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Tuesday
Apr232019

BLUE MOON

Stars: Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Olivia Hadlow and Doug Brooks.
Writer/Director: Stefen Harris.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Forty years of anger, resentment and bitter memories boil to the surface one fateful evening in a South Island gas station in the nerve-shredding two-hand crime thriller, Blue Moon. A gripping slice of Kiwi-noir that ticks all the boxes that rank truly great independent cinema, the second feature from real-life cop-turned-part-time filmmaker Stefen Harris is a supremely slick, psychologically taut and surprisingly engaging study of two desperate men and the ties that bind them.

Manning the midnight-to-dawn shift at the BP Motueka is Horace (Mark Hadlow), a middle-aged father of six teetering on the brink of financial ruin with long-in-development investment plans straining to stay together. His otherwise quiet night begins to unravel with the arrival of a blue Chevy Impala, carrying bad guy Reuben (Doug Brooks) and close to $500,000 in ill-gotten cash. Reuben’s fate plays into Horace’s plans for monetary redemption, albeit via compromising his own moral code, until leather-clad, shotgun-brandishing Darren (Jed Brophy) comes searching for the loot.

Harris works the first-half of his film with the assured hand of a genre pro, recalling the ‘small-town nobody’ character beats of a James M. Cain pulp-novel and neon-and-shadow classics like The Coen Bros.’ Blood Simple (1981) and Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1993). His blocking of scenes and building of tension in the predominantly single setting of the 24-hour convenience store is terrific.

His narrative invention doubles down on his technical prowess in Act 2, when it is revealed just how ‘small-town’ Motueka is; Horace and Darren have some shared baggage from a past dating back to their high-school days together. The half-million dollar criminal stakes suddenly have a slow-burn emotional intensity, fuelled by a boyhood definition of masculinity that sadly still drives these grown men.

Harris did some of his most instinctive work prior to his cameras rolling with the casting of his two leads and crewing reach. As Horace, aka ‘Toad’, Hadlow brings real-world emotional heft to his genre-thriller everyman; as Darren, aka ‘Ratty’, Brophy is towering tough-guy figure. Behind the scenes on what was reportedly a 6-day/NZ$12,000.00 shoot were the likes of sound engineer Ben Dunker (Inglorious Basterds, 2009), editor Judd Resnick (YellowBrickRoad, 2010), effects techie Dan Hennah (Lord of The Rings trilogy), composer Tane Upjohn-Beatson (collaborator on Harris’ 2009 debut feature, No Petrol No Diesel!) and hometown DOP Ryan O’Rourke. The result is a visually polished finished product, primed for the world market.

Thursday
Apr112019

LOCUSTS

Stars: Ben Geurens, Jessica McNamee, Nathaniel Dean, Peter Phelps, Andy McPhee, Steve Le Marquand, Alan Dukes, Ryan Morgan, Malcolm Kennard, Justin Rosniak, Kenneth Moraleda and Damian Hill.
Writer: Angus Watts
Director: Heath Davis

WORLD PREMIERE: Gold Coast Film Festival, April 11, 2019 at Home of the Arts (HOTA), Gold Coast, Queensland.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

After two critically acclaimed films that explored flawed blue-collar humans from deeply humanistic perspectives, director Heath Davis takes the gritty, grimy genre route in his latest, the outback-noir crime melodrama, Locusts.

Rife with a rogue’s gallery of red dirt, small-town scumbags for whom murderous villainy is second nature, Davis (working with past collaborator and debutant scribe Angus Watts) proves perfectly proficient at hitting all the narrative beats needed to give his modern-day Western a slow-burn pulse.

More importantly, Davis knows the psychology of desperate men; his debut feature Broke (2016) and sophomore effort Book Week (2018) soared on Davis’ empathetic handling of protagonists burdened by memory and history – two thematic elements that boost the more lurid moments of his first thriller.

Ben Geurens (pictured, top) stars as Ryan Black, a Sydney-based tech entrepreneur who is drawn back to the life he left behind in an outback town (the harsh beauty of Broken Hill and its surrounds playing the unnamed outpost) when his father passes away. The population is littered with dark-hearted types, notably the thuggish trio of Cain (Steve Le Marquand), Benny (a fearsome Justin Rosniak) and Davo (the late Damien Hill). Perhaps worst of the town’s lowlifes is Ryan’s wayward brother, Tyson (Nathaniel Dean).

The Black brothers soon find themselves bearing the burden of their father’s sins. With Tyson at the mercy of vengeful crime-boss McCrea (a wheelchair-bound Alan Dukes) and his henchmen, Ryan enlists the help of tough single-mum Izzy (Jessica McNamee) to conjure the hefty ransom that will secure his brother’s release; McNamee (pictured, above) is the latest of Davis’ strong, smart central female figures, previously played by Claire van der Boom, Susan Prior and Airlie Dodds. From that point, there is no shortage of desperate double-crossers, sibling rivalries and loaded gunmen to convolute the proceedings.

Geuren’s Ryan is an archetypal genre figure; the man fleeing a past that refuses to let him go. It is a role that has featured in stylish modern-noir cult items like The Coen Brother’s Blood Simple (1984), John Dahl’s Red Rock West (1993) and Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997). Locusts will come to represent for Heath Davis what those films mean to the oeuvre of their directors; maybe not their finest work, but evidence of a natural flair for storytelling and respect for and knowledge of the conventions of great genre cinema.

Monday
Apr082019

MAYBE TOMORROW

Stars: Tegan Crowley, Vateresio Tuikaba, Chloe Martin, Ryan A. Murphy, Fabiana Weiner, Christapor Yaacoubian, Eva Seymour, Felise Morales, Alexandra Hines and Lucy Moir.
Writers/directors: Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones.

WORLD PREMIERE: Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5, 2019 at Home of the Arts (HOTA), Gold Coast, Queensland.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Two wide-eyed new parents decide to double-down on the stress of raising one newborn by creating another, in the form of a no-budget indie film, in Maybe Tomorrow. A bittersweet tug-of-war two-hander showcasing shifting gender roles, the drive to be creative and the hidden responsibilities of adulthood, the latest from the writing/directing team of Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones plays free-spirited and loose for much of the first act before the realities of the ‘work-and-family-balance’ myth kick in.

Farrugia, Jones and their acting troupe have eked out a niche following with their slice-of-young-inner-city-life films Lazybones (2017) and So Long (2017) and Maybe Tomorrow represents a natural progression for the auteurs, both narratively and artistically. They provide warm insight into the pressure placed upon grounded but idealistic Erin (Tegan Crowley) and her partner, the responsibility-averse, man-child Pat (Vateresio Tuikaba) as they determinedly prepare to shoot what emerges as an uncomfortably raw version of their pre-parenthood life together.

Crowley is an engaging presence as Erin, a young woman for whom childbirth has led to an acceptance of personal duty; she works a part-time café job, prepares shooting schedules and affords Pat a stay-at-home lifestyle in which he fully indulges. When her psychological edges start to fray, it feels particularly real. As Pat, Tuikaba is very likable in that cool, late-20s one-time party-guy way, so the struggles he begins to face in the early stages of manhood will strike a nerve with those at a similar existential crossroads.

Michael Jones has stated that the title refers to the late night response that spouses often give each other when one feels ready for love and the other doesn’t. That explanation speaks to the inevitable lessening of physical intimacy that new parents like Erin and Pat experience, although it is a phenomenon not really explored in the film. Their degree of intimacy has extended beyond the sexual into that relationship realm where you discuss heavy periods and bad farts with graceless familiarity.

However, the term ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ also represents a generational malaise synonymous with millennial culture; an October 2018 study of US citizens aged 18-34 found they are prone to procrastination above any other demographic, a theme explored with resonance and insight by the leads (in scenes of largely improvised dialogue). Erin is striving to stay above and move beyond the more mundane aspects of her world, while Pat is only just realizing that life may seem idyllic but is in fact moving past him.

While Farrugia and Jones empathise with their protagonists, they are not above some skewering of millennial pretension; Pat’s theory of keeping apple quarters in mason jars so he can yell moods into them is hilarious. With the film-within-a-film stuttering through production, Pat uses some downtime to blend homemade kombucha, to which boom operator Eva (Eva Seymour) enquires, “What do you do on this set?” Not every scene nails its intent; that hoary old comedy bit, the ‘awkward family Christmas meal’, feels like padding, while a rehearsal montage of bad actors trying for parts in Pat and Erin’s film is overplayed.

Where Maybe Tomorrow works, and works beautifully, is in its study of the strain placed on love and commitment that dreams and desires can bring. The final frames inspire a longing for the young couple’s happiness, but play out ambiguously; we hope for their mutual fulfillment, but are left wondering whether they can make that happen for each other.

Saturday
Mar162019

DESTINATION WEDDING

Stars: Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves.
Writer/Director: Victor Levin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Finally afforded the screen time together that their Gen-X fanbase has been pining for going on three decades, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder play the most adorably unlovable rom-com couple ever in Victor Levin’s cynical but deceptively sweet Destination Wedding.

From the sitcom-y airport meet-cute in the opening frames to that knock on the door in the final seconds, Levin’s structure is as formulaic as the genre gets. However, the devilish charm of his debut feature is in the caustic detail of his dialogue and his casting of two stars who, despite their iconic status amongst fans of a certain age, have never really been afforded this kind of punchy, rat-a-tat repartee. They have the whole film to themselves – there are no other speaking parts – so the balance is certainly redressed.

Ryder plays Lindsay, a SJW-lawyer who brings down irresponsible corporations; Reeves is Frank, an executive for a company who hands out ‘Best Of...’ awards to big business. They are thrust into each other’s orbit on the way to a destination wedding in San Luis Obispo; Lindsay was once engaged to the groom, who happens to be Frank’s half-brother. Neither are seeking romance or companionship, yet find themselves drawn together via their misanthropy, cynicism and general despair at the notion of a life-long bond and all who seem to be working towards one.

While Reeves and Ryder may not seem the obvious leads for a movie that would have soared in generations past in the hands of, say, Walter Matthau and Eileen Brennan, or Richard Dreyfuss and Lily Tomlin, the darlings of 80s/90s cinema turn their callous-hearted characters into legitimately redeemable love birds. Reeves in particular seems to revel in delivering Levin’s dark, delicious words; the chemistry between he and Ryder (typically flinty, utterly endearing) is both sweet and sour, a coming-together of damaged souls who might just be able to mend each other over time.

Do not expect windswept, late-evening soft-glow late in the third act (as one of the interstitial title-cards states, “Just what the world needs – another Goddamn sunset wedding”), but instead a more seasoned perspective on the prospect for enduring romance. In their teen-dream heyday, a Reeves/Ryder romantic entanglement would have set every under-18’s ticker into cardiac arrhythmia; in 2019, the actors get to play understated, doubtful and resigned to a compromised human connection. Their more mature selves provide no less a love story, and Reeves and Ryder prove no less engaging, because of the passage of time.

Tuesday
Mar052019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Stars: Brie Larsen, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lee Pace, Gemma Chan, Mckenna Grace, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening.
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet.
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Despite a slightly-too-convoluted origin narrative that will mean more to the comic-book devotee than the audience member for whom a single yearly dose of MCU is sufficient, Captain Marvel overcomes some wobbly first half pacing to deliver all that is really required of the modern heroic-crusader blockbuster. That is, a protagonist, unsure of their true identity, is set on a course of self-discovery during which they reconcile with their past, learn the good truth about their destiny and max out the potential of their superpower while saving a city/planet/galaxy. What separates the best from the worst in the MCU is that which is mined beyond of the studio's rigid template and, as the first female lead character in the franchise, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck identify plenty of fresh thematic angles to explore. 

Coming from a background of gritty, uplifting character pieces (Half Nelson, 2006; Sugar, 2008; Mississippi Grind, 2015), the pair's deployment by Marvel Studios was to serviceably craft a solid, ‘real’ hero in Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. In Oscar-winner Brie Larson, they achieve that, even if at times her stoicism feels a bit stodgy. While everyone around her is getting the great one-liners and soaking up the spare-no-expense extravagance of their time-shifting/interplanetary setting, Larson hunkers down to provide the film’s emotional as well as heroic core; it’s a task that plays somewhat thankless at times. That said, when called upon to don the superheroine duds, smash villains and integrate with the green screen techies and stunt unit, she comes alive.

The opening act barrels through the world building with a "Hey, pay attention!” urgency that threatens to leave distracted patrons lost.  We meet our heroine (‘Vers’, as she’s known to her special-op combat team) as she stirs from a restless sleep; her head is full of fragmented images, all that is left of what seems like several past lives. On her home planet of Hala, she is one of the Kree, a race beholden to the ‘Supreme Intelligence’ and fighting the shape-shifting Skrull hordes (phew). When her unit, led by the never-not-evil Jude Law, is ambushed, she is flung across time and space, landing in a Blockbuster video store in downtown LA in the mid 1990s.

With young S.H.I.E.L.D. grunt Nick Fury (a digitally smoothed-over Samuel L Jackson) quickly settling into her sidekick role, Vers starts to piece together her own timeline while fighting off Skrull leader Talos (an unrecognisable and terrific Ben Mendelsohn) and his henchmen. A mid-section trip to Louisiana to rekindle a friendship with ex-pilot buddy Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is a bit talky and the forward momentum sags. But as Danvers’ journey towards an understanding of her past and the inevitable emergence of the titular heroine progresses, the third act builds convincingly towards the stirring effects spectacle finale associated with the franchise.

The pre-release web-posturing of some sectors of the community looks even more churlish and pathetic upon the film’s release. While Larson’s portrayal is one of chiselled moral and physical sturdiness (as have been those of the men in the MCU since Day 1), Boden and Fleck do not hammer home a politicised perspective. Instead, they provide contemporary commentary with some crackling social satire (“Tell the Supreme Intelligence that this time of wars and lies will soon be over”) and draw upon the femme-skewed cast to refreshingly explore character and drama in a manner respectful and honest to the gender. Captain Marvel is not the blunt-force challenge to the accepted norms that Ryan Coogler's Black Panther came to represent, but it's a potent statement of intent. The challenge will be incorporating her into the male-centric Avengers films, where laddish oafs with waning appeal like Tony Stark and Peter Quill still occupy centre stage.

The 90s setting provides for some sweet nostalgia, including a soundtrack of skilfully appropriated tunes (No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl, the pick of them) and pop culture riffs sure to further transition away from the now-distant 80s as The Retro Decade of Choice. In the standard MCU 'Ageing Icon' role previously filled by the likes of Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Ben Kingsley, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Nick Nolte is the stunning Annette Bening, ideally cast as 'Supreme Intelligence' (even if some of her dialogue seems reluctant to leave her mouth at times).

Fittingly, the passing of Marvel creator Stan Lee was acknowledged with a sweet, simple message in the film’s opening frames, which was greeted with instantaneous applause by the audience.

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

Screening at 2019 Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5 at the BCC Cinemas, Coolangatta.

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.