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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.

Saturday
Dec102016

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Ly Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto and Alexander Calvert.
Writer/director: Kelly Fremon Craig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The beautiful words and deceptively complex humans are entirely the creation of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, but it is undeniable that her remarkable debut feature The Edge of Seventeen has clearly been afforded the wise, guiding hand of producer, James L. Brooks.

On the rare occasion that contemporary mainstream cinema offers up smart, cool teen protagonists such as Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin, they are immediately aligned with the 80’s oeuvre of the late John Hughes, specifically Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. But Nadine’s determination to inflict her defining personality traits upon those with whom she shares this world – general teen angst, profoundly ingrained grief and a fear of loss that manifests as caustic wit and social solitude – more accurately resembles the dark psyches of Brooks’ great anti-heroes, notably Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets and Shirley MacLaines’ Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.

Fremon Craig sets that bittersweet tone from Scene 1; Nadine is in a heightened panic, unloading upon Woody Harrelson’s cool teach Mr Bruner some well-considered suicide options. Defying all the clichés of the flashback device, a wonderful montage establishes Nadine’s long-held outsider status and the importance of her soul mate friend, Krista (Ava Grace Cooper as a tot; a terrific Haley Lu Richardson through the awkward years). After tragedy reshapes the start of her train-wreck teen years, the dynamic she shares with her slowly unravelling mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and stoic, beau-hunk brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) takes on a quite desperation, interspersed with high tension.

The 80s high school vibe is dragged kicking and screaming into the present-day when Nadine’s lustful fascination with brooding senior Nick (Alexander Calvert) is conveyed via an accidental tweet, leading to a tense night-time car park encounter. Fremon Craig and her leading lady subvert both the dramatic and comedic potential inherent in this achingly portrayed sequence; it is a razor-sharp piece of character development that foreshadows a revelatory cathartic Act 3. It is also a reminder that the edge of seventeen is a complex, often dangerous time when girls are faced with navigating their own path into young womanhood.

The Academy’s respect for the younger audience will be reflected in their willingness to reward Hailee Steinfeld with an Oscar nomination. James L Brooks guides his leading ladies to podium glory (three Best Actress trophies, to MacLaine, Holly Hunter for Broadcast News and Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets), but ‘teen pics’ do not always survive award season vetting. Recent nominees who were under 20 include Quvenzhane Wallis (Beast of The Southern Wild, 2012), Gabourey Sidobe (Precious, 2009), Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, 2003), all featuring in films that carried Oscar-friendly thematic add-ons. The only comparable films to find Oscar’s favour have been Juno (for which Ellen Page earned a 2007 nomination) and 1999’s Election (for which Reese Witherspoon did not; the film made the Best Screenplay shortlist).

Steinfeld must be a front-runner for a role that careens between brittle toughness, wordy bravado and heartbreaking sweetness. Also in contention must be Fremon Craig’s script, which plays to the teen audience with recognisable moments of anguish and glee (the romance subplot involving Hayden Szeto’s American/Korean student feels both fresh and warmly familiar) while exploring some very adult emotions; as with the best of the genre, it is a film about teenagers but not just for teenagers.

The teen movie beats ring true because Nadine inspires a faith that fate will cut her a break, despite her best efforts to derail destiny. We shouldn’t cheer, even care, for her, but all her flaws and idiosyncrasies are all ours, too; we adore her because we recognise her struggle. Every generation has a teen character that personifies the real and unreal of those horrible, wonderful years and whose struggles still resonate; Benjamin Braddock, Joel Goodsen, Lloyd Dobler, Cher Horowitz, Tracy Flick. For this generation (and many more to come), there is Nadine Franklin in The Edge of Seventeen, a coming of age journey as good as it gets.

Wednesday
Dec072016

THE RED PILL

Featuring: Cassie Jaye, Paul Elam, Warren Farrell, Marc Angelucci, Harry Crouch and Dean Esmay.
Director: Cassie Jaye.

Rating: 1.5/5

The jagged histrionics of documentarian Cassie Jaye’s disjointed pro-Men’s Right advocacy film, The Red Pill, serves two masters well. Her softly-softly proselytizing and spurious arguments serve to sweeten the image of Men’s Rights mouthpieces and the ‘regressive progress’ platform they present. And speaking directly to her own camera as she journeys from feminist to ‘enlightened humanist’ serves Jaye as well, her frowns and tears recalling an acting class show reel.

As she painstakingly overstates, Jaye’s body of work outwardly presents an empathetic view of society – patriarchal rule within dogmatic Christian lives, with specific adherence to pre-marital abstinence (Daddy I Do, 2010); the impact of ‘food insecurity’ on the upper-middle class and those that serve them in Marin County (Faces Overlooked, 2010); and, the struggle of two gay white guys to raise a family as California’s Proposition 8 debate raged (The Right to Love: An American Family, 2008). But even if you include a couple of shorts about women’s issues (Blackeye, 2009; The Story of GoldieBlox, 2012), her oeuvre is one of narrow experience rife with hot button issues and moderate-right conservatism.

Jaye would have her audience believe that she stumbled upon the Men’s Right Movement with a wide-eyed innocence; we get to see her literally type ‘Men’s Rights’ into a search engine. She barely registers vile online misogyny (the kind that has seen MRA advocates labelled ‘rape apologists’) as if it was a dirty limerick. In no time at all, she is in warm conversation with the likes of Paul Elam, President of A Voice for Men, a voice that spoke the now infamous call-to-action quote, “I am proclaiming October to be Bash a Violent Bitch Month”; Dr. Warren Farrell (pictured, top; with Jaye), author of the MRA diatribe, The Myth of Male Power and spouter of wisdom pearls like, “Women are the only 'oppressed' group that is able to buy $10 billion worth of cosmetics each year,”; and, Harry Crouch and Marc Angelucci, executives from The National Council for Men, MRA heavy-hitters who once lobbied to defund domestic violence programs if men’s rights were not addressed.

So follows a whirlwind of male-perspective theories and twisty statistics eager to convince how work place deaths, suicide rates and financial hardship have impacted men since the Women’s Liberation uprising of the 1960’s (seen as a monochrome montage of screeching girl-power rallies with some laughable hippy-funk backing track). Elam and his brothers are presented as warm, composed, homely types; in one moment of un-ironic inspiration that could have come from a Christopher Guest-penned satire, Farrell (who greets his director with, “I thought you’d be a man! But I’m glad you’re a woman!”) all but serenades his director in his living room ‘man-cave’, striving to convey a portrait of perfect patriarchal stability yet coming off as desperate and smug.

Jaye will claim that non-MR dissenters are giving equal voice in her film. The likes of Feminist Majority Foundation executive director and MS. magazine editor Katherine Spillar and USC academic Dr Michael Messner get air time, but are portrayed as tsk-tsking, head-shaking elitists who simply perpetuate anti-MRA myths about it being a ‘man’s world’ and how the white male paradigm is more powerful than ever. More troubling is the footage chosen of anti-MR rallies, seemingly peopled solely by extremist gay and/or ‘feminazi’ activists bent on some form of pro-feminist anarchy. Or the extreme close-up afforded ‘male genital mutilation’, aka circumcision, used to convey how abhorrent MRA guys find it to have the fate of their body parts dictated by standards and traditions (a view probably shared by pro-choice supporters and those who have had their p***y grabbed by The President-Elect).

An extended mid-section about the lack of balance in the U.S. family court system seems to be from another documentary entirely, legitimately raising issues of gender inequality. But any insightful analysis is muted by the purely outrageous, none more so than the ‘Disposable Male’ theory. It posits that because only men traditionally take on roles such as soldier, fireman, oil rig worker, coal miner, etc., the male of the species is now perceived as disposable. A litany of statistics are presented, indicating the greater mortal sacrifice men have made in the last 100 years of societal formation (the disrespect afforded slain U.S. female soldiers, their deaths reduced to a percentage to drive home how many more men died, is breathtaking).

What Cassie Jaye and her all-white male chorus wilfully ignore is that the patriarchal stronghold on modern western life was not dictated by women or gays or lefty academics or any one else at whom Elam or Farrell or Cassie Jaye wag a disingenuous finger. It was determined by those in power i.e. the straight, white men of means who were the very forefathers of the MRA executives, who deemed that men of lesser standing be the ones who fought and died, worked and died. Once, men were viewed as warriors, not whiners, sent to die for the society, however flawed, that their leaders were forming. The best of these bygone men fought and died for the rights of every man and woman in a unified society. Cassie Jaye’s men, and by association the filmmaker herself, are not serving a greater good or inspiring discourse, but instead fuelling a social divide and dishonouring their respective genders.

Wednesday
Nov302016

SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD

Stars: Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Dacre Montgomery, Aleks Mikic, Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton.
Writers: Zack Khan and Chris Peckover.
Director: Chris Peckover.

Reviewed at the Australian Premiere at Monster Fest 2016, Sunday November 27 at Lido Cinema 4, Hawthorn.

Rating: 4/5

In an alternate mid-80’s universe, director Joe Dante’s follow-up to his grim Yuletide fairy tale Gremlins would have been Safe Neighborhood, a crisp, crackling, black and bloody Christmas comedy/horror that came to fruition after Dante glimpsed an early draft of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games script. Seasonal cinemagoers would have surely warmed to its crowd-pleasing, nerve-twisting verve, setting it on a path to festive season VHS-viewing immortality.

Of course, this would have denied 2016 audiences the giddy thrill of watching a young directing talent emerge in Chris Peckover, who exhibits slick technical skill and an ease of touch with the chills and giggles in his script, co-written with Zack Khan. Peckover’s well-received 2010 debut Undocumented gave no indication that his sophomore effort would define him as such a confident storyteller, well-schooled in character, atmosphere and mise-en-scène. No less crucial to the grasp his film maintains on its audience is the chemistry and energy of his three leads, a triumvirate of tweenage talent destined for prolonged and deserving bigscreen careers.

Taking his cue from Dante’s frost-tinted, green-&-red hued view of Spielbergian suburbia, Peckover and his masterful DOP Carl Robertson paint a picturesque façade of blissful well-to-do family life that begins to crack almost immediately; a snowman is beheaded, while the joyful playing of young siblings descends into a brutal snowball fight. Every-girl teen archetype Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), texting while driving through the crowded residential avenues on her way to a babysitting gig, barely brakes in time to avoid a black cat that runs across her path.

Inside an expertly production-designed middle class home that effortlessly evokes the McCallister abode in Home Alone (the influence of Chris Columbus’ cinematic kindred spirit running through the film's DNA), acerbic mum Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and goofy dad Robert (Patrick Warburton) are preparing for their night out. Son Luke (Levi Miller) and his bestie Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), embodying the roles that the Corey’s would have played 30 years ago, are bantering about how Luke can fulfil his pubescent urges and impress upon Ashley his intentions.

Miller is a revelation; the Australian teenager fronted the notorious 2015 misfire, Pan, but has grown in stature and on-screen presence (he also anchors the blockbuster-to-be, Red Dog True Blue, debuting Boxing Day Down Under). As Luke, the transformation that Miller undergoes represents an arc that actors four-times his age would struggle to capture (keeping any coverage spoiler-free is tough but an absolute must). He is, in key moments, mesmerising to watch. Cast mates and fellow Aussies De Jonge and Oxenbould (reteaming on-screen having played siblings in M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) are equally committed and impressive.

The first act set-up is meta-horror 101, delivered with knowing humour and great pacing. To delve too deeply into the Scream-like Act 2 spin that Peckover employs would do a disservice to the dexterity with which he both manipulates the narrative and amps up the tension. Suffice to say, by the time the Bueller-esque final moments unfold, the next-big-thing directing talent has not only referenced and honoured that subversive period of 80’s mainstream cinema during which Reagan’s America was slyly being diced and sliced; he has also conjured a wonderfully witty, bracingly shocking and completely contemporary home-invasion/slasher-pic reinvention.

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.