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Tuesday
Jun272017

FAGS IN THE FAST LANE

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

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

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

Rating: 2.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday
Jun182017

MIYUBI

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday
May242017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

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

Rating: 2.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

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

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Thursday
May182017

LOVE AND SAUCERS

Featuring: David Huggins.
Director: Brad Abrahams.

Rating: 4/5

Director Brad Abrahams makes a lot of smart storytelling decisions from the very first frame of his documentary Love and Saucers, an account of one man’s ongoing and intimate experiences with beings of unidentifiable origins and of the struggle to reconcile a ‘normal’ life with the intrusion of denizens from beyond our realm.   

From his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, 72 year-old artist David Huggins makes the fantastic claim directly to camera that, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial.” A natural camera presence that imparts his abduction memories with a compelling earnestness, Huggins timelines key moments from his childhood during which groups of ‘greys’, mantis-like insectoids and hairy beasts with glowing eyes would visit him on the grounds of his family home in rural Georgia. The purpose of the visitations is finally revealed when, alone in a wooded clearing, a pale-skinned seductress named Crescent engages the teenage Huggins and the coming-together of human and alien species takes place. 

Abrahams is entirely aware that such claims are usually met by the wider population with derision and only serve to conjure notions of B-movie/pop-culture silliness. His camera floating towards the front door of Huggins’ home just as the visitors might, the director’s opening salvo of imagery and audio cues embraces this cynicism, interspersing recollections of the encounters with zooms and jump-cuts that play like comic-book panels.

He reveals that Huggins is a sci-fi nerd, with a collection of over 2000 films (on beautiful VHS, no less), many of which deal directly with themes of alien visitation (Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, 1951), interspecies genealogy (Bernard Kowalski’s Sssssss, 1974) and otherworldly home intrusion (Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, 1944). The filmmaker almost seems to be setting his subject up for a takedown, positioning Huggins’ as a man living a sheltered life, perhaps unable to disengage from some form of childhood trauma (a boozy, womanising father who tended towards intolerance and violence is recalled).

But the Canadian-born director, who brought a level-headed decency to his 2015 swamp-monster doco short Swan Song of The Skunk Ape, has loftier ambitions than scorn and cheap thrills. As hinted at by the title, Love and Saucers is a heartfelt profile of an entirely ordinary man, albeit one whose life has been shaped by extraordinary events. Abrahams curbs the stylistic flourishes of his first act and embraces the softer, genuine emotions and real-world sensations that Huggins lives as his relationship with Crescent extends into adulthood. Although claims of hybrid children and visitation phenomena in the heart of New York City are no less astonishing, the human bond that Huggins shares with his decidedly non-human circle of friends dissolves any remaining fissure of viewer disbelief or ridicule.

Love and Saucers also speaks directly to the curative relationship between the artist and his art. Huggins recalls his relationship with the visitors via canvas, his simple yet striking surrealist oils capturing the detail behind the encounters and freeing him of deeply embedded memories. These include some graphic renditions of the intricate physical relationship he shared with Crescent; the X-rated Files, as it were.

Abrahams doesn’t ignore the abduction phenomena, acknowledging that much of the imagery and emotions that Huggins imparts is common amongst abductees. The production references the works of the late author and experiencer expert Budd Hopkins and the observations of Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Texas’ Rice University to give credence to the details in Huggins’ recollections and to counter any concern that his beliefs are the result of emotional or psychological stresses.

Ultimately, these sequences merely enhance the purely humanistic perspective that Abrahams seems most determined to impart. As intrinsically fascinating as first person accounts of extra-terrestrial interaction prove to be, it is how one man has dealt with such moments that most enthuse the filmmaker. In a film with an act of intergalactic seduction at its core, it may be the image of an elderly man sitting contentedly in a car after his first gallery showing that resonates most profoundly.

Love and Saucers: Trailer from Brad Abrahams on Vimeo.

 

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Monday
May012017

EVENT ZERO

Stars: Ash Ricardo, Zoe Carides, Paul Ayre, Andy Rodoreda, Anna Houston, Raelee Hill, Harry Pavlidis, Yure Covich, Alan Lovell and Nicholas Hope.
Writers: Greta Harrison and Matthew C. Vaughan

Director: Enzo Tedeschi

WORLD PREMIERE. Reviewed April 30 at the The Arts Centre Gold Coast, as the Closing Night film of the 2017 Gold Coast Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

The crisp, crackling action pulse of Enzo Tedeschi’s hugely enjoyable directorial debut Event Zero is destined to satisfy genre fans, who will inevitably gravitate towards its slick production values and relentless pace on streaming platforms globally. Unexpectedly but no less deservedly will be the following it engenders amongst arthouse audiences, primarily those attuned to the acid-tongued skewering of the Harbour City’s shallower end of society and the darker, more disturbing shades of modern political immorality.

Tedeschi and his scripters Greta Harrison and Matthew C Vaughan (tellingly, both Melbournians) open with a blast of purely kinetic cinema, staging a train wreck within Sydney’s subterranean transport grid that unleashes a deadly viral strain. The director is clearly at home in the electrified dark of the underground; he produced Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 found-footage shocker The Tunnel. Tedeschi and his co-writer on the hit film, Julian Harvey, formed the ‘Event Zero’ timeline in the narrative’s previous incarnation as an award-winning 2012 web-series.

Tedeschi utilises multi-tiered character arcs to paint a picture of how the modern Australian metropolis reacts under threat. Spearheading the local government response is Deputy Premier Pamela Laird (Zoe Carides), an idealistic presence faced with the big business influence of altogether untrustworthy powerbroker Langston Charlesworth (Nicholas Hope). Swept up in the tragedy is middle-class dad Jack Winston (Andy Rodoreda), who is left a widower by the outbreak, and whose grief is co-opted by self-serving anti-Muslim agitator Dave Colton (Yure Covich, charmingly despicable in the pic’s best performance).

The heroine that binds the sweeping, occasionally manic story threads is fiery, tough-talking AFP officer Leyla Nassar (a terrific Ash Ricardo), who finds herself entwined in the high-stakes drama when her Muslim leader father Yusuf (Harry Pavlidis) is mistakenly labelled the ‘terrorist’ responsible for the attack. The narrative maintains a compelling momentum, establishing dramatic tensions that suit both the effective use of genre tropes and the deeper thematic questions it poses. Tedeschi plays loose and fast with logic at times and some plotting requires that leap-of-faith moment reliant upon audience goodwill, but so relentless is the action one can’t begrudge the production a few cut corners.  

The inordinately smart subtext at play in Event Zero is most clearly personified in the form of Nick Maricic’s douchey hipster influencer, Pax. The characterisation is broadly comical, that kind of ‘plot device’ voice that can steal scenes when played to the hilt (Brad Pitt in True Romance; Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights), and Maricic gives it his all. But Pax is more than just ‘comic relief’; he is an easily identifiable Sydney archetype. As is Covich’s racist mouthpiece; or, Raelee Hill’s brazenly ambitious political PA; or, Alan Lovell’s greasy palm cop boss; or, Anna Houston’s fear-mongering TV hostess, Elizabeth Haines (a sly dig at 60 Minutes’ matriarch, Liz Hayes?). Although pieces of an action movie puzzle, the characters in fact serve to potently mirror the moral emptiness of modern Sydney’s social and political fabric.

Most profoundly, Event Zero has taken on a perspective that the director and his team could not have envisioned. Tedeschi stages chilling moments of racially motivated violence, of social deconstruction brought upon by nationalistic fervour; the script conjures a world of heartless men performing heinous deeds to further privilege and entitlement. As recently as only a few years ago, this imagined world could only believably exist within the construct of a breathlessly staged genre movie scenario; in 2017, that scenario has become inconceivably real in light of the Trump/Brexit/Alt Right new world order. The film never fully forgoes its primary aim of being rattling good popular entertainment, but timeliness has afforded Event Zero a pertinence that it embraces with a loud, coherent voice.

 

Friday
Apr072017

DANCE ACADEMY

Stars: Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Thomas Lacey, Alicia Banit, Dena Kaplan, Keiynan Lonsdale, Nic Westaway, Tara Morce, Julia Blake and Miranda Otto.
Writer: Samantha Strauss
Director: Jeffery Walker.

Rating: 4/5

Balancing the expectations of small-screen fans and bigscreen newcomers as deftly as a well-executed arabesque, Dance Academy lovingly follows the cherub-faced teens of Australia’s internationally popular TV series (2010-2013) as they rite-of-passage into the realities of reconciling artistic dreams with the onset of young adulthood. Destined to be a slumber-party staple for years to come, the combination of an engaging young cast, moving and understated melodrama and sensationally staged dance sequences make for a commercially potent package.

In the 18 months since the class graduated from National Academy of Dance, fortunes have varied for the key characters. Tara (a terrific Xenia Goodwin) has struggled to recover physically and mentally from a crippling back injury; her bf Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) has channelled his passion into the next generation of dancers, tutoring a harbourside dance class; Abigail (Dena Kaplan) is determinedly sticking to her dreams of dancing lead for the National Ballet Company under ice-queen Madeline Moncure (Miranda Otto, playing to the back row as the film’s closest thing to a villain); and, bombshell Kat (Alicia Banit) has found stardom in the US.

Having knocked back a million dollar payout for her injuries, Tara gambles on her dream and heads to New York where she reconnects with Kat and fallen teen idol Ollie (Keiynan Lonsdale), whose been reduced to the same round of thankless chorus auditions as Tara must endure. It takes the reappearance of series’ favourite Ben (Thomas Lacey), whose own plight puts all other concerns in perspective and refocusses the chemistry and dynamic of the group, to help Tara redefine her goals and ambitions. Oz acting greats Julia Blake and, fittingly, Tara Morice, star of the iconic 1992 dance pic Strictly Ballroom, impact in support roles.


In the hands of alumni helmer Jeffery Walker (director of 8 episodes) and writer and co-creator Samantha Strauss (scribe of 23), this exercise in brand upsizing avoids any notion of ‘cynical cash-in’ by affectionately crafting warmly relatable characters and a (mostly) believable narrative. Australian cinema has a chequered past with TV-to-film reworkings. Michael Carson’s Police Rescue (1994) embraced the larger canvas, resulting in a pleasing if low-key actioner and the late Steve Irwin’s daft family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) was pleasing enough, but more often adaptations resemble stitched-together episodes (Number 96, 1974) or, worse yet, risible misfires that kill off any lingering goodwill (Kath and Kimderella, 2012).

While maintaining the heart that helped make it a small-screen hit, Dance Academy looks every bit the sumptuous bigscreen drama. The film is rich in tech assets, with the dance-friendly widescreen cinematography of 47-episode veteran Martin McGrath (Proof, 1991; Muriel’s Wedding, 1994; Swimming Upstream, 2003), original score by Oscar-nominated David Hirschfelder (Shine, 1996; Elizabeth, 1998) and the precise editing of Nikola Krulj and Geoffrey Lamb all strengthening the legitimate franchise potential. It is a clearly achievable goal, with every frame exhibiting the same crowd-pleasing qualities as profitable properties Pitch Perfect and Step Up.

Saturday
Apr012017

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Featuring: Mark Henderson, Sibylle Günter, Eric Lerner and Michael Lebarge.
Writer/director: Mila Aung-Thwin.

Rating: 4/5

Harnessing the power of the very star that ensures our planet’s survival provides a captivating premise for Mila Aung-Thwin’s documentary, Let There Be Light. Following driven, visionary scientists as they work towards the long-term goal of a global energy grid powered by hydrogen fusion technology, the Canadian-based filmmaker has crafted an elegant, insightful and entertaining work of understated urgency.

That urgency is conveyed in Aung-Thwin’s opening salvo of images. The sun is seen as a perfectly spherical mass, fizzing with energy. The clearly defined edge of our galaxy’s largest object is a stylistic representation that recalls the smallest - the atom, the building block of life. The director then morphs a series of earthbound images that mirror the same round shape, drone-shot from high above in an effective application of the ‘God’s Eye View’ camera perspective.

The message is clear; as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, the implementation of new, clean energies is an issue of biblical importance. Look no further than the film’s title for further evidence of that.

 
The primary focus is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (I.T.E.R.), a massive undertaking that has drawn together great thinkers from 37 countries. The international body must solve the mammoth logistical and scientific task of constructing ‘Tokamak’, an ‘artificial sun’ that creates magnetically-charged hydrogen gas via the smashing together of immense heat and chilled water. The passion to find a fusion-based solution to our energy concerns is captured not only in the dedicated ITER team but also in their interaction with the fusion scientists working on the W7-X Stellerator, under the brilliant German physicist Sibylle Günter, and smaller-scale operations whose often eccentric but brilliant overseers are just as obsessed with the end goal.       

Tech talk is kept concise and focussed, the production more concerned with the scale of the undertaking and the personalities involved than providing tuition in thermonuclear physics. Aung-Thwin and his DOP/co-director Van Royko find beauty in the most unexpected places; amidst the steel and concrete vastness of the ITER construction site, chief scientist Mark Henderson connects with the workers who don’t fully understand what it is they are building but find pride knowing it is for future generations the world over. Man’s long struggle to conquer fusion practicalities dates back decades, a history captured in beautifully animated interstitials. 

Most rewardingly, Let There Be Light deals with the intellect of our finest minds in a warmly humanistic manner, with special regard for the hope they afford future generations. As one learned participant states with resonance, “We have to prove we have the intelligence to prevent our own extinction.” The stakes are high; not just for the ITER team, who deal daily with the pressures of commanding one of mankind’s most expensive scientific experiments but also for the population of Earth, whose survival depends upon the understanding, acceptance and implementation of a clean, renewable fuel source.