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Wednesday
Dec122018

UNDER THE COVER OF CLOUD

Stars: Ted Wilson, Colleen Wilson, Louis Modeste-Leroy, Jessie Wilson and David Boon.
Writer/Director: Ted Wilson.

Screening at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 10-25.

Rating: ★★★½

A bighearted ode to the often-satirised middle-class white suburban upbringing, multi-hyphenate Ted Wilson has crafted a warm, winning low-key gem of a movie in Under the Cover of Cloud. A largely-improvised drama about a writer’s struggle to find inspiration, starring the director’s family and shot verite-style in the suburbs of Tasmania, this meandering yet meaningful take on the ties that bind will reward those seeking a different sort of cinema experience.   

Physically recalling the Matt Day/John Polson type of understated leading man, Wilson plays a journo suddenly without a steady paycheck, facing what he senses is a turning point in his professional development. When that proves all too much for him to deal with (by mid-opening credits), he heads south deciding to write a book about his home state’s best Test cricket batsmen (perhaps a sly joke for cricket lovers, as there haven’t been too many top order players from The Apple Isle).

In a manner that recalls the free-form storytelling styles of Henry Jaglom and John Cassavettes, Wilson re-engages with his mum, siblings and their spouses, niece and nephew toddlers, in scene after scene that seem to be largely about family matters, good memories and happy times. Frankly, a couple of crying 4 year-olds aside, every one seems to be pretty happy in Under the Cover of Cloud (although the title, which certainly corresponds with Tassie’s chilly grey pallor, might also symbolise Wilson’s depressed mood).

Neither Wilson nor his narrative seem to be particularly interested in the book project; he asks every one he knows if they can connect him with Tassie cricketing icon David Boon, which sums up the plot. At one point, the dishevelled author-to-be (who seems to have only bought the clothes he travelled in) sits down to start work, until distracted by chickens. Wilson’s film is not about writer's block or the struggle to create, but about shared moments with loved ones that coalesce as a portrait of a man's formative years. He picks lemons with his mother, plays board games with his sister, digs in the sand with his nephews; these are the daily events that refocus a soul chewed up and spat back from the mainland.

Detractors will say the film resembles an essay on entitlement; Wilson constantly seeks reassurance and aid from his family, who also offer free board (despite his complaints about a cold room) and plenty of meals, while gracing everyone around him with observations on their lives. That he emerges as an empathic and relatable leading character (and man) is arguably one of the film’s more remarkable achievements.

The end justifies the means in Under the Cover of Cloud. There is too much sincerity, charm and insight in Wilson’s family dynamic for cynicism to derail his film. A final frame dedication, which crystallizes the writer/director’s motivation, is a heart-tugger; it provides an added dimension of bittersweet melancholy that reveals what an extraordinary collection of ordinary people The Wilson clan truly are.

Thursday
Nov292018

FIRST LIGHT

Stars: Stefanie Scott, Théodore Pellerin, Saïd Taghmaoui, Percy Hynes White, Jahmil French, James Wotherspoon and Kate Burton.
Writer/director: Jason Stone.

Reviewed at Monster Fest 2018 at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova on November 23.

WINNER: Best International Film, Monster Fest 2018

Rating: ★★★★

Millennial types that stare blank-faced and shrug when you mention the great films of 1970s Hollywood make a grab at one the decade’s best with First Light. In Jason Stone’s low-key, highly charged UFO drama, an alien encounter imbues an everyday suburbanite with an inexplicable connection to lights in the sky. Whether you know it or not, kids, you’ve now got your own generation’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic featured a thirty-something Richard Dreyfuss as a contactee strangely obsessed with visions of a distant mountain. ‘Thirty-something’ protagonists are way too old for the modern movie audience (unless they are comic-book hero alter-egos), so a savvy Stone has recast his lead as high-schooler Alex (Stefanie Scott). Also, ‘strange obsessions’ are hard to conjure, even for the modern effects wiz; having survived a near drowning via the visitation of glowing orb entities, Alex doubles-down on that distant yearning with telekinetic powers (good, especially when called upon flip ex-boyfriend’s cars) and high-radiation levels (bad, especially for…well, everybody).

Along for the ride is Sean (Théodore Pellerin), the audience conduit whose doe-eyed, unshakeable commitment to Alex provides the emotional core of Stone’s narrative. Scenes of the young man’s home life establish him as a teen of integrity and character; parent-less, he hangs with his smart-mouth, street-wise younger brother Oscar (a scene-stealing Percy Hynes White) and cares for his near-catatonic grandmother, whose arc is small but provides one of the year’s great movie moments.

Sean yearns for the closeness he shared with Alex once before, a wish that is granted after her near-death encounter, the bubbly teen queen now a sullen, silent introvert, clearly not herself. The pair are drawn into a chase drama enabled by rogue UFO chaser Cal (Said Taghmaoui) and driven by Federal agency head Kate (Kate Burton), their open road odyssey affording the actors space to build a warm, sincere chemistry. It also allows a further ironic nod to old-school Hollywood - Sean compares their plight to Bonnie and Clyde, to which Alex replies, “I don’t know who that is.” 

Stone opens on some thrill-inducing images of the orbs illuminating the early evening sky, before settling into a long passage of character definition and tension building - another common trait it shares with CE3K. If Stones skimps on the grand effects sequences that made Spielberg’s work so memorable, Stone doesn’t let us forget that his characters are always being watched. His expert use of drone footage to capture the ‘God’s eye’ perspective, or more precisely that of the inhabitants of the orbs, represents some of the most effective creative use of the technology yet.

In working through Spielberg’s familiar story beats, First Light plays like an American-indie-meets-X-Files spin on Romeo & Juliet; there are also some unmissable nods to John Carpenter’s Starman and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (two more ‘oldies’ the target audience won’t know), as well the inevitable and not unfounded YA comparisons that pitch it as, though remarkably better than, the Twilight series.

Also like Spielberg’s film, momentum drags a little in its third act when the G-men and their tech take over the film. It’s a minor period of disconnect in a film that mostly feels gritty, human and real, despite its otherworldly premise. First Light builds to a soaring denouement (pumped by some demographic-appropriate musical accompaniment from M83’s ‘Outro’) that reassures the audience that, in this world or beyond, we are not alone.

Friday
Nov232018

NIGHTMARE CINEMA

Stars: Mickey Rourke, Sarah Elizabeth Withers, Faly Rakotohavana, Maurice Benard, Elizabeth Reaser, Zarah Mahler, Mark Grossman, Eric Nelsen, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley and Annabeth Gish.
Writers: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril, David Slade and Lawrence C. Connolly.
Directors: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura and David Slade.

Screening at Monster Fest VII on Friday November 23 at Cinema Nova, Carlton.

Rating: ★★★★

The five-part anthology Nightmare Cinema continues co-producer Mick Garris’ dark obsession with short-form film narrative, the kind that he ushered to cult status as the driving force behind the TV series Masters of Horror. Rife with a degree of references, homages and nods that only a super-fan will fully appreciate, Garris has corralled a rogue’s gallery of international horror director heavyweights, resulting in a stylistically diverse creep show but one that sustains the shared goal of chills, thrills and giggles.

The deceptively simple premise features five would-be protagonists who stumble/are drawn into an empty picture palace, where visions of their own demise unfold before them based upon horror sub-genres. Argentinian filmmaker Alejandro Brugués (Juan of The Dead, 2011; ABCs of Death 2, 2014) starts the party with ‘The Thing in The Woods’, hurling young actress Sarah Elizabeth Withers into her own Friday the 13th–inspired battle for survival. Costumed to recall franchise favourite Kirsten Baker and facing off against a high-concept villain called ‘The Welder’ (Eric Nelsen), Withers (pictured, below) proves a good sport when the going gets gruesome, her director changing tact at the midway point from slasher tropes to something else entirely.

Brugues’ segment is a loving nod to 80s VHS nasties and could just as satisfyingly been conjured from the mind of longtime Garris cohort, Joe Dante. The beloved director of The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987) instead opts for a horror hospital riff called ‘Mirari’, in which a scarred woman (Zarah Mahler) reluctantly appeases the wishes of her handsome fiancé (Mark Grossman) and undergoes reconstructive work by the hands of Richard Chamberlain’s too-charming plastic surgeon. Dante indulges in some of the film’s most icky practical effects work while displaying his skill with the short-story format; Mirari recalls the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘Eye of he Beholder’, reigniting the debate as to whether Dante or Dr George Miller delivered the very best bits of Twilight Zone The Movie (1983).

It is following Dante’s segment that we are introduced to name player Mickey Rourke as The Projectionist, a Mephistophelian figure who oversees the unspooling of each film from his darkened booth and wanders the aisles of the cinema dispensing enigmatic menace. Rourke doesn’t have a lot to work with, unfortunately; he is no Cryptkeeper, guiding the audience on their fearful journey, or voice of subtext wisdom like Rod Serling. He largely lurks, albeit with Rourke’s still potent onscreen presence.

Nightmare Cinema settles into its truly horrifying groove with segments three and four, the most fearlessly ambitious of the compendium. In ‘Mashit’, Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura (Versus, 2000; Azumi, 2003; The Midnight Meat Train, 2008) unleashes the titular demon (pictured, top) on a morally corrupt Catholic school. The insidious Father Benedict (Maurice Bernard) and the nun-led-astray Sister Patricia (Mariela Garriga) are no match for a dorm of possessed children led by a horned, malformed deity from Hell or a director who can deftly deliver a jump-cut scare.

Hollywood’s most under-valued horror director, David Slade (Hard Candy, 2005; 30 Days of Night, 2007) provides the psychologically troubling vision, ‘This Way to Egress’. Shot in richly textured black-&-white, it stars Elizabeth Reaser (pictured, above; currently seen in the hit Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House) as a mother of two brattish boys slowly losing her mind in the waiting room of her ‘specialist’, Dr Salvador (Adam Goodley). As time passes, the pristine office surrounds become overwhelmed by a dark filth; the faces of those that she passes in the halls grow increasingly deformed. Slades’ film is a masterful take on mental health, depression, social disconnection; while it foregoes the visceral horror of the film to this point, it is a warped walk in a convincingly disturbing, Cronenberg-esque realm.

Finally, Garris himself steps into the director’s chair for ‘Death’, in which musical prodigy Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) starts to see dead people as he recovers in (another) creepy hospital ICU after a carjacking that claimed his parents. Hunted by the murderer (Orson Chaplin) and haunted by his mother (Annabeth Gish), Riley’s plight in the hands of Rakotohavana proves not only thoroughly creepy but also surprisingly moving; Garris nods to The Sixth Sense perhaps once too often, but does so with heart and conviction.

The all-encompassing title implies a genre of its own, so it is fitting that so much of Nightmare Cinema draws from then reinterprets the horror visions of filmmakers that have gone before, delivered by Garris and his peers with a true understanding of a horror fan’s fixation.

Wednesday
Nov142018

LETO (SUMMER)

Stars: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roma Zver, Filipp Avdeev, Alexandr Gorchilin, Alexander Kuznetsov, Nikita Efremov, Julia Aug, Elena Koreneva, Lia Akhedzhakova, Anton Adasinskyi and Vasiliy Mikhailov.
Writers: Kirill Serebrennikov, Michael Idov and Lily Idova.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Reviewed at the 2018 Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney; named the festival’s Best New Russian Film, 2018.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Evoking memories of a pre-Perestroika Russia where the youthful masses were unified and energised in their defiance of authority by the driving beats of a post-punk early-80s Leningrad music scene, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto is a free-wheeling, free-spirited, bittersweet remembrance of the people and passion that defined the decade for many young Soviets.

A pure celebration of driven talent and the transformative power of music, the latest from the provocative director of The Student (2016) proves a stirring ode to the subversive. Whether deconstructing the staid conventions of the ‘musical biopic’ or symbolically reacting against the Kremlin’s suppression of socially-conscious art, Serebrennikov and co-writers Michael Idov and Lily Idova have crafted a thrilling, relevant and deeply moving work despite, or perhaps because of, a narrow narrative focus.

The film follows three key figures in the thriving if heavily policed Leningrad music scene – the lead singer of hard-edged rock band Zoopark, Mike Naumenko (real-life rocker Roma Zver); his wife and muse, Natalya (the wonderful Irina Starshenbaum); and, charismatic singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoï (the striking German-born, Korean-based Teo Yoo). All became iconic figures in Russian pop culture - Tsoï would front the group Kino and pen the battle cry of the Perestroika movement,  ‘Khochu peremen (I Want Change)’; Serebrennikov’s film, named after Zoopark’s biggest hit, is loosely based upon Natalya’s best-selling memoir.

Their interactions don’t amount to searing drama. Mike recognizes Viktor’s talent and wants to share in his growth as a musician; Natalya, like anyone in Viktor’s realm, finds herself attracted to him; Mike sees out his wife’s attraction to Viktor, openly encouraging her to not deny natural feelings. The men write songs; Natalya balances a rock-wife lifestyle with a mother’s responsibilities; the trio, with some eccentric band mates in tow and the authorities watching their every move, strive to create, be seen, build a life together.

However, framed within DOP Vladislav Opelyants’ gorgeous monochromatic widescreen lens and exuding their enigmatic ‘rock star’ charisma in all its compelling glory, the audience investment in the intertwining lives and burgeoning creativity of the trio is profound. Most affecting is Starshenbaum as Natalya; the actress (bearing a remarkable resemblance to American star Mary Elizabeth Winstead) conveys both a strength and sensitivity that makes her central role as an inspiration for those around her entirely believable. Natalya’s own longing and determined path, when it emerges from beneath the self-absorbed creative destinies of the men in her life, proves deeply moving.

Dramatic impetus aside, the film is at its most engaging when it embraces its musical influences (notably Bowie, Blondie, T-Rex, though many are referenced). Defining songs of the period are reworked as musical numbers, at the indulgence of the characters and often sung by random strangers who drift in, then out of frame. Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ becomes a fierce, fantastic number set on a train carriage; Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ is belted out by bus commuters as Viktor and Natalya take in the city. A great sequence, set to Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, sees Michael envision classic album covers of the day brought to life by his friends and family in splashes of Super-8 colour footage.

There is a sprawling sense of time and place to Leto, which blows out the running to over two hours, yet there is not a frame of the film one would want to see excised. The anti-establishment themes and love-conquers-all story beats inherent to the rock/pop biopic genre have been previously explored in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), but rarely with such heartfelt melancholy, pained romanticism and evocative rendering of time and place.

The sly subversion that gives the film its bite has come at a price; Kirill Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since August 2017 for his perceived anti-Putin stance (the director could not attend the film’s Cannes premiere in May). While the authorities endeavor to stifle his political voice, his art and skill as a great movie storyteller speaks very loudly on his behalf.

         

Wednesday
Oct312018

THE SOUL CONDUCTOR

Stars: Aleksandra Bortich, Evgeniy Tsyganov, Vladimir Yaglych, Aleksandr Robak, Vasiliy Bochkaryov and Ekaterina Rokotova.
Writers: Anna Kurbatova and Aleksandr Topuriya.
Director: Ilya S. Maksimov.

Screening at the 2018 Russian Resurrection Film Festival. Venue and session information available here.

Rating: ★★★★

The ties that bind us beyond the grave are explored within a thrilling supernatural framework in Ilya S. Maksimov’s The Soul Conductor (Provodnik). A ghost story that relies less on the ‘boo!’ factor and more on the haunting sadness of a life left incomplete, this high-end commercial entry from the Russian offices of 20th Century Fox offers both pensive, thoughtful meditation on regret and memory as well as spectacularly realised and chilling moments of modern movie horror.

Emerging star Aleksandra Bortich plays hardened 20-something Katya, a young woman not only able to see dead people but forced to co-exist with three desperate souls (Aleksandr Robak, Vasiliy Bochkaryov, Ekaterina Rokotova) who randomly materialise, often with their own agendas. Katya is also haunted by the grief of family tragedy; she was orphaned following a car accident that claimed both her parents, and is left shattered when her twin sister disappears, occasionally visiting Katya as an ethereal vision.

On top of all this burdensome emotional and supernatural baggage, Katya is drawn back to a decrepit mansion where, as a little girl, she witnessed an act of violent demonic transference (hence the title). The entity may have been responsible for the deaths of three young woman, blonde and blue-eyed like our protagonist, and Katya establishes an uneasy alliance with boozy career-detective Kapkov (Evgeniy Tsyganov) to bring about the beast’s downfall.

Bortich is a compelling presence, playing sweet and strong, damaged and defiant, with confidence and charisma that ought to be noticed by Hollywood suits keen to establish a new YA heroine figure (the 'Russian Jennifer Lawrence' tag is unavoidable). Scripted by Anna Kurbatova and Aleksandr Topuriya, The Soul Conductor affords the actress a multi-dimensional character the likes of which only emerges in those genre films with thematic weight to distill. The intrusion of memories into real life and the associated terror, grief and regret are played out convincingly by the 24 year-old Belarusian actress, who must also front up for the arduous physical acting required of a female lead battling a serial killer/satanic force.

The redemptive arc of the narrative is no surprise, but director Ilya S. Maksimov is making his film directorial debut after a decade in television, where clear, precise storytelling is a virtue; his skill at nailing strong story beats and maximising every frames potential is to the pics benefit. All other department heads under his watch provide slick, professional service, especially DOP and long-time collaborator Yuri Bekhterev, whose imagery is often breathtakingly lovely given the dark material.

Monday
Oct222018

SPITFIRE

It is arguably the greatest flying machine in aviation history; an instantly recognizable form that changed the course and ultimately the outcome of the greatest conflict in human history. The development, impact and legacy of the iconic British fighter plane is explored in Spitfire, a documentary by David Fairhead and Ant Palmer that will screen at the 2018 Veterans Film Festival on November 3 ahead of an Australian release on November 15 via Rialto Distribution. Guest columnist ADAM LUNNEY is the author of the new book Ready to Strike, a detailed account of the 453 RAAF Squadron, the Australians who flew Spitfires over the Normandy battlefront. SCREEN-SPACE invited him to cast an expert’s eye over the documentary for an informed perspective…

Spitfire: it’s more than just a word. The feature documentary Spitfire goes a long way towards illustrating why.

It opens with clouds and a blue sky, the English countryside – you’re flying, but are you in the Spitfire, or is it out there somewhere, hunting you? Soon enough the answer comes, as a Spitfire appears from the right. There is no sound but the whisper of air. What comes next is what people sometimes travel the world for. Thousands of people at airshows wait in total silence when they know a Spitfire is coming because a Spitfire is not just a word or a plane – it’s also a sound. Low and distant to start, but then growing, as if the pilot’s accelerating towards you. The combined roar and whine of the Merlin engine is loud and beautiful, then it passes. When the silence returns, you know that was worth waiting for.

The first words spoken in the documentary are from well-known Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot (and author) Geoffrey Wellum: “You can’t fly a Spitfire and forget about it. Stays with you forever.” Through the narrative and wonderful aerial shots blending wartime and contemporary footage, Spitfire doesn’t just tell you about the plane, it shows you.

The soundtrack is gentle. As much as a rousing Battle of Britain orchestral piece can get the blood pumping, these veterans are more contemplative, so the music is soft throughout, while the Merlin (or Griffon) engine is often the main accompaniment.

Lest everyone become too misty-eyed and romantic we are also reminded that, “You are aware that the purpose of this plane was to shoot and kill. It’s a killing machine.” There is, of course, no point being a fighter pilot if you can’t hit anything. These are just the first few minutes of the documentary, and like a pilot experiencing their first skyward ascent in a Spitfire – you’ll be hooked.

The documentary covers the development of the Spitfire and has the only remaining recording of the man responsible for it: Reginald Mitchell. There is footage from the seaplane races that led to its creation and we’re taken through the war and the evolution of the Spitfire. The story lingers almost a bit too long on the Battle of Britain, before moving on to Malta and Normandy. Here there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment for Australian viewers. The aircraft having the famous black and white ‘invasion’ or ‘D-Day’ stripes is from our own 453 Squadron, and at least two of the pilots at the scene of the briefing which follows are from the same squadron.  

Throughout, footage is blended from wartime manufacturing and modern assembly of virtually the same equipment – a reminder that they live on, as should the memories of those who built, maintained and flew them. There is something here for young and old, the pedantic and patriotic.

The legend of the Spitfire is said to be a post-war creation. It’s perhaps a way of saying thank you. Already, three of the veterans featured in this documentary have passed away. Marvel at their deeds and words.  How can so many feelings and memories be encompassed in a word? Spitfire.

Adam Lunney holds a Master of Arts (Military History) from U.N.S.W. College at the Australian Defence Force Academy, is a Friend of the Australian War Memorial and a member of the Spitfire Association (Australia). Ready to Strike, his first book, will have its Official Launch in conjunction with the Veterans Film Festival screening of Spitfire at the Capitol Theatre in Manuka, A.C.T. on November 3

Veterans Film Festival ticket and session details are available here; Ready to Strike can be ordered here.

©Content may be re-used in part or full with an accompanying acknowledgement crediting 'author Adam Lunney' and original source 'Screen-Space'.

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.