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Saturday
May052018

IDEAL HOME

Stars: Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Jack Gore, Alison Pill, Kate Walsh and Jake McDorman.
Writer/director: Andrew Fleming.

Rating: 4/5

Sweet, smart and sassy in equal measure, Andrew Fleming’s Ideal Home catches the writer/director in full command of what he does best – spinning genuine humour and strong characters out of a bouyant film reality. As the ageing self-consumed gay partners forced into adulthood by the sudden arrival of an emotionally challenging pre-teen grandson, Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are brash, funny and honest, traits that sum up the best moments from the 52 year-old director’s handful of films.

Citing his directorial debut, the 1988 cult horror pic Bad Dreams, as the exception that proves the rule, Fleming’s scripts mostly embrace complex character dynamics in a manner both insightful and engaging. Threesome (1994) outsmarted the Columbia Tri-Star brass, who backed but bailed on selling the hetero/homo college dorm love triangle; that year, Gen-X audiences preferred the cool, straight vanilla cast chemistry of Reality Bites.

The openly gay auteur found his truest voice (and biggest hit) with The Craft (1996), the high-school witchcraft horror-fantasy that quickly became the coming-out allegory for closeted ‘90s teens. A string of comedies followed, all of which combine vividly etched lead characters in expertly-paced dilemmas – Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in the Watergate-set comedy, Dick (1999); Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks in the under-valued The In-Laws (2003); the slumber-party favourite, Nancy Drew (2007); and, the quirky, if little-seen romantic drama, Barefoot, with Evan Rachel Wood (2014; from Stephen Zotnowski’s script).

In Ideal Home, Fleming provides himself with two leads that give full voice to his fluid, florid dialogue and nuanced characters. Reteaming with the director after their 2008 comedy Hamlet 2, Coogan is Brit expat Erasmus Brumble, the host/star of the basic cable lifestyle show ‘Ideal Home’; Rudd is his showrunner and longtime partner Paul, loving yet growing increasingly tiresome of both the dead-end nature of his work and the less lovable aspects of Erasmus’ personality.

Their life as Santa Fe’s adorable bon vivants is rattled when Erasmus’ grandson, Angel (Jack Gore, mature beyond his years) lands at their home, apparently the last resort for Erasmus’ estranged ne’er-do-well son, Beau (Jake McDorman) . The gay partners are forced to reconcile their hedonistic, self-centred, responsibility-free existence with life recasting them as caretakers and role models. Both actors are terrific, delivering comedic and dramatic beats with aplomb. Their on-screen pairing is a perfectly natural fit; Coggan gets some capital-L laughs, especially in those moments that reveal his shallow egotism, while Rudd’s razor-sharp takedowns define the understated intellect at work in Fleming’s script.

Ideal Home represents the kind of quick-witted, meaningful writing that was once sought after by the big studios. Andrew Fleming’s dialogue crackles and zings in the mouths of an appreciative cast, his scene structure and pacing skilful and refined. Thirty years ago, James L Brooks, hot off Broadcast News, might have made this movie; fifteen years back, Cameron Crowe. The dramedy plays a little broader (even at his peak, Crowe would not have carried off the bawdy, brilliant Kevin Costner/Dances with Wolves gag with such sublime timing), but Andrew Fleming is certainly of that class.

Wednesday
Apr252018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Chadwick Boseman, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vin Diesel.
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME PLOT SPOILERS

Rating: 3/5

The intergalactic threat to end all intergalactic threats (we’ll see…) is the catalyst to bring together Marvel’s divided superhero collective for the fight of their lives in Avengers: Infinity War. At least, that is what the pre-publicity marketing spin would have the slavering MCU fanbase believe; in fact, it is not really that at all.

What it is, alternatively, is one of the loudest, longest first acts in cinema history; 150 minutes of story set-up. The ‘bridging episode’ arc is a tough narrative one to pull off; a strong, self-contained story must exist, ensuring audience investment in the moment, but the storyteller must always be mindful of the open-ended ‘cliffhanger’ finale. When done well, it plays like The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, whereas Infinity War exhibits just how hard it can be to serve two masters.

Surprisingly, the key protagonist emerges in the form of ‘villain’ Thanos, played with mo-cap mastery by Josh Brolin; in addition to a nice line in malevolent menace, the actor gets to sink his purple teeth into a handful of dramatic moments that link him to that chestnut theme of the MCU, patriarchal legacy. Driven by the belief that overpopulation is destroying the star systems, Thanos is myopically driven in his search for the ‘Infinity Stones’, pretty jewels that represent the galactic essentials of Mind, Soul, Time, Power, Space, and Reality. To possess the full set of six will grant Thanos the power to perform horrendous acts of genocide in the name of saving the galaxy from its inhabitants. Environmental advocates who argue that humans are a virus on this planet, that our thoughtless use of natural resources will lead to the death of Earth and all who live here, may side with Thanos ideologically, although his methods are unforgivably mass-murdery.

So the Avengers have to reconnect to see off Thanos and his flavoursome henchmen (led by an enjoyably campy Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the psychotic sycophant, Ebony Maw). Expectedly, fans will cheer when they are re-introduced to Steve Rogers/Captain America (a sullen, oddly detached Chris Evans) as he emerges from the shadows; as Bruce Banner (a twitchy Mark Rufalo) struggles with his green-hued alter-ego; and, as the pompous Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and smart-arse Tony Stark/Iron Man (a visibly aged Robert Downey Jr) wage a quip war. Meshing with the traditional Avengers line-up are the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, the good people of Wakanda, led by T’Challa/Blank Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and teen hero Spiderman (Tom Holland).

However, the tantalizing mass melding of franchise heroes occurs in the cast list only; the key Avengers are divided, even more so the Guardians (the decision to turn Vin Diesel's Groot into a surly teen sapling proves a dire miscalculation); several favourites are relegated to bit parts (notably ScarJo’s Black Widow), while some don’t make an appearance at all. The promise of a mass Marvel army onscreen never comes near to fruition.

Working from Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s workmanlike script, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct with a suitably vast eye for spectacle and melodrama, colouring in landscapes against which massive effects-laden conflicts can take place. Once the film gets past an opening salvo of meet-cute reconnections, the smash ‘em/bash ‘em mayhem unfolds, both on Earth and in the far corners of the galaxy. The next two hours represent the gamble with fan expectation which is the strong suit of Avengers: Infinity War - our heroes essentially have the s**t kicked out of them for 2½ hours, ahead of a downbeat denouement.

It is a bold undertaking, to readjust what is expected of the MCU/Avengers formula, and there are moments when the sheer scale and momentum match the narrative ambition needed to pull off a 'Part 1'. Given the fate of the universe is at stake, however, those otherwise unexpected moments of murder most foul, self sacrifice and bitter betrayal amount to very little. A lot goes unanswered in Avengers: Infinity War and no amount of blockbuster grandeur can fill the void left.

Thursday
Apr192018

TRAUMA

Stars: Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Ríos and Claudio Riveros.
Writer/Director: Lucio A. Rojas.

AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: Screening Friday, September 14 at the SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL.

Warning: Some content may offend or distress.

Rating: 4.5/5

The most horrifically violent period in Chile’s political history casts a very dark shadow over the current war between the sexes in the perfectly prescient and appropriately titled Trauma. Taking as its entry point a stomach-churning sequence destined for frame-by-frame breakdown by censorship bodies around the world, writer-director Lucio A. Rojas’ blistering vision embraces the unthinkable reality of Pinochet’s torture-chamber hell and how his homeland still suffers under the legacy of the brutally soul-crushing dictatorship.

Assured of cinematic infamy, the prologue is set in the mid 1970s, at the height of the neo-fascist’s military reign. A seasoned torturer (Alejandro Trejo) is in the midst of committing unspeakable atrocities upon a woman, his ultimate dehumanizing act being the introduction of her teenage son, Juan. There are ties that bind the three participants, a bond thematically linked to Rojas’ exploration of family discord and systemic violence in traditionally male-centric domesticity.

The narrative moves to Santiago, 2011 and introduces Rojas’ protagonists (by way of some equally graphic Sapphic love, reinforcing the material’s  ‘sex and violence’ genre credentials), four twenty-somethings destined for a rural getaway. Andrea (Catalina Martin, a fierce central figure in her own right) is tightly wound, slightly more mature than her travel mates, and rather too good at the ‘passive/aggressive big-sister’ persona, leading to some familial tension with her sister Camila (Macarena Carrere) and Camila’s girlfriend, the free-spirited Julia (Ximena del Solar); the sister’s cousin Magdalena (Dominga Bofill) is younger still, sweet but adventurous.

There is a familiarity to this Act 1 set-up that horror fans will recognize. The girls reveal aspects of themselves on the long drive, further defining their character traits; the region is so remote, Andrea forgets where her uncle’s retreat actually is; the group stop for directions at ‘Gloria’s Tavern’ (suspiciously lacking a ‘Gloria’), the creepy locals acting as both sexist bullies and a warning sign that the girl’s don’t decipher. Intercut with these scenes are moments in the life of the now adult Juan (Daniel Antivilo, reuniting with the director after their 2015 collaboration, Sendero), a local ‘identity’ who lives with his adult son Mario (Felipe Ríos) in a ‘house of horrors’ directly linked to the pre-credit sequence.

The girl’s first night in the cabin is a boozy one, marred by issues they had hoped to work through on the trip. Julia unwinds with a striptease, which Rojas and his ace DOP Sebastián Ballek shoot in a leery, overtly-sexualized manner that initially seems to betray the care he has taken in creating these complex female characters. When it is revealed, however, that Juan and Mario have been watching the dance, Rojas turns the ‘male gaze’ in which he has indulged back on the viewer; in a deceptively clever piece of deconstruction, the director has coerced his audience into being at one with the psychopathic villain.

The centerpiece of Trauma is the home invasion sequence that follows, a passage of visceral film imagery and design that will be too immersive for even some seasoned horror buffs. Although it is all but impossible to decipher as the unfettered sexual, physical and psychological abuse unfolds, the passage serves to spin Rojas’ film into the realm of gender-based conflict; the family of women, however flawed they may be in their own ways, are now unified and at war with traditional familial patriarchy, in which toxic masculinity, sexualized violence and generational abuse has festered.    

The group tracks the men to their maze-like home, and Trauma becomes a series of gruesome encounters and tense near-misses in the darkness. The narrative continues to deliver as a bloody horror film, but the subtext that enriched the first hour makes way for well-staged, heavily stylized ‘final girl’ genre tropes in Act 3. Nevertheless, Rojas contemplates his themes and shoots his action in a manner that demands that his work be closely watched in years to come; he is one of the new wave of exciting Latin American horror filmmakers, amongst them Javier Attridge (Wekufe The Origin of Evil, 2017), Jorge Olguin (Gritos del Bosque, 2017) and Samuel Galli (Mal Nosso, 2017).

It is hard to envision a denouement to Trauma that inspires hope, so steeped as it is in ‘sins of the father’ and ‘scars of history’ symbolism. But that is precisely what Rojas affords his cinematic world and, by association, his country. The final images suggest that the time for rebirth is now and that faith be placed in a maternal nurturing of a new national spirit. For a film so consumed by painful memories, the most potent act of killing that Trauma imagines is the one that leaves the ghosts of the past behind for good.

WARNING: TRAILER CONTAINS IMAGES THAT MAY DISTRESS AND OFFEND.

  

Thursday
Apr122018

TRUTH OR DARE

Stars: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Landon Liboiron, Nolan Gerard Funk, Sam Lerner, Brady Smith, Hayden Szeto, Morgan Lindholm, Aurora Perrineau and Tom Choi.
Writer: Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow
Director: Jeff Wadlow.

Rating: 2/5

A far more more ambitious narrative and punchy directorial approach was needed to carry off the high-concept horror tropes of the deadly dull thriller Truth or Dare, a college-kids-vs-malevolent-curse bore that clearly wants to be this generation’s Final Destination (or, at least, the better episodes of that hit-miss 00’s franchise).

Directed with professional indifference by journeyman Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, 2005; Kick-Ass 2, 2013), Truth or Dare posits the notion, ‘What if the titular children’s game had real stakes?’, a potentially interesting premise that is then left in the hands of an insipid posse of one-dimensional characters to mull over.

The first half-hour of the film is Teen Horror 101; a group of demographically pleasing early 20-somethings (the do-gooder; the troubled party-girl; the hunky nice-guy; the jerk; the gay guy; the creep) head for a spring break in Mexico. Just how uninteresting are these kids? A boozy night at a beach dance party leads not to wildly unbridled hedonism, but instead a game of ‘truth or dare’, led by a handsome stranger who has latched on to the group.

After a moment of ‘what-just-happened?’ oddness, the group have resumed their well-off middle-class lives in College Town, USA. Our heroine, Olivia (an ok Lucy Hale, perkiness personified) begins to note the phrase ‘Truth or Dare’ everywhere she looks, until she responds in an embarrassingly public way, outing her friend Markie (Violett Beane) for being unfaithful to Lucas (Tyler Posey).

In the order in which they played the game in Mexico, each of the friends must face the challenge put to them by a temporarily possessed passer-by or acquaintance, whose wide-eyed, broadly grinning appearance resembles little more than that which can be accomplished by about a thousand different in-phone apps nowadays. Soon, it becomes clear that to defy the question means a painful death with the inevitability of everyone’s demise all but assured. Not that anyone’s passing seems to have any consequence at all on their friends or the community in which they live; nobody reacts with long-term grief or crippling shock at the string of deaths, even when video of one icky demise does the social media rounds.

The undoing of Truth or Dare as with many looked-good-on-paper concepts, is that it ultimately strays from its own logic and careens into preposterousness. Initially, Olivia gets three shots over the course of a day to answer the question, while other’s meet there doom within minutes; ‘the curse’ controls what you see and hear (even dabbling in street art to get its message across), yet at one point our heroine bounces between a dealing with the demon and chatting with her friends.

Wadlow kicks off Act 3 with an interminable scene involving a tongue-less ex-nun (don’t ask) and a bucketload of explanatory exposition that shuts down the story’s already meagre momentum. The ending, an underlit and shoddy sequence set in a dusty old Mexican convent, looks low-rent; the twist in the final reel proves to be both no twist at all and utterly indecipherable.

A propensity for characters to incessantly text and check Facebook may play believably with phone-gazing teens, but the device only serves to undercut the scares; ultimately, there are none. An adherence to PG-horror boundaries further hogties the chills, meaning the best that can be said for Truth or Dare is that the concept may transition into a passable SyFy/CW slot-filler. The only ones who convincingly suffer through a cursed existence are the paying audience members.

Sunday
Apr082018

ERRATUM 2037

Stars: Elie Benoît, Timothe Beugnet, Alex Lanz-Ketcham, Mariano Vicente and Emilien Benoît.
Writers/directors: Elie Benoît, Johann Benoît and Emilien Benoît.

Screening April 8 at L’Aquarium Cine-Cafe as part of the ‘SF Made in France’ strand of Les Intergalactiques Festival de Science-Fiction; Lyon, France.

Rating: 3.5/5

If ever doubt mounts as to how influential 1980s American cinema has been, one need only watch Erratum 2037, a wonderfully inventive French time-travel/conspiracy theory headscratcher utterly riddled with reverential film references. This staples-and-sticky-tape labour-of-love has been conjured by the Benoit brothers - Eli, Johann and Emilien – who were themselves only future concepts when their clear inspiration, Back to The Future established its own timelessness under Messrs Spielberg and Zemeckis.

The DNA of that classic comedy courses through every frame of Erratum 2037, but so too does that of Wargames, The X-Files, Looper, Sleeper and The Terminator. That the three frères français should craft such a consummate homage while also finding their own storytelling pulse suggests the trio may be destined for a broader canvas and bigger budgets.

A briskly unfolding prologue sets a dark tone, when a police operation to investigate lights in the night sky melds with a mother’s concern about her missing boy. Post-opening credits, we travel back in time, briefly, to meet our heroes Leo (Elie Benoit, the youngest of the co-directors) and Antoine (Timothe Beugnet) as they riff on the how cool the vehicular mayhem is in the latest Grand Theft Auto gameplay. The irony is lost on them when they are run off the road by a speeding van; the only upside of the near-miss a device, the BC-180, that falls from the truck.

The boys fire up the machine, to no immediate affect; Leo observes, “It’s a car stereo,” which it clearly is, but ‘in for a penny…’ at this point. Later that night, however, Leo’s room pulsates to a Spielberg-ian light show (recalling Gary Cuffey’s bedroom encounter in Close Encounters of The Third Kind). This opening sequence is so rich in Back to The Future references as to almost be distracting. Phil Garbutt’s original music echoes Alan Silvestri’s 1985 masterwork; Antoine notes the BC-180 needs ‘2.21 gigawatts’, an exact gigawatt more than that required by Doc Brown’s flux-capacitor.

Leo awakens in an alternate future-world, a hunted man for the role he unwittingly plays in the rebellion against enigmatic villain Emeric Boldenberg (Emilien Benoît). Our hero becomes a passive observer in the second act, unlike Michael J Fox, whose stardom was assured thanks to the charm he brought to the middle section of BTTF. Leo falls in with surviving agents of the resistance Pedro (Mariano Vicente) and Binglinger (Alex Lanz-Ketcham) when not in the clutches of Boldenberg’s buffoonish foot soldiers. The plot convolutes in that now typical ‘time-travel paradox’ manner that is too layered (and, occasionally, confusing) to detail here, suffice to say the filmmakers generally stay one step ahead of their own plotting, even when it threatens to careen out of control.

The Benoit brothers were teenagers when they filmed Erratum 2037, and it is sometimes distractingly obvious. Teenage boys don’t know how girls talk, so there are no woman characters of note (save for a last reel surprise); their otherwise innocuous adventure occasionally indulges in some icky violence, which must have been fun to stage but does not enhance the narrative.

Where their film soars is as a passionate fanboy’s nod to the influences of their formative years. A terrific floating-car sequence looks like a school project but is so skillfully assembled, plays like similar moments in The Fifth Element, Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of The Clones and, of course, Back to The Future II; Boldenberg’s headquarters clearly resembles Tyrell’s office tower in Blade Runner; there’s even a Star Wars ‘wipe cut’, for goodness sake!

On a backyard budget and with friends and family filling out the cast and crew, the brother’s intuitive skill marks them as natural born filmmakers. Perhaps more importantly, they embrace the historical context of the films that inspired them and enhance the genre with their own love of the artform.

Friday
Mar302018

THE RUN

Featuring: Pat Farmer, Katie Walsh, Kevin Nguyen, Dr Joseph Grace, Tania Farmer and Josh Cordoba.
Co-producer: Deepti Sachdeva.
Consultant producer: Penny Robbins.
Writer/director: Anupam Sharma.

WORLD PREMIERE: Screening April 1 at Cineworld, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., as part of the 2018 Newcastle International Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

If it had been director Anupam Sharma’s intention to merely document the physical challenge of running 80 kilometres a day in stifling heat over 2 months, the resulting film would have been it’s own remarkable story of endurance and determination. The Run, his account of Australian long-distance athlete Pat Farmer’s 4647 kilometre journey from Kanyakumari in India’s south to the northern town of Srinagar, proves to be more than a triumphant tale of mind-over-muscle sporting achievement; Sharma has crafted a fascinating and moving study in group dynamics, shared goals and, most importantly, the unifying goodness of the human spirit.

Farmer has shown repeatedly to be a salt-of-the-Earth individual; a quintessentially ‘old school’ Aussie bloke whose enormous heart allows him to empathise with the disadvantaged of the world, then undertake ultra-marathons in aid of their causes. He became front page news for his record-breaking Centenary of Federation run in 1999, when he spent 191 days traversing 15,000 kilometres of his homeland; other undertakings include running Pole-to-Pole to benefit the The Red Cross and long-distance challenges for causes in the Middle East and Vietnam.

The Run production team was present from the earliest days of his latest project, capturing the initial mobilisation of bureaucrats in both India and Australia. Farmer and his team needed to ensure that the undertaking, to be called The Spirit of India, was fully supported as an act of international charity; the 56 year-old would run for The Nanhi Kali Foundation, a group who seeks to further the education of disadvantaged young women across India.

Having earned his industry stripes as head of the Sydney-based production company Temple and fresh off his directing debut UNindian (2015), Sharma proves himself a naturally gifted long-form documentarian (his 2013 doco-short Indian Aussies Terms and Conditions Apply earned international acclaim). Embedding himself within the event team, his skilful camerawork captures the majestic countryside and frantic city streets of India, while his deft storytelling reveals the determined individuals and intertwining personalities that drive the initiative forward.

Despite an outwardly understated demeanour and singular focus, Farmer himself proves a deceptively complex presence; nothing will deter him from his aim of highlighting the cause and imparting his message, yet he tolerates no slip-up or half-heartedness from his crew. Sharma is certainly on board with his leading man’s charitable objectives, but The Run is not an exercise in hero building; the physical and mental torment of the endeavour and how that manifests in Farmer and on those around him is central to the film’s integrity.

Strong-willed team manager Katie Walsh and medic Joseph Grace, both warm on-screen presences, butt heads with their boss when logistics or health issues threaten to derail Farmer’s schedule. Most dramatically effective is rookie photo-journo Kevin Nguyen, whose fresh-out-of-Uni naivety is tested to the limit by the sub-Continent experience and who feels the full force of Farmer’s most impassioned, occasionally uncivilised tirades (though Nguyen gives as good as he gets in one ‘enough-is-enough’ confrontational moment).

The tense moments are all part of the intricacies that made Farmer’s Spirit of India undertaking such an extraordinary social event; a coming-together of like-minded goodwill ambassadors to realise a remarkable act of resolute human determination achieves its goal. In so truthfully capturing moment after moment of the uplifting bond between the beautiful people and places of India and the soaring spirit of Pat Farmer, The Run forgoes the observational disconnect of most factual films and becomes one with the profound journey itself.

Friday
Mar232018

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

Stars: J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, Priscilla Shirer, Cloris Leachman, Nicole DuPort and Dennis Quaid.
Writers: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Directors: Jon and Andrew Erwin

Rating: 3/5

I Can Only Imagine is the celebration of the creation of a song that celebrates The Creator. The backstory to how the debut single of faith-pop outfit Mercy Me became the biggest selling Christian chart topper in music history spins the same homespun country-music values and heartland religious earnestness as the anthemic ballad; in that regard, it preaches to the masses of wildly enthusiastic disciples, who cite the song’s soaring lyrics as spiritually enriching and life affirming.

Of its kind, I Can Only Imagine is a step-above recent faith-based films, partly due to slicker production values but also through the addition of some serious acting credibility in the form of Dennis Quaid. Opposite J Michael Finley, making his film debut as singer/songwriter Bart Millard, Quaid does some heavy lifting to give their scenes together the required depth. As Millard’s troubled father, the ageing heartthrob actor gets to run the gamut from abusive monster to bastion of Divine-led recovery, giving a performance that allows for glowering and yelling and door-slamming, before some A-talent tear-duct thesping. As has been the case for much of Quaid’s career, the charismatic star is immeasurably better than much of the material.

Leading man Finley is a prince in the world of musical theatre, having wowed in the Broadway productions of Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd but, tonal command aside, the actor feels frustratingly miscast as good ol’ boy Millard. Picture the high-low vocal register of a young Mandy Patinkin emanating from a flannel-clad dustbowl-bred Patton Oswalt, and you get some idea of the jarring aural and visual mismatch that the casting presents. The decision to also have the actor portray the character as far back as his high school years backfires badly (one support player yells at Millard to shave the beard, truthfully observing, “You look 35!”)

Directed assuredly by brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, Millard’s resolutely vanilla-tinged journey from little-boy-with-dreams to anonymous-band-frontman to recording-industry-superstar is bathed in the warm glow of His guiding influence and touch of His loving hand (quite often literally, when moments of reflection or inspiration are shot in beams of descending light). The audience needs no reminding (but is afforded it nonetheless) that God constantly oversees Millard’s journey, whether in the form long-suffering Christian soul mate Shannon, played by grown-up child-star Madeline Carroll (Santa Clause 3; Swing Vote; Mr Popper’s Penguins), the world’s sweetest and most tolerant band manager Brickell (a fine Trace Adkins) or the Mercy Me band members, who seem pretty chill while waiting out Millard’s occasional petulance and tightly-focussed ambition.

It is all pure hagiography, as one must expect from a musical biopic overseen by the very musicians it depicts; co-scripted by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, the narrative rarely lets the actual chronology of events get in the way of bolstering its own mythology. That said, I Can Only Imagine certainly captures the exaltation shared by the song’s legion of followers, and knowing one’s audience is always a blessing. The casting of remarkable lookalike Nicole Du Port as faith-based C&W angel Amy Grant reaffirms the productions’ understanding of and appreciation for Mercy Me’s fanbase.

Though it will never be championed as an insightful work of either religious art or patriarchal psychology, I Can Only Imagine does manage to be a good film about a great song. As expected from frame 1, Finley/Millard navigates a fully humanising redemptive round-trip by the end of Act 3, perfectly timed for the rousing cinematic treatment that the song thoroughly deserves (which was, I must confess, the first time I had heard it).

Thursday
Mar152018

THAT'S NOT MY DOG

Stars: Shane Jacobson, Paul Hogan, Jimeoin, Steve Vizard, Michala Banas, Fiona O’Loughlin, Tim Ferguson, Lehmo, Ed Kavalee, Paul Fenech, Marty Fields, Rob Carlton, Christie Whelan Browne, Stephen Hall, Dave Eastgate, Genevieve Morris, Bev Killick, Emily Taheny, Khaled Khalafalla, Hung Le, Ron Jacobson, Bec Asha, Ross Daniels, Lulu McClatchy, Spud Murphy, John Foreman, Stewart Faichney and Nathaniel Lloyd.
Director: Dean Murphy

Rating 3/5

Director Dean Murphy manages to wring a surprising amount of cinematic flair out of That’s Not My Dog, a film that consists almost entirely of comedians telling each other jokes at a night time BBQ in regional Victoria. Cutting with precision, giving the punchlines room to breath and interspersing the bursts of laughter with well-shot live music, Murphy and star/producer Shane Jacobson largely capture the ambience of such an intrinsically Australian event.

Jacobson concocted the night as a tribute to his ageing dad Ron, who has mentored his son in the art of joke-telling his entire life. The film eases up on the comedy just long enough for a sentimental Jacobson to tell his dad that the night is to allow the elderly crack-up a break from providing the giggles; all these chucklemeisters are attending in his honour.

And that’s what happens; from a naff opening that suggests all the comedians carpooled to the Jacobson’s rural plot, That’s Not My Dog settles into 88 minutes of material that veers from blokishly blue (the one about the frog that gives oral sex; the one about four nuns at the pearly gates) to performance piece (Michala Banas’ very funny ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’s One Night Stand’ routine) to traditional pub yarntelling (Paul Hogan’s evergreen ‘Harbourview Hotel Millionaire’ gag).

That’s Not My Dog (the title taken from a payoff to an old gag made famous in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, but oddly not featured here) wavers in hilarity, as you’d expect; some jokes are familiar, some just not funny, some winningly so. Some natural talents shine (Rob Carlton; Stephen Hall; Fiona O’Loughlin; Jacobson’s Snr and Jnr, of course), while others are mirthful passengers (Paul Fenech; Ed Kavalee; Steve Vizard). Musical contributions by such greats as The Black Sorrows, Russell Morris and Adam Brand give the laugh muscles much needed rest at crucial intervals.

Stand-up comics are notorious for not always laughing at other comic’s jokes (by their very nature, they always want to have the last laugh), but Jacobson’s mates genuinely seem to be having a good time with each other. Murphy convincingly captures the celebratory high spirits of the night and the sweet intentions of his leading man.

Tuesday
Mar062018

DEATH WISH

Stars: Bruce Willis, Dean Norris, Vincent D’Onfrio, Elisabeth Shue, Kimberly Elise, Camila Morrone, Beau Knapp and Len Cariou.
Writer: Joe Carnahan; based on the novel by Brian Garfield.
Director: Eli Roth

Rating: 3/5

There is no escaping the urge to dismiss, even deride, Eli Roth’s remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 sequel-friendly Death Wish as an ugly by-product of the new President’s America. Filled with scenes one desperately hopes are ironic but probably aren’t (giggly, buxom salesgirls espouse the pure joy of AR weaponry; Mexican valets rape college-bound white girls; African-American hoods deal drugs via neighbourhood kids), this update threatens to play as archaically redundant as its source material. In the new United States of Fear and Intolerance, however, Roth's alpha male-privilege fantasy may tap the emboldened 'alt-right' audience.

Bald and angry white-guy Bruce Willis effectively channels the rigid, one-note screen presence of Charles Bronson as vigilante Paul Kersey, the well-to-do middle class professional who comes to accept that lone-wolf justice is better than anything the cops or courts can offer. When Dean Norris’ bald and angry white-guy detective offers only excuses regarding the investigation into the murder of his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and brutal assault of his daughter (Camila Morrone), Willis arms up and hits Chicago’s seedy, nighttime locales to reek his own brand of heart-over-head vengeance.

Willis’ casting is crucial, not because he does anything remarkable with the character – Kersey is a meat-&-potato American ‘suburban dad’, offering Willis little scope – but because Roth’s coldly calculated if simple-minded thriller exists in a 80s action-movie world totally tone-deaf in today's climate. Our anti-hero is so of another time, he can’t text (despite overseeing a modern hospital’s emergency room) and the narrative relies on some ridiculous developments only the most undemanding Blockbuster customer would have ever fallen for (e.g., Kersey procures his first gun when it falls from a shooting victim in the ER, in plain view of several clearly blind hospital staff and long after ambulance medics have stripped down the victim). Little is made of Dr Versey’s relationship with his Hippocratic Oath, one of many missed opportunities in the formulaically constructed script by macho screenwriter Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, 2007; The A-Team, 2010; The Grey, 2012).

There are modern concessions that the 2018 production affords itself – Kersey becomes a viral online sensation, dubbed ‘The Grim Reaper’ when his first slaying is uploaded. But Roth falls back on another relic of times gone by, the talk-back radio shock jock, to act like a Greek chorus arguing (not very convincingly) the moral complexities of should-he-or-shouldn’t-he vigilantism. DOP Rogier Stoffers  (School of Rock, 2003; Mongol, 2007; The Disappointments Room, 2016) also recalls the bygone beauty of Winner’s film stock ambience, capturing the deep, dark shadows of a city at night in his lensing.

To your left-leaning critic, the politics of Death Wish are reprehensible. Roth has never displayed too much sensitivity or intellect, so it is unlikely he took on a revenge narrative as a means by which to encourage discussion; in his film, a bad guy with a big gun will be stopped by a decent guy with a bigger gun, one of many NRA bumper-sticker sentiments that seem to have inspired the plot. To die-hard advocates of Trump’s singular vision to return his nation to ultra-conservative white-man rule, however, it will play as if John McClane, one of cinema’s greatest American heroes, was always on their side.

Nevertheless, Eli Roth’s Death Wish is arguably his best work since…whenever; a slick, sick and admittedly watchable throwback to a brand of un-PC action/thriller when the unjustifiable yet, to some, understandable actions of a gun-toting, grief-stricken everyman, his heroic roots in classic Western films, still seemed pure movie fantasy. With ugly male privilege and toxicity in the spotlight, Willis and his director faced an uphill battle to make their lead character anything less than reprehensible; if that’s their only achievement, it’s a significant if questionable one.

Friday
Feb232018

CARRIBERRIE

With: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Dubay Dancers, The Lonely Boys, Anangu, Joey Ngamjmirra, Mayi Wunba, Naygayiw Gigi Dance Troupe and Hans Ahwang. Narrated by David Gulpilil.
Writer: Tara June Winch.
Director: Dominic Allen.

Reviewed at the World Premiere, held at The Australian Museum in Sydney on Thursday February 23.

Rating: 5/5

Indigenous tradition dating back millennia melds with the future of fully immersive filmmaking technology in the breathtaking virtual reality mini-feature, Carriberrie. A faithful extension of the art and craft of the spiritual dance narratives it captures, this glorious film premieres at The Australian Museum as an integral part of WEAVE, a month-long festival celebrating First Nation and Pacific cultures.

Deriving its title from the word ‘corroboree’ as spoken by the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land upon which the city of Sydney now stands, the 15-minute 3D/360° rendering of First Nation dance and music represents a deeply humanistic focussing of the VR lens. Director Dominic Allen has employed the Jaunt ONE camera (a custom-built VR rig offering unprecedented image quality) to capture not only the majestic Australian landscape from Uluru to The Torres Strait Islands to The Harbour City, but also the unique complexities and beautiful artistry of native storytelling in song.

A white Australian of Irish ancestry, Allen spent two years working with indigenous elders such as senior Kimberley Walmajarri woman Annette Kogolo and Marilyn Miller, Director of the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival and former Bangarra choreographer, to ensure authenticity and respect was afforded all the performers in the film. Several of the sequences, including the funeral performance “Kun-borrk Karrbarda” from the Northern Territory and a Kuku-Yalanji ceremony called “Mayi Wunba” that depicts the cultivation of Queensland rainforest honey, have rarely been glimpsed by the wider Australian population.

Contemporary First Nation culture is also represented, with contributions from the acclaimed work “Bennelong”, courtesy of the internationally renowned Bangarra dance company, and the anthemic rock song “The Hunter” from Lonely Boys, a six-piece band hailing from the Arnhem Land community of Ngukurr. A picturesque highlight is the all-women Dubay Dancers, of the Arakwal people from the stunning Byron Bay region of New South Wales, who dance a re-enactment of the seaside collection of yuggari (pippi) and jalum (fish).

Allen unites indigenous musical culture and the nations from which they hail with drone footage that frames the vast yet singular bond they share with the land, from deep within the red of the Outback to the green of the hinterland to the blue of coast. In and of itself much of this resembles high quality travelogue footage, to date one of standard uses of VR technology. In cohesion with the symbolic stories, however, the footage stirs with profundity.

The director’s other triumphant artistic flourish is his use of the 360° device, allowing the viewer to be at the centre of the dance rituals within the very environment from which they traditionally emerged. The sense of discovery one experiences with every turn of the head, with musicians in full flight and choirs in boisterous song often over one’s shoulder, will be revelatory to those new to the virtual reality viewing realm.

With Carriberrie, Dominic Allen, writer Tara June Winch and the production team have defined a new direction for the VR format – an affecting journey rich in ancient cultural significance, every bit as soaring as the viewing experience itself. It is a remarkable work.

CARRIBERRIE screens at The Australian Museum, Sydney, from March 2-27. Other states and venues to follow. Ticket and session times can be found at the venue's official website.