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Wednesday
Nov162016

MORGAN

Stars: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Vinette Robinson, Chris Sullivan, Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti.
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Director: Luke Scott

Rating: 4/5

Picture raising an id-fuelled, temperamental five-year old, wrapped in the skin and attitude of a wilful teenager, with every associated mood swing potentially resulting in carnage only an adult psychopath can deliver.  Herein lies the essence of Morgan, debutant director Luke Scott’s slick, slow-burn sci-fi thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular synthetic humanoid struggling to reconcile her robotic roots with some very human existential angst.

The by-product of a corporate R&D program run rampant, Morgan is holed up in a wildly over production-designed country estate that looks like the Addams Family mansion from the outside but which hides an intricate network of underground scientific research chambers. These serve to both study and contain Morgan, her skin exhibiting a vaguely metallic pallor (likely the result of having spent her formative years sans sunlight) and her only form of clothing, a grey hoody, hiding a fierce musculature well beyond her years.

The breakout star of Robert Eggers’ 2015 shocker The Witch, the diminutive Taylor-Joy summons the kind of onscreen physicality and ominous presence that makes the anxiety felt by her captors entirely believable. Following an ‘incident’ that leaves Jennifer Jason Leigh’s researcher in a terrible state (another descent into brutal victimisation for the actress, though far less well formulated than her Hateful 8 turn), company ‘fixer’ Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to reassess and potentially terminate the Morgan model. The droid’s fate seems sealed when an encounter with Paul Giamatti’s psych evaluator goes bad; the rat-a-tat dialogue and punchy editing of the encounter makes for the film’s most riveting scene.

Despite their charge’s unpredictable cyber-nature, none of the scientists want to see the increasingly human Morgan shut down, their objectivity clouded by eight years spent formulating, constructing and caring for ‘it’. Behaviourist Rose Leslie, chief scientist Toby Jones, administrator Michael Yare, overseer Michelle Yeoh and hunky cook Boyd Holbrook have all developed strong ties to both the project goals and Morgan her/itself, putting them at odds with the chilly, objective-driven risk manager. Mara is a tightly coiled spring as Weathers, her striking angular features and tiny frame concealing its own innate strength and potential for killer force; imagine Audrey Hepburn in Luc Besson’s Le Femme Nikita.

Fast-tracked into the role of feature director, Scott does a fine job manoeuvring his actors around some familiar territory. Alex Garland’s 2015 cult hit Ex Machina, with Alicia Vikander as the robo-girl, trod similar ground; it proved more intellectually ambitious, though Morgan is a dash more fun. Structurally, a group of stranded archetypes facing off against a relentless non-human foe feels a lot like Alien; said non-human protagonist leaving a bloody trail its wake in a quest to define its own mortality sounds quite a bit like Blade Runner. No surprise to learn that Luke Scott is Ridley’s son and that Morgan is produced by Dad’s production outfit, Scott Free.

If the echoes of too many other films negate his own distinctive voice, the slick visuals and strong characterisations suggest Luke Scott has much to offer beyond the shadow of his father. Morgan isn’t the smartest sci-fi thriller you’re likely to see (the ‘twist ending’ was picked very early on by your critic), but it is a terrific piece of A-list B-movie entertainment nonetheless.

Tuesday
Nov082016

OCCUPANTS

Stars: Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo.
Writer: Julia Camara
Director: Russell Emanuel

Rating: 4/5

Two engaging central performances and a director determined to maximise the potential of his premise ensures Occupants emerges as one of the most effective and satisfying low-budget genre works of 2016.

A low-key alt-universe/time-portal two-hander, director Russell Emmanuel’s crowd-pleaser exhibits all the character-driven drama and high-concept smarts of the best Twilight Zone episodes. He’s probably scratching his head at the protagonist’s home-tech set-up, but somewhere Rod Serling is also smiling warmly that his legacy is embraced with such skill and affection.

Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a LA-based documentary maker who makes herself and good-guy husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) the focus of her latest project, in which she subjects the household to a diet cleansing regime and captures its impact upon their dynamic. Scripter Julia Camara’s narrative kicker is not especially sturdy (what exactly does Annie expect to capture via her multi-camera set-up apart from inevitable mood swings and weight loss?), but there is some sly social satire in the notion that only Californian millennials would assume there is an audience interested in watching them turn vegan.

Showing a sure touch with a series of slow-burn reveals, Emmanuel (a journeyman talent credited with solid home-vid titles like P.J., with John Heard, and Chasing the Green, with William Devane) amps up the tension when Annie’s footage reveals a window into a parallel plane of existence in which two far less happy versions of her and Neil struggle with a miserable life. Presented with undeniable evidence this extraordinary event is in fact real, Annie and Neil take on the roles of voyeurs, peering intently at and slowly identifying with their darker selves living another life.

Annie can’t help but get involved with the ethereal doppelgangers when her cameras reveal hot-button topics like pregnancy and potential homicide; what neither Annie or Neil count on are the consequences when their other selves take a vengeful ‘Mind your own business!’ stance. Events become worrisome, then menacing, the stresses of a life without beer and pizza amplified by nocturnal visitations from beyond this world.

Kudos to Emmanuel and his casting team for pairing White and Pugliese, who have a endearing, convincing chemistry, whether as the buoyant, sweet-natured ‘Annie and Neil’ or as the sad, increasingly tormented ‘Others’. In a bit part played directly to camera, veteran character actor Robert Picardo (The Howling; Star Trek Voyager; Inner Space) plays Annie’s mentor Dr Alan Peterson, a role that adds much-needed weight to some of the plot’s loopier developments.

A ‘found footage’ film by defintion, DOP/editor Emile Harris eschews the familiar shaky-cam, instead applying split-screen technique and believable graphics to convincing affect. The usual illogical elements continue to undermine the genre; why would Annie’s hours of footage be edited into this thriller-like construct? why not go public with such sensational evidence of supernatural phenomenon? But Occupants so convincingly plays to its strengths, such griping seems petty; Emmanuel and his leads provide a giddy sense of thrilling discovery and palpable tension that proves entirely winning.

 

Tuesday
Oct182016

CURSE OF THE MAN WHO SEES UFOS

Featuring: Christo Roppolo, Dennis Deakin, Laurence Cefalu, Steve Cefalu, Jim Culcasi and Gregg Maldanado.
Director: Justin Gaar

Rating: 4/5

Despite a title that vividly conjures a 50’s B-movie aesthetic, Justin Gaar’s documentary feature provides a great deal more than the thrilling, occasionally giggly charms of an old-school alien invasion pic (though it supplies a little bit of that, too). Dissecting an ageing, eccentric UFOlogist’s obsession with lights in the sky along California’s central coast, Curse of The Man Who Sees UFOs deftly combines the joyous ‘I Want to Believe’ ethos of fan-favourite X-Files episodes with an unexpected and ingratiatingly warm human insight.

From a purely cinematic perspective, endearing UFO nut, synth-music composer and part-time horror effects designer Christo Roppolo possesses the kind of boisterous personality and towering physicality that makes him the ideal on-camera subject. When Gaar (holding the camera and narrating, though never revealed) first meets the slightly bedraggled but infectiously enthusiastic Roppolo, the disorientation that the director experiences in the presence of such a larger-than-life, left-of-centre force of nature is palpable.

When Roppolo unleashes the unbridled passion that drives his obsession, the impact is breathtaking (and often laced with salty adjectives). This is partly because of his storytelling skill, as in one graphic recounting of public defecation that may have been brought on by the UFO presence; less funny are memories of a childhood visitation, when he describes ‘Bullwinkle the Moose’ confronting him and his terrified younger sibling. But it is his hours of legitimate footage of unexplained phenomena in the skies over Monterey, Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove that legitimises and fuels his fixation.

The content is largely the shaky-cam, long-zoom blurred-focus variety, but there is no denying that much is ‘unidentifiable’, including pulsating colours, red orbs and triangular shapes, often flying in perfect unison and exhibiting non-linear trajectories. Gaar adopts the crucial role of sceptic, accompanying the viewer through stages from broad disbelief to a succinct revelation-of-sorts. The director acknowledges that there is a military base nearby, but does not give screen time to Air Force whistle blowers or weather experts eager to explain away Roppolo’s often compelling vision.

Where Garr’s film soars is not in its account of flying saucer worship but in a second-act refocusing on Roppolo’s past, encompassing such unexpected thematic developments as artistic dreams unfulfilled, family tragedy and betrayal and emotionally crippling grief. Gaar contends that his subject’s myopic enthusiasm for and unique bond with the sky visitors may have a great deal to do with a soul-crushing period of sorrow. The director’s observations are perfectly positioned to enliven the narrative; they spin a likable study of a UFO enthusiast who may be onto something into a dissection of a man haunted by memories and struggling with the melancholy of ageing emotions.

A terrific debut work, Gaar’s film exposes not the facts behind the UFO craze, but a man determined to leave a lasting legacy from the remnants of a life that promised a great deal more. In searching for the truth out there, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs reveals that a more profound understanding of reality can be found in one man’s existence.

The film’s title, in fact, is perfectly appropriate, given that it captures the burden of Christo Roppolo’s misfortune in life, his proclivity for swearing when excited and the mixed blessing of being able to see what others can’t.

Thursday
Oct132016

SPIRIT OF THE GAME

Stars: Aaron Jakubenko, Wade Briggs, Grant Piro, Mark Mitchell, Anna McGahan, Denise Roberts and Kevin Sorbo.
Writer/director: J.D. Scott

Rating: 3/5

So thoroughly imbued with good will to all men that one immediately feels enveloped in its wide-eyed positivity, Spirit of The Game is a bighearted mash-up of those two intrinsically middle-American movie genres – the faith-based family drama and the rousing underdog sports story.

Even by the heart tugging, tear duct welling standards these earnest narratives set for themselves, you won’t find 97 minutes of more cynicism-free cinema this year. That is an attribute likely to endear Spirit of The Game to the flyover-state core demographic, though it will ensure it remains largely confined to the mall multiplexes and small town single-screens of the heartland’s ‘Bible Belt’, before a long home entertainment after-life.

The ‘Game’ of the title is basketball, while the ‘Spirit’ is that preached by the Church of Latter Day Saints, circa early 1950s. Struggling with self worth after having his heart broken by the gal of his dreams, sensitive Utah hunk Delyle Condie (a buoyant Aaron Jakubenko) turns his back on college ball to go ‘on mission’, spreading the LDS message door-to-door in the foreign world of the Melbourne suburban wilderness. Down under, he finds most Aussies aren’t too fond of door knockers spruiking salvation (still true today), and is denied the occasional court time by rigid Church elder, President Bingham (Oz comedy icon Mark Mitchell, playing against type), who demands all waking hours be spent in the service of The Lord.

As if sent from ‘movie coincidence’ heaven, Condie’s daily rounds lead him to the front door of Australian basketball official Ken Watson (Grant Piro, especially fine), who is having his own existential struggle; namely, how to get the national team in any sort of shape for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The team of Aussies who can’t play are soon being coached by the Yank missionaries who can, ensuring both sporting and spiritual enhancement for the local lads. Some plot twists feel a bit on the nose, but the facts behind the story are undeniable (in one incredible moment, Condie pep talks a teenage Lindsay Gaze, a name that would become legend in the annals of Australian basketball).  

When word leaks that the Americans are priming the Aussies, the French team (or “winesippers”, as one character calls them, their thin moustaches and haughty attitude a tad too racially cartoonish) demand some game time with Condie’s ‘Mormon Yankees’. Giving that the climactic confrontation is a ‘friendly’, the stakes are essentially French arrogance against American spirituality, with the pic’s final frozen image leaving no doubt (as if any existed) as to the victor.

Director Darran Scott (adopting the initials ‘J.D.’ for his second feature) displays a sure hand expanding and enhancing the same soulful connection between basketball and faith he explored in his 2015 film, The Playbook. The Melbourne-bred, Wyoming-based filmmaker was born into the role of God’s messenger, having lived his youth in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands the son of a missionary father. Appropriately, Spirit of The Game has the gentle touch of a experienced preacher who knows that the best way to convey a message of salvation is to allow the congregation to feel it dawn upon them. Spirit of The Game not only espouses faith, it exhibits enough of its own – in its actors, its craftspeople and its own storytelling prowess – to engender a warm, admiring response.

Though clearly mounted on a tight budget, tech credits are generally fine, with Australian locales doubling ably for 50’s Utah in early scenes. Only name player of note in the cast is Kevin Sorbo, playing our hero's wisdom spouting, warmhearted father. His Hercules days long gone, Sorbo’s presence will pave the way for the film in key territories, given the actor’s second-wind career change as the go-to guy for faith-based drama (Soul Surfer, 2011; God’s Not Dead, 2014; Joseph and Mary, 2016). 

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.

Sunday
Sep182016

57 LAWSON

Featuring: Sara Armanfar, Carolyn Athan, Lou Athan, Mary Athan, Melissa Athan, Hussein Atik, Anthea Hewitt, Marta Klimenko, Gary Lonesborough and Olga Markovic.
Director: Ben Ferris.

Reviewed at the World Premiere at The Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday September 16; screened in Cinema 4 at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

Rating: 4/5

An unwavering focus records seemingly random but deeply honest, inherently captivating moments in time in Ben Ferris’ 57 Lawson, a study in humanity set against the backdrop of an ageing unit precinct in Sydney’s inner city. From the very first frame, which captures the low-rise towers as their day fades into night, the director’s docu-drama masterfully draws upon the objective observational cinema of Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker and Frederick Wiseman in examining the inevitability of change while archiving the latest redefinition of the role of ‘people’ in the city landscape.   

The multi-level apartment complex of the title was borne of an era when inner city population growth was high on the State government agenda. In 1941, the New South Wales Housing Commission was formed to encourage settlement in the area and provide homes for a burgeoning population; in 1965, the three apartment blocks named Kendall, Gilmore and Lawson, aka ‘Poets Corner’, that are featured in the film were opened. By 2016, the occupants are at the mercy of a new local government agenda, one that is handing these prime pockets of city real estate over to billionaire developers with no consideration for heritage or, more importantly, the residents.

Revealed in long, unbroken takes, the lives of the apartment dwellers are both unremarkable and beautiful in their apparent anonymity. Among them are a matriarch and her family, downplaying a traumatic hospital stint; a woman, dipping in and out of her native tongue while reading a cake recipe; and, an Iranian student, living a modern life while remaining respectful of her ancestry. Some of the extended takes are frustratingly abstract; a cruise ship passing the Opera House is a particularly bewildering insert. Yet the engagement between Ferris’ lens, the footpaths and corridors of the complex and those that call it home remains endlessly captivating.

The mosaic of everyday life begins to unravel when Department of Family and Community Services officials arrive at 57 Lawson to begin the relocation process of the longterm tenants. These scenes are staged, but they are realised with no less of an impact than the observational factual footage; particularly heartbreaking is the ageing Turkish man and the moment of realisation that the two women in his home are preparing to move him after 40 years of living at Poet’s Corner.  

Despite flagging a point-of-view with a pre-title quote from Mahatma Gandhi (“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”), Ferris’ methodolgy does not dictate a socio-political message. Instead, his camera is an observer of the existential complexity behind the case numbers and bureaucracy. The influence of Akerman’s ‘slow-cinema’ is obvious, notably her masterwork All One Night (1982); like the late director’s finest films, 57 Lawson is an exercise in minimalism to the point of near abstract detachment. Yet while the very presence of Ferris’ camera seems oblivious to his subjects, it achieves a gripping intensity of personal focus and tangible sense of time and place.

 

Sunday
Sep112016

THIS PAPIER MACHE BOULDER IS ACTUALLY REALLY HEAVY

Stars: Christian Nicolson, Sez Niederer, Daniel Pujol, Lewis Roscoe, Joseph Wycoff, Tansy Hayden and Jarred Tito.
Writers: Andrew Beszant and Christian Nicolson.
Director: Christian Nicolson.

Rating: 3/5

Playing sweet and silly while keeping irony in check is one of the many endearing traits of multi-hyphenate Christian Nicolson’s fan-boy movie-gasm, This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy. The Auckland-based writer-director’s passion project is roughhewn but undeniably crowdpleasing, deriving some big laughs from a barrage of references that draw upon the two great periods of popular science fiction entertainment –the B-movie cheapies of the 1950s and the post-Star Wars boom of the 1980s.

Working with co-scripter Andrew Beszant and exhibiting an unwavering commitment to improvised energy, the premise stems from Nicolson’s deep understanding and clear affection for such properties as Blakes 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Red Dwarf and Star Trek (whose fan base are already nodding knowingly at the title); large dollops of comedic inspiration come from the likes of Monty Python, the Simon Pegg series Spaced and, in one nutty nod, The Benny Hill Show. Low- to no-budget constraints clearly posed zero concern for the cast and crew, who commit to their director’s enthusiastically loopy vision regardless of wobbly sets, home-stitched costuming and paddocks-as-planets location shoots.

Nicholson stars as Tom, the almost-cool one in a mismatched trio alongside schlubby eye-roller Gavin (Lewis Roscoe) and sci-fi geek Jeffery (Daniel Pujol). Reluctantly roped into a day at the mini-con ‘Quest Fest’, they are drawn to a screening of the schlocky space-opera, Space Warriors in Space. With barely a paragraph of cumbersome exposition, the three are zapped into the film, where Jeffery morphs into the fictitious Captain Kasimir, the trio put offside the evil galactic battle lord Froth (Joseph Wycoff, very funny) and Tom fosters affections for the feisty heroine Emmanor (Sez Niederer). Developments involving giant lizards, leery bikini-clad Amazons, a muppet and tribesmen with a Groot-like economy for words add to the overall air of free-for-all lunacy.

The meta-friendly ‘trapped-in-a-movie’ device allows for lots of knowing satire, utilisation of well-worn tropes and examination of the fan-to-film dynamic. Unlike the melancholy romanticism of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo or smart social commentary of Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, Nicolson uses the structure to play for broad laughs, as Peter Hyams did in the 1992 cult item Stay Tuned, which saw John Ritter and Pam Dawber cast into a cable TV nightmare. The other clear inspiration is Dean Parisot’s 1999 hit Galaxy Quest; less obviously, due to it barely having seen a release outside of the UK, is Alan Donohoe’s Star Wars fan-pic, I Have a Bad Feeling About This, which recounts the odyssey of two Lucas-obsessed lads determined to catch a screening of the original trilogy.

In hindsight, Nicolson may have handed his post-production hyphen over to a fresh pair of eyes; at 112 minutes, the whimsy is not always maintained and the film could do with a tight trim. But one can’t begrudge Nicolson and his cast and crew the urge to put all they shot on-screen for all to see; the sense that every set-up was forged with passion and persistence imbues this giggly, goofy and genuinely likable genre farce.

This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy begins an exclusive New Zealand screening season on September 14 in Auckland. Full screening and ticketing information on the film’s official website.

 

Friday
Sep092016

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER

Stars: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Lucy Lawton, Bruce Bohne, Matt Roy and Dee Noah.
Writers: Billy O’Brien and Christopher Hyde, based upon the novel by Dan Wells.
Director: Billy O’Brien

Rating: 4/5

The ‘teenage American Gothic’ ambience of Dan Wells’ young-adult novel I Am Not a Serial Killer is recaptured with an occasionally morbid yet invigorating cadence in director Billy O’Brien’s bracingly icky, hugely entertaining adaptation.

In equal measure a small-town murder mystery, alienated teen saga and bloody body count slasher, O’Brien and co-scripter Christopher Hyde have crafted a work that has had reviewers recalling everything from TV’s series Fargo, Dexter and Six Feet Under to publishing franchise Goosebumps to George Romero’s 1977 film Martin (we’ll offer up Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil and some Twin Peaks, too). But the atmospherics soar when it is bringing its own uniquely dark and dirty take on murderous urges and giving the forward momentum over to its two outstanding leading men.

Key protagonist is John Cleaver, a young man pulling shifts draining blood at his broken family’s mortuary while being completely self aware of his borderline sociopathic state. In the hands of the great Max Records, Cleaver takes his place alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko as one of contemporary teen cinema’s most vividly etched characters; like Darko, O’Brien’s anti-hero is introduced peddling his own way through a landscape that is at once familiar yet disorienting. His snow-covered Midwestern burg is in the early stages of a serial killing spree, the by-product of a mindset with which Cleaver is himself grappling.

Cleaver’s ‘Hardy Boys’-like guile has him zeroing in on a suspect; when he witnesses the stranger smooth-talk his elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) into a car trip into the wilderness, Cleaver suspects the worst. In one of the great second act kickers in recent memory, O’Brien spins the story into a whole new and shocking realm that rattles both Cleaver and the viewer. To detail the narrative developments would be unavoidably spoiler-y, suffice to say it allows for Cleaver to fully explore and better understand the nature of his own tendencies while still wonderfully servicing the requirements of both the ‘teen loner hero’ and ‘slasher pic’ tropes.

Expect Christopher Lloyd’s performance to come into sharp focus during award season prognosticating. It is entirely deserving of recognition in the always hotly contested ‘Supporting Actor’ category, so menacingly understated and against type for the actor, still best known as Back to the Future’s Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (in a perfect world, he will be up against John Goodman’s similarly enigmatic mystery-man Howard in 10 Cloverfield Lane). An Independent Spirit nod seems most likely; could A.M.P.A.S. see past the film’s genre roots (horror rarely gets noticed) to award Lloyd, one of Hollywood’s most beloved ageing icons? Records nails the tone required of him by his director, as well; his delivery of Cleaver’s ‘cardboard box’ speech, in which he dresses down a bully with eloquent insight into how he keeps his homicidal drive in check, is an instant classic.

O’Brien has reworked some hoary horror tropes in the past to deliver sly, sinister, engaging B-movies (genetically-modified farm horror in Isolation, 2006; rampant alien-human crossbreeding in The Hybrid, 2014). I Am Not a Serial Killer is more of the same, only better. Blessed with a macabre sense of the absurd, a pulse that beats with as much emotion as it does blood and the mean streak required to pull off the inherent nastiness of the premise, Dan Wells and Billy O’Brien’s nightmare world is a horror fan’s dream come true.

 

Saturday
Aug272016

BURNS POINT

Stars: Andrew Lowe, Ron Kelly, Francesca Bianchi, Aleisha Rose, John McNeill, Joel Spreadborough and Brad McMurray.
Writer: Chris Blackburn
Director: Tim Blackburn

World Premiere at CinefestOz 2016; screened at Margaret River Cultural Centre, Saturday August 27.

Rating: 3.5/5

A slow-burn crime melodrama that recalls such significant Australian works as Ray Lawrence’s Lantana and Anna Reeves’ The Oyster Farmer, the coastal-set thriller Burns Point proves a compelling calling-card effort for debutant director Tim Blackburn and his scriptwriter dad, Chris.

Utilising the picturesque surrounds of the New South Wales’ township of Ballina, the young filmmaker confidently weaves an ambiguously murky morality narrative steeped in revenge, family ties and dark anti-heroism. The thematic heritage, protagonist’s vengeful motivations and vast, photogenic backdrop (captured in all its widescreen beauty by rising DOP talent, Kent Marcus) posits Blackburn’s film as a ‘revenge western’ update darkened with shades of film noir.

Despite his boyish presence as the frontman of an otherwise muscular work, Andrew Lowe is capable as Jeremy Wilman, returning to his childhood hometown as the grieving brother of a murdered girl (Lyndal Moody, fleetingly). The killer has walked free thanks to the influence of crooked cop father Ken Stafford (a seething Ron Kelly), but Jeremy cannot let his sister’s murderer escape justice; he draws upon local connections in the form of Joel Spreadborough's memorable tough guy to inflict some eye-for-an-eye retribution (the revenge is swift and brutal, in one of the otherwise understated film’s nastier moments.)

As word spreads of his involvement, Wilman finds solitude and shelter in a canefield clearing, the expanse filled with the shells of former homes that are now only weathered reminders of past lives (the historic Empire Vale providing the evocative backdrop). Here, he reconnects with a sense of family, befriending the gruff landowner Bryan (John McNeill) and his wildchild daughter-in-law, Myriam (Francesca Bianchi, the film’s biggest asset), both solid support characters afforded strong dramatics moments by Blackburn Snr, a TV production veteran (Big Brother; My Kitchen Rules; The Gruen Transfer). The final reel ‘showdown’ that the film’s western heritage demands is inevitable but delivers.

The elder Blackburn’s script doesn’t push genre boundaries, favouring strong characterisations and dark atmospherics over new directions. But the father-son creative team prove that blood ties and north coast waters are a good mix; Burns Point is low-key, moody and psychologically complex contemporary storytelling, the likes of which are attempted far too infrequently by Australian filmmakers, and deserves to be noticed.

Friday
Aug192016

THE SHALLOWS

Stars: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corso, Jose Manual, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey and Stevan ‘Sully’ Seagull.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

Rating: 4/5

One must swallow as much salty dramatic logic as Blake Lively does water to make The Shallows work, but work it does. Jaume Collet-Serra’s woman-vs-wild thriller is beautiful, bigscreen Hollywood nonsense that manoeuvres/manipulates the viewer into the kind of submissive state only the finest summer crowd-pleasers can achieve. Unlike Lively’s stranded surfer, who takes on a monster shark with guile and cunning, it’s best to jam any overthinking deep into your psychic beach bag and just enjoy the bounty of gut-level visceral thrills.

So grounded yet mesmerising as if to have risen out of the golden sand itself, Lively plays grieving med student Nancy, who has deferred her studies to travel to the idyllic beach that was dear to her late mom. The reconciliation with her mother’s spiritual home provides a mere shading of real world emotion yet, as sketchy a set-up as that may be, it is all Lively needs to spark the heroine into life. The actress’ innate sweetness and towering physicality proves a potent and photogenic combination. Not unlike her husband Ryan Reynold’s solo turn in Buried (2010; also for a Spanish director, Rodrigo Cortes), Lively maximises her time alone on-screen, her only companion a Wilson-like seagull, whom she names ‘Steven’ (the film’s biggest laugh).

Having taken to the azure waters, she spends the day riding the breaks that her mother once enjoyed. Collet-Serra takes his good time establishing ever-changing, sometimes disorienting nature of the seascape, from the pounding surf to the razor-sharp coral, but this is deliberate. Understanding the geography plays a crucial role in buying into Nancy’s developing predicament. The breathing space that the Lord Howe Island location gives his camera only amplifies his skill at forging tension. And the vastness of the sun-drenched tropical setting is matched only by the multitude of adoring angles the director and his DOP Flavio Martínez Labiano afford their leading lady.

Nancy’s decision to ride one last set is her undoing. A whale carcass has drifted near shore and she veers too near; from the depths, a great white shark checks her out. Soon, she is stranded on a rock that will be submerged come high tide; the shark is a constant presence, as is the threat of unconsciousness and infection associated with the gaping thigh wound she has suffered (if the production takes certain liberties with reality in most other regards, it gets the results of shark teeth on flesh right enough). Set in motion is a slasher pic structure, in which the ‘final girl’ must draw on reserve strength, both mental and physical, to outwit the ‘killing machine’ bad guy who has a myopic focus on carnage.

The Spanish director rarely lets reality usurp genre fun (House of Wax, 2005; Orphan, 2009; Unknown, 2011; Non-Stop, 2014). The Shallows is no different; both narratively (why are no other locals surfing this beach?) and scientifically (why is only one shark attracted to the whale carcass?), Collet-Serra brazenly, occasionally brilliantly, laughs in the face of common sense. He is concerned with cracking B-movie suspense, ratcheting up the thrills via (mostly) superb CGI employment and providing Lively with all the contrivances she needs to survive against her nemesis.

SCREEN-SPACE is adamantly against the demonization of sharks as movie monsters (read our interview with documentarian and shark protection advocate Madison Stewart). But The Shallow’s hulking villain is no more a realistic portrayal of the ocean’s great alpha predator than The Wizard of Oz is of tornadoes. His form and function is pure cinematic villainy; the dark chemistry he creates with his human co-star is perhaps the most realistic element in the film.