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Saturday
Mar182017

BLOODLANDS

Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.

Rating: 4/5

‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.

Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).

Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.

The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).

A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.

Wednesday
Mar152017

A CURE FOR WELLNESS

Stars: Dane DeHann, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna and Magnus Krepper.
Writer: Justin Haythe.
Director: Gore Verbinski.

WARNING: CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Rating: 1.5/5

Reteaming with screenwriter Justin Haythe, the scribe who spewed out the notorious flop The Lone Ranger, lies somewhere in the middle of the list of bewilderingly bad decisions Gore Verbinski makes in his latest career-killer, A Cure for Wellness.

A groaningly pedestrian, chill-free, faux-Gothic head-scratcher that manages to be both convolutely labyrinthine and entirely pointless, the latest from The Pirates of the Caribbean director blathers on loudly and incoherently for two achingly uninteresting hours. The final 30 minutes (yes, it clocks in at an unforgivable 2½ hours) might have provided some unintentionally hilarious OTT entertainment value had it not revealed the darkly misogynistic heart that drives the pretentious ‘fountain-of-youth’ nonsense.

Once-hot Dane DeHaan carves a red line through his career trajectory as Wall Street douchebag Lockhart, an upwardly mobile young financial exec who agrees to head to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and recover the firm’s CEO, who has holed up in the centuries-old facility. Following a spectacularly staged car accident (a high-point, despite yet another awkwardly CGI-rendered reindeer), Lockhart soon finds himself confined within the walls of the hospital, an exuberantly over-designed facility whose cinematic qualities almost justify the entire films existence.     

So begins a seemingly endless session of our protagonist hobbling through corridors and opening doors, having ambiguously meaningless conversations with elderly patients and getting into ponderous passages of ceaselessly dull dialogue with the administrator, Dr Volmer. This pointy-featured creep is provided a full repertoire of villainous tics and lip purses by Jason Isaacs, a career ham delivering a performance that may have proved a lot more fun had it served an equally self-deprecating master.

But A Cure for Wellness provides no such levity; Verbinski takes all the haughty melodrama, grand staging and occasionally gruesome flourishes as seriously as Shakespeare. Scenes extend beyond their natural flow with frustratingly inconsequential payoffs. Exploring a steam bath facility that begins to resemble a tiled version of the hedge maze in The Shining, Lockhart turns one corner…then another…then another; an off-limit section of the facility is similarly explored in boring detail, at a point in the narrative when tension should be building to a crescendo. The crux of the mystery that drives the film’s meagre momentum is so utterly lacking, it reveals all that has gone before to be little more than one red herring after another. Themes or subtext hinted at –memories of guilt, sins of the father, the curse of aging, and so on – are so underdeveloped as to not warrant consideration.

The reason the film deserves no break at all is the lecherous path charted for the sole female lead, Hannah. Played as a wispy early-teen innocent by 24 year-old Mia Goth, the character recalls Sissy Spacek’s virginal Carrie in her wide-eyed confusion about the onset of early womanhood. But unlike Carrie, who gets her own back via vengeful telekinesis, Hannah’s first cycle (horribly over-staged in a wading pool filled with Verbinski’s and Haythe’s ridiculously overused metaphor of choice, the eel) leads to violent disrobing and incestual rape, her small, naked breast centre-of-frame as she struggles to escape. There is no redemption for Hannah, unless one considers the role she plays in making her film’s hero look more heroic a sufficient character arc. It is an abhorrent gender representation that caps off one of the most distasteful and obnoxious studio offerings in recent memory.

 

Thursday
Mar022017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann and John C Reilly.
Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Rating: 3.5/5

The latest incarnation of moviedom’s iconic great ape is the sole convincingly emotional character in Kong: Skull Island, a decibel-defying mash-up of grand-scale monster movie, grunt-level military fantasy and state of the art effects showcase. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has the good sense to leave his human stars alone to earn their paycheques, instead ensuring the big, beautiful visual thrills of Hollywood’s umpteenth monster-monkey movie are delivered in spades.

As the Vietnam War effort winds down, crypto-zoologist Bill Randa (John Goodman) grasps his last opportunity to oversee a military-led exploration of Skull Island, an uncharted South Pacific jungle paradise. Soon, he and offsider Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are on the high seas, under the slightly-too-twitchy eye of career soldier Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson, bringing his unhinged A-game) and the heavily armed troop of future dead people. Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston as dreamboat tracker James Conrad (who, oddly, does little tracking) and Brie Larson as tough gal photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Braving a massive storm front and emerging over the spectacular environment (mostly Australia and Vietnam), Vogt-Robert’s indulges in what amounts to helicopter porn, his whirring camera putting you in the cabins of the aircraft, capturing both the scale of the expedition’s journey of discovery and the terror as the angry ape brings the squadron mercilessly back to earth. A wondrous CGI creation that conveys both body (muscle and hair convinces) and soul (yes, they get the eyes right), the majestic monkey doesn’t take kindly to being flushed out by Randa’s dirty-bombs. Desperate to regroup, the survivors make their way through jungles filled with all manner of fantasy-sized beasts, most worryingly the breed of subterranean screeching lizard-things who share some personal history with the tall, dark leading man.

The production’s website boasts that the narrative is “an original new adventure”, and that is true; there is little of significance that ties Kong 2017 to past versions of the classic adventure story. The ‘Beauty and The Beast’ heart of Kong mythology, embodied by Fay Wray in ’33, Jessica Lange in ’76 and Naomi Watts in ’05, is hinted at but never fully developed. Turning Oscar’s cache into cash, Larson only has two key scenes with Kong. She does all she can with her feisty photog, which mostly means reinforcing the feisty and straining to find chemistry in the couple of meaningful scenes she has with her other leading man. Hiddleston conveys Conrad’s alpha male qualities via a series of square-jawed, chest-out moments, as if he is posing for his action figure mould, which is actually all that is required in the context of what is going on around him.

Film and audience alike are grateful for the arrival of John C Reilly as the WWII pilot Hank Marlow, who has survived on the island since his plane was downed there in 1943. The actor provides great comic relief just as the film needs it, but also highlights (via an admittedly exciting prologue) one of the many illogical developments in the script written by the trio of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly; what strategic military value would an air battle have over an island so remote as to remain undiscovered for another 30-odd years?

Less artful but more fun than the producer’s last monster reboot, 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island neither demands nor encourages intellectual engagement. What it strives to be is a big, loud, bloody action-adventure, the kind of mid-March blockbuster that signifies the awards season is over and the heady days of summer movie going are nigh. One of Jordan Vogt-Robert’s directing strengths is that he has the chutzpah to forego otherwise crucial film staples as character dimensionality and subtext, but confidently delivering chest-thumping mass entertainment. 

Saturday
Feb182017

GIVEN

Featuring: Aamion, Daize, Given and True Goodwin.
Writers: Jess Bianchi, Malia Mau and Yvonne Puig.
Director: Jess Bianchi.

Rating: 4/5

The ambitious scale and humanistic themes of Jess Bianchi’s Given come through with dazzling clarity from the opening frames of his beautiful familial odyssey. The debutant director’s chronicle of discovery and humanity is a wake-up call – an early close-up of a rooster in full morning voice attests to that. This is followed by images of a father, enigmatic surfing great Aamion Goodwin, and his 6 year-old son, Given, soaking themselves in the muddy goodness of the earth, while heavily pregnant wife and mum Daize swims deeply and naturally in the pristine ocean, the birthplace of our species.

The sequence sets in motion a grandly mounted, profound celebration of the family unit and the importance of the people and planet with which they share life’s path.

As the title suggests, the focal point of the narrative is Given, for whom the journey – 15 countries over 14 months – is tethered to his father’s own naturalistic upbringing and a mystical quest for ‘The Big Fish’, a symbol of fulfilment and goal attainment for the family. While the occasional use of  ‘movie magic’ undoubtedly helped create the angelic wonder with which he and his newborn sister True embrace the patience-testing nature of global travel, Given proves an engaging screen presence, for whom the wonders of the world hold infinite awe. His wise observations, often dreamlike in their interpretation of his journey’s arc, are mature beyond his years; the measured tone and philosophical musings feel very much of the filmmaker’s doing, but prove tonally appropriate and in line with the heightened reality of Devin Whetstone’s exquisite camerawork.

Bianchi embraces the tried-and-tested surf doco formula of utilising minimal on-screen dialogue, instead letting the boy’s narration and the stunning images do the talking. Most affecting are direct-to-camera portraits of people from countries as far afield as Iceland, Israel, Thailand, Senegal and Peru, to name just a few of the destinations for the cast and crew. The eyes of the world staring into Bianchi’s lens reinforce that regardless of cultural trappings and vast distances, a soulful singularity exists between us all.

The breathtakingly immersive, free-flowing lensing and the central parent/child dynamic recall Terence Malick’s infinitely darker drama The Tree of Life, which also examined the legacy of patriarchal influence. While that work focussed on the transference of demons between generations, Given portrays a more enlightened, wondrously unified bond between father, son and Mother Earth. Bianchi’s capturing of a family’s reconnection with nature, both their own and on a planetary scale, provides a bracing refresher course on the goodness of humanity.

Given will have its Australian premiere as the Opening Night feature at the Byron Bay Surf Festival. Full details can be found at the events official website.

Wednesday
Feb152017

UNDER THE GUN

Narrated by Katie Couric.
Featuring Mark Barden, Jackie Barden, Pamela Bosley, Shannon Watts, Richard Martinez, Sandy Phillips, Lonnie Phillips, Gabrielle Gifford, Mark Kelly, Victoria Montgomery, Michael Pfleger, Mark Follman, William Vizzard, Robyn Thomas, Tom Diaz, Michael Waldman, Richard Feldman and Robin Kelly.
Writers: Brian Lazarte, Mark Monroe and Stephanie Soechtig.
Director: Stephanie Soechtig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The form and functionality of the modern ‘advocacy documentary’ genre reaches tragic and infuriating new heights in the heartbreaking arms-control exposé, Under the Gun.

Combining layered research, focussed discussion and harrowing accounts of shootings and their devastating aftermath, director Stephanie Soechtig and narrator/EP Katie Couric construct an indelibly moving and quietly shattering examination of the state of firearm violence and the fight for regulation in the wake of a wave of horrific mass shootings. Having shed cold light on the fast food industry in 2014’s Fed Up, the pair employs a similarly fearless tact in their dissection of the social, industrial and political forces that continue to obstruct the legal and constitutional reform needed to bring about common-sense change.

No study of the impact of guns on American society could be complete without insight into the upper echelon role of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the fear baiting 2nd Amendment rhetoric of its leader, Wayne LaPierre. Also revealed in full is the extant of arms manufacturing industry funding that flows into the Association's coffers and the long history of powerbrokers sitting in the NRA boardrooms, from where some of the most hardline lobbying, political influence and legal maneuvering in American social history has been formulated.  

Under the Gun is not the first documentary to point out that rich, white men working in a moral vacuum and motivated by profit are a primary source of America’s ills; most recently, Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated (and stylistically similar) 13th noted historical precedent in the ongoing oppression of and subsequent commercial gain from locking up America’s black population. Alongside angry works like Richard Todd’s Frackman (2015), Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989), Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), and Josh Fox’s Gasland, Parts 1 (2010) and 2 (2013), a picture emerges of a modern society misused and abused in the name of capitalism, careening towards an inevitable restructuring on the back of a new wave of activism.

The profits-over-people approach of the gun industry is brought into sharper focus when viewed through the prism of soul-crushing grief. Soechtig and Couric (who remains off-camera) capture the fragile existential void being lived by: The Barden family, who lost 7 year-old son Daniel, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook; Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, parents of slain Aurora theatre patron, Jessica Ghawi; Pamela and Tom Bosley, whose son Terrell was shot in a Chicago church carpark; and, Richard Martinez, father of murdered 20 year-old college student Chris, one of six people killed in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Exhibiting the determination of spirit required to recover from the impact of a shooting is former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of 19 shot in January 2011 outside a Tucson grocery store; six died.

Footage of the mass murders and other gun violence (including one blackly funny moment of self-inflicted pain) is used with the utmost respect by the production, yet remains truly shocking and deeply affecting. In particular, CCTV footage of patrons fleeing the Aurora cinema complex to the audio of the 911 pleas of those trapped inside (“I’m only seventeen,” screams one caller) are impossible to forget. 

Detractors will cite an unevenness of debate; that the NRA members may not have been afforded fair right of reply or been misrepresented.* But the NRA has wielded its influence with a loud voice for more than 145 years. It would be an act of callous inhumanity to cry foul of Soechtig’s methodology, given the means by which LaPierre and his organisation have manipulated the right of the American population (including felons, terrorists and violent re-offenders) to bear as many arms as they can find room for.

Under the Gun exists for those that do not have the network of Washington swamp dwellers who call LaPierre ‘friend’ or ‘contributor’. It is a film to inspire anger and incite change and emerges as one of the best of its kind. 

*The producers acknowledged that an early version of the film did feature one sequence edited to imply pro-gun advocates struggled with one line of enquiry.

Help take action against gun violence by visiting a member of the Under the Gun partnership network:

Thursday
Feb092017

ROUGH STUFF

Stars: Gareth Rickards, Vincent Andriano, Sam Glissan, Hayley Sullivan, Katie Garfield, Jamie Kristian, Adam Horner, Bobby Babin and Ernie Dingo.
Writer/Director: Jonathan Adams

Rating: 3.5/5

A raucous, rambling off-road romp that plays unashamedly broad and loud, director Jonathan Adams makes up for a complete disregard for subtlety by delivering a ballsy, sweary celebration of all things alpha-Aussie in his debut effort, the appropriately titled Rough Stuff. Both soft-hearted and tough-as-nails, the ladish adventure so adores its depiction of the ‘Australian Male’, it may stir patriotic yearnings for the rugged bushman of local cinematic lore and emerge as a box office bloke-buster.

From the film’s first images – a kookaburra, a thorny lizard, a vast dusty expanse about to be ravaged by a wild 4WD ‘bush bash’ – Adams and his DOP Jack Crombie make no bones about the sort of tale they are going to tell. Nor do they flinch in referencing influences from our century-old silver screen history. Intentional or otherwise, nods can be found to everything from Crocodile Dundee and Wolf Creek to The Chain Reaction and Ground Zero in Adams’ patchwork plotting, suggesting Rough Stuff is as much a homage to our film heritage as it is a love letter to the land.

Towering over the film in a performance as big as Australia itself is leading man Gareth Rickards, a barrel-chested and naturally gifted screen presence who recalls the square-jawed appeal of past Antipodean 'real men' like Andrew Clarke and Errol Flynn. Rickards plays ‘Buzz’, a contemporary incarnation of colonial bush-lifers known as ‘Rovers’, a man who has dedicated his life to searching for a mythical deposit called Stray’s Gold, his best mate Abe (Vincent Adriano) by his side. When an eco-activist documentary crew entice Buzz and Abe (alongside Sam Glissan’s trusty mechanic Scraps) to guide them through treacherous bushland with a map to the legendary mother lode, the duo reluctantly sign on.

Villains in blue-collar adventures such as Rough Stuff can be spotted a bush mile away. Pony-tailed, clean-shaven vegan Eric (Jamie Kristian) and snooty offsider Tom (Adam Horner) have ulterior motives which have little to do with a gold strike; they have coerced an out-of-her-depth Tori (a particularly fine Hayley Sullivan) to tag along and teach her mining magnate father Daniel Madsen (Bob Babin) a lesson in green terrorism. Not in on the ruse, spunky documentarian Skye (Katie Garfield) finds herself caught up in the increasingly dangerous events.

Adams’ deftly sets up a strong set of principal characters, exhibiting natural skills as a storyteller, before a cumbersome third act stalls the momentum. Throw in a mysterious, menacing vigilante figure called ‘The Ranger’ who appears intermittently and it becomes increasingly evident that not all story strands and character arcs are going to gel. International territories beckon, given the flavoursome Aussie imagery and Rickards’ broad-shouldered He-man hero, though sales agents are likely to demand some judicious trimming of the 119 minute running time.

Shortcomings aside, Rough Stuff proves an always engaging, rousing tale that celebrates the spirit of our bush folk without a hint of irony. It is not a film for the ‘cultural cringe’ crowd, that elitist niche who resent any depiction of our population as descendants of rough’n’tumble rural folk. But nor is it meant for them. In one of the most impressive calling card pics in recent memory, Jonathan Adams has rediscovered and contemporised the charms of a terrific bush yarn.

Sunday
Feb052017

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO

Featuring: James Baldwin. Narrated by Samuel L Jackson.
Writer: James Baldwin.
Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: 4.5/5

The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” – James Baldwin.

The last great incomplete literary vision by American author James Baldwin is realised with precision and profound integrity in Raoul Peck’s elegant, pulse-quickening documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. The Haitian director’s dissection of a nation defined by dysfunctional race relations provides the complexity, emotion and analytical respect that Baldwin's astute work has long deserved; this extraordinarily moving and artfully rendered film is the nominee to beat in this year's Best Documentary Oscar showdown.

Born in 1924 Harlem to a single mother, Baldwin decamped from his Greenwich Village base, after years experiencing the commonplace prejudice of American life for people of colour, to settle in Paris in 1948. In an interview with The New York Times, he observed, “Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I (saw) where I came from very clearly. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” This realisation led to landmark works such as Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), the bestseller The Fire Next Time (1963), the 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie, based upon the racially-based slaying of teenager Emmet Till, and the book Nothing Personal (1964, co-authored with Richard Avalon), an account of the murder of civil rights advocate Medgar Evers.

A lauded documentarian (The Man on The Shores, 1993; Lumumba, 2000; Sometimes in April, 2005), Peck came into possession of 30 pages of the author’s notes and observations from the mid 1970s, that was to have been the basis for Remember This House, a defining account of the role played by three of Baldwin’s friends and contemporaries – Evers, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. The work remained unrealised by Baldwin, who passed away in 1987, but the material has inspired the filmmaker to construct both an understated polemic on the shameful history of American bigotry and a biography of an intellectual whose insight and passion into his nation’s dark soul is unparalleled.

Utilising archival images and interview footage of the author and the three social-change giants, as well as historic misrepresentations of the black man in white American culture, I Am Not Your Negro offers an arcing, aching narrative that spans the centuries of abuse and oppression suffered by the African American population. In measured tones not usually associated with the actor, Samuel L Jackson assumes Baldwin’s vocal cadence and recites key passages from the author’s decades-old work that, as with much of Peck’s film, offer a clarity of voice that speaks directly to the America of today.

Despite being central to a resurgent social activism filmmaking sector, I Am Not Your Negro has key points of difference to its co-nominees. It does not wear its anger and injustice on its sleeve, like Ava Duvernay’s volatile and equally vital 13th, or cast a sprawling socio-political net in the study of a fractured United States, like Ezra Edelman’s similarly masterful O.J.: Made in America. Where Raoul Peck’s take on systemic hatred and intolerance finds its own soaring cry is in its portrait of a nation that had the opportunity to right wrongs, was being led by great minds and spiritual warriors towards a better future, but which dug in its jackbooted heels.

In light of #BlackLivesMatter and the uprising in Ferguson, the impassioned thoughtfulness and unshakeable humanism of James Baldwin’s words and voice are as relevant now as any point in history. I Am Not Your Negro portrays the dignified fury with which Baldwin confronted his oppressors, past and present; it is the perfect cinematic companion piece to the man’s legacy.

Thursday
Jan192017

GHOST TEAM

Stars: Jon Heder, Melonie Diaz, Justin Long, David Krumholtz, Paul W. Downs and Amy Sedaris.
Writer: Peter Warren; story by Peter Warren and Oliver Irving.
Director: Oliver Irving.

Rating: 3/5

As Paul Feig’s femme refashioning of Ghostbusters filled 4000 multiplex screens amidst wave after wave of e-coverage, Oliver Irving’s slacker spin Ghost Team crept through 10 theatres before a low-key US Netflix debut in December. Comfy-couch home viewing is the best way to enjoy this amiable, goofy supernatural laffer; 20-something basement-dwellers and die-hard fans of stars Jon Heder and Justin Long will find enough chemistry between the committed cast and the occasionally spooky moment to make the investment of a whopping 84 minutes worthwhile.

The proprietor of a strip mall printing shop, Louis (Heder, comfortably in his ‘lovable loser’ schtick) is stuck in a life rut; work, booze, pizza and bolstering his depressed and slovenly friend, Stan (David Krumholtz), who is convinced aliens annulled his engagement when they abducted his fiancée. The one bright moment of their day is the TV show Ghost Getters, a paranormal investigation lark not dissimilar to the SyFy Channel’s hit Ghost Hunters (look for cute cameos by small-screen stars Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves).

When the opportunity to do some paranormal sleuthing of their own presents itself, Louis and Stan set about gathering the tools and the talent; along for the ride are smart-mouth millennial d.b. Zak (Paul W. Downs), sweet and sensible Ellie (Melonie Diaz, always reliable), local cable psychic Victoria (a woefully underused Amy Sedaris) and wanna-be Rambo mall cop Ross (Long, stealing all his scenes). Branding themselves ‘Ghost Team’ (having disagreed on the far superior ‘Polter Guys’), they set about capturing evidence of the eerie goings-on at a decrepit barn, deep in the local backwoods.

On the way to a chaotic and not-very-supernatural third act that feels a tad ‘Scooby Doo’-ish, writer Peter Warren and Irving (who last directed the 2008 Robert Pattinson oddity, How To Be) conjure some genuinely creepy moments; Downs convincingly sells the terror of an encounter with a grey apparition that mutters that ol' horror movie chestnut, “You’re all going to die.” More fittingly, the timeless premise allows for some low brow antics and guilty giggles, all achieved on a budget that would not have paid for a day’s catering on Sony’s spectral adventure.

Credit to leading man Heder, whose comedic energy and sweet charm centres the narrative when it borders on becoming more aimless than amiable; he will always be Napoleon Dynamite, but he has worked hard and succeeded at establishing an engaging screen persona of his own since the sleeper hit of 2004. Given the production foregoes any expensively scary effects work, one can assume a big chunk of the budget went on acquiring the rights to Gary Wright’s 1975 yacht-rock anthem, Dream Weaver, its refrain both bonding the mismatched quintet while evoking that all-important feel-good audience vibe. DVD extras should be a hoot; if ever a film warranted a closing-credit goof reel (and very few do), it's Ghost Team.

Sunday
Jan082017

THE WAVE (BOLGEN)

Stars: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Såheim, Laila Goody, Artheur Berning, Herman Bernhoft, Eili Harboe and Silje Breivik.
Writers: John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg.
Director: Roar Uthaug.

Rating: 3.5/5

International cinema indulges in some old-school Hollywood B-movie thrills with the Norwegian disaster-pic, The Wave. Set against the majestic, UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord in the Sunnmøre district, director Roar Uthaug slow burns a melodramatic set-up before delivering a spectacular water-wall that more than earns its titular status; the few minutes of screen time afforded the flawlessly realised wave prove every bit as terrifying as the current high-water marks in cinematic tidal surges, seen in J.A. Bayonas’ The Impossible and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.

Unlike those films, Uthaug (currently preparing the Tomb Raider reboot with Alicia Vikander) and writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg don’t draw upon the recent past, instead speculating what may lie ahead for Norway’s south-west region. The steep inclines of Åkerneset Mountain are eroding and pose a real-life threat to the villages of Geiranger and Hellesylt; should the sheer cliff face peel away and plunge into the fjord, a tsunami would all but consume the foreshores. The ten-minute warning period in which the population must evacuate is depicted with chilling realism.

The vast scale of the impending cataclysm is provided a personal perspective in the form of geologist and family man Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and children, teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and blonde moppet Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). Kristian is farewelling his role at the earthquake monitoring station; having cut cake with his co-workers, he is all but aboard the Stavanger Ferry and bound for a new, non-fjord life only for his scientific instinct kicks in.

Much of the film’s first half is Eco-Disaster Epic 101. The stern boss, Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) takes a lot of convincing that the warning signs he has been trained to spot are any warning at all; the family is separated by coincidence; support players pop in and out, uttering just enough dialogue so that we recognise their faces when their inevitable fates are played out. Kristian is a new millennium, ‘every man’ hero; the script deftly defines him as a self-deprecating 40 year-old who doesn’t know what a plumbers wrench is. Past generations would have demanded the casting of square-jawed types, like Paul Newman (see: James Goldstone’s 1980 volcano-themed When Time Ran Out…) or Sylvester Stallone (see: Rob Cohen’s 1996 NYC Tunnel collapse drama, Daylight).

But Uthaug explores a deeper, stronger degree of human drama post-wave. It is to the production’s credit that the human toll of the tsunami is portrayed with as convincing realism as the wave itself; given the modern audience’s familiarity with such horrors, it would have been unwise not to. While searching for his wife and son, Kristian faces the unthinkable when he must walk a corpse-strewn bus; Idun is called upon to commit the unthinkable when a panicky survivor threatens to kill Sondre. The post-event landscape is also afforded a richer, nightmarishly cinematic quality, highlighting the surreal shift in reality such an occurrence leaves behind. The sequence in which Kristian slowly rows a fire-lit waterway littered with the dead reminds us that The Wave may be cut from B-movie cheesecloth, but a fresh, frank perspective is still capable of enlivening old cinematic tropes.

Saturday
Dec172016

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen and Jimmy Smits.
Writers: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
Director: Gareth Edwards.

Reviewed at the Australian Premiere; Wednesday, December 14 at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter Cinema 1, Fox Studios. 

Rating: 5/5

Director Gareth Edwards takes an unapologetically hard line with Rogue One, the first of Disney’s planned series of stand alone Star Wars films. His version of the ever-expanding Lucas-verse is dirty, violent and vast; everyone bears a grudge, carries a vengeful sword, pulsates with a determination to either halt the march of evil or forge its destructive path. It carries the burden of being about odds and stakes, of legacies and consequences, of understanding destiny and the degrees of virtue and sacrifice required to honour it.

Edwards, working with scripters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, has delivered a Hollywood franchise entrant that harkens back to an era before those words carried ugly loading. Chronologically, it exists in a time and place just prior to the events of Star Wars: Episode IV and it feels of that era in terms of narrative and thematic shadings. In this Marvel tentpole world, where faux dramatics are conjured to create the illusion that superheroes are fighting for something of some value, Rogue One is indeed rebellious, posing a quest that resonates with emotional engagement and grand illusion.

Which accounts for the dirty, desperate soldiers willing to risk all in Rogue One. Edwards’ heroes are angry, sad, complex characters, the kind whose psyches can just as easily invoke violence and anger as they can a purity of character and rare heroism. This illuminates the direct lineage between Lucas’ Star Wars and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both share a single hero’s journey on a grand scale, physically and psychologically, shaded in light and dark and disguised as a B-movie space opera. Luke was driven by a sense of righteousness that soon turns to sour vengeance; our new heroine Jyn Urso (a commanding Felicity Jones) must confront that dichotomy reversed, having seen her mother murdered and father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) long since made a puppet of the Empire.

Jyn carries the burden of a hurt, hate-filled soul, a spiritual weight that has seen her disappear to the edges of society, and Rogue One soars emotionally on her gradual understanding and acceptance of the Rebel’s cause (just as a wide-eyed Luke came to understand the balance between his Jedi faith and human rage). Jyn has no royal romantic foil or a rogueish space pirate to lighten her load; her offsider is Rebel security heavy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, superb), a driven assassin willing to kill his allies for the cause. Edwards understands that a universe under Imperial rule is one of death and carnage; to suggest Rogue One’s intense battle scenes and cataclysmic destruction might be too intense for the under 10s is to conveniently ignore the fate of Jawas, Ewoks, the people of Alderaan, Death Star workers, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, to name only a few.

Rogue One is steeped in essential series mythology, including most profoundly the patriarchal bond. A mid-section sequence set on the rain-soaked Imperial outpost of Eadu explores this thematic element with visual and emotional bravado; in a film of sublimely constructed passages, it may be the most breathtaking. It is also a crucial sequence as it leads to the formation of the unbreakable bond shared between Jyn, Andor, turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind Jedi devotee Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen), his accomplice, the ace marksman Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Villainy comes in the caped form of Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, whose seething callousness and desperate lust for power make him a truly malevolent figure (though his human frailties are exposed in one memorable encounter with a certain Imperial Lord).

Gareth Edwards’ respectful and deeply rooted adherence to lore should not imply Rogue One is constricted by its legacy. It is, in fact, the most daring film to date in the Star Wars canon; bold storytelling flourishes are entirely convincing, silencing detractors of a certain ‘exhaust port’ plot development in Episode IV, while bright, beautiful sunlight and stunning space-scapes (gorgeously blending the real-world lensing of Aussie DOP Greig Fraser with the out-of-this-world work of the effects crew) give the film a patina unseen in the seven films to date. Edwards even dares to CGI-conjure characters from a bygone time who performed integral roles in both the implementation of and fight against the Death Star; that first glimpse of a long-gone Imperial leader is one of many extraordinary moments in Rogue One.

All of which may be why some analysis has stated that Rogue One is, “one for the fans.” In many ways, it most certainly and proudly is, given the thrill associated with hearing well-place sound cues, glimpsing a familiar face in the corner of the frame or piecing together fragmentary elements that non-fans will miss entirely. But that comment, “one for the fans”, also insinuates that something about Rogue One keeps it confined to the Star Wars universe, that it fails to break free of the lore that has gone before.

That is certainly not the case; Rogue One embraces its heritage then honours the past by crafting a magnificently large, fittingly glorious story of dignity, redemption and, of course, hope. It is about the birth of a rebellion, of what it takes to inspire the repressed population to unite and fight, of the bravery of the freedom fighter. In this year more than any other, that should resonate with a thunderous echo. Rogue One is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, yet feels more immediate, even prescient, than any Hollywood film in recent memory.