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Thursday
Aug232012

TOTAL RECALL

Stars: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho and Will Yun Lee.
Writers: Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback.
Director: Len Wiseman.

Rating: 2.5/5


The thing that is clearly missing most from Len Wiseman’s reworking of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 ‘classic’ is an economy of storytelling. Reflect upon Arnie’s original as it teeters on the brink of 90’s kitsch with all the hipster-coolness you can muster, but fact is it told a fast, fun story with clarity and wit.

And before we go further, lets be clear on one thing. Total Recall 2012 does not exist because Columbia Pictures, the swarm of producers or the director wanted to “go back to the original novel”, as has been spruiked on the talk show circuit over the last few weeks. It exists because the brand vividly recalls a hit movie that offered an all-ages, male-centric summer-movie experience, i.e. enormous profit potential.

Next to Dennis Dugan, Len Wiseman is commercial cinema’s most horrible director. His hollow posing and over-stylised gimmickry will forever mire his works as ‘awesome’ in the eyes of most under 15 boys and ‘disposable’ in the eyes of everyone else. None exhibit the breadth of vision, sense of humour or sci-fi smarts that Dutch-man Verhoeven brought to his adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s novel, ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (which gets an ‘Inspired by...’ credit, the film industry equivalent of a sideways glance).

Wiseman’s Underworld films and Die Hard 4 were chilly exercises in tech showiness with a soulless core. One is tempted to call them ‘Tin Man’ films, but that beloved figure knew the importance of a heart; I don’t think Wiseman does. Not that a film like Total Recall exists to warm our cockles. But audiences still need to be engaged to care how the action plays out. And its plot does pivot on emotional ties between three lead characters driven by both personal and political passions.

As Doug Quaid, the everyman hero who begins to remember a dangerous past life of super-agent intrigue, Colin Farrell is the archetypal Wiseman leading man; he acts as if he’s in peril, gasps with shock every time his body and mind instinctively surges with some learned battle skill (there’s more than a little Bourne-ism in Farrell’s playing of the part). Schwarzennegger came to the role late in his action-hero career; he was a big, lumbering 42 year-old when he shot the original and conveyed convincingly a man seriously at odds with his rediscovered responsibility. Farrell is cut like a gymnast and his hair is permanently gelled; no matter the imminent threat, he looks sensational and entirely in control.

Kate Beckinsale is Lori, the bad-wife role that Sharon Stone made her own. It has been expanded, as you’d expect when the wife of the director is cast, but more is less. Jessica Biel steps into Rachel Ticotin’s shoes as the rebel soldier Melina, and she brings some much needed warmth.

Wiseman’s greatest strength seems to be his knack for drawing top-tier work from his tech providers; the cityscapes of future-Earth look incredible, with more than a few recognisable influences from the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report, and densely choreographed action scenes, such as an elevated highway chase and lift-well escape, are great . Fellow Aussie patrons may be a little riled at our homeland being referred as ‘The Colony’; here’s hoping republican blood will boil at the reference and the debate over monarchist rule is reignited. 

There are a few nods to Verhoeven’s film (three-breasted hookers? Check; “Two weeks”? Check), but they are used for little more than feeble comic effect. That largely sums up Wiseman’s attitude to the original film (or, if you must, the source text). Had he recalled the past with greater respect rather than crassly exploiting it for meagre present gain, Wiseman may have made a better film.

Monday
Aug202012

BESTIAIRE

Director: Denis Côté.

Rating: 3.5/5


The opening scenes in Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté’s Bestiaire suggest his film will both observe and celebrate the co-existence we share with the beasts of this planet. It does that wonderfully well, but it also captures the complexities of that world view and, most importantly, from the perspective of the animals in certain instances. In that regard, Bestiaire is a remarkable study.

Honouring the literary tradition of the bestiaire (journals filled with illustrations and information on all manner of animal life), Côté’s first images are of art-class sketchers straining to not only replicate but also honour the physicality of a posed gazelle. It is fair to assume that the straight lines and simple, supple curves of the creature would be easy to draw, but it isn’t; the artists struggle with a true reproduction of it’s fur and antlers and ears. The filmmaker wants to redress this disconnect by filming a more truthful interaction of man and beast and takes his camera into a zoological park in Hemingford, Québec.

At times resembling a commissioned museum installation, Côté uses long takes and randomly framed images as well as a very complex and painstakingly rendered sound-scape. The settings change on a few occasions, in line with the seasons, and the mood shifts from playful and serene to ominous (a big cat’s incessant bashing of its enclosure door had audience members squirming in their seats, for example).

A determinedly artful project, the apparent abstractness and occasionally overstated series of images may prove too coolly esoteric for all but the most patient festival crowds and animal lovers. A mid-film sequence that goes into the workroom of a taxidermist and hints at the strong hand that mankind is capable of when dealing with our four-legged friends was too much for some and a few walkouts occurred. Procedures that bring a fake new-life to a duck in a room filled with mounted heads proved a little too jarring and further emphasise an uneasiness inherent to the man/animal co-existence.

Côté’s greatest achievement is in deciding not to anthropomorphize his subjects. He strives to capture not only how we view animals but how animals view us. Many of the final scenes are from inside the cages of the creatures, or from a distance that allows the viewer to observe both the park visitors and the animals in a single frame. The clinical images of cinematographer Vincent Biron are uniquely utilised by his director to create a testament to the individuality of animals but there is also a melancholy. These beasts live a compromised life and Bestiaire raises questions as to whether mankind’s best intentions justify the sacrifices they have unwittingly made.

Monday
Aug202012

A MONSTER IN PARIS

Voices: Vanessa Paradis, Sean Lennon, Adam Goldberg, Catherine O’Hara, Danny Huston, Bob Balaban and Jay Harrington.
Writers: Bibo Bergeron and Stephane Kazandjian.
Director: Bibo Bergeron.

Rating: 4/5


If it narratively stumbles on the odd occasion (and that isn’t very often), the graceful artistry and soaring heart that director Bibo Bergeron brings to his tale of outsider love is on par with similarly-themed works such as Disney’s Beauty and The Beast and Pixar’s Wall-E (with nods to ET and The Fly, too).

That said, its truest antecedent would be that most Gallic tale of unrequited love and social stigmatising, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A heady, intoxicating blend of the romantic majesty and rich culture of the City of Lights and the legacy provided by a century of great animation from both sides of the Atlantic courses through this beautiful film’s DNA.

Set in 1910, it tells the story of wanna-be inventor Raoul (voiced by Adam Goldberg, though drawn uncannily like TV commentator Stephen Colbert) and his friend, lovelorn cinema-projectionist Emile (Jay Harrington). One fateful night, the pair explore the greenhouse of a scientist client of Raoul’s delivery service and inadvertently combine potions that transform a tiny flea into a seven-foot version of itself. It escapes into night and, when Emile examines the footage he accidentally captured of the giant creature, the pair set about hunting it down.

But word has spread of the glowing-eyed ghoul and sleazy politician Victor (Danny Huston) wants the vote-grabbing glory of being the man who slays the monster of Paris. Having unwittingly terrified several citizens, the creature makes friends with nightclub chanteuse Lucille (Vanessa Paradis, the only returning voice-cast member from the original French language version) and is soon revealed to be a sensitive soul with incredible talent. In one gloriously realised sequence, the audience is privy to a ‘monster-eye’ recap of the creatures plight since he fled the laboratory; it is an exceedingly lovely passage of animation, both soaring and sorrowful.   

Bergeron is returning to his homeland after a Hollywood adventure that produced two works, the under-appreciated The Road to El Dorado and under-whelming Shark Tale – early volleys from the Dreamworks SKG cannon that aren’t spoken of with much love.

But commercially savvy producer Luc Besson has brought out the best in his director. They have crafted a very funny fairy-tale/love story (enhanced by a truly artistic use of the 3D technology) that deserves to find the kind of audience that flocks en masse to the latest Happy Meal tie-in project dreamt up by the major studios. There’s not a lot of cross-promotion opportunity in a story that features a giant, singing flea, but audiences who view this wonder will walk out filled with swollen hearts and damp handkerchiefs.

Sunday
Aug122012

MANIAC

Stars: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Liane Balaban, America Oliva, Morgane Slemp, Genevieve Alexander, Sammi Rotibi and Dan Hunter.
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg.
Director: Franck Khalfoun

MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Sat 11 Aug 11.30pm; Sat 17 Aug 11.30pm.

Rating: 4/5


The super-slickness of the modern movie aesthetic meets the zenith of 80’s video nasty mythology in Franck Khalfoun’s abrasive, thoroughly unpleasant remake of William Lustig’s Maniac.

Khalfoun exhibits both the technique of a skilled craftsman and the eye of a true auteur in his third feature. After the troubled production Wrong Turn at Tahoe arrived DOA, Maniac is a return to the sort of form and promise he exhibited in his car-park stalker debut, P2. He has one of the best modern exponents of stomach-churning horror in his corner in writer/producer Alexandre Aja, a long-time collaborator (he penned P2) and proven genre master (Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, Pirahna).

The biggest gamble Khalfoun undertakes is to place the audience entirely within the head of the film’s anti-hero, Frank. The film is shot in the first-person perspective, with the camera seeing all that the killer sees, but we also register the hallucinations and blurred perception that define the homicidal rages he embarks upon. We don’t just see the kills through his eyes, but also experience them via his psyche.

There is some inconsistency in its use that dilutes the insight into Frank’s mental illness the film purports to reveal; sometimes when he kills, he is outside his head looking on, other times not. But overall, it is a device that challenges the viewer and results in a unique and horrifying experience.

As Frank, the eternally youthful Elijah Wood is a baby-face killer with a suitably infantile obsession with his mother (played in flashback by America Olivo). Wood’s voice is heard far more than his face is seen, yet he resonates as both a truly scary murderer and a slightly pathetic nobody gripped by a crippling psychosis. Frank is a fitting companion to Woods’ Sin City psychopath, Kevin; the actors ability to have his silvery eyes glaze over when the madness kicks in helps him play evil particularly well.

Star and writer of Lustig’s original, the late Joe Spinell, played Frank (whose ethno-centric surname ‘Zito’ is gone) as the archetypal fat, sweaty late-night NYC stalker; Woods’ killer is a sensitive Los Angelino who crafts one-of-a-kind mannequins that he dresses with the scalps of his victims. The character’s skill at creating the lifeless female form counterpoints the savagery with which he takes real female life. His fibreglass artistry is what attracts photographic artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a young woman who Franck hopes will represent a turning point in his life.

The ‘Mommy made me do it!’ serial-killer cliché might have played with  resonance in 1980, but it’s a bit pat in 2012. That said, Wood, Aja and Khalfoun play out the conceit with freshness and, more importantly, frankness. The first-person perspective holds strong to the final telling frames, imbuing the film with an existential, even soulful, thoughtfulness.

Gorehounds, don’t be discouraged by all this high-falutin’ theorising; the killings are graphic, disturbing and bloody, just like you like it. Maniac is alternately a sickening and beautiful work, a film that asks audiences to counter the on-screen horrors with their own compassion.  

Friday
Aug102012

THE CAMPAIGN

Stars: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, Katherine LaNasa, Sarah baker, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, Karen Maruyama and Josh Lawson.
Writers: Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy.
Director: Jay Roach

Rating 3/5


The Campaign will split the vote between those who would have liked a smarter take on the immorality of modern politics and those that get a big laugh out of a character nicknamed ‘Tickleshits’ because he poohs when overstimulated.

Director Jay Roach nailed super-smart dissection of the political landscape in his great small-screen works Game Change (his take on Sarah Palin’s 2008 odyssey) and Recount (a dramatization of the 2000 Florida voting result), but they seem the works of another director entirely; here, we get the guy who also directed Austin Powers in Goldmember.  

Far more akin to star Will Ferrell’s Anchorman than great political satires such as Robert Redford’s The Candidate or warm-hearted White House fantasies like Kevin Kline’s Dave, The Campaign is from the team at Funny or Die. The comedy collective, overseen by Ferrell and long-time producing partner Adam McKay, specialises is bite-size webisodes of hit-&-miss skit humour, usually scatological in nature, and that’s a perfectly apt description for this, their seventh feature together.

Ferrell is Cam Brady, a North Carolinian congressman, perennially unchallenged each election year, supping at the crooked teat of big business while shtupping everything that moves. His wealth suggests a Romney-like Red State-caricature, his philandering a Clinton-esque charmer; it is one of the many hedged bets the production takes in its stance on real-world politics.

Brady’s stranglehold on the top spot is threatened when manipulative billionaires The Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, in roles that unmistakably reference Don Ameche’s and Ralph Bellamy’s Duke brothers in Trading Places) need a patsy to help push through a planned Chinese manufacturing plant that would destroy the economy of the district. Their puppet is Tourism Center director Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a family man of considerable naivety, long the embarrassment of his power-broker father Ray (Brian Cox) and preppy creep of a little brother, Tripp (Aussie Josh Lawson).

The stage is set for a tit-for-tat series of increasingly cruel (and preposterous) one-upmanship pranks to win the electorate’s approval. As Brady’s world unravels, Ferrell brings his typically vivid and fearless comedic A-game, but it is Galifianakis who gets most of the film’s biggest laughs as the sweetly buffoonish Huggins. The decision to play him as an ambiguously effeminate yet happily married man reminds one of Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick alter-ego.

The primary shortcoming is that The Campaign is perfectly happy to be the same foul-mouthed, frat-boy romp as we’ve all seen before from Ferrell and co. This time, the smug jerk who finally learns to play nice is a politician and not an egomaniacal newsman, a Nascar champ (Talladega Nights), a combative sibling (Step Brothers) or dim-witted explorer (Land of the Lost), but the template is the same and the schtick familiar.

With the Republican leadership circus over and a presidential campaign in full swing, a more incisive skewering of the process would have been welcome, but the Funny or Die team falls back on broad smut and treacly sentimentality. It is not without some big laughs but, given Hollywood is unlikely to role the dice on two political parodies in the same year, The Campaign is a wasted opportunity to seriously laugh at the backroom dealings that drive the grinding gears of modern democracy.

Monday
Jul302012

BULLY

Features: Alex, Kelby, Ja’Meya, Kirk and Laura Smalley, David and Tina Long.
Writers: Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Owen.
Director: Lee Hirsch.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Fri 10 Aug, 11.00am; Sun 12 Aug, 1.30pm; Tue 14 Aug, 11.00am. National release via Village Roadshow commences Thur 23 Aug.

Rating: 4.5/5

The lives of disenfranchised youths dip painfully in and out of focus via the camera of director Lee Hirsch in Bully and the result is an achingly sad, occasionally soaring work.

An in-camera effect the director employs quite deliberately, of the image shifting from crisp to blurry, captures the dichotomy of existence a group of children in the early stages of teenhood experience. For many of them, their idyllic home life where they are able to be express their untainted love for life is the only refuge they have from a world of torment.

A pre-credit sequence that puts the tortuous duality of the victimised life into perspective chronicles the fate of Tyler Long. He was a bright, beautiful boy from a loving family who, having suffered untold torment in secondary school, hung himself in his bedroom closet. His father reflects upon the baby boy he has lost; his mother recounts for Hirsch’s camera the moment they found him.

It is a forthright challenging way to start a film, but it puts its audience on note that what you about to see has consequence, is about the life and death of children. We soon meet Kelby, a strong, pretty girl whose coming-out leads to social pariah status; learn of 12 year-old Ty Smalley, another suicide victim driven to a desperate act by evil older children; and, suffer through the fate of Ja’Meya, a Mississippi teen whose last-resort act of brandishing a gun on a school bus leads to a period in mental health detention. 

The saddest/sweetest victim is Alex, his awkward appearance, vacant stare and gangly physicality making him easy prey. His efforts to attach himself to schoolyard cliques leads to beatings, while every bus trip is filled with abuse. An early scene in which he lovingly wrestles with his younger sister comes back to haunt him (and the audience), when it is revealed she is teased just for being his sister; when he tries to make sense of why who he is should impact her, she says “Because people think you’re weird”. His heartbreak filled the preview screening room that SCREEN-SPACE attended.

To the film’s slight detriment, Bully has a narrow focus set against America’s Midwest Bible-belt region; I found myself wanting to know what a bullied child’s life is like in the multicultural volatility of Los Angeles or the prep-school elite of the US East Coast. The communities in focus still deal with problems by organising town hall meetings and plonking brutal advocates of bullying in the vice-principal’s office. Villains emerge in the form of paper-pushing line-towers, in particular Alex’s student superviser, Ann Lockwood, her smug grin a cover for a sanctimonious career ass-coverer who refuses to consider measures to protect the victims.

The bullies are occasionally asked to answer for their actions, but one senses Hirsch understands his film is not a turning point but a call to arms; he overplays the modern documentary trait to fill the final half-hour with website prompts and movement preaching, but one can hardly blame him given the closeness he obviously shared with his subjects.

Frankly, these are minor shortcomings that merely point to a passionate factual-filmmaker getting somewhat over-enthused in his feature length debut. Having been deeply moved by Bully, it is hard to imagine any critic begrudging the technically-proficient Hirsch the lengths to which he goes to tell the sad, spiritual stories he has uncovered. Ideally, it should lead to a cross-country wave of like-minded projects, exposing the evil that dwells in our children’s places of learning.

Director Lee Hirsch will be joined by anti-bullying advocate Ruby Rose, headspace youth ambassador Joe Pellucci, Project Rockit representative Rosie Thomas, SANE's Jack Heath and Dr Judith Slocombe from The Alannah and Madeline Foundation at the MIFF Special Presentation "Bully: Screen to Schoolyard" on Tuesday, August 14 at the Forum Theatre's Festival Lounge.

Sunday
Jul292012

THE SAPPHIRES

Stars: Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Lynette Narkle, Kylie Belling, Don Battee, Judith Lucy, Rhys Muldoon, Georgina Haig and Gregory J Fryer.
Writers: Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson.
Director: Wayne Blair.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screening - OPENING NIGHT, Thur 2 Aug, 7.30pm.

Rating: 2.5/5


Charming import Chris O’Dowd stands above a frustratingly predictable song-and-dance show in Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires. Though it touches upon such hot button issues as racism, the Vietnam War, self-determination via social change and the stolen generation, there is an anaemic shallowness to the film’s exploration of them that suggests palatability and sentimentality were higher priorities than social commentary.

The pulled-punches in terms of thematic insight would have seemed less obvious had the more crowd-pleasing elements been handled with greater skill. Instead, the film hamstrings itself with some bland, episodic plotting, just-ok musical numbers and a cringing reliance upon anachronistic ‘Strine (the ‘strewth’ and ‘drongo’ laden scripts for both Red Dog and now The Sapphires indicate the broadly-played Aussie stereotype is alive and well).

Additionally, overstated 60s iconography abounds, including a grab-bag of clichéd period music (Soul Man; Hang On, I’m Coming; I Can’t Help Myself, and so on). Though Blair’s vision expands the action, the stage play origins are obvious in the films structure, which allows for a show-stopping tune at regular intervals whether the drama needs it or not.

Loosely adapted from the true story of four women of the Yorta Yorta clan who sang together in the late 60s and 70s (unlike in the film, only two, Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, toured Vietnam), the film is at its best when establishing the conflicted bond that the group shares. The mother-hen is Gail (Deborah Mailman), an all-too-confrontational, downright unlikable young woman who, much to the actress’ credit, remains the emotional core of the film.

There is deep-seated animosity between Gail and her cousin Kay (a fine Shari Stebbens) dating back to Kay’s forced removal from her family as a child and subsequent shunning of her roots. Though this subplot offers some good melodrama (a bout of fisticuffs between the two, for example), the stolen generation issues lack a potent focus.

The other singers are Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), a firebrand with a lust for life and, more specifically, American soldiers; and, Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest but most level-headed of the group and certainly the most talented. Neither character is developed with much conviction over the course of the film, though Mauboy exudes all the front-girl charisma that her pop persona suggested she would.

An over-extended but funny opening sequence set during a country pub talent show introduces ne’er-do-well Irishman Dave Lovelace, who introduces the girl group to the wonders of soul music then hitches a ride on their star-making trajectory. As Lovelace, Chris O’Dowd is the ace up the sleeve that Blair often relies upon to enrich scenes of unfocussed drama.

The opening shots of an unusually lush outback landscape hint at an artistry that is only occasionally realised. Cinematographer Warwick Thornton seems entirely at ease in the idyllic bushland setting of the girl’s mission home (a very different slice of indigenous life to the one painted by Thornton in his acclaimed 2009 directorial debut, Samson and Delilah), but a tinniness infuses the Vietnam-set sequences. Tightly-framed versions of Saigon and US military bases clearly constructed in the wilds of the Oz bush aren’t very convincing, though a dramatically-staged attack that occurs during one of the girl’s final shows most definitely is.   

Monday
Jul232012

SIDE BY SIDE

Features: Keanu Reeves, Martin Scorsese, Vilmos Zsigmond, James Cameron, David Fincher, Wally Pfister, Dion Beebe, Vittorio Storaro, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Donald McAlpine, Michael Chapman, Walter Murch, Greta Gerwig and George Lucas.
Director: Chris Kenneally

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Sun 5 Aug, 1.30pm; Wed 8 Aug, 4.30pm.

Rating: 4/5

 

Capturing a paradigm shift in the life cycle of the American motion picture, Chris Kenneally’s remarkably captivating doco Side by Side only occasionally teeters over into the kind of hard-to-decipher techtalk that threatens to distance average moviegoers. For the most part, it is an enthralling collection of A-list talking heads arguing their stance on the digital-vs-film debate.

Hosted by an omnipresent Keanu Reeves, exhibiting far more warmth and personality than he has in any of his last half-dozen acting parts, Side by Side darts and weaves between the most savvy of Hollywood’s directorial talents, each of them espousing on the pros and cons of new camera technology. Such erudite and informed speakers as Scorsese, Fincher, Soderbergh, Cameron, Rodriguez, Linklater, Nolan and Lucas (though, oddly, no Spielberg), as well as cinematographers and technical craftsmen from the field of in-camera technology, all speak with a fierce passion for their preferred medium.

Reeves has worked with several of the filmmakers on past projects and engages them on their views with an informed and open interviewing style. Those new to the debate won’t feel lost for long; easy-to-grasp graphics describing the technology under scrutiny ensures the debate is easily comprehended. The doco will lose some when it delves into the benefits of the latest digital-camera workings; if the word ‘Red’ is still just a colour to you, the 70 minute mark is perhaps a good time for that bathroom break.

Enlivened by scene clips from dozens of films and propelled forward by a determination on Kenneally’s part to keep things fluid and fascinating rather than argumentative and academic, Side by Side is top-tier festival fodder and a must-own DVD item for any film buff. It will ultimately become a time-capsule document of a point in the film industry’s history when a line in the sand is drawn by one faction and defied and crossed by the other.

Oh, and it was shot on digital.

Sunday
Jul222012

KILLER JOE

Stars: Matthew McConnaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple and Gina Gershon.
Writers: Tracy Letts, based upon his play.
Director: William Friedkin.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Screenings - Fri 3 Aug, 11.30pm; Wed 8 Aug, 9.00pm.

Rating: 4/5


Awright, awright, longtime fans of Matthew McConnaughey. That Oscar speech we all hoped he would someday give but never really believed would ever eventuate seems a whole lot closer, thanks to his brilliantly evil titular psychopath, Joe Cooper, in William Friedkin’s trailer-trash noir gem, Killer Joe.

McConnaughey riffs off equally complex and blackly funny characterisations from Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden-Church, Gina Gershon and Juno Temple to deliver a figure of commanding centrifugal force in this tummy-tightening slab of dusty, delirious immorality.

As the smalltown lawmen making blood money as a soulless hitman, the actor puts behind him a decade of limp rom-coms and shirtless tabloid pap-shots in one great performance. We can only hope it’s a kicker to a new phase in McConaughey’s career, where he delivers on the promise Hollywood held for him when he debuted his Newman-esque matinee idol screen presence in his first lead role, 1996s A Time To Kill. That same year, he impressed as charismatic lawman Buddy Deeds in John Sayles’ small town murder-mystery Lone Star, a character that could be seen as a forebearer of the dark soul he plays in Killer Joe.

Based on scripter Tracy Lett’s stage play, Killer Joe is the story of Hirsch’s Chris Smith, a desperate, petty loser deep in debt to bad people. When he discovers his ailing mother is heavily life-insured, he hatches a plan to off her with the help of Ansel (Haden-Church, equally Oscar-worthy), his droll, seen-it-all-before brother-in-law. Ansel’s brash wife Sharla (Gershon, whose on-screen introduction is priceless) and innocent teen-vixen daughter Dottie (Temple, a Teri Garr-like presence destined for a career of stealing films in great support parts) soon become caught up in the ridiculously ill-conceived murder plot.

That his films are still being sold by ‘From The Director of The French Connectiom and The Exorcist…’ taglines gives some indication to what a dichotomous curse those films were to the career of William Friedkin. After years in the critical and commercial wilderness, he has refocussed his output to deliberately small character pieces. The 2006 paranoid fantasy Bug (also a Letts adaptation) divided opinion, but few could argue Killer Joe is the work of a spent-force director. His handling of the extended, single-setting denouement (one of the few passages that point to the material’s stage origins) is a master-class of film tension.

Despite the small-room settings of many of the film’s key scenes (trailer kitchens, strip clubs, pool halls), Killer Joe feels broad and vast in its scope. The characters fill the screen beyond the edge of the frame; they make larger-than-life the viewing experience, even when five adults are crammed inside four tight walls, as is often the case. The dialogue crackles; the tension, palpable. Killer Joe is driven by a narrative momentum that enthrals. Even when McConnaughey is not onscreen, it is a cracking piece of character-driven entertainment; when he is, it something greater again.

Friday
Jul202012

STORM SURFERS 3D

Features: Tom Carroll, Ross Clarke-Jones, Barton Lynch, Grace Carroll, Kelly Slater, Paul Morgan, Mark Mathews, Paul ‘Antman’ Paterson and Ben Matson.
Writers/Directors:  Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius.

Rating: 4/5


The psychology of its passionate subjects and the majesty and might of the great waves they live to ride are captured with clarity, in every sense of the word, in Storm Surfers 3D. Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones are growing old as gracefully as leathery waxheads can and directors Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius grasp with insight what it means to crave young man thrills with an ageing body and mind.

It is this very human side to their film that will see Storm Surfers 3D play to festival crowds and arthouse/doco audiences and not just packed surf club halls. As giddyingly involving as the sports action is (and, at times, it is positively vertigo inducing), it is the themes of mateship, ageing, fatherhood and legacy that resonate most profoundly.

Full-time big wave surfers, the more introspective Carroll and spirited wildman Clarke-Jones travel the world conquering open ocean breaks and tight, shallow reef barrels that sometimes top 30 feet and carry several tonnes worth of water pressure. Clarke-Jones seems immune to the effects of age, both physically and mentally, but Carroll is portrayed as a man facing the importance of his own mortality.

A father of three daughters, Carroll spends the first half of the film sitting out the big rides with a shoulder injury, then struggling with his confidence when the chance to get back out their presents itself. Periods of reflection and of two friends offering insight and concern for each other provide a soulful element to Storm Surfers that make it one of those sports films that transcends its action component.

It must be said, though, that the action is grandly presented. The use of crisp, top-tier 3D technology is occasionally too impressive; there were several moments when twinges of seasickness kick in. But first-person camera work that puts the viewer on the board with Carroll and Clarke-Jones is totally immersive; helicopter shots of vast banking walls of deep blue water are spectacular. The camera team’s stunning cinematography represents some of the finest applications of the technology in factual filmmaking ever seen. 

Painting a far more enchanting portrait of Australia’s surfing brotherhood than Macario De Souza’s grubby 2007 doco Bra Boys, Storm Surfers affords two surfing icons a fitting tribute by showing them as extraordinary everymen. Whatever effort it took to get the film’s images, both intimate and expansive, it plays as wonderfully naturalistic on screen. Like the great waves Carroll and Clarke-Jones tackle, the film reveals an occasionally turbulent depth to the towering image the two men project.