remind his family, and now their technology is taking over his house), Miyubi and the old man soon bond over their impending obsolescence.

The beautifully rendered work is a collaboration between the Montreal-based Felix Paul Studios, whose principals Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael direct with seasoned skill (they recently inked a deal to explore feature-length VR opportunities with 20th Century Fox); and, humourist Owen Burke, one of the driving forces behind the Funny or Die troupe. His characterisations are pitched high, but the warm, more human moments are undeniably touching; one sequence, in which an airport-bound Dad dons a Rambo Halloween outfit to record a video message for his family, is very tender.

The larger question, of course, is how much of an expansion to the art and craft of cinematic storytelling do Lajeunesse and Raphael achieve via the use of virtual reality. The immersive element is certainly remarkable; sequences that take place in the boy’s bedrooms, set designed to recall pivotal influences in 80’s pop culture history, will stir the hearts and minds of Gen-Xers like no other film experience could (a Battlestar Galactica one-sheet autographed by the late Richard Hatch…I mean, Wow!). The physical reaction the viewer experiences are also without precedent; when a character reaches for Miyubi’s front control panel and inserts a music cassette, one’s tummy instinctively tightens.

The most intriguing advancement represents a melding of the traditional narrative and the tiered storytelling used predominantly in video games. By collecting three secret items, Miyubi accesses an implanted subconscious and is transported to the wondrously cavernous warehouse workplace of The Creator, played with typically eccentric charm by Jeff Goldblum. The sequence is not only a masterclass in richly detailed set design, but it also addresses the very essence of the cinematic ‘fourth wall’. To have Goldblum, deep in character, speak in extreme close-up directly into your eyes challenges the viewer to stay within the narrative, while experiencing a new form of celebrity interaction. (A further level, apparently representing Miyubi’s ‘happy place’, is spoken of by The Creator, but was not unlocked by your reviewer.)

As the medium advances, Miyubi will be looked back upon as a pivotal moment in VR development. A smartly written, emotionally resonant slice-of-life drama, it is an engaging, funny work. More importantly, it is a first for the new technology and represents a seismic shift towards the acceptance of VR films.

Wednesday
May242017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Stars: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Martin Klebba, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Writers: Jeff Nathanson.
Directors: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Rating: 2.5/5

When done right - when the narrative is pumped full of emotional engagement and the effects work is exhilarating - the modern Hollywood popcorn picture can still deliver the giddy entertainment value of, say, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of The Black Pearl. When a summer season movie crashes and burns on all fronts, much like Pirates #4 On Stranger Tides, there is a morbid fascination in watching that carnage unfold, too.

But there is no saving grace for the mediocre blockbuster-wannabe, and that’s what is being pitched with the fifth Pirate film, the unironically titled Dead Men Tell No Tales. There is skill and effort on display in every frame, but the result is an ugly skyscraper of a film; to build it must have been a monumental undertaking (that cost Disney a reported $230million), but what, if anything of merit is the outcome?

The Mouse House deemed Norwegian pair Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg the dynamic duo to guide this sort-of-reboot, for no other apparent reason than they had made 2012’s Kon-Tiki, another movie set on water. It was a fine film, a small, human drama shot with a lean dedication to character and nuance set against a non-CGI watery expanse. Dead Men Tell No Tales is…well, it’s not that. Most likely they are there to guide the performances of Brenton Thwaites, as idealistic hero Henry Turner, and Kaya Scodelario (the pic's biggest asset), as smart and sassy Carina Smyth, the only real people in the relentlessly fantastical Pirates’ universe.

Written by Jeff Nathanson, a scribe with a few franchise-fracturing credits to his name (Speed 2 Cruise Control; Rush Hour 3; Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull), the plot is toothpick scaffolding for the effects work, which is grand at times but also patchy in the service of a sombre, murky palette. Young Turner is determined to undo the deep-sea curse that still entombs his father Will (a returning Orlando Bloom as Will, reprising the role that set him on the road to tabloid fame). To do so, he needs to find the mythological sceptre, Poseidon’s Trident, a journey he undertakes utilising the drive and intelligence of Carina and, for some reason, the loutish charm of a certain drunken buccaneer named Jack Sparrow. Getting the gazillion dollar payday just for showing up, Johnny Depp (pictured, top) brings the look but only occasionally the vibe of his career-defining role, a role that was defined by the joie de vivre of a much younger actor.

In the way of our band of heroes are series’ stalwart Geoffrey Rush as Capt. Barbosa, heading up a support cast of strong Australian talent (David Wenham, Bruce Spence, Zoe Ventoura, Michael Dorman) taking advantage of the extended Queensland shoot, and Javier Bardem as Salazar (pictured, above), a seething Spaniard spirit leading a crew of ghastly, ghostly seamen on a vengeful quest to kill Sparrow.

It would be a particularly hardened cynic not to concede there is some fun to be had. The franchise reintroduces its star player with a wild heist sequence that all but lays waste a colonial outpost; Sparrow’s and Carina’s rescue and subsequent escape from the executioner’s grasp is a highlight, including a cleverly staged gag involving a guillotine. The storming of a beach by Salazar’s undead crew is the the film’s highpoint, mixing effects mastery and legitimate narrative thrills. The re-emergence of one of the original stars of the franchise makes for a nicely sentimental reunion moment, though not allowing one of the finest actresses of her generation a single word is a disappointment.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will meet shareholders expectations and open huge, serving its function as a profit centre KPI. Creatively, however, it is adrift at sea, becalmed by a lack of inspiration.

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.

Screens at Sydney Film Festival on June 7th and 9th, then in national wide release from June 15.

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.