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Tuesday
Oct152019

IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS

Featuring: Cassandra Peterson, John Carpenter, Heather Langenkamp, Keith David, Bill Moseley, Jeffery Coombs, Caroline Williams, Barbara Crampton, Alex Winter, Kane Hodder, Katie Featherston, Diana Prince, Nick Castle, Joe Dante, Kelli Maroney, Tom Holland, Greg Nicotero, Tom Atkins, Doug Bradley, Mick Garris, Stuart Gordon, Don Mancini, Sean S. Cunningham, James A. Janisse and Larry Cohen.
Writer/Director: David A. Weiner

Reviewed on Sunday October 13 at the Australian Premiere at Cinema Nova as part of Fangoria x Monster Fest 2019 | Melbourne.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The daunting four-hour fan-doc In Search of Darkness plays more like an introduction to the era when horror ruled than an academic deep-dive into the VHS vaults of yesteryear some may have hoped for. Director David A. Weiner’s epic effort is the factual film equivalent of a non-stop tour-bus ride, hurtling past monuments of the genre’s 80s heyday (“Look everyone! The Howling! And over there, Childs Play”), with many worthy of mention getting lost along the way.  

The mixed bag of contributors include period-appropriate talking heads, recalling their biggest hits; the gorehound minds behind Fangoria, Cinemassacre, et al; and, (mostly) irony-free millennial types who oversee horror sites, fanzines and podcasts. For the hardcore fans who can rattle off their favourite Freddy kills or Vorhees eviscerations, the collective banter and steady stream of clips will be fun but a tad too familiar; those just beginning their love affair with the likes of Brian Yuzna, Sean S. Cunningham and Stuart Gordon will likely derive the most joy.

The first in the director’s planned series of ‘In Search of…’ retrospectives (next, an ‘action heroes’ reverse-angle), …Darkness works through the 1980s year-by-year, with the occasional detour into subsets that touch on such defining influences as Reaganomics, the home-video boom, the MTV/HBO influence and AIDS. Also spotlighted are such genre trends as 3D gimmickry, ‘holiday horror’ and the effects industry coming-of-age.

Each ‘year’ offers up a grab bag of title profiles, and Wiener brings some freshness to his analysis of true cult items such as Basket Case, Night of The Comet, Chopping Mall and My Bloody Valentine. But he spends a big chunk of the 260 minutes going over inferior sequels, the Stephen King oeuvre and works already microscoped ad infinitum (we love Gremlins, of course, but even Joe Dante must be struggling for new angles to explore).

Wiener has worn many caps as a player in the LA scene, notably as the executive editor of the iconic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Clearly the role afforded him contact with many of the great personalities of 80s horror, so it comes as somewhat of a letdown that his roster of on-screen talent are such always-up-for-a-chat types as Mick Garris, Kane Hodder, Cassandra Peterson, Lloyd Kaufman, Bill Moseley and commentator Joe Bob Briggs. Each is always a compelling orator, but they have all orated a lot in recent years; when Mark Hartley reinvigorated the retro-doc format a decade ago with the inside-Ozploitation classic Not Quite Hollywood, the podcast wave had yet to mine and re-mine the quality talent pool.  

There are certainly highlights and insights – acknowledgement of the turning point for the genre that Kubrick’s The Shining represented; a cranky John Carpenter relating how he lost the Firestarter gig; a delightful Barbara Crampton recalling that moment from Re-Animator; BTS-giants Mark Shostrom (make-up on Evil Dead II and ...Elm Street’s 2 & 3) and Graham Humphreys (legendary poster artist); and, the final filmed interviews with late genre greats Tom Atkins and Larry Cohen. But Wiener might have cast a wider net, or eased up on fringe horror names like Alex Winter (a bit player in The Lost Boys) or 90s name Katie Featherston (Paranormal Activity).

That said, it was a blast to see the films that brought many teenage years into sharp focus getting fresh dues up on the big-screen. Once, B-movie gems like Pumpkinhead or From Beyond or Hellbound: Hellraiser II would have faded away. Like many of the films he profiles, perhaps Weiner’s mammoth undertaking will reveal its true worth in years to come, when 80s horror will need to be re-introduced to new generations. Despite its flaws, it is the work of a true fan, geared towards the like-minded. 

Friday
Oct112019

WORKING WOMAN

Stars: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen, Irit Sheleg, Dorit Lev-Ari, Gilles Ben-David and Corinne Hayat.
Writers: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad.
Director: Michal Aviad.

Rating:★  ★ ★ ½

As immediate and urgent as any film in recent memory, Michal Aviad’s Working Woman addresses the importance of the #MeToo movement in its understated but scathing depiction of sexual harassment and patriarchal dominance. As Orna, the 30-something wife and mother whose return to professional life becomes a soul crushing daily struggle with inappropriate workplace behavior, Liron Ben-Shlush superbly portrays the anxiety and heartbreak of the victimized as well as the dignity and determination to face down an attacker she must work alongside.

Orna’s commitment to family sees her re-enter the corporate sales world. While husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) struggles with his start-up restaurant, Orna finds an ally in her new employer Benny (Menashe Noy), a strong-willed, self-made 50-something real-estate executive, the kind of alpha-male boss who greets male underlings with boisterous good cheer while simply nodding towards his female workers. Benny increases Orna’s responsibilities and rewards her with travel and bonuses, but he has sinister motives; when alone after hours, he first tries to kiss her, then intimidates her with childish bullying.

The strong sense of self-worth Orna derives from her work is undermined by Benny’s manipulative cunning, but she learns to live with the imbalanced dynamic for the sake of her family. The isolation afforded by a work trip to Paris leads to Benny’s most ruthlessly predatory attack (staged with a shocking frankness) and proves the final straw for Orna, professionally and psychologically. However, she must now face judgment from Ofer, who reacts with selfish petulance when told of the assaults, as well as the very real prospect of being shunned in her industry.

The piercing humanistic precision that Michal Aviad honed with her decades as one of the world’s finest documentarians serves her well on Working Woman. The role that feminism and female representation play in forging a path for understanding and justice for all humans have been central to her work. Jenny & Jenny (1997) examined the lives of working class teenagers; Dimona Twist (2016) recounted the shocking experience of North-African women in 1950s Israel; Ever Shot Anyone? (1995) and The Women Next Door (1992) profiled women bound to the military life; and, Invisible (2011) examined rape from the survivor’s perspective.

There is a stark truthfulness to the drama and staging that recalls the best of The Dardennes Brothers and Thomas Vinterberg. The clarity with which Aviad presents Orna’s dilemma, striking a deeply personal chord in her leading lady’s performance while still capturing the universality of the experience, requires rare storytelling skill.

Recently honoured with the prestigious Ophir Award, Israel’s highest acting honour, for her complex ‘modern everywoman’ heroine, Liron Ben-Shlush is a soaring talent; there is not a false note in her interpretation of an abuse survivor rising above her pain. Her anguished silences turn to roars of defiance; Orna’s final confrontation with Benny, as understated but rewarding as all before it, plays on-screen as a rapturous taking-down of her gender’s arch nemesis. For the countless women faced with workplace discrimination and sexual misconduct every day, it may be the movie moment of 2019.

Saturday
Oct052019

TWO HEADS CREEK

Stars: Jordan Waller, Kathryn Wilder, Helen Dallimore, Gary Sweet, Kevin Harrington, Stephen Hunter, Don Bridges, Madelaine Nunn, Kent Lee, David Adlam and Kerry Armstrong.
Writer: Jordan Waller
Director: Jesse O’Brien

AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: Saturday October 12 at Cinema Nova as part of Fangoria x Monster Fest 2019 | Melbourne.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Under the guise of a raucous, bloody horror-comedy, writer/star Jordan Waller and director Jesse O’Brien nail some timely social commentary in their wildly entertaining collaboration, Two Heads Creek. A risky rumble with the Ocker archetype, the likes of which have fallen hard in the past (remember Welcome to Woop Woop?), this U.K./Australian co-production instead rips into racial stereotypes as incisively as it does muscle and bone.  

Bolstered by high-profile Oz acting talent not usually associated with this type of splattery romp, Waller and O’Brien expose the pink underbelly of systemic bigotry through broad satire, taking to it with all manner of barbed tools, literally and figuratively. At a time when the thinly disguised politics of hatred has infiltrated the mainstream, films that take the perpetrators down a peg or two are more important than ever.

In a remarkably assured left turn from his plummy work in the TV series Victoria, Waller stars as Norman, the sole remaining proprietor of a family-owned British butcher shop facing its final days. Despite his toffee Brit blonde-ness, Norman cops constant verbal and occasionally faecal abuse from his pro-Brexit working-class community (he’s Polish, it seems). When the opportunity presents itself to head Down Under and reconnect with his birth mother, he follows the spirited guidance of his fiery sister Annabelle (the terrific Kathryn Wilder, sharing convincing sibling chemistry with her co-star) and is soon in transit to the titular township.

Arriving in the rotting remnants of a once thriving rural life along with the ubiquitous Asian tour group, Annabelle and Norman soon become acquainted with the residents - boisterous blonde Apple (Helen Dallimore); her under-the-thumb hubby Noah (Kevin Harrington); displaced German aristocrat Hans (Gary Sweet); cranky old racist Uncle Morris (Don Bridges); and, effeminate publican Eric (David Adlam). The townsfolk represent the ugly elements of old Australia, an Anglo-European enclave of entitlement and inflated self-worth, ignorant of their life collapsing around them.

With only the highbrow sci-fi Arrowhead (2016) on his feature resume, O’Brien proves a naturally gifted director of anarchic yet pointed storytelling and the perfect conduit for Waller’s fish-out-of-water protagonist. By the time the third act kicks in, and thematic subtext of ugly racism meets the gory narrative trajectory of small-town cannibalism, O’Brien and Waller’s pacing and delivery is skilfully syncopated.

A smart, yet deliriously insane take on our dangerously ridiculous modern society, Two Heads Creek plays like a Monty Python-meets-Peter ‘Braindead’ Jackson reworking of Wake in Fright; a journey into the dark heart of ugly Australian culture by way of Sideshow Alley. The redemptive ray of light at the end of the horror tunnel is the notion that prejudice and intolerance can’t win and that, ultimately, ugly racism will eat itself.

Saturday
Sep282019

BETWEEN TWO FERNS: THE MOVIE

Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, Edi Patterson and Jiavani Linayao.
Featuring: Will Ferrel, Matthew McConaughey, Keanu Reeves, Chance the Rapper, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, John Cho, Brie Larson, David Letterman, Paul Rudd, Chrissy Tiegen, John Legend, Jon Hamm, Hailee Steinfeld, Awkwafina, Tiffany Haddish, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson, Peter Dinklage and Gal Gadot.
Writer/director: Scott Aukerman.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The centrepiece success story of the Funny or Die comedy site transfers to the bigger small-screen with everybody associated doing as little as possible to make it a success. Which sounds like a bash, but it isn’t; frontman Zach Galifianakis and director Scott Aukerman have got this insult-interview schtick down-pat and, with a by-the-numbers road-trip half-plot as a framework, they deliver the laughs and a little extra for the fans.

Eleven years after it transitioned from a bit-skit on Aukerman’s unrealised comedy pilot The Right Now! Show into a web-sensation (first guest – Michael Cera), Between Two Ferns finds itself ideally suited to the streaming-platform popularity surge. There is not enough substance to the finished feature to suggest it would have made the leap to the bigscreen, as many Saturday Night Live properties did back in the day (most without enough substance either, to be fair). BTF:The Movie is a bread-&-butter Netflix initiative, the kind of fan-service concept reworking that will keep bums on couches.

The ‘Zach Galifianakis’ of Between Two Ferns doesn’t have the breakout Hollywood hit The Hangover to his name; he is a North Carolina local-cable identity somehow capable of pulling the likes of Barack Obama, Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron onto his low-rent chat show. When a plumbing issue nearly kills Matthew McConaughey and all but destroys the studios of FPA-TV, the head of Funny or Die, a coked-up Gordon Gekko-esque version of ‘Will Ferrel’ (Will Ferrel) has had enough. FOD sets new terms; 10 new BTF interviews in 2 weeks and they’ll bankroll Galafaniakis’ dream gig – a late night talker all his own – but if he fails, he’ll be cut loose.

With a team of three in tow – producer/PA with a heart of gold, Carol (the lovely Lauren Lapkus); irritable cameraman, Cam (Ryan Gaul); and, soundie ‘Boom’ (Jiavani Linayao) – they undertake the journey to LA, endeavouring to secure talent along the way. The road-movie tropes soon kick-in; time in the car allows for some character building, with Galifianakis peeling back some personal layers of his alter ego. It is all perfunctory banter, never particularly engaging or insightful, but it does provide time for Aukerman to pace his comedy beats into feature length (just, at 82 minutes).

Most importantly, nothing about the expanded format dilutes the hilarity of the inappropriate interviews. Best of them is David Letterman in full-beard (“Crystal-meth Santa Claus”), Keanu Reeves (“Out of 100, how many words do you know?”) and Benedict Cumberbatch (“Do people think you’re a good actor because of your accent?”).

As expected, the end-credit outtakes represent the funniest sequence in the film, but it also undoes the conceit; both Zach and his guests regularly crack up, revealing the degree of performance actually involved in the tapings. Of course, as with the rest of the film’s unambitious shortcomings and simple rhythms, fans won’t care.

Sunday
Sep152019

THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE

Stars: Dani Kind, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Romeo Carere, Steve Lund, Maria Nash, Naledi Majola, Richard White, Sara Canning, Celina Martin, Lia Sachs, Keeno Lee Hector, Kiroshan Naidoo and Lionel Newton.
Writers: Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas
Director: Danishka Esterhazy

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Fifty years after they made the furry, nonsensical, slapsticky debut as part of NBC’s Saturday morning roster, The Banana Splits return…in a splattery horror romp that’s about as far from the spirit of the old TV show as you can get. Not a bad approach, per se; little about the silliness of their dated, pseudo-psychedelic antics holds any sway today, no matter what ironic millenials and ageing Gen-Xers offer up as evidence of The Splits’ enduring appeal. So if a reboot of the property was going to happen it might as well be in this all-or-nothing mutated form. Just that…well, maybe director Danishka Esterhazy and scripters Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas didn’t go hard enough.

Perky tot Harley (Finlay Woitak-Hissong) may be the only fan of The Banana Splits under 40, but a fan he is and a devoted one at that. When his mom Beth (Dani Kind) scores family tickets to a taping of the show, birthday-boy Harley envisions a life-altering meeting with his hero, Snorky, and the other Splits - Drooper, Fleegle and Bingo. But a new network regime decides to cancel the show; Harley’s birthday outing will be the final episode.

No self-respecting Banana Split will give up their studio gig without a fight, no matter how decrepit and dusty the venue appears (and it often appears more like a silent-era horror-film laboratory than even the most rundown backlot space). With their circuitry rewired (to paraphrase Yaphet Kotto, the Splits are goddamn robots), the four wacky friends up tools, including an oversized, colourful hammer and the iconic ‘Banana Buggy’, and begin the bludgeoning. Standing in the way momentarily are dickish stepfather Mitch (Steve Lund), entitled internet creep Thadd (Kiroshan Naidoo) and pushy stage dad Jonathan (Keeno Lee Hector), whose determined to turn his daughter (Lia Sachs) into the next Sour Grapes Bunch starlet.

The Banana Splits Movie is essentially a silly riff on Michael Chricton’s 1973 theme-park-gone-bad thriller Westworld or, perhaps more accurately, The Simpsons parody episode, ‘Itchy & Scratchy Land’. When the Splits go off-program, their eyes glow red, just as the robot-mouse and robot-cat did in that Season 6 Episode 4 classic. Having shown her skill as a stylish storyteller with the dystopian sci-fier Level 16 (2018), Canadian Esterhazy nails the mood and staging of some solid kills, but isn’t given much to play with in terms of character or narrative by Elinoff and Thomas.

One senses there is a bit more sly commentary to be made about the modern entertainment industry and its regressive reliance on pop-culture brands, or how clinging to the idols of our childhood is not the healthiest of traits. The Banana Splits Movie toys with those themes but doesn’t dive deep. Which is fine, given this is a film about 60s kids-TV characters on a killing spree, a goal it achieves admirably. But it would have been more heartening if the resurrection of The Banana Splits had been in the service of some slightly more resonant establishment cage-rattling, the kind synonymous with the group’s hippy culture origins.

Tuesday
Aug202019

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Stars: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Julia Butters, Damon Herriman, Austin Butler, Emile Hirsch, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Spencer Garrett, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Zoë Bell and Michael Madsen.
Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino

(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

When you are a director eight films into a career streak marked by eight cinematic events, your ninth film can be about whatever your heart desires. And Los Angeles in the summer of 1969 - a cool hotbed of hippy counter-culture, groovy tunes, barefooted women, the paradigm-shifting emergence of New Hollywood and a scruffy, psychotic, ticking time bomb of violence called Charles Manson - beats to the obsessive pop-culture pulse of Quentin Tarantino like no film of his ever has.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hitches a ride through the period with three distinctive characters, each of which speak to key strengths in Tarantino’s writing arsenal. Leonardo DiCaprio plays ageing action tough-guy Rick Dalton, once the heroic lead in a hit NBC series, but whose career has reverted to small-screen baddie bit parts; Dalton’s stunt-double and gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, at his most charmingly laconic), whose industry standing is also sliding but who takes the downturn in his manly stride; and, a starlet on the rise named Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie), who has settled into life as Rick’s neighbour in a home on Cielo Drive with hairdresser Jay Sebrig (Emile Hirsch) and her largely-absent boyfriend, Roman Polanski.

Plotting is sparse in Tarantino’s ninth. Rick gets a gig as a moustache-twirling villain in a TV western pilot, and feels the pressure to deliver the performance of his newly-defined career; Tate wanders the backlot before settling into a session of her big-break movie, The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin, giddy with delight when the audience laughs at her pratfalls; and, Cliff, between running errands for Rick and hanging with his lovable pitbull Brandy, chance encounters a free-spirited teen named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who takes him to ‘Charlie’s’ creepy commune compound on an old movie lot called Spahn Ranch.

A fair portion of the movie magic that the auteur brings, and he brings a lot, is in the interaction of his characters and the meaningfulness he imbues in each of them. Not since Jules and Vincent bantered between hits in 1994’s Pulp Fiction has Tarantino so perfectly nailed the fragile ‘macho buddy’ friendship dynamic that he captures in Rick and Cliff. Men like these are the heroes of the director’s formative years (speculation suggests they are based in part upon Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham); actors who have experienced the ebb-and-flow of stardom have often found favour with the director (Travolta, of course, but also Robert Forster, David Carradine and Michael Parks, amongst many).

DiCaprio and Pitt (who deserves Oscar attention for his work here) are like a booze-sodden Butch and Sundance; one, tearing himself apart over his waning influence, the other so inured to pain and suffering (Pitt’s strapping torso a diary of past wounds) he’s numbed to what the future holds for his type of Hollywood hanger-on. In one of Tarantino’s great dialogue scenes, a desperate DiCaprio, in full villainous garb awaiting his first scene, shares a heartbreaking meet-cute with seasoned Tinseltown 8 year-old, Trudi (a perfect Julia Butters); it is one of many great bit parts from actors such as Damian Lewis (a spot-on Steve McQueen), Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning and Damon Herriman.     

The inspired casting of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate represents, above any other character from Tarantino’s oeuvre, the kind of warm, genuine human presence that defines his growth and maturity as a storyteller. He understands that her horrific demise, in confluence with the Viet Nam War and the Watergate revelations, sounded the death knell for America as a nation driven by optimism and hope. Robbie is an extraordinary presence as the ill-fated starlet; Pitt and DiCaprio carry the load, but the film soars on the Australian actress’ impact in only a handful of scenes.

America is not denied its destiny-altering moment of late ‘60s ultra-violence; this is a Tarantino movie, after all, and few filmmakers revel in the visceral power of cinematic bloodshed like QT. But the destiny he envisions is different; more importantly, it’s better. Tarantino’s tendency towards historical revisionism (see, 2009’s Inglorious Basterds) and the hint of a fairy tale outcome right there in the title allows for what is the most emotionally resonant third act in all of his films.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an experiential odyssey, more interested in the mood and vibe of the summer of love and the characters that populate it than any heavy bummer of a narrative. This is where Tarantino likes to live, clearly as a filmmaker, but also one suspects, within himself – the LA of Matt Helm movies, Playboy Mansion pool parties, the Van Nuys Drive-In, neon-lit fast-food hangouts and whiskey sours before noon. His Hollywood is filled with flawed but real heroes, friendships bonded by hardship, and an innocence that is cherished, not lost. His heart is in this film, for the first time afforded as much input as his fan-boy passion and film culture knowledge.

The result is the year’s best American film.

Friday
Aug162019

MORGANA

Stars: Morgana Muses, Petra Joy, John Oh, Anna Brownfield, Judith Lucy and Candida Royale.
Directors: Josie Hess and Isabel Pappard

WORLD PREMIERE: Melbourne International Film Festival, Friday August 16 at The Capitol Theatre.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The emergence of a vibrant, creative free spirit from the constraints of societal expectation is captured with genuine affection in Morgana, co-directors Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s expansive yet deeply personal account of one woman’s coming-of-middle-age journey. Charting a course from the depths of despair to artistic and emotional fulfilment then back again, this frank, often funny and very moving portrait piece is an engaging crowd-pleaser, particularly for those who adhere to the sex-positive beliefs of their protagonist.

Having grown up in the harsh climes of Coober Pedy, Morgana Muses bought into the ‘suburban ideal’ of her mother’s longings and was soon constructing her own middle-class façade. Having married well and embraced motherhood, she soon found herself sadly unfulfilled in a union devoid of warmth; the dissolution of her marriage and subsequent disconnection from friends and family led to thoughts of self-harm. These moments are thoughtfully reconstructed through a ‘little boxes’ motif, in which Morgana is captured peering longingly through the windows of a grey suburban landscape.

The turning point came as Morgana’s life force was at its lowest ebb; a ‘last hurrah’ sexual experience awakened in her a hunger to explore the boundaries of what she always believed were acceptable sexual practices. With her old life fading fast, Morgana Muses reinvents herself as a feminist porn actress-filmmaker, her debut film Duty-Bound becoming an award-winning global hit that takes her from suburban Melbourne to the BDSM mecca, Berlin.

Via her friendship, co-director Hess (who features at key moments in her own doco) is afforded rare access into Morgana’s highs and lows over a period of several years; the 70-minute feature began life as a short, morphing into a frank and confronting study of mental health and its impact upon the creative process. Hess and Peppard, one of the local industry’s most respected animators and horror sector artists, are clearly advocates for the practice of ethical pornography and strong feminist ideals, but these themes, while central, never overshadow the universal humanity at the core of Morgana’s narrative.

Most importantly, the woman herself proves a complex, fearless frontwoman for her own story. Muses bares all, yet it is her physical openness which ultimately proves the least shocking of her revelations; the self-reflection and psychological torment she is willing to expose for the documentarian’s lens is first-person storytelling at its bravest. Audience empathy is so engaged that, by the time the ‘cherry-on-top’ moment happens deep in the third act, the intimacy required to fully accept every inch of Morgana Muses is comfortably in place. So sex positive and emotionally resonant is her factual film journey, everything about the body and soul baring of Morgana Muses feels convincingly empowering and wonderfully real.

Morgana Documentary - 'First Look' Teaser #2 from House of Gary on Vimeo.

Friday
Aug162019

FROM SHOCK TO AWE

Featuring: Matt Kahl, Mike Cooley, Aimee Stahl and Brooke Cooley.
Directors: Luc Côté.
Content Producer: Janine Sagert.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The heartbreaking journey through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that many veterans undertake upon their return from combat zones rarely ends on the kind of high note that director Luc Côté offers in From Shock to Awe. As detailed in this alternative-treatment advocacy documentary, more US ex-servicemen and women have died by their own hands back home than on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Returning to feature-length factual filmmaking for the first time since 2010’s Four Days Inside Guatanamo, Côté’s latest offers both insight and answers into a different aspect of military life. The struggle to live with PTSD, to deal with horrific memories and the unfamiliarity of a life that was once familiar, has torn apart generations of soldiers. The production presents this hardship through two struggling heroes - Matt Kahl, an Afghanistan vet having served in the 101st Airborne from 2007-2011; and, MP Mike Cooley (pictured, top), deployed once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq.

The first act punches hard in its depiction of the wide-reaching impact of PTSD. These are broken men, their families and communities alien to them. Côté uses both real-time and archive footage to show the shells of their former selves that Kahl and Cooley have become. The ability of respective wives Aimee Kahl and Brooke Cooley (herself a returned veteran with trauma issues) to deal with the psychological disintegration of their husbands for nearing breaking point.

The production follows the men to a wooded retreat, where they endeavor to purge their psyches of despair by injesting the psychoactive brew Ayahuasca. A banned substance in the US, it combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with plants containing the compound DMT (dimethyltriptamine) to produce a powerful visionary and healing experience. (Pictured, below; Matt and Aimee Kahl)

Scenes of the men under the influence of Ayahuasca are truly revelatory, their emotional and spiritual healing unfolding in real time for Côté’s lens (and, no, there are no Yellow Submarine-style sequences to overstate the experience). Even more remarkable is the footage of the men several months after the Ayahuasca session. They are transformed, their healing allowing for human connection, ambition and clarity of emotion.

Of course, the treatment makes them criminals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to legalize psychotropic drugs for treatment of PTSD in any form. From Shock to Awe allows the recuperative experiences of the men do the hard selling of the film’s message, but the message is clear – soldiers are dying at home and non-traditional treatment can ease the nation’s pain, but bureaucratic governance remains immoveable.

The newfound positivity in the lives of the two men in the wake of the Ayahuasca treatment (and, for Brooke Cooley, therapy under the influence of the similarly-blacklisted MDMA drug) wraps up their story in what could be the feel good film denouement of the year. But the sadness that now haunts them is that so many of their combat brothers and sisters (many of them federal employees and subject to workplace drug testing) live burdened with PTSD, while a treatment exists that could ease their suffering.

 

Thursday
Aug152019

YOU DON'T NOMI

Featuring (voice only): Jeffery Conway, Joshua Grannell, April Kidwell, Haley Mlotek, Adam Neyman and David Schmader.
Archive Footage: Elizabeth Berkely (pictured, below), Joe Eszterhaus, Paul Verhoeven, Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan.
Director: Jeffery McHale

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Artful, incisive documentary analysis into the legacy left by cinematic classics has emerged as genre unto itself in recent years. Rodney Asher deep-dove into the conspiratorial mythology of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Room 237 (2012), and Alexandre O. Phillippe took a scalpel to the most famous shower in film history with his Hitchcock autopsy, 78/52 (2017).

That Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls finds itself in the company of such milestone movies may surprise some but, by the end of Jeffery McHale’s You Don’t Nomi, it somehow seems appropriate.

McHale comes at the much-maligned 1995 melodrama from angles both academic and humanistic. He initially contends that understanding the most critically reviled film of Verhoeven’s career can only be fully realised if one studies his run of critically adored works. The very motifs evident in his anti-establishment Dutch classics (Diary of a Hooker, 1971; Turkish Delight, 1973; Katie Tippel, 1975; Soldier of Orange, 1977; Spetters, 1980) and the Hollywood blockbusters that made him so bankable (Robocop, 1987; Total Recall, 1990; Basic Instinct, 1992) – elements like sexualised violence, drama pitched high and richly conjured mise-en-scene - were used against him to condemn Showgirls, his second collaboration with iconoclast scriptwriter Joe Ezsterhaus. (Pictured, below; Berkeley and Verhoeven, on-set)

In a cute stylistic touch, McHale uses scenes from Verhoeven’s own The 4th Man (1983), featuring Jeroen Krabbé, to help explore the director’s modus operandi, in scenes that any self-respecting film buff will adore. The analysis extends to the Dutchman’s post-Showgirls films (Starship Troopers, 1997; Hollow Man, 2000; Black Book, 2006; Elle, 2016), as well as EPK and BTS footage that paints a picture of the director as both a moviemaking genius with a very 'European' love of the human form and a pre-#MeToo eccentric obsessed with the sensational.

Despite some of the most scathing reviews in modern film history (‘Trashdance’ was one of the kinder headlines of the day), Showgirls has slowly resurrected itself as a retro-screening must-see. You Don’t Nomi affords the cult followers a voice to vouch for its worth, most notable in a narrative detour that recounts how an actress recreating the lead role of ‘Nomi Malone’ on stage brought her post-assault PTSD into manageable focus.

Of course, the star of You Don’t Nomi, just as she was the star of Showgirls, is ‘Nomi Malone’ herself, Elizabeth Berkeley. The teen sitcom star whose ego/career/life soared then plummeted in the wake of her casting has become an enigmatic presence in the town that shredded her young life. The actress’ appearances since the film (presented here as archive footage) suggest she is reconciled to her fate as a Hollywood pariah. If Jeffery McHale’s film doesn’t quite realign the reputation of Verhoeven’s misunderstood mega-flop, it certainly paints a picture of a film that is a true auteur’s vision, enlivened by an actress’ devotion and worthy of its audience’s adoration.

Tuesday
Aug132019

REBORN

Stars: Kayleigh Gilbert, Barbara Crampton, Michael Pare, Chaz Bono, Rae Dawn Chong, Alexa Maris, Bob Bancroft and Monte Markham.
Writer: Michael Mahin
Director: Julian Richards

Screening at the Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival, October 12-13, in Cary, North Carolina.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Julian Richard’s solidly nasty supernatural thriller might be too easily cast aside as VHS-era throwback piece, given its roster of iconic ‘80s leads and a plot that admittedly would not have been out of place amongst the weekly rentals at any Blockbuster. While it can certainly be enjoyed on those terms, there is more on offer in Michael Mahin’s layered script and Richards’ polished direction.

The opening shot – a dimly lit hospital on a dark, stormy night, circa 2000 - sets the macabre tone. In a basement morgue (a basement with windows apparently, given the flashes of lightning), Kenny the morgue attendant (Chaz Bono) photographs nude, scalped cadavers. A lightning strike on the building jolts back to life a stillborn baby, and Kenny raises her to believe they are siblings.

Leap forward to present-day LA, that baby is now Tess (Kayleigh Gilbert; pictured, top), a teen fed up with a life spent surviving Kenny’s abuse; having recently discovered she possesses electrokinesis and all its homicidal potential, she sets about reconnecting with the mother she never knew she had, at any cost. Said mother is struggling 50-something actress Lena O’Neill (horror royalty, Barbara Crampton), who has borne the psychological scar of choosing not to bear the physical scar of a caesarean birth – a vain decision she believed cost her a newborn.

Thanks to the miracle of speedy B-plot beats (the pic is a just-right 78 minutes), Tess reconnects with Lena, but exists on a short fuse. If anything gets in her way, be it Rae Dawn Chong as Tess’ agent Dory, or Alexa Maris as brash starlet Gia Fontaine, the inevitable is almost always unpleasant. Taking an interest in Tess is LAPD detective Marc Fox (Michael Pare, doing solid work in an all-too-rare co-lead role), exhibiting a nice chemistry with Crampton. (Pictured, below; Barbara Crampton, left, with co-star Rae Dawn Chong)

There are some undeniable influences at work in the strongest moments of Reborn; reanimated by lightning, the existential yearning that drove Frankenstein’s Monster is at the core of Tess’ journey, while teen angst unleashed by instinctive vengeance will seem very familiar to fans of Stephen King’s Carrie (one character’s death is a clear homage to Betty Buckley’s demise in Brian de Palma’s adaptation).

Thematically, however, this is a more complex piece than its genre roots might suggest. As Lena, Crampton does great work exploring the vanity-shredding plight of ageing in Hollywood while also humanising the long-term grief associated with stillbirth. In only her second film, Gilbert plays the bad girl well, instilling in her the sadness and desperation of a lost and lonely little girl in the body of an abused teen.

Julian Richards does ‘meta’ pretty well (see his 2003 cult film, The Last Horror Movie), so the nods to film lore are not unexpected; he even nails a running gag about director Peter Bogdanovich that pays off wonderfully. But he also displays a particularly strong affinity for character-driven storytelling, which elevates Reborn above others of its kind.