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Wednesday
Aug152018

BOOK WEEK

Stars: Alan Dukes, Airlie Dodds, Susan Prior, Rose Riley, Rhys Muldoon, Pippa Grandison, Thuso Lekwape, Toby Schmitz, Khan Chittenden, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Jolene Anderson, Tiriel Mora, Dean Kyrwood, Vanessa Buckley and Steve Le Marquand.
Writer/director: Heath Davis

WORLD PREMIERE: Melbourne International Film Festival, Wednesday August 15, 2018.

Rating: 4/5

That most engaging, enraging cinematic archetype – the boozy, lecherous but lovable literary talent gone off the rails – is given an Antipodean spin in Heath Davis’ charmingly roguish, bittersweet working-class drama, Book Week. Despite borrowing high-brow observations of the writer’s lot in life from such names as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Bukowski, Davis’ occasionally coarse but lovably melancholy character study is a crowdpleasingly broad tale of personal redemption.

Lifelong support player Alan Dukes masterfully crafts a career-defining lead turn as Nicholas Cutler, the flailing author/reluctant academic wallowing in egotism, irresponsibility and mounting panic. If the actor starts the film walking in the footsteps of Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys (2000) and Tom Conti’s Gowan McGland from Reuben Reuben (1983), Duke soon charts his own, equally wonderful acting path, resulting in a performance every bit as heartwarming/breaking as those revered characterisations.

Cutler once wrote a book that did well, but is now a high school teacher overseeing teens typically dismissive of literary greatness; as he tries to awaken in them a modicum of passion for Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, the students text, “Cutler is a dick.” And they are mostly right; it is a credit to Duke’s leading-man likability (the actor resembling a seen-better-days version of Richard Dreyfuss, by way of Bill Murray’s observational wryness) that Cutler does not come off as too pathetic or wantonly self-destructive to empathise with.

Over the titular period (an Aussie tradition created to drum up interest in reading and usually involving a celebratory dress-up day), Cutler remains either inebriated or trying to be, leading to clashes with upstart student-author Melanie (Rose Riley); drunken sex with free-spirited placement teacher and kindred spirit, Sarah (a terrific Airlie Dodds); inappropriate complications with age-appropriate co-worker Ms. Issen (Susan Prior, wonderful); and, a destined-for-disaster carers role, keeping wayward teen Tyrell (Thuso Lekwape) out of ‘juvie.’

The other key subplot tracks Cutler’s re-emergence as a writer, albeit of a zombie lark that reeks of career desperation, and his anxiety levels ahead of its not-quite-confirmed publication. This narrative strand, with some contributions from Rhys Muldoon, Toby Schmitz and Khan Chittenden, pitched pretty highly. Solid bit-part thesping from the likes of Jolene Anderson, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Pippa Grandison and Tiriel Mora is all of the highest quality, although the film certainly feels overpopulated at times; the small-town complications and interactions occasionally echo beats of TV series formatting (with such a transition certainly viable, as there is the pulse of David Duchovny’s Californication cad Hank Moody in Cutler’s ways and a roster of characters ripe for expansion).

Book Week is most enthralling when Dukes is allowed to delve into Cutler’s darker psyche; several of the film’s best moments are when the actor has the frame to himself, or indulges in introspective angst with Dodd’s Sarah (a breakthrough role for the wonderful actress). Heath Davis announced himself as a skilful observer of damaged talents with his 2016 feature debut Broke, and his similarly-themed sophomore feature is as good a follow-up effort as the Australian industry has seen in some time. For an auteur so well versed in the existential misery of the ‘fallen idol’, Davis has to date fashioned two entirely winning films.

Thursday
Aug092018

THE MEG

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia and Masi Oka.
Writers: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber.
Director: Jon Turteltaub.

Rating: 2/5

For a movie so cynically calculated to hit all-important commercial KPIs, so much feels miscalculated about The Meg. The cheapest looking US$125million film ever made, joyless journeyman Jon Turteltaub’s big-shark movie drags the anchor for most of its interminable 113 minutes.  From the bored action lead routinely grimacing, to the beast itself, blessed with the natural skill to change size at will, The Meg seems destined to only find favour with snarky podcasters seeking schlocky targets for ridicule. 

The central ‘plot’ concerns a boozy ex-diver called Jonas (think about it…actually, don’t), drinking his life away in Thailand having lost two colleagues in the film’s lackluster prologue. Jason Statham plays ‘PTSD grief’ as script directions to be ignored; when called upon to return to the ocean depths to save a stranded submersible that contains his ex-wife (Jessica McNamee), he monologues with a grin about why he won’t do it, then jumps on board a helicopter to do it.

The clincher is that his ex may have just seen the same prehistoric beast that Jonas claimed was responsible for his crew’s death. Soon, he is on board the Mana One, an underwater research facility overseen by scumbag entrepreneur Rainn Wilson and peopled by Cliff Curtis’ boss-man, Ruby Rose’ feisty operations manager, Page Kennedy’s shrill nuisance DJ (the film’s most thankless part) and Li Bingbings’ single mother scientist (asked to pull off some excrutiating sentimentality with her on-screen daughter, Sophia Cai, and some chemistry-free romantic sparks with her leading man).

It takes Turteltaub and his trio(!) of writers 40-odd  minutes to shoehorn their moneymaker into the action, the Megalodon’s first appearance recalling the T-Rex reveal in Jurassic Park (the first and last time the movies will be compared, rest assured). The special effects that bring the Meg to life run the gamut from state-of-the-art (a midpoint sequence in which the shark closes in on Statham and Bingbing as they are being reeled in is the film’s best action) to Jaws-3 clunky. The PG-13 framework means kills are meagre by any horror buff’s measure; barring one legitimately hilarious sight gag involving a helicopter pilot, humour is barren (note to the producers – you owe the Sharknado franchise an acknowledgement for stealing their closing shot gag).

Everything about the movie – the cool posters, the fun trailer, the decade-long development history, the mystery behind what horror auteur Eli Roth once might have seen in the insipid material  – is infinitely more interesting than anything that made it into the movie. The Meg is so bound to the ‘studio blockbuster’ template, it never breathes; that’s perhaps appropriate, given its waterlogged staidness, but it leaves this hulking behemoth dead in the water.

Saturday
Aug042018

LIVING UNIVERSE

Narrator: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
Featuring: Natalie Batalha, Gentry Lee, Avi Loeb, Karin Öberg, Sar Seager, Steve Squyres and the voice of Prof. Tamara Davis.

Rating: 4/5

Melding mesmerizing CGI visions of interstellar starscapes and alien worlds with earthbound wisdom and state-of-the-art tech provided by some of the greatest minds in space science, the Australian/French co-production Living Universe will leave both dreamers and doers pining for what the future folds.

Not for the first time in movie history, posing the question ‘Are we alone?’ proves to be the entry point for a terrific film experience. Mulling over the connotations of that questions are the likes of Steve Squyres, NASA Space Science Advisory Committee chairperson; Swedish astrochemist Karin Öberg; JPL Chief Engineer Gentry Lee, currently serving NASA’s Planetary Flight Systems Drectorate; astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist on NASA’s Kepler initiative; and, Avi Loeb, Harvard’s Professor of Science.

As the collective might of this academic hive-mind ponders the hows, where and whys of intergalactic exploration, the journey of the A.I.-piloted spacecraft Aurora to the distant ‘exoplanet’ Minerva B unfolds, 150 years from now. These sequences are gorgeous flights of fancy, conjured by effects gurus tasked with crafting galaxy clouds, meteor storms and, ultimately, ‘flesh and bone’ manifestations in answer to the question originally posed.

The production stops short of going full-Avatar; to undertake a dirt-to-civilization exercise in world building is best left to the budgets of Hollywood studios. Living Universe instead imagines that the very first moments of contact and discovery, enabled by drone-tech and spider-bot androids, will be at a base biological level but no less wonderful or awe-inspiring because of it.   

The narration of Aussie celeb-scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki will play better with international audiences; local patrons may be too familiar with his floral-shirt public persona to fully accept him in such an earnest mood. That said, his contributions clearly convey information and succinctly posit theories and conjecture that may be otherwise daunting for non-space types.

Emerging as the most engaging presence is Australian astrophysicist Tamara Davis (pictured, above), who vocalises the A.I. operating system ‘Artemis’ aboard the Aurora. Unlike ‘Mother’, the femme-voiced super-computer of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Davis’ cyber-conscience proves empathetic, inquisitive and ideal as Earth’s ambassador at the point of ‘first contact’.

The WORLD PREMIERE Australian Season of LIVING UNIVERSE commences August 9 at Event Cinemas nationally; from August 11 at Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (Sydney); and, from August 30 at IMAX Melbourne Museum. Check the official website for other venues.

Thursday
Jul262018

ANGIE

Featuring: Angie Meiklejohn, Bonnie Meiklejohn, Renee Meiklejohn, Carlos Meiklejohn, Angela Sharp, Jules Barber, Richard Langdon and Brian Bouzard.
Director: Costa Botes

Rating: 4.5/5

Costa Botes has delivered arguably the finest film of his 30-year directorial career with Angie, an intimate epic of vast emotional and psychological insight. Led into the dark subject matter then back to the hopeful light by his frank and fearless muse, abuse survivor Angie Meiklejohn, the veteran filmmaker has crafted a deeply empathetic narrative that spans a generation of one family’s dysfunction, mental health suffering and sexual and emotional torment.

Immediately earning a place alongside such similarly-themed works as Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and Rosie Jones’ The Family (2016), Botes’ incisive study of a family unit imploding focuses on the journey of Meiklejohn from her disrupted childhood and wayward teen years through a truly shocking rite of passage into adulthood. With siblings Bonnie, Renee and Carl weighing in with their own stark memories of family discord and early-life hardship, Botes captures how a group of related lost souls could fall for the false hope promised by cultist Bert Potter and his Centrepoint alternative lifestyle movement.

Botes examines such deeply human conditions as grief, addiction, intimacy and ultimately, hope through the tortured psyche and soulful presence of Angie Meiklejohn. Her Centrepoint ordeal, reliance upon alcohol to self-medicate and subsequent descent into life as a sex worker led to suicidal inclinations. Meiklejohn fronts Botes’ lens with a matter-of-factness that is startling, relating moments from a life that would have hardened many beyond redemption, had they survived at all. Yet Angie, whose last decade has centred on an earthy spirituality and reconciliation with her family, exudes a rare warmth and willingness to share. As her friend Richard Langdon observes, “It’s impossible to not love her.”

Despite the extensive New Zealand media coverage afforded the trial during the early 90s, which saw Potter and senior Centrepoint cohorts convicted of indecently assaulting minors, audiences will be disturbed by the details that Angie and her sisters provide regarding life inside the compound. Botes understands that to comprehend the person that Angie has become (and to shine further damning light upon those who preyed on her), details regarding sexual abuse trauma, drug manufacture and administering and psychological manipulation are relevant, yet no less shocking with the passage of time.

Costa Botes melds the many elements of Angie’s story with the technical expertise of a learned craftsman (its been 23 years since his breakthrough work, the iconic mockumentary Forgotten Silver). He commands the content, form and themes with consummate prowess; there is not a frame within the daunting 119-minute running time that is without potency or profundity. Botes respects and honours his subject, but also the genre within which he is working; like the lady herself, Angie is a deep, dark, daring wonder.

Angie will have its WORLD PREMIERE on July 29th at The ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, as part of the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival. Further details available via the event’s official website.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE 'World Cinema - New Zealand' feature here.

Wednesday
Jul042018

ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT

Featuring: Jan Broberg, Mary Ann Broberg, Bob Broberg, Pete Welsh, Karen Campbell, Joe Berchtold, Susan Broberg, Cor Hoffman, Sinclair DuMont and Devin Ordoyne.
Director: Skye Borgman

Screening at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 12.

Rating: 4.5/5

As profoundly insightful as any bigscreen rendering of the psychology and methodology of the sociopathic paedophile, Abducted in Plain Sight sits alongside current standard-bearers Evil Genius, The Keepers and How to Make a Murderer in that top tier of contemporary true-crime factual films. Stripping her narrative back to bare facts and raw emotions, director Skye Borgman has crafted a gripping work of intrigue, horror and sadness that fully reveals one of America’s most extraordinary abduction and abuse cases.

Robert Berchtold was a husband and father when he and his family moved into the middle-class Idaho suburb of Pocatello in the early 1970s. An attractive, charming man, he immediately ingratiated himself with his new neighbours, good churchgoin' folk The Brobergs; shopkeeper dad Bob, housewife Mary Ann, and their three daughters Susan, Karen and the eldest, Jan. Affectionately called ‘B’ by his newly acquired prey, Robert Berchtold set in motion a meticulously planned, cold-blooded series of events that would compromise Bob and Mary Ann and, more insidiously, allow him to kidnap, psychologically manipulate and sexually abuse Jan.

Afforded an extraordinary level of intimacy by her on-camera subjects, Borgman paints a non-judgemental portrait of a family shrouded in the false warmth of their LDS faith and naïve to the manipulative skill of Berchtold. The parent’s own actions and the subsequent handling of their daughter’s ordeal is, frankly, beyond comprehension, yet in recounting one tragic mistake after another, Mary Ann and Bob Broberg emerge more as collateral victims of Berchtold’s predatory prowess. His psychopathology was of a medieval bluntness and cunning, at a time when suburban America was in the early soporific stages of a new comfortable, modern existence.

Steadfastly central to her own story is adult survivor Jan Broberg, who recounts with bracing frankness the psychological and subsequent sexual abuse inflicted by ‘B’ upon her between the ages of 12 and 15. Sisters Susan and Karen are given camera time to recall the shifting dynamic of the family from their own young perspectives, and Bob and Mary Ann are as open as any documentary subjects can be, but it is Jan’s spirit that soars above the putrid evil inherent to any retelling of Berchtold’s actions. Scenes in which she confronts an aging Berchtold in court exemplify her towering strength in understanding and defying the legacy of his actions.

Convincingly played by Devin Ordoyne in flashback sequences (each expertly shot on Super 8 film by Borgman to capture period mood and detail), Berchtold proves a compelling, utterly chilling figure. Borne of a twisted psyche traced back to his own childhood, he is afforded a few frames of expository backstory by Borgman, but not so much that his vile actions are lessened by why he is what he is and does what he does. The film utilises his brother Joe to provide insight into their family’s dark past; although central to the events, Berchtold’s wife and children are not featured. Former FBI agent Pete Welsh recounts the investigation and frustrated legal process that allowed Berchtold to manipulate the law and justice as efficiently as he did everyone and everything else that he targeted.

Sunday
Jul012018

ANIMAL WORLD

Stars: Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas, Zhou Dongyu, Cao Bingkun and Wang Ge.
Writer: Han Yan, based on the comic by Nobuyuki Fukumoto.
Director: Han Yan

Rating: 2/5

It is inconceivable that anyone might be pining for a film set in the bowels of a floating warehouse where dozens of desperate sweaty lowlifes take on a maths nerd in a high-stakes game of paper-rock-scissors, but here we are. Here, also, is Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas, who will most likely stay hidden behind the pile of cash he earned to play broad villainy when Animal World pops up in any career re-appraisal.

A Chinese-backed adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga classic Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, writer/director Han Yan’s latest is a garish, cumbersome, piecemeal film. At different moments, it is a revved-up fantasy actioner, a grimy dystopian-world survival story, a lecture in statistical odds, and a big-screen spin on poker-machine graphics; it strives yet strains to be a convincing mash-up of Snowpiercer, Rainman and The Hunger Games. It fails on all fronts save some technical prowess, resulting in an aggressively pointless 140 minutes of misdirection and incoherence.

A likable Li Yifeng plays down-on-his-luck arcade-clown Zheng Kaisi, a morose figure falling worryingly behind on hospital payments that keep his comatose mother in care. During those moments when life deals him a bum hand, Kaisi disappears into a complex fantasy realm, the ‘Animal World’, where his clown character is a ninja-style assassin who can lay waste an entire train carriage of CGI-generated monsters. His psychic bond to the clown visage dates back to a childhood moment when his family home was raided and his father removed…all while a cartoon clown dispatched evildoers on the television.

With no means to cover hospital costs and having been swindled out of his family’s property assets by backstabbing childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), Kaisi is left with no options when Douglas’ silver-haired, cold-blooded boss-man comes calling. He is soon aboard a sort of steam-punk freighter/industrialized cruise ship called ‘Destiny’, one of dozens of men who must collect brass stars and offload cards in a game-show-meets-Vegas version of paper-rock-scissors.

Conceptually, there exists the potential for a twisty, heist-like narrative energy as Kaisi’s beautiful mind starts working the different angles that will win him the ultimate goal – freedom from Destiny and a debt-free existence. But director Yan employs low-rent graphics to explain Kaisi’s in-depth analysis of how to beat the house; the 80-minute mid-section of Animal World is a series of interminable and utterly confounding sequences in which the cards that symbolize the three game options dance about cinematographer Max Da-Yung Wang’s otherwise handsomely filled widescreen.  

The heavily circulated trailer for the film promised a pulsating action-fantasy epic, with lashings of Deadpool-type irreverence, that never materialises. The train-carriage monster slaughter (which recalls better moments from the Men in Black films) and an admittedly terrific car chase all take place in the head of the protagonist; they represent nothing more than showy CGI bluster. Not for the first time but perhaps never quite so egregiously, a trailer has ‘buried the lead’ – Animal World is the Paper-Rock-and-Scissors wannabe-blockbuster that absolutely no one ever asked for. That unofficial fourth option the desperate PRS player calls upon– dynamite – would have come in handy.

Wednesday
Jun272018

ADRIFT

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, Grace Palmer, Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Tami Ashcroft, Kael Damiamian.
Screenplay: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.

Rating: 4/5

When free-spirited 24 year-old Tami Oldham met 33 year-old ocean-faring adventurer Richard Sharp in 1983, the attraction was instant and the bond profound. In Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift, the cinematic retelling of the pair’s ill-fated open-ocean undertaking from Tahiti to San Diego, leads Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin must convince not only as seasoned sailors capable of the 4000 nautical mile journey, but also doe-eyed, die-hard romantics in the thrall of each others company.

In adapting Oldham’s autobiography Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea, scripters Aaron and Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith have structured a narrative that serves two masters. Firstly, the blossoming romance of two spiritually compatible young people sharing a destiny; secondly, the tragic trajectory dictated by the facts of the story. The result is a rarity in modern cinema terms; an un-ironic, openhearted romance that doubles as a psychological study in survival trauma. Every bruise earned and every tear shed over the course of the pair’s ordeal feels entirely authentic.   

Having previously explored man’s helplessness in the face of an unforgiving Mother Nature in Everest (2015) and The Deep (2012), Kormákur understands the intricacies of ‘survivalist cinema’. He convincingly conveys the gruesome physical impact a life-threatening event can have, but he also comprehends the essential human qualities that his protagonist must exhibit to ensure their plight engages the audience. Structurally, he utilizes a fractured, Nolan-esque storytelling style that jars at first, but which corals both plot strands into a quietly devastating reveal (at least, for those who haven’t read the book).

As Tami, Shailene Woodley delivers on the dramatic promise of her teen roles (The Descendants, 2011; The Spectacular Now, 2013; The Fault in Our Stars, 2014; the Divergent trilogy) with a performance of strong, sensual physicality, inspiring fortitude and complex emotionality. This role serves a specific functionality for the actress at a key juncture in her career; just as Sally Field did with Norma Rae (1979), or Julia Roberts did with Sleeping With The Enemy and Dying Young (both 1991), or Sandra Bullock did with A Time to Kill (1996), its timing is not accidental. Woodley challenges herself, her fan base and her perception in Hollywood with a role that demands a maturity, technique and natural charisma that she delivers with Oscar-worthy command.

Claflin is handed the less showy of the two performances (he spends most of the movie prone and battered), but creates a likable, charming all-round believably sweet foil for Woodley to fawn over.   

Importantly, Adrift achieves a seamless, entirely believable tropical storm simulation; ‘that’ moment, when the yacht is tossed and Tami and Richard are left at the mercy of the cyclonic conditions, is one of the most convincingly staged of its kind in film history.

Saturday
Jun232018

LOTS OF KIDS, A MONKEY AND A CASTLE

Featuring: Julita Salmerón, Gustavo Salmerón, Antonio García Cabanes, Ramón García SalmerónPaloma García Salmerón, David García Salmerón, Ignacio García Salmerón and Julia García Salmerón.  
Screenplay: Gustavo Salmerón, Raúl de Torres, Beatriz Montañez.
Director: Gustavo Salmerón.

Screening at LALIFF, Los Angeles on June 23 and June 24.

Rating: 4/5

A Spanish matriarch’s recipe for happiness is examined through her son’s melancholy, bittersweet lens in Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, a charming study of family dynamics, shifting generational values and the challenge of just plain growing old from actor/director Gustavo Salmerón.

On her wedding day, Julita Salmerón wished for three things from her new life – a vast family, a pet monkey and a traditional dwelling that recalls the majesty of her homeland’s history. In Julita’s eyes, these are symbols of affluence but by the mid 00’s (the film utilises decades of footage, from family photos dating back a century to iPhone coverage), they have come to represent very different things.

Gustavo (a well-known actor in his homeland), his five siblings and their own families have gathered to empty their parent’s castle of its riches before the bank takes possession, the clan having lost much of its wealth in the economic crisis; the monkey is long gone, having turned from family pet into an objectionable pest who literally bit the hand that fed it once too often. As the family struggles with cumbersome relics such as chandeliers and knight’s armour, Julita recalls the moments, memories and dreams, both lived and unfulfilled, that have shaped her life.

As this lovely film unfolds, Julita transforms from the eccentric, feisty Spanish ‘abuela’ who hoards a lifetime of trinkets (from plastic pipes and knitting needles to her grandparents’ vertebra) into a deeply humanistic presence increasingly consumed with her own mortality and legacy. Both very funny (she convinces her family to indulge in a rehearsal for her own wake) and very sweet (she adores her husband, despite a long period without physical intimacy and his contrary views on Spain’s political past), she speaks directly to her son’s camera with the frankness of a septuagenarian with no reason to keep opinions or secrets to herself any longer.

Her circumstances are specific to her situation, but Julita’s sentimentality and desire for a life that has long passed her by has a universality that is instantly relatable. The intimacy of the footage, the forthright insight she conveys and the openness with which she embraces her newfound role as ‘documentary subject’ is wonderfully endearing. By the final frames of Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, one entirely understands why she is adored, held in awe and quietly tolerated in equal measure.

Wednesday
Jun132018

MY SAGA

With: Adam Harris, Jack Anakin Harris, Perry King, James Arnold Taylor, Steve Gawley, Charles Bailey, Vanessa Marshall, Bonnie Piesse and Erik Bauersfeld.
Writers: Adam Harris, Terry King and David Richardson.
Director: Adam Harris.

World Premiere; Wednesday 13th June at Event Cinemas North Lakes.

Rating: 4/5

There is a moment two-thirds into Adam Harris’ endearing documentary My Saga when the director/narrator utters an understatement as vast as the galaxy itself. In his typically easygoing manner, he observes without a hint of irony, “This was a bit of a geek moment for me.” Anyone who seeks out the Queensland-based filmmaker’s ode to George Lucas’ space opera mythology and how it has shaped and guided his own narrative will experience the same. It is a rousing paean to both fan culture and young fatherhood.

Harris plays cute with the opening moments; a header reads, “Not that long ago, in a country down under…,” before the famous title crawl begins to tell his story. One expects nothing less from a fan opus that wears its heart on its sleeve (who would make a Star Wars-themed film and not open in that way?), but the director and his mentoring co-helmer Terry King understand there is weighty themes at the heart of this story and quickly shift to a more serious tone .

Having established the origins of his Star Wars obsession (a 1983 session of Return of The Jedi at Brisbane’s Regent Theatre), Harris retells the wrenching moment when a scan revealed a dark spot on his brain. The subsequent period of existential introspection led to the realisation he needed to fast track a lifelong memory for his equally Star Wars-enamored son Jack (middle name Anakin, of course). Their destination is America; their plan, to absorb as much Star Wars experience that Jack’s age, Adam’s health and the young family's budget will allow.

The first act of My Saga occasionally teeters near to a ‘fan only’ myopia. The old and young fanboys wander with glassy-eyed wonder around Rancho Obi-wan, the merchandising museum overseen by Steve Sansweet; during a visit to Lucasfilm HQ, Harris interviews Steve Gawley and Charlie Bailey, two ageing Star Wars veterans who recall in detail working with effects gurus John Dykstra and Joe Johnston. Their memories are fascinating, but Jack and his father are largely off-screen for an extended period while these three men convey their own Star Wars journeys.

Harris’ film regains its surefootedness and emotional core when father and son undertake to conquer the madness of Star Wars Celebration 2015, the 4-day 2015 gathering in Anaheim during which the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was launched. The fan response to the teaser, in particular that first sight of an aged Han Solo and Chewbacca is now legendary. The footage of the moment it impacted father and son as it unfolds before them is extraordinary; the roar of a packed auditorium conveying the immensity of the moment, coupled with the profound affect it has on Harris (and the bemused awe conveyed by Jack), makes for a special cinematic moment.

These scenes turn My Saga into ours, as well; the audience engagement is complete. Scenes that reveal the burden that Harris carries – his breakdown when interviewing actor Perry King (the radio play version of Han Solo); his encounter with another father attending Celebration, with an ailing son – are deeply emotional. As Harris continues upon his journey, the essence of the bond it is forging between he and his boy takes on sharper focus. Patriarchal legacy is one of the most resonant themes of Lucas’ mythology and so it becomes with Harris’ beautiful film.

In recent days, the vile toxicity of contemporary fan culture and its impact upon The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran has darkened the Internet. Offering evidence that a shared understanding of and love for creations of the imagination can be life affirming, My Saga is the perfect counterpoint for anyone who harbours ill will within the Star Wars universe. The trolls should be forced to wake up to themselves and reconsider their allegiance from the perspective of Jack and Adam Harris.

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.