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Saturday
Nov182017

TARNATION

Stars: Daisy Masterman, Emma-Louise Wilson, Danae Swinburne, Blake Waldron, Jasy Holt, Joshua Diaz, Sean McIntyre, Sarah Howett and Mitchell Brotz.
Writer/Director: Daniel Armstrong.

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Friday November 24 at 9.30pm ay Melbourne's Lido Cinema. 

Rating: 3.5/5

It is easy to imagine Sam Raimi giggling with gleeful pride should he ever stumble across Daniel Armstrong’s Tarnation. Stretching a meagre budget and pushing a game cast are two of Armstrong’s great strengths as a director; another is clearly a love for the works of Michigan’s favourite filmmaking son, whose Evil Dead epics are paid the type of knowing homage only a true fan could conjure.

The unselfconsciously preposterous plot centres on wannabe singer-songwriter Oscar, played by the endearing Daisy Masterman with the same spirited abandon that Bruce Campbell displayed 36 years ago. We meet Oscar as she gets marched from her singing gig by her band’s manager (Sean McIntyre), a creepy golf-enthusiast who recommends she get some R&R at his log cabin just outside of the township of Tarnation. With BFF Rain (Danae Swinburne) and two ill-fated beau-hunks along for the ride, they are barely through the door when the spirits that possesses the property start playing up.

With its veranda awning and Tardis-like interiors, the cabin is a masterfully recreated version of Raimi’s Evil Dead cottage, and Armstrong uses every corner of the set to offer shout-outs to his favourite genre works. Like-minded fans will have a blast spotting references to such cult pics as Friday the 13th, Night of The Creeps and Basket Case. The prolific young filmmaker is not above trumpeting his own contributions to DIY-horror, with posters for his past films From Parts Unknown (2015), Murder Drome (2013) and Sheborg Massacre (2016) pinned to the wall.

While it is clear that Armstrong has little regard (or budget) for elements such as logic or continuity, the on-screen energy that he skilfully crafts puts him in the same league as contemporaries Kiah Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood: Road of The Dead, 2014) and Christopher Sun (Charlie’s Farm, 2014; Boar, 2017) and Ozploitation greats like Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot, 1982; Dead End Drive-In, 1986). His nighttime sequences achieve more with one source light and a fog machine than most would with twice the resources, while his old-school practical effects (including a possessed and rotting kangaroo whose design recalls the goat-monster from…that’s right, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) are top tier.

As with any independent filmmaker worth their weight, Armstrong calls in favours to realise his project. Oscar’s band is played by soundtrack contributors The Mercy Kills, who have utilised Armstrong’s vision in the past for their film clips; Tarnation reunites the director with the star of Sheborg Massacre and From Parts Unknown, actress/stuntwoman Emma-Louise Wilson, who brings some well-timed and tasteless laughs as the wheelchair-bound ‘Wheels’.

Saturday
Nov182017

KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN

Featuring: Larry Cohen, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, John Landis, Fred Williamson, David J Schow, Eric Roberts, Michael Moriarty, Traci Lords, Barbara Carrera, Laurene Landon, Yaphet Kotto, Nathaniel Thompson, Paul Kurta, Rick Baker, J.J. Abrams and Martin Scorsese.
Writer/Director: Steve Mitchell.

AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Saturday November 25 at 11.00pm at Melbourne's Lido Cinema.

Rating: 4/5

Hagiographic as hell and fiercely proud of it, Steve Mitchell’s wildly entertaining bio-doc King Cohen hurtles through the life of showman director Larry Cohen with a rat-a-tat urgency and ‘get the shot and move on’ attitude. If it was Mitchell’s intent to mirror the work ethic, rough-hewn edges and on-set energy of Cohen’s great, ‘guerilla-style’ B-epics of the 70s, such as Black Caesar, God Told Me To and Q The Winged Serpent, he nails it.

An introduction by J.J. Abrams recalls that defining LA-moment when he met Cohen at an LA bus-stop, an encounter that the ageing director recalled 30 years later when the young Hollywood prince lunched with the old-school industry icon. Cohen proves a mensch, a naturally kind and accommodating type all too rare in the industry, while also being a results-driven multi-hyphenate pro, able to read and respond to both the artists with whom he creates and the audience he seeks.

After some upbeat retro opening credits, Mitchell (still best known as the writer of the 1986 home-vid schlockbuster, Chopping Mall) calls upon peers, academics and, most refreshingly, The Man himself to reflect. With no inherently artistic family members (save for a banjo-playing grandfather), it was up to the young Cohen to forge a career in storytelling, a path that began with an obsessive passion for the picture palaces of New York City. There is room for turgid sentimentality in this type of rose-coloured recollecting, but Mitchell and Cohen bounce through the childhood years buoyantly, exhibiting little melancholic regret or unfulfilled yearnings.

From his role in the ‘golden days’ of television to the decision to direct after watching so many of his scripts ruined by hacks, Cohen is portrayed as an inventive filmmaker of unparalleled integrity. That quality remains intact even when his powers of recollection are questioned, albeit light heartedly, by the likes of actor Fred Williamson, the star of Cohen’s 70’s blockbusters Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, and Michael Moriarty, his 80s muse in cult films Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. (Pictured, above; Cohen, right, directing Eric Roberts and Megan Gallagher in 1990's The Ambulance)

Most endearing is the closeness Cohen shares with the cinematic greats of his childhood, both professionally and personally. Director Samuel Fuller, comedian Red Buttons and, somewhat less warmly, an ageing Bette Davis have been central to Cohen’s remarkable career and feature in some of the most charming and insightful passages of Mitchell’s film. Enduring respect is a key thematic component of Mitchell’s account of Cohen’s life; first wife and producing partner Janelle Webb and current spouse Cynthia Costas-Cohen both wax lyrical about their man.

The modern-day Larry Cohen hawks his memorabilia at fan cons, his self-deprecating drollness helping him cope with the industry today. Mitchell doesn’t skimp on that footage, instead allowing the 80 year-old director’s indomitable spirit and quick wit to guide us through his twilight years (he still writes feverishly, in long hand). He is not accepting the industry’s lifetime accolades he so richly deserves, but nor is he seeking them. Larry loves the industry and yet, barring the adoration offered by hardcore fans and like-minded cinephiles such as Joe Dante, John Landis, Mick Garris and Martin Scorses, gets little love in return. Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen does a great deal to redress that imbalance.

Read the Screen-Space feature THE BEST OF LARRY COHEN here.
Read Screen-Space editor Simon Foster's interview with Larry Cohen here (courtesy of SBS Movies)

Monday
Nov062017

ARRHYTHMIA

Stars: Alexander Yatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva.
Writers: Boris Khlebnikov and Natalia Meshchaninova
Director: Boris Khlebnikov

WINNER: The SCREEN-SPACE Award for Best New Russian Film; Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney, Australia. Announced at the Closing Night ceremony, November 5, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The increasingly tenuous emotional bond a married couple share achieves a simple yet profound universality in Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia. With a pair of achingly endearing lead performers to guide the narrative through the rocky relationship terrain, the Russian writer/director has crafted a sweet, sad, deceptively affecting drama that captures two young, professional Muscovites living in a cramp apartment yet drifting a world apart.

Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) is an EMT paramedic; Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), a young doctor pulling long shifts well into the night. Their marriage has grown functional, the couple still attending family gatherings and being available to share transport, but communication and connection are strained. Oleg numbs himself to their disconnect through booze; Katya, however, is more attuned to their troubles and seeks a divorce (via text, at her father’s birthday party after Oleg acts the boorish lush).

Yatsenko won Best Actor honours at the 2017 Karlovy Vary Film Festival for a performance that challenges leading man conventions, defying audience sympathy yet forging an understanding that goes some way to explaining why Katya would tolerate his understated yet often loathsome manner. Despite the central arc being Oleg’s, Gorbacheva delivers the film’s most emotionally resonant performance; the actress’ doleful expression and admirable yet potentially self-destructive empathy for her troubled husband is heartbreaking, yet never plays as weak. Her mid-traffic jam meltdown, a terrific piece of screen acting, is a lump-in-the-throat sequence; her free-spirited kitchen dance to a favourite pop song from her teen years, perfectly pitched.

With co-scripter Natalia Meshchaninova, Khlebnikov (Roads to Koktobel, 2003; A Long and Happy Life, 2013) deftly handles a subplot that addresses his nation’s crumbling healthcare industry. Oleg’s professional life is taking on new pressures as the ambulance sector is forced into cost cutting and reporting measures, drawing him into direct conflict with his superiors. In addition to highlighting the sad state of Russian health care, scenes of Oleg defying protocol to save lives help to broaden audience understanding of the character. Katya’s workplace stresses are not afforded the same focus, although the realities of her job are plainly evident in her sleep schedule and complete lack of social distractions.

Arrhythmia does not dwell in the deep, dark realm of social-realism that, rightly or wrongly, is often synonymous with Russian cinema. Khlebnikov brings a modern European sensibility to his storytelling that recalls the intimacy of The Dardennes Brothers and the works of Romanian New Wave auteurs such as Cristian Mungiu (notably, 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu). It is a beautiful, infuriating, entirely human study of flawed, floundering lives intertwined to the point of being inseparable; for Oleg and Katya, that is both a wildly romantic and sadly final place for young lives to exist.

Sunday
Nov052017

THE MARSHES

Stars: Dafna Kronental, Sam Delich, Mathew Cooper, Zac Drayson, Amanda McGregor and Eddie Baroo
Writer/Director: Roger Scott.

Reviewed ahead of the Australian Premiere at the 2017 A Night of Horror Film Festival; December 1, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The jolly swagman of Australian folklore is not so jovial in Roger Scott’s swampy psycho-thriller, The Marshes. A nasty piece of work in which the spirit of the bushman traveller escalates his penchant for opportunistic crime from sheep stealing to stalking and stabbing, Scott’s twisty deconstruction of slasher pic tropes is as good a calling-card pic as we’ve seen from a young Aussie genre filmmaker since Damien Power’s similarly sinister Killing Ground in 2016.

The Marshes adheres to a well-trodden ‘big smoke-vs-hillbilly’ opening act, as in when eco-warrior academic Dr Pria Anan (Dafna Kronental) has some fightin’ words at a last-stop gas station with brawny pig-hunter Zac Drayson. With her offsiders Will (Sam Delich) and Ben (Matthew Cooper), she forges ahead with her research field-trip deep into remote marshlands, only to have her days filled with further pig-hunter angst and her nights disrupted by a nightmarish presence haunting her campsite.

Scott’s storytelling skills kick into high gear in Act 2, when the threat turns out to be more than a cranky shooter and the landscape of the marsh reveals otherworldly secrets dating back to wild colonial days. With the aid of some skilful lensing from DOP Giovanni Lorusso, who switches from lush, sun-dappled widescreen location work to tight, terrifying close-ups, Scott amps up the menace and revs up the gore at expertly timed intervals.

Audiences will be challenged at times to go with the film’s divergent path into the slightly surreal. Some narrative ‘dog legs’ recall the occasionally head-scratching developments in the TV hit Lost, yet the cut-and-slice thrills of classic Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type entertainment remain ever present throughout the pic’s second-half.   

Traditionalists who view the larrikin swaggie of ‘Waltzing Matilda’-fame as some kind of Aussie hero are going to be rattled by Scott’s version of the iconic figure, brought to hulking, horrifying life by big-man actor Eddie Baroo and kitted out in period-authentic swag-and-drizabone attire by costumer Maria Papandrea. As Pria, the terrific Kronental (channelling Sigourney Weaver, circa ’79, in both looks and intensity at key moments) offers a striking and powerful version of the ‘final girl’/horror heroine.

The Marshes is technically top tier, with Jessica Mustacio’s cutting of the intense handheld camerawork a standout, Nigel Christensen’s sound design crucial to The Swagman’s ominous presence and Tristan Coelho’s atmospheric score adding immeasurably to the tension. Despite the cultural origins central to the story and some broad colloquial language, the authentic locations (which look to have made for an arduous shoot) are not typically synonymous with the Down Under setting and should help sales agents spruik The Marshes as a deserved global marketplace player.

 

Thursday
Nov022017

THREE SUMMERS

Stars: Robert Sheehan, Rebecca Breeds, Michael Caton, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Kelton Pell, Peter Rowsthorn, Kate Box, Nichola Balestri and Jacqueline McKenzie.
Writer/Director: Ben Elton

Rating: 1/5

Conceptually, the lives that criss-cross during a Western Australian regional music festival over three years should at least yield an amiable, toe-tapping crowd pleaser perfectly suited to this country’s larrikin storytelling skills. One imagines that was exactly the film that funding bodies Screenwest and Screen Australia must have trusted director Ben Elton would deliver when they backed whatever version of his script they okayed.

Because what the British-born/WA-based filmmaker delivers could not possibly be the movie that our best ‘creative minds’ gave their blessing and our dollars towards. If that isn’t the case, and Three Summers is what the production sector deems to be a comically engaging and commercially viable final product…well, the industry is in as bad a shape as the naysayers claim it to be.

Three Summers uses the coming together of a culturally diverse group of musos and assorted hangers-on for the fictional  ‘Westival’ music event as the device to paint a portrait of Australia Today. Over the titular months, this blazingly obvious, one-dimensional microcosm of the nation’s race and gender biases moves at a snail’s pace towards a fanciful and insultingly tone-deaf sequence of reconciliation, featuring a Morris dancer and a troupe of Indigenous boys, that represent some of the worst frames in Australian cinema history.

The central romantic players are an insufferable Irish theremin whiz (Robert Sheehan, bringing hipster pretension without a breath of irony) and a feisty folk-fiddler (Rebecca Breeds, whose sheer likability and grounded sweetness make her the film’s sole saving grace). Their meet-cute is lacklustre, then they blather on interminably that requires both actors to pitch higher and work harder than any actor should. Elton doesn’t write real-world dialogue, instead favouring cute quips and, when called upon, long issue-based diatribes that emerge randomly, awkwardly, and with little relevance to the dramatic context.

Because, above any other concern, Three Summers wants to present a fierce far-left political statement on the ills inflicting contemporary Australian society. However twee and cute-sy it colours itself (which it does, gratingly so), Elton’s film most wants to be a smashing takedown of the intolerant and ignorant. Every character rants against and/or deals in the extreme with situations such as racism, date sexual assault, alcoholism, Indigenous rights, etc, etc.

Via his ‘racist old white guy who sees the truth’ stereotype Michael Caton, the director offers up a solution; try to understand each other better, so that you may better understand yourself. If that sounds like a meme you hurriedly scroll past in your Facebook feed, the kind accompanied by a picture of a monkey hugging a lion cub, then you understand its effectiveness as a feature film’s central theme.

The film’s shallow phoniness is easy to pinpoint. It preaches tolerance, yet makes a gag out of a burly security guard’s weakness being her latent homosexuality. Elton sidetracks the plot entirely to indulge in a detention centre rant, delivered by the handsomely groomed lead singer of an Afghan folk-group, who describes their existence as “hell” (a hell in which they can rehearse a music festival set, apparently). And it tanks even as the most basic of rom-com conceits; the leads seem to genuinely dislike each other’s company, and the support players (usual Screen Australia-approved faces like Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Magda Szubanski and Michael Caton) fail to bring background laughs or gravitas.

Take away from the mess that is Three Summers this thought: is the current funding model that determines what big screen, commercial comedies get made in Australia working? What the script consultants and financing heads are currently signing off on – in the last few years, critical and commercial duds like Spin Out, A Few Less Men, UNindian and Now Add Honey – suggests not; good comedies get made – A Girl Asleep, That’s Not Me, Down Under – but can’t draw audiences. Three Summers is another red mark against the current regime calling the shots on what they think the Australian public will find funny.

Wednesday
Nov012017

CONOR MCGREGOR: NOTORIOUS

Features: Conor McGregor, Dee Devlin, Dana White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Aldo and Nate Diaz.
Director: Gavin Fitzgerald.

Rating: 3.5/5

Whether you are of the ‘fairytale rise to his generation’s greatest athlete’ view or bend more towards the ‘self-proclaimed messiah of bro-culture arrogance’ stance, there is enough to please/infuriate both extremes in Conor McGregor’s lovingly authorised bio-doc, Notorious. Is it a hagiographic monument to the true potential of unyielding egotism, capturing hubris as ‘high cinematic art’? Or is it just clip-after-clip of an over-groomed dude living well between beating people up? Two camps…

A celebration of the man, the mission and the material spoils of 'only-in-America' size success, director Gavin Fitzgerald and editor Andrew Hearne (both countrymen of McGregor), weave a mythological narrative that determinedly honours the MMA brawler’s Irish roots yet portrays little of his life prior to climbing into that first octagon. Footage has been gleaned primarily from the last four years, covering the period from when he and his loyal girlfriend Dee Devlin were shacking up with the fighter’s mother to the monstrous circus and massive wealth of the Las Vegas fight scene.

The first words spoken are “Let’s school this mother****er”, a declaration of intent from McGregor to the audience. Notorious works to both strengthen his existing brand power and let those new to the Conor-verse know what they are in for. Structurally, the film is pure sports fairy tale; the rise, fall and resurrection of a champion, achieved through hard work, self-belief and a lot of people telling you how great you are.

It is a vision of a world that adores the alpha-male, which will play as tone-deaf to some given the current climate. The only woman afforded any significant minutes in the film is the charming Devlin, yet she is given little backstory; her support is clearly integral to his success, though she's rarely seen doing more than existing in McGregor's shadow. The filmmakers also appropriate African-American culture, while not really featuring any African-Americans; from the connotations associated with the film’s title to the overuse of rap/hip-hop language, Conor and his very white entourage assume mannerisms stereotypically ‘street’. 

And yet Notorious remains an admittedly compelling story. The man himself is a polarising and fascinating personality, presented here as being consumed by a rare determination to achieve success for the sake of success. During an interview, he provides a PR-friendly soundbite that suggests he courts untold wealth so that his kids and grandkids can live well, yet nothing in Fitzgerald’s film supports that claim. The film is all about a working-class man’s ascension into the top-tier tax bracket, of that fantasy moment when your new wealth allows you to shout your family a new car.

Notorious revels in capturing Conor McGregor as he seeks fame, achieves fame and flaunts fame. It is crass and cringe-y cinema at times – like an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians with more punches and blood - but it is also textbook bigscreen fantasy fulfilment for those who have hitched their fandom to McGregor’s star. And for the star himself.

 

Friday
Oct272017

THE GATEWAY

Stars: Jacqueline McKenzie, Myles Pollard, Hayley McIlhinney, Shannon Berry, Troy Coward, Ben Mortley, Ryan Panizza and Shirley Toohey.
Writers: John V Soto and Michael White.
Director: John V Soto.

Opening Night selection of the 2017 SciFi Film Festival; reviewed at Event Cinemas George Street, October 11, 2017.

Rating 3.5/5

A compelling turn from a committed leading lady and a twisty premise skilfully executed will ensure The Gateway finds avid fans amongst sci-fi types seeking thoughtful, discussion-starting cinema. Having previously spun fan-friendly yarns in the fields of 80s-style erotic thriller (Crush, 2009), horror (Needle, 2009) and police procedural (The Reckoning, 2014), Perth-based auteur John V. Soto takes on the science-fiction realm with his typically slick visual style and strong adherence to that all-important ‘internal logic’.

Working with the learned mind of co-writer Michael White (co-author of non-fiction tomes profiling the likes of Hawking, Darwin, Asimov and Einstein), Soto explores the notion of parallel planes of existence via the science of particle and quantum physics. Providing the crucial emotional centre to a narrative that occasionally requires wordy exposition is the wonderful Jacqueline McKenzie, whose layered portrayal of a grieving woman willing to compromise time and space to reunite with her dearly departed is great genre acting.

McKenzie plays Dr. Jane Chandler, a particle physicist running a small-scale lab with offsider Regg (Ben Mortley), the pair on the verge of cracking the secrets of molecular deconstruction and teleportation. The experiments have led to the discovery of multi-dimensional realities; not only do teleported objects reappear, but they are tracked through alternate worlds, similar but distinctly different to our own.  

When Jane’s world is sent into a downward spiral following the sudden death of her partner Matt (Myles Pollard), she acts with her broken heart and not her level head (in scenes that recall those moments of Jeff Goldblum’s ill-fated melancholy in Cronenberg’s The Fly); the doctor teleports herself into a darker, more ominous other-world and re-acquaints herself with the ‘other-Matt’. Blinded by her sorrow to the trickle-down consequences of her actions, Jane puts herself and her shared worlds at risk, leading to desperate (and, frankly, slightly too convoluted to detail here) attempts to right her wrongs.

McKenzie is an actress confident within the sci-fi/horror milieu, primarily because she largely ignores the genre trappings and drills down on the emotional and psychological underpinnings of her characters. She wasn’t given that much to do in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999), yet remains fondly remembered for the role; as the lead in the series The 4400, she imbued the entire production with immense integrity. Such is her impact in The Gateway; the actress explores the film’s soulful consideration of grief, desperation and compromised principles with maturity, warmth and insight.

At time of writing, The Gateway has already impressed those in the know, with trophies at Austin’s Revelation Film Festival and nominations from several other genre juries. It bodes well for Soto’s ambitious vision, which punches above its budgeted weight thanks to strong contributions from Western Australia's acting community, pro lensing by DOP David Le May and the production design of Monique Wajon.

Smart, emotionally resonant science-fiction is a rare commodity; The Gateway will chart a course through international markets that reinforces the Australian industry does it as well as any sector.

Wednesday
Oct182017

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE

Featuring: Brian Hooker, Doreen Granpeesheh, Mark Blaxill, Polly Tommey, Bill Posey, Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Written by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Directed by Andrew Wakefield.

Rating: 3/5

When it was bumped from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival amidst claims ranging from bogus science and conspiracy theorising to conflicts-of-interest and political grandstanding, the anti-MMR inoculation tirade Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe earned far more headlines than it ever would have received as a documentary of any note. Such notoriety proves a double-edged sword; the dissenters helped promote the film and its cause, but it also muddied serious consideration of a competently presented piece of investigative filmmaking, albeit one buoyed by the typical heavy-handedness of a heart-over-head polemic.

First time Brit director and deregistered gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield (pictured, below) flaunts long-held beliefs and his own softly-spoken public-school charisma in his often compelling postulating of how Big Pharma and The Centre for Disease Control colluded to silence findings that linked the combined measles-mumps-rubella injection with the onset of autism. Unlike the thundering chorus of disapproval that greeted his film, Wakefield works hard to pinpoint and present his ‘facts’; that being, a significant sample of toddlers around twelve months of age vaccinated with the MMR drug began exhibiting symptoms associated with developmental abnormalities (the statistics when applied to the African American community are even more worrying).

The claims do not suggest the individual vaccines are dangerous, but that the combined dosage at a certain point in a child’s growth has caused damage to a large enough percentage of children to warrant investigation. Wakefield crafts a timeline, employs the impassioned vocal theatrics of journo (and co-writer) Del Bigtree and tugs at the heart with video footage of young sufferers in staking his position. Scientific data and media grabs are utilised in much the same way as in most ‘agenda docs’; just as Al Gore, Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza (director of the pilloried 2016 hard-right rant, Hillary’s America) did before him, Wakefield employs cable newshounds and whitecoaters in a manner that best serves his message. To decry his film’s credibility based upon bias is to tar every modern doc with a fatal imbalance.

He none-to-subtly employs rhetoric and conjecture to draw lines between a self-serving medical profession, the billion-dollar insurance sector and the legal fraternity, all of whom may or may not be in cahoots to protect shared interests. Wakefield proves less adept at drawing together these elements, which proves frustrating. It is entirely plausible that, given the immorality and avarice being revealed every day under the current administration of ‘Big Business’ puppets the industrial practices of the sector are reprehensible, but it is hard to draw that conclusion based on Wakefield’s version of events.

Wakefield’s own discrediting did not help his cause; having published widely read findings on the alleged dangers of MMR vaccination in Britain’s esteemed medical journal Lancet, the scientific integrity of the report and ultimately the reputation of the man himself were called into question once too often. As its title suggests, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe indulges in hyperbolic fear mongering at the expense of hard science more often than it should. 

Which, Mr De Niro, was no excuse to deny the film screens; such a reaction from the Tribeca head was clearly preposterous. Films like Vaxxed should be seen so as to kick start discussion, if only for contrary, more informed voices to prove their claims false.

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE screens at The Melbourne Underground Film Festival on October 29 as part of 'The Golden Age of Censorship' strand with Cassie Jaye's men's rights advocacy documentary, The Red Pill. For ticket and session details visit the event's official website.

 

Friday
Oct062017

THE LAST FACE

Stars: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris and Jean Reno.
Writer: Erin Dignam
Director: Sean Penn

Rating: 1.5/5

Representing an inconceivable disconnect between the humanitarian activist we know him to be and a filmmaker capable of this tone-deaf dreck, The Last Face is a tortuous misstep for director Sean Penn. The global refugee crisis is entitled to a far more respectful and insightful account of its horrors than is afforded in this shrill melodrama, in which the displaced (and often dismembered) people of central Africa are only addressed when it benefits the turgid romance between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.

Shooting the carnage of tribal conflict with the kind of rich colours, ambient music cues and soft focus edges usually reserved for high-end consumer ad campaigns, Penn asks of his movie star leads the impossible – to imbue their rocky, photogenic love story with the same resonance as the hell on earth in which it unfolds. Not a chance, given that Theron’s spoilt brat daddy’s girl and Bardem’s heart-of-gold warzone lothario are two of the most objectionable characters of contemporary cinema.

Bouncing between the conflicts of South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Theron vocalizes her South African origins as Dr Wren Petersen, the beautiful white face of global social activism. Tired of fronting conferences and boardrooms in an effort to affect minimal change, she lands in Africa to join fellow medical heroes on the ground, saving the population with their superior skills and winning smiles (amongst them are the wasted acting talents of French doc Jean Reno and Brit medic Jared Harris). Most charismatic of the lot is Bardem’s Miguel Leon, a smooth-talking playboy surgeon capable of wooing his new charge with his stubble and grin as they celebrate a successful night time jungle caesarean.

But warzone romances never go as planned, and soon Wren and Miguel are bickering, then making up, then amputating legs, crying a bit, then having sex, then riding in jeeps. It doesn’t help that Wren’s cousin Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a past conquest of Miguel’s, keeps turning up (HIV positive, to boot). It does help that the lovebird’s most emotional moments are shot in Africa’s ‘golden hour’ sunlight, the cries of the wounded silenced just long enough for both stars to emote their own pain. All that faux emoting requires some serious padding; cue yet another bloated, droning score from Hans Zimmer.      

In the hands of veteran DOP Barry Aykroyd, Penn’s visual style mimics the floaty, ethereal lens of his Tree of Life director and obvious influencer, Terrence Malick. Yet mimicry is all it is, with The Last Face offering not a single frame of Malick’s contemplative strengths (which, to be honest, have even let Malick himself down lately). Penn’s strengths used to be gritty understatement in the service of society’s fringe dwellers (The Indian Runner, 1991; The Pledge, 2001) and spiritual dreamers (Into the Wild, 2007). In his latest, Penn only proves adept at staging the grotesque horrors of third world civil conflicts; in addition to the birth scene, piles of bodies buzzing with flies and corpses, both dismembered and disembowelled, offer up the pic’s only moments of realism.

Whatever Sean Penn’s good intentions may have been, in every other regard The Last Face is the kind of misguided vanity project/message movie only the egos of Hollywood’s most powerful talents can afford to conjure.

Thursday
Oct052017

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Hiam Abbass and Sean Young.
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Rating: 3.5/5

Having muddied to the point of audience disinterest the mythology of one blockbuster property in the quest for ‘something deeper’, Ridley Scott’s existential musings on origins and creation continue in Blade Runner 2049. Thankfully, in the hands of self-proclaimed disciple Denis Villeneuve, the themes that consume the creator's mind are granted a more finely-attuned grace and depth than they were in the Scott-helmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Bleached bleak yet breathtakingly beautiful in the hands and eyes of DOP Roger Deakins, the sequel that seemed entirely unlikely to Warner Bros and Ladd Company backers who saw red on the first film ultimately befits the legacy of its origin. Blade Runner 2049 embraces the enormous shadow cast by Blade Runner 1982 by crafting a vast immersion in scale and vision, as well as indulging fans the rose-coloured sentimentality with which they fuelled the legend of Scott’s 1982 masterpiece-in-hindsight.

On board as one of the six executive producers (from the somewhat worrying roster of 16 producers), Scott has re-engaged scribe Hampton Fancher to revisit America’s west coast thirty years after the events of his first script; co-writer David Peoples did not return, with Michael Green (Logan, 2017) getting a screenplay credit, having earned Scott’s trust as a story contributor on Alien: Covenant. The writing pair has conjured an expanded setting that recalls key elements from the first film’s neon metropolis aesthetic while crafting new landscapes of desolation and decrepitude.

In 2049, the blade runner cops are themselves ‘skinjobs’, replicants tasked with retiring late model Nexus units deemed too dangerous for mortal relics like the legendary but long-gone Rick Deckard. Blade runners now look like Ryan Gosling’s K, introduced to as he deals with a gentle giant (Dave Bautista) deep in the solar power fields that pass as America’s farmland. In the roots of a long dead tree (‘origins of life’, remember), K makes a discovery that soon reveals a shattering secret that hints at the creation of a new form of life.

That’ll do plot-wise, as most of the critical community have promised the film’s distributors not to divulge key details. Suffice to say (as hinted at in the trailer), Harrison Ford makes a compelling return to his third most iconic character, the script affording him moments of emotion that call on the ageing star to deliver some of the most genuinely moving work he has ever done. Gosling is a sturdy if chilly presence, allowed the time over a whopping (and occasionally testing) 163 minutes to gradually emerge as a more-human-than-human android character (thanks immeasurably to the presence of Ana de Armas as his holographic love interest). As industrialist Niander Wallace, Jared Leto again stumbles as a big production’s central villain, his monologues of sociopathic malevolence sounding a bit too ‘Adam West’ for a film craving deep intellectual connection.

Denis Villeneuve does genre films as darkly-hued psychological explorations, more concerned with the journey than with the destination. As remarkable as it is to reference such films with regards to a Hollywood sequel, Villeneuve’s vision of future-noir hails from 70’s Soviet science fiction, specifically Andrey Tarkovsky’s landmark work Stalker. Under his director, the Oscar-bound Deakins fills every inch of the frame with an artist’s understanding of shadow and light, colour and monochrome, just as Tarkovsky’s lensman Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy did.

His visual obsession with making fleeting moments in time grand experiences means Villeneuve’s storytelling can create issues with endings (see Prisoners, or, Enemy, both 2013; even, for some, Arrival, 2016) and he can’t avoid a sense of anti-climax here. Perhaps that is what drew him to his first sequel - the thought of applying his penchant for inconclusive denouements into a franchise sequel. This is a bridging episode, with character arcs left unresolved and plot developments hinted; all the bluster that the production brings to the closing moments (both physically and, less convincingly, emotionally) can’t hide the fact that after 163 minutes, a satisfying third act eludes him.

One can’t help sense that producer Scott’s true desire is to construct another multi-episode franchise arc driven by origin issues, a la his convoluted Alien hexalogy. In one moment that lasts a mere handful of frames, a bald, muscular Nexus prototype instantly recalls the ‘engineers’ from Prometheus. Does BR2049 share less DNA with BR1982 than it does with recent instalments of Scott’s increasingly irrelevant horror space-opera? (In our Alien: Covenant review, we noted nods to Blade Runner and the replicant mythology).

Fittingly (and, perhaps, thankfully), that’s all in the future; for now, this flawed but ambitious, long but beautiful continuation of a classic can spend its time maneuvering to forge its own lofty genre status.