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Thursday
Oct112018

SUSPIRIA

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz and Jessica Harper.
Writer: David Kajganich.
Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rating: ★★ ½

When is a horror movie not a horror movie? When does a remake like Suspiria, a new spin on the defining film of the ‘giallo’ horror sub-genre, forego the right to label itself a ‘horror remake’?  Technically it is, of course (or more precisely a ‘homage’, in the words of director Luca Guadagnino), but it is a horror film that doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in being a ‘horror’ film at all.

Released in 1977, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento's surreal original employed primary hues and arch melodrama to tell the tale of an American ballet dancer (Jessica Harper, stunt cameo-ing in the remake) who lands a prized spot at a German ballet school, only to discover it’s a front for a witch’s coven. It is rated highly by 70s Euro-horror buffs for it’s florid palette, painterly composition and gruesome deaths; a film that, if not quite the masterpiece of psychological terror its lavish praising suggests, is certainly a work rich in it’s own sense of style, builds and maintains a disconcerting sense of bewilderment, and delivers some legitimate frights.

Luca Guadagnino’s version is set in 1977, providing the director with a historical and political backdrop for him to return to for no discernable reason, involving the Baader Meinhoff terrorism group’s seizing of an airliner. The American ballet dancer, Susie Bannion, is reimagined as Dakota Johnson, playing younger than the young woman she played in the first Fifty Shades of Grey film nearly four years ago; she’s miscast and not entirely convincing as a dancer (a double is used with little regard for continuity), but she is relatable most of the time as the audience conduit.

Overseeing the German dance studio is Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, a woman (and actress, one senses) who inspires awe and fear amongst the young dance troupe and faculty alike. She warms to Susie, occasionally at the expense of classmates who are prone to unexplained absences or worst (the film’s first big character demise is a showstopper), and is soon grooming her for more than just lead leggie in a preposterous end-of-year modern-dance spectacle. Swinton has a ball, probably; she gets to also play the film’s primary male character, a psychiatrist named ‘Josef Klemperer’, and a putrid, evil enchantress, both under pounds of prosthetic make-up.


In 2017, Guadagnino directed one of the year’s most beautiful films, Call Me By Your Name; in 2018, he’s directed one of the ugliest. Drawing upon the grim aesthetics of 70s German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the Italian bathes his angular beauties in at least fifty different shades of grey, a swell as muted browns and purples. It may be deliberate, in that it allows for some nightmarish flourishes of colour at all-too-rare intervals, but it bogs down with a dour drabness a narrative that is already ponderous.

There is satisfaction to be had in watching Guadagnino work gender-specific dynamics with his all-female cast (which includes a terrific Mia Goth and a barely-registering Chloe Grace Moretz); matriarchal dominance, the shifting of a generational hierarchy, maternal legacy and alpha-female predatory tactics make for drama that occasionally compels. One scene sums up the film's attitude to men and what constitutes manhood; a bewitched detective is stripped and humiliated, with Susie looking on covertly. 

However, the director (working from David Kajganich screenplay, adapted from the original’s script) never finds an ounce of menace, a modicum of foreboding; there is ultimately fountains of blood, but it will all seem too little too late for even the most patient horror hound. Guadagnino’s intent may have been to pay homage, and there is skill and ambition to burn, yet all that emerges is an admirable if ultimately unnecessary horror remake.

Sunday
Sep232018

ALPHA

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Marcin Kowalczyk, Jens Hultén, Natassia Malthe, Spencer Bogaert, Mercedes de la Zerda and Leonor Varela.
Writers: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (screenplay) and Albert Hughes (story).
Director: Albert Hughes

RATING: ★
★
★
★

In this modern movie-going age, where origin stories clutter up our multiplexes with tiresome monotony, it seems fitting that a film that ponders on the starting point of the age-old ‘a boy and his dog’ narrative should take place around the dawn of prehistory. Deceptively simple in its construction yet sweepingly epic, exciting and genuinely moving in its execution, Albert Hughes’ Alpha spins a potentially academic ‘domestication of the dog’ story into a coming-of-age fable that adventure hounds and dog lovers will drool over.

Set 20,000 years ago against a European landscape of shifting geography and harsh climate, Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s screenplay introduces us to protagonist Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at a pivotal moment in the young man’s passage towards alpha-manhood. He is being led into a buffalo hunt by his father, tribal elder Tau (appropriately sturdy Icelandic actor Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), yet fails to be the man his tribe and his dad needs him to be.

Flashbacks reveal Keda is the sensitive type, unable to slay an animal for food and not the natural woodsman or warrior that is expected of someone with his heritage. Smit-McPhee’s casting proves a deft masterstroke despite at first appearing misjudged. Very much not the hulking caveman type, the Australian actor’s lean physique, doleful eyes and initial timidity does not disappear over the course of his personal growth, but rather takes on an androgynous muscularity that is central and crucial to the film’s subtext.

Separated and left for dead, Keda is adrift and alone on the prehistoric tundra, his injuries making him seemingly easy pickings for scavengers. Prime amongst them is a wolf pack, which fails in their bid to drag Keda from a tree and nearly lose one of their own in the attack. The entire second-act of Alpha is largely the young tribesman regaining his strength while tending to the wolf’s wounds; the co-dependency they develop takes a few real-world liberties (surely a starving wolf would turn on his protein-rich human companion at some point?), but dramatically the friendship is a potent and believable match-up.

As Keda and his newly bonded wolf companion (part real animal, part mostly convincing CGI) set out for his tribal home, they must overcome physically challenging and breathtakingly photographed obstacles, including an unforgettable encounter on and underneath an ice-lake, an omnipresent hyena pack, the first snow of the season and, in one terrifying sequence, the lair of a true alpha predator. Director Albert Hughes, making his solo directorial debut after doing double-duty for two decades with his brother Allen on such films as Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), From Hell (2001) and The Book of Eli (2001) enlivens a rather perfunctory ‘journey home’ plot with thrilling, vast and complex staging of the pair’s trek. He also forges a believably emotional bond between man and beast that is driven home in both personal and sociological terms in the film’s final frames.

Narratively, Alpha is a lean, small-scale friendship drama, of outcasts from their clans bonding across an interspecies divide. Cinematically and thematically, however, Hughes’ film is a grand, bold vision of the development of humankind, one that transcends its millennia-old setting and makes an entirely and passionately contemporary statement.

Wednesday
Sep122018

FIVE OF THE BEST AT SUFF 2018

For the casual festival goer, those that like to dartboard a couple of sessions on the off chance they’ll discover something new and fresh, the Sydney Underground Film Festival can be the moviegoing equivalent of a spike-pit booby-trap. You stumble unwarned into Ian Haig’s The Foaming Node (consider yourself warned) or Lucio A. Rojas’ Trauma (read our review here), nights will never be the same. So SCREEN-SPACE performs some crucial community service by casting an eye over five films landing at The Factory Theatre in the days ahead….

THE BILL MURRAY STORIES – LESSONS LEARNED FROM A MYTHICAL MAN (Dir: TOMMY AVALLONE / USA / 2018 / 70mins / Session details)
PLOT: You’ve probably heard the stories. The famously private Ghostbusters star is spotted doing dishes at a house party, serving drinks at a local bar, crashing karaoke clubs, commandeering taxis and photo-bombing wedding photos. After hearing them himself, director Tommy Avallone (pictured, above, with his star) wants a Bill Murray story of his own.
I’M WATCHING THIS BECAUSE…: Bill Murray is a God. Not the God, but… What starts as a fun, flouncy fan documentary soon becomes something…well, not quite profound, but certainly soul-enriching in the way that only looking at Bill Murray’s face can inspire. Avallone sets out to prove the validity of reported sightings of the great comic-actor at frat house parties, weddings, restaurants, garage-band jam sessions, and so on. Utilising clips from the star's films (including several from the little-seen The Razor's Edge), eyewitness accounts and fleeting glimpses of the man himself, Avallone learns some simple life lessons (evident all along to those looking hard from the very start of Murray’s career) which amount to four words: “It just doesn’t matter.” Which, actually, is quite profound.
RATING: ★
★
★
★

THE MISANDRISTS (Dir: BRUCE LA BRUCE / Canada / 2017 / 91mins / Session details)
PLOT: In an alternate reality, somewhere in Ger(wo)many, the Female Liberation Army prepares to overthrow the patriarchy with a new sort of lesbian porn that functions as propaganda for the female revolution. However, when one of the rebels takes in an injured man, hiding him in the basement of the feminist headquarters, their Army’s mission and very nature of womanhood is called into question.
I’M WATCHING THIS BECAUSE….: Anything by Canadian cage-rattler Bruce La Bruce is nothing like any other filmmaker does. The Misandrists walks dangerously close to ‘respectability’ at times – his aesthetic has cleaner lines, crisper framing, story structure that veers uncharacteristically towards (dare I say it) conventional. However, the agitator who rocked our world with the gay-horror-porn ‘classic’ LA Zombie (2010) is at his most slyly subversive and potently relevant with his latest. Stuffed with a barrage of ‘trigger-warning’ moments (gay porn, transgender surgery, Nazi imagery, sexualized religious iconography), The Misandrists is The Beguiled, directed by Bertolucci with a gun held to his head by Kathleen Hanna.
RATING: ★
★
★

SATAN’S SLAVES (Dir. JOKO ANWAR / Indonesia / 2017 / 107mins / Session details)
PLOT: Four children are left alone when their mother passes away from a mysterious illness. But soon, the orphans sense that their late mum may not have left at all; she has returned to take them back to the underworld.
I’M WATCHING THIS BECAUSE…: I like to be frightened. Joko Anwar’s remake of the 1982 Indo-horror blockbuster Pengabdi Setan (itself a local-flavour reworking of Don Cascarelli’s Phantasm), Satan’s Slaves is a supremely polished, legitimately creepy poltergeist/possession yarn that plays superbly in a packed theatre (we saw its successful screening at IFF Rotterdam earlier this year). Foregoing gore effects  in favour of foreboding dread, Anwar’s return to the horror genre (The Forbidden Door, 2009; Ritual, 2012) is a regional smash hit, opening to huge numbers in its homeland and bowing at #1 in markets such as Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore; it earned 13 nominations at the Indonesian Film Awards.
RATING: ★
★
★

CHRISTMAS BLOOD (JULEBLOD / Dir: REINERT KILL / Norway / 2017 / 104mins / Session details)
PLOT: Serial killer Nissen has a penchant for dressing as Santa, and has been haunting Norway each Christmas Eve for 13 years. He now has his eyes set on the northern countryside, just as a group of unwitting co-eds have chosen the spot for their seasonal getaway. Meanwhile, detectives Rasch and Hansen are more determined than ever to catch their bogeyman before he strikes again.
I’M WATCHING THIS BECAUSE…: I have committed my life to seeing EVERY slasher film ever made. That most favourite axe-murderer archetype – the unstoppable killing machine that strikes best on key calendar dates – gets a Nordic spin in the latest from Reinert Kiil (yep, that’s his name). Few frame a gory death with as much gruesome glee at Kiil, who already has two legitimate grindhouse cult faves to his name (F**k Norge, 2004; Whore, 2009). He slow-burns the first act of Christmas Blood, which may frustrate those on board just for the viscera, but when the blade-wielding St Nick finally gets going…well, all your Christmas killing wishes come true.
RATING: ★
★
★

BEHIND THE CURVE (Dir: DANIEL J. CLARK / USA / 2018 / 96mins / Session details)
PLOT: Flat Earthers is a term synonymous with conspiracy theorists and tin foil hat-wearing loons. In reality, this is a small but rapidly growing group that believes there is a centuries' long conspiracy to suppress the truth that the Earth is flat. Director Daniel J. Clark ventures into the midst of this community to investigate its astonishing rise, as well as the psychological foundations that keep its adherents going.
I’M WATCHING THIS BECAUSE…: Idiots should not be denied a voice just for being idiots. Clark’s study of the type of personality that commits to medieval thinking and its charismatic preaching is understated and respectful (perhaps overtly so). Much like his key subject, flat-earth poster-boy Mark Seargeant, Clark never really gets to the core of the subject (no pun intended), preferring instead to indulge in its own dance of delusion; Behind the Curve affords the movement just enough time to appear both likably real and utterly misguided. As a great philosopher once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
RATING: ★
★
★

The SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL runs September 13 to 16. Session and ticket details can be found at the official website.

Thursday
Aug232018

CHASING COMETS

Stars: Dan Ewing, John Batchelor, Isabel Lucas, Stan Walker, Rhys Muldoon, Justin Melvey, George Houvardas, Gary Eck, Peter Phelps and Beau Ryan.
Writer: Jason Stevens
Director: Jason Perini

Rating: 3/5

‘The engaging true story of a rugby league player’s faith-based search for enlightened soulfulness’ is not the opening salvo a critic expects to ever write, especially given the pre-release marketing for Chasing Comets was all boozy blokes and locker room skylarking. Yet writer Jason Stevens, whose life transformation from laddish layabout to celebrity celibate provides the basis for director Jason Perini’s likably roughhewn sports/faith dramedy, exhibits a keen eye for gentle melancholy and good-natured integrity with his debut script.

Leading man Dan Ewing progresses from playing a country footballer fighting aliens in Occupation (2018) to playing a country footballer fighting temptation in Wagga Wagga. The Home & Away heartthrob stars as the improbably named Chase Daylight, glamour boy of local bush leaguers The Comets and well on the path to first grade NRL glory. Yet ill-discipline and a tendency to be easily distracted by his hedonistic mate Rhys (Stan Walker) threatens to undo all the good faith placed in him by his single mum Mary (Deborah Galanos), manager/mentor Harry (Peter Phelps) and very patient girlfriend Brooke (Isabel Lucas).

When one indiscretion too many proves the final straw for Brooke, Chase descends into a funk that sees him benched by Coach Munsey (Peter Batchelor) and his potential begin to stagnate. At precisely the moment that Chase has a (symbolic) breakdown, up steps ‘The Rev’ (George Houvardas) who, with his daughter Dee (the lovely Kat Hoyos; pictured, below), begins to school Chase in the character building properties of Christian principles, in particular an adherence to abstinence; Chase becomes a born-again virgin. This revelation proves a giggly delight to his teammates, led by player ‘personality’ Beau Ryan (one of several real-life league cameos, including South Sydney general manager Shane Richardson and commentator Daryl ‘The Big Marn’ Brohmann, as well as Sydney socialite-types DJ Havana Brown and gossip journo Jo Casamento).

In the early ‘00s, Stevens garnered sports-page coverage and copped some infantile ridicule when his life of celibacy became public fodder. At the height of his NRL fame, the representative-level tough guy did not skirt around what it meant to be devout, but he largely refrained from religious grandstanding (despite having the sporting stature and media profile to successfully do so). His script for Chasing Comets not-so-subtly redresses that balance; there are preachy passages that will fall heavily on the ears of non-believers and those that have turned up for that blokey yarn about country league shenanigans the trailer promised.

Of course, this tendency towards message-moviemaking does not diminish its legitimacy as a solid slice of local sector filmmaking. Notably, it sits alongside J.D. Scott's Spirit of the Game (2016) as an early Australian entrant in the burgeoning ‘faith-based’ genre coming out of the U.S; Stevens and Perini’s narrative is every frame as committed to the cause as such sports-themed Christian films as the Oscar-winning The Blind Side (2009), Soul Surfer (2011), When The Game Stands Tall (2014) and Woodlawn (2015).

Steven’s screenwriting inexperience cannot be totally ignored – his women characters are largely one-note, either pitched as redemptive angels or sly temptresses; Lucas is neither, but struggles to find much to work with as the hard-done-by Brooke. Also, the production drops the ball at a couple of key moments; for some reason, Chase’s re-emergence as the town’s sporting hero is staged offscreen, the thrill of the game-winning try (surely the very moment for which these sort of films exist) left to veteran Peter Phelps to convey – while alone, listening to a radio in a Chinese restaurant.

Taking into consideration the moments when it stumbles, the most satisfying aspect of Chasing Comets is that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts; it shouldn’t work so well as a contemporary mix of small-town charm, hard man mateship and heavenly intervention, but Steven’s story certainly does.

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.