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Sunday
Feb182018

THE BBQ

Stars: Shane Jacobson, Magda Szubanski, Manu Feildel, Julia Zemiro, Frederic Simpson, Lara Robinson, John Stanton and Nicholas Hammond.
Writers: Stephen Amis, Serge De Nardo, Tim Ferguson, David Richardson and Angelo Salamanca.
Director: Stephen Amis

Rating: 3/5

Determined to bulk-up the DNA of their home grown comedy with as much Ocker iconography as possible, star Shane Jacobson and a team of five (!) writers tie the legacy of Captain James Cook to modern day suburbia by way of the titular outdoor oven in The BBQ.  Director Stephen Amis’ broad farce lands a few gentle barbs at modern Australian society but this likably silly romp, a sort of celebration of ‘Dad Joke’ humour, feels most at ease when it’s just having a bit of a laugh.

At times recalling both the good-guy sweetness and naïve befuddlement of the great John Candy, Jacobson plays suburban every-man Darren ‘Dazza’ Cook, a husband-and-dad who puts great stock in a lineage that he believes dates back to the first Englishman to land on these shores. From the deck of a backyard HMS Endeavour built to honour his ancestor, Dazza holds sway at a weekly neighbourhood BBQ, a tradition that goes horribly wrong when dodgy prawns lay waste to his guests, none more so than father-in-law bully Herb (John Stanton).

In real world terms, such an incident would be a minor moment in a suburb’s unremarkable history, yet in Amis’ brightly-hued version of reality it ups the stakes of the redemptive narrative when Dazza is humiliated on national television. With his reputation in tatters, the weight of his bloodline proving burdensome and tension in his marriage to the very tolerant Diane (a terrific Julia Zemiro; pictured below, with Jacobson, left, and co-stars Frederik Simpson and Lara Robinson), Dazza employs the mentorship of fiery Scottish maestro-of-the-meat ‘The Butcher’ (Magda Szubanski; pictured top, with Jacobson) to win an internationally flavoured BBQ showdown and regain his status, self-dignity and patriarchal perch.

Stephen Amis’ last film, the 2012 wartime fantasy The 25th Reich, gave no indication of the naturally buoyant comedic touch he exhibits in steering a plot that takes some unashamedly daft turns. The BBQ never reaches the heights of suburban comedy slickness set by standard-bearer The Castle, but nor does it have that film’s slightly too acerbic take on our working class. The family at the centre of The Castle, The Kerrigans, were often the target of the script’s humour; Amis and Jacobson don’t judge their character’s middle-class idiosyncracies (a degree of respect also employed by the actor in his biggest hit, 2006’s Kenny), giving the film a tender warmth and sentimentality that helps smooth over some eye-rolling plot developments.  

The BBQ will play a bit too fast and loose with old-school racial caricatures for some, including but not limited to the cartoonishly arrogant French chef Andre Mont Blanc (TV celebrity cook Manu Fieldel), eccentric Indian neighbour Mr Chatterjee (Bashir Ally), Mr Miyagi-like Oriental shaman Mr Yoshimura (Kuni Hashimoto) and pompous Brit butler/butcher’s aide, Carver (Nicholas Hammond, channelling John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning performance as Hobson from 1981’s Arthur). But each rise to their own moment of triumph in a manner that respects them as individuals and not (or not just) broad stereotypes.

Others may rankle at the steady stream of real-world product placement deals done by the producers (the prominence of outdoor cooking retailer Barbeques Galore and Jacobson's and Fieldel's small-screen employer The Seven Network must have surely come close to paying for principal photography on the modest production), but one can't begrudge the sector finding funding wherever it can in this current climate.

If there is not a single surprising frame of film in The BBQ, it does not make the journey to its feel-good finale any less enjoyable. Our great backyard chefs can turn a charred chop into a culinary feast; with The BBQ, Amis and Jacobson turn a similarly unpromising premise into something just as warmly familiar and satisfying.

Thursday
Feb082018

THE 15:17 TO PARIS

Cast: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, P.J. Byrne and Tony Hale.
Writer: Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern.
Director: Clint Eastwood

Rating: 2/5

An instinctual act of remarkable heroism is afforded the least remarkable effort of director Clint Eastwood’s long career in The 15:17 to Paris. The overpowering of a heavily armed would-be killer on a European train by three square-of-jaw, broad-of-shoulder all-American types should have been bread-and-butter to the director of American Sniper and Sully, but Eastwood can’t overcome the inherent problem that everyday Joes like split-second heroes Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler don’t necessarily have cinematic back-stories.

The production employs some good ol’ Hollywood stunt casting, having the three adult bros play themselves (the event aboard the Amsterdam-to-Paris Nord Thalys train took place in 2015, so their maturing posed no problem). The main focus of the narrative is the slightly more reflective Stone, the one who led the charge against would-be mass murderer Ayoub El-Khazzani, before Skarlatos and Sadler leapt in and beat the gunman into unconscious submission. None of the three have a natural screen presence and struggle awkwardly with first-time scriptwriter Dorothy Blyskal’s clunky dialogue; one senses a few scenes were improvised, which means a lots of “Dude, this is awesome!” and “Man, this is crazy!” dialogue.

Eastwood introduces Stone and Skarlatos as buddies growing up in Midwest homes steeped in Christian values, sharing an obsession with war and gunplay. Such a boys-own fixation isn’t so unusual, even when it extends to wearing matching camouflage duds to school. What is unusual is the poster for Full Metal Jacket on Stone’s wall; any dark irony that a pre-teen kid should heroically idolize Stanley Kubrick’s military horror show is lost on Eastwood. In what amounts to a directorial mission statement, some woodland war games conclude with young Stone overstating, “There’s something about war that forms a brotherhood.” Like never before, Eastwood feels justified in wearing his capital-R right wing ‘God, Gun and Country’ director’s cap to tell this story (which probably explains the muted, mid-February release here in Australia).

Skarlatos (who looks like a puffed-up version of Eastwood’s son, Scott, minus the on-screen charisma) and Stone enter into middling military careers. Stone’s trajectory amounts to one get fit montage, some hand-to-hand combat training and inevitable run-ins with his superiors. Sadler disappears off to college until some downtime brings them all back together for the fateful backpacking adventure in Europe, portrayed as a travelogue-style continental romp that takes up all the second act of The 15:17 to Paris. Scenes of the lads checking out scenery in Rome, drinking beer in Venice and nightclubbing in Amsterdam amount to nothing more than that; in one extended sequence, we watch Stone, Sadler and a girl they befriend discuss, decide upon and buy gelato.

The only interesting moment of this mid-section occurs when a nerdy, bespectacled tour guide chastises the group when they try correct him on the site and circumstance of Hitler’s death; when the guide barks, “You Americans are not the only ones who are able to overcome evil,” Stone and Sadler smirk and shrug off the observation with what plays worryingly like snide American arrogance. 

In an otherwise mirthless film, there is some humour in the casting of the support players, with a line-up of familiar funny faces that resembles less a Clint Eastwood ensemble and more a network TV comedy roster. Tony Hale (Veep) and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) play uppity educators, with Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Judy Greer as the boy’s moms (the perennial bff is asked to pull off perhaps the new years’ worst line of dialogue, “My Lord is bigger than your statistics”). The actresses do all they can with stock parts in a film that affords no actress any worthwhile moments; Eastwood ‘s camera leers at the bodies of Italian and Dutch backpackers and partygoers with the eye of a dirty old-man cut loose in a Euro-disco.

The staging of the takedown aboard the train is, as expected, riveting, thrilling and terrifying. The film’s one-note thematic structure suggests that the boy’s stop-start journeys into manhood, bolstered by Christian values, will find worthiness in a single act of selfless courage. In that regard, Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris gets its retelling of boring, meandering lives leading to one impactful, fleeting moment exactly right. For 95 minutes, it’s a plodding, directionless grind that sparks into meaning for about 180 extraordinary seconds.

 

Tuesday
Jan302018

THE CANNIBAL CLUB

Stars: Ana Luiza Rios, Tavinho Teixera, Ze Maria, Pedro Domingues, Rodrigo Capistrano and Galba Noguera.
Writer/Director: Guto Parente.

Reviewed at Pathé 4 Cinema, Sunday January 28 as part of the Rotterdämmerung section at the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

Rating: 4/5

A South American genre film about cannibalism lands world cinema’s sharpest counter punch to wealthy global privilege in auteur Guto Parente’s seventh and arguably best feature, The Cannibal Club. Set against the golden sun and sparkling sand of the gated-community and private-beach life of upscale Brazil, the prolific 34 year-old filmmaker envisions a modern but no less decadent and disturbed version of Caligula’s court, with added people-eating.

Parente takes aim at the culture of the grotesquely well-off, one that affords them the luxury of having the poor to exploit. In the case of Otavio (Tavinho Teixera) and his young trophy wife Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios), this extends to the hiring, slaughtering and devouring of servants who come to their coastal mansion in the hope of steady work. In a frankly remarkable opening salvo of images both sexually frank and gruesomely detailed, the stereotypical ‘pool boy’ flirts with a willing Gilda, only to be disposed of mid-coitus by Otavio, fileted and served as the evening meal.

When Gilda witnesses the most influential flesh-eater of them all, cold-blooded capitalist/nationalist powerbroker Borges (Pedro Domingues) in a particularly compromising situation, she and Otavio soon find that their cocktail-sipping peers will willingly turn against their own kind to protect their lofty, self-entitled secret status. Parente’s rich are not the endowment-to-the-arts kind of charity patrons that western media often venerates; the wealthy of Brazil are lecherous, murderous pack animals who turn on the compromised, fearful that any weakness threatens their existence.

When not indulging in his own pleasures of the flesh, Otavio partakes of some ‘men’s only’ business as part of the titular soirée, who gather to witness acts that reinforce just how prevalent and heartless the exploitation of the poor underclass has truly become. Parente’s other prime target is the innately pathetic nature of rich society’s Alpha Male, who posture and rankle but mostly shrivel and cower when the patriarchy is threatened. In Ana Luiza Rios’ fearless performance as Gilda, the director identifies the feminine archetype that must navigate the duality of their existence; at once, feigning compliance to fragile male egos while always charting their own destiny, however bloodstained and immoral it may be.    

The Cannibal Club courses with a savagely scornful humour; if few moments prove laugh-out-loud hilarious (the general mood is too unrelentingly tense and often unpleasant for mirthful outbursts), Parente has nevertheless crafted a sly, stylish skewering of affluent disconnect. If the rich feeding wilfully off the working class is not exactly a unique notion, the theme has rarely been handled with such dark-hearted gleeful menace or strident intellect.

       

Thursday
Jan252018

HAVE YOU SEEN THE LISTERS?

Featuring: Anthony Lister, Anika Lister, Kye Lister, Lola Lister and Polly Lister.
Director: Eddie Martin.

Screened at Cinerama 3, on Monday January 29 as part of the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

Rating: 4/5

In artist Anthony Lister, filmmaker Eddie Martin finds another profoundly talented but deeply troubled genius to bolster his rogue’s gallery of fascinating documentary subjects. Compiled from twelve terabytes of the artist’s own personal archives, Martin crafts an often buoyant, occasionally bleak but always vivid portrait of the magnificent creativity and heartbreaking personal detours that have shaped Lister’s young life.

A Brisbane lad who connected with his innate talent and unique artistry at an early age, Lister is etched as a young man both blessed by and burdened with a psychology borne out of his suburban roots. His upbringing in a divorced household meant a strong father figure was not present, the ramifications of which resonate through the thematic core of Martin’s film. He is quickly on that well-charted course of many young rebellious types – a fearless pursuit of identity, the grasping of a creative destiny yet to be clearly defined but craved above all else. And, of course, a life of shared living, lots of booze and occasional and increasingly prevalent drug use.

Lister’s life with apparent soul mate Anika seems to be one of spiritual and emotional connectivity, but his ‘self-obsessed, self-destructive artist’ persona becomes all-consuming. Martin’s punchy, pulsating version of the couple’s time together - from Brissy teen sweethearts, to NYC bohemians, to struggling parents in inner city Sydney – makes for bold and brilliant documentary construction (aided immeasurably by the consummate skill of cutter Johanna Scott).

In his highly-acclaimed past works, Martin has respectfully peeled away the street tough, rebellious genius image of such enigmatic talents as graffitist Justin Hughes (Jisoe, 2005); pugilist Lionel Rose (Lionel, 2008) and skateboarding brothers Tas and Ben Pappas (All This Mayhem, 2014). The insight he affords the troubled, driven inner workings of his working class heroes, and the dexterity with which he formulates their on-screen lives, is a rare commodity amongst the current factual filmmaking community.

In telling this tale, a narrative about a young man’s unforgiving and demanding talent and its impact upon the journey into fatherhood, Have You Seen The Listers? demands Martin, a remarkably skillful and empathetic storyteller, now be considered amongst the finest filmmakers working in Australia.

Read The SCREEN-SPACE Interview with Have You Seen The Listers? director Eddie Martin here.

Thursday
Jan252018

MARLINA THE MURDERER IN FOUR ACTS (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak)

Stars: Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, Egi Fedly, Yoga Pratama, Rita Matu Mona, Vayu Unru, Anggun Priambodo and Safira Ahmad.
Writers: Mouly Surya and Rama Adi, based on a story by Garin Nugroho.
Director: Mouly Surya.

Screened at Pathé 4 Cinema, Thursday January 25 as part of the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).  

Rating: 4.5/5

DOP Yunus Pasolang’s extraordinarily beautiful lensing is just one of the many unexpected virtues of Indonesian auteur Mouly Surya’s fiercely feminist rape-revenge ‘Eastern western’, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. A stylised arthouse horror/thriller that doubles as an elegantly intellectual think-piece concerning the region’s gender politics, Surya’s third feature confirms her status as one of Asian cinema’s most important and relevant voices.

Rife with cues as to the film’s origins in the classically male-dominated American genre (despite funding from non-Hollywood backers in Indonesia, France, Malaysia and Thailand), Surya introduces us to her protagonist as she mourns the loss of her husband. As per tradition, he sits wrapped in funeral cloth in the couple’s remote homestead on the atypically brown and dusty island of Sumba. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) has seen much death in this home; a gravestone reads ‘Topan’, who it is revealed was her stillborn 8-month child. Things do not bode well when a band of loutish brutes arrive to eat her cooking, steal her livestock and rape the stricken widow (the unfolding drama comprising Act I, ‘Robbery’).

With nothing left to loose but her sad life and staunch dignity, Marlina disposes of the five brutes, none with more efficient clarity than the leader Markus (Egi Fedly), whose head is freed of its bodily constraints in a particularly sublime moment of coitus interruptus. With her rapist’s head dangling by her side, Marlina sets off over the stunning countryside (Act II, ‘The Journey’) for the nearest police station (Act III, ‘The Confession’) with her similarly abused and heavily pregnant (Act IV, ‘Birth’) friend Novi (Dea Panendra) whose compelling subplot builds to a meshing of life/death magnitude in the final frames.

Timothy is superb as Marlina, her steely focus and unshakable adherence to her noble quest as perfect a reincarnation of the great frontierswoman of western lore as seen in some time. The evocative score by Zeke Khaseli and Ydhi Arfani harkens back to Ennio Morricone’s masterworks for Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ films, though it is unlikely any one will forget the name ‘Marlina’ after sharing her odyssey.

Given the current global social climate is on the brink of a seismic shift against ingrained toxic masculinity and patriarchal dominance, the remote setting, cultural specifics and tight character interactions of Marlina the Murderer will be no hindrance to the film securing worldwide festival berths. This should in no way suggest that its politics alone ought to earn it passage abroad; on the contrary, Surya’s profoundly thoughtful and majestically wrought drama (which would make a great double-bill with Coralie Fargeat’s recent brutal sexual assault payback shocker, Revenge) will, like the title character herself, forge its own path through its inherent dignity, grace and determination.

Tuesday
Jan232018

BENDING THE ARC

Featuring: Dr. Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, St. Ker Francois, Adeline Mercon, Meliquiades Huauya Ore.
Screenwriter: Cori Shepherd Stern
Directors: Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos.

Reviewed January 23 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour as part of the 2018 Screenwave International Film Festival.

Rating: 4.5/5

A 30-year campaign to provide poor nations with the means by which to save their populations from fatal contagions makes for an enriching, enraging and deeply emotional profile in Bending the Arc. Deriving its metaphoric title from the words of abolitionist and great reformer Theodore Parker (“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”), the directing team of Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos have crafted a story of social heroism, fierce spiritual triumph and driven scientific determination.

The core of the documentary is the friendship that bonds Dr Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl (daughter of Raold) and Dr Jim Yong Kim. In the early 1980s, idealistic twenty-somethings Farmer and Dahl found themselves in Haiti, surrounded by dire poverty and a population still stricken with the archaic but deadly scourge of tuberculosis. The pair set out to alter the sad destiny of a small group of Haitians and, with Dr Kim joining their crusade, established a medical centre that drew 100,000s of frail villagers, some perilously close to death.

The movement grew into Partners in Health, a not-for-profit medical research charity whose aim is to establish educational facilities and hospital grade infrastructure in the poorest of regions. Secondary to this aim but no less rousing on-screen drama is the stoushes that the trio and their dedicated volunteers pick with Big Pharma and the rich healthcare systems of Western society, the dark overlords of which refuse to consider the health of poor populations worthy of consideration, let alone investment.

The directing duo’s lightness of touch creates a compelling narrative momentum (kudos to writer Cori Shepherd Stern’s solid structure) while clearly detailing the mountains the movement needed to climb to make real their goals. Utilising interstitial time-and-place cards, Bending the Arc charts initiatives that have combatted drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru, the AIDS plague in Africa, the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and the terror of the early days of the Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak. In addition to these grand scale undertakings, Davidson and Kos evoke the deeply emotional journey of all involved by tracking the route to recovery of patients who we meet at death’s door (the plight of MDR-TB sufferer Meliquiades and his reuniting with Dr Kim reduced your critic to heavy man-sobs).

Given the current administration’s callously racist disregard for the so-called ‘sh*thole countries’ that feature in Bending the Arc, the documentary takes on a volatile humanism-vs. -corporatism urgency that would most likely not have been on the filmmaker’s minds when the film wrapped just ahead of its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival; it never preaches or takes a political stance, yet reveals the bastardry, greed and short-sightedness of the western medical-industrial establishment.

In the last half-century, the dedication and drive to make better the lives of those with whom we share this global community has never been more desperately needed; the epic struggles and grand achievements of the Partners in Health teams has remained truly heroic (none more so than the community health officials, charged with day-to-day administration in some of the most poverty- and illness-stricken corners of the planet). Bending the Arc, through its core ‘All Humans are Humans’ mantra, celebrates the soaring, empathic personalities that will continue to rebuild international society over the next half-century.

Donations to PARTNERS IN HEALTH can made via the organisation's official website.

 

Friday
Jan052018

BLEEDING STEEL

Stars: Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Ouyang Nana, Callan Mulvey, Tess Haubrich and Xiahou Yunshan.
Writers: Leo Zhang, Cui Siwei and Xiaohou Yunshan
Director: Leo Zhang.

Rating: 2/5

There is a special place in movie heaven for acts of such logic- and physics-defying cinematic lunacy as Leo Zhang’s Bleeding Steel, a momentously staged absurdity that almost endears itself through sheer relentless bombast. Largely shot in Sydney (or, more precisely, a graffiti-stained future version of the harbour city populated by basketball-playing American street teens, for some reason), this preposterous romp plays like a greatest hits version of star Jackie Chan’s most recognizable on-screen characterisations, but with dumbed-down dialogue, a garish colour palette and an audio track cranked to 11.  

Ripping huge chunks of inspiration from the likes of Luc Besson’s sci-fi spectacle Lucy, Chan’s own kiddie romp The Spy Next Door and…oh, let’s go with Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier, Zhang’s hyper-charged, hardly-coherent head-spinner is a star-vehicle concoction for both old and new generations of Asia’s favourite film stars. The ageing action legend plays special operative Lin, who has dedicated the latter part of his career to covertly protecting his daughter, Nancy (Taiwanese cellist starlet Ouyang Nana), while never being able to reveal his true self to her. Also in a mix to ensure broad regional and demographic acceptance is The Mermaid star Show Lo, the Taiwanese idol ok as the handsome but bumbling offsider Leeson, and Erica Xia-Hou as Lin’s strong-willed career cop 2IC.  

When a book is published revealing Nancy to be the missing link in a clandestine synthetic human initiative led Dr James (Kym Gyngell), the teen-queen Wolverine becomes the target of Andre (Callan Mulvey), a rotting Frankenstein-type behemoth who needs Nancy’s blood to regenerate. Despite barely being held together by his pale grey skin, Andre has amassed an army of black-helmeted alien types led by a leather-clad warrior-woman (Tess Haubrich, channelling Cate Blanchett’s Thor villainess; pictured, below), whose job it is to slay anyone stalling her quest to bring Nancy to Andre. That’ll do plotwise, suffice to say it spins in increasingly convoluted and largely indecipherable directions, with little regard for even the most basic action-movie realism.

Now well into his 60s and unable to dazzle with the same physical prowess he displayed as a younger action hero, Chan is nevertheless called upon to up the adrenalin for cast and audience (often with CGI enhancement); he occasionally appears somewhat bewildered by all that is unfolding around him. He has played this father/fighter/fumbler archetype before, most notably in his last three films (The Foreigner; Railroad Tigers; Kung Fu Yoga), all of which were far better suited to his age and talent. Chan’s signature large-scale stunt, the fight atop and spectacular descent from a big-city landmark (see his antics on Rotterdam’s Willemswerf Tower in 1998’s Who Am I? or the Hong Kong Convention Centre in 2004’s New Police Story) is dragged out again, this time perching him on the Sydney Opera House sails for some silly but spectacular fight scenes.

The most remarkable thing about Bleeding Steel (that awful title aside) is the tonal shifts employed almost frame-to-frame by director Zhang (who worked with the Chan clan on 2012’s Chrysanthemum of The Beast). Featuring broad slapstick humour, Bond-like gadgetry, Mission Impossible-type set-pieces, teen romance beats, some loopy science fiction tropes, schmaltz-rich sentimentality and, finally, knife-to-the-neck/chest-bursting ultra-violence, it is impossible to gauge what type of audience, other than the die-hard Chan completists, will feel wholly satisfied by this schizophrenic genre hodgepodge.

That Zhang and his cast play it with such straight-faced conviction at such a high pitch for all of the 110 minute running time does inspire in the viewer a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’-kind of respect for all involved, but that’s probably not what the producers (of which there are about four million) were aiming for.

Wednesday
Dec132017

SWINGING SAFARI

Stars: Radha Mitchell, Guy Pearce, Julian McMahon, Kylie Minogue, Asher Keddie, Jack Thompson, Alice Lanesbury, Georgia Mae, Jacob Elordi and Jeremy Sims.
Writer/Director: Stephan Elliott

Rating: 4/5

People of a certain age (i.e., me) love rose-coloured glassing what a freer, wilder, uninhibited time the 1970s was to grow up an Australian. As Richard Roxburgh’s dulcet tones confess in the opening narration of Stephan Elliott’s raucous ode to that decade’s suburban debauchery, such recollections are probably blown out of realistic proportion. In cinematic terms, that is called ‘artistic licence’, and while it will be the only time ‘artistic’ is used to describe anything about Swinging Safari, that won’t matter a bit to audiences primed for retro fashions, loose morals and capital-B broad comedy.

Playing like a boozy, floozy Antipodean mash-up of TV staple The Wonder Years and Paul Mazursky’s middle class mores romp Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Elliott casts the terrific Atticus Robb as his adolescent alter-ego Jeff Marsh, a sensitive teenager whose obsessions know only two forms – movies and girl-next-door Melly (Darcey Wilson), an equally ill-at-ease tweenager barely coping with the madness that unfolds daily in their cul-de-sac existence. Jeff ropes in the neighbourhood kids to make life-threatening Super 8 action films under his ‘Deathcheaters’ banner, while Melly struggles with a Jan Brady-like life of perpetual moodiness and parental indifference.

While Jeff’s ‘backyard Spielberg’ narrative reflects Elliott’s early directorial flare, the bawdy adult exploits in Swinging Safari capture the essence of the filmmaker’s grown-up career output, as a maelstrom of sexual tension sweeps through the neighbourhood in the wake of a failed spouse-swapping incident. That antiquated alpha masculinity that plays as hilariously sexist in today’s climate is captured in Guy Pearce’s bottle-blond, moustachioed man-child Keith, Julian McMahon’s gaudily wealthy leer Rick and Jeremy Sims’ loud-but-decent third wheel Bob; their respective spouses are Kylie Minogue’s neurotic souse Kaye, Radha Mitchell’s sexed-up swinger Jo and Asher Keddie’s tightly-wound, image-conscious Gale.

Every one of the game stars plays to the back row with performances that demand the kind of largeness needed to dominate their director’s frantic pacing (courtesy of ace editor Sue Blainey) and raucous soundscape. Elliott’s work has favoured settings and circumstance rich in generally distasteful, occasionally funny comedy and characterisations as big as the Outback often, not coincidentally, filmed in the Outback (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, 1994; Welcome to Woop Woop, 1997; A Few Best Men, 2011).

The red dust of Australia’s centre is replaced by the golden sands of Nobby Beach and shimmering bitumen of Wyong Place in Swinging Safari, but perhaps more than ever the mise-en-scène is the true star of a Stephen Elliott film. Every frame is filled with lovingly detailed recollections of the plastic period that will instantly engender that warm nostalgic glow in those lucky enough to have lived it. The fashions are the most obvious call back, but everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken TVCs, the entire K-Tel catalogue, moon chairs, Valiant chargers and cheese fondue sets are referenced. Colin Gibson’s production design, Jodie Whetter’s art direction and Justine Dunn’s set direction bring Elliott’s memories to vivid life in what must have been a dream gig; Oscar winner Lizzy Gardner’s costuming is, expectedly, a treat.

Even more resonant are the behavioural and social beats that Elliott skewers; parenting techniques and beach etiquette that seemed entirely appropriate in the day yet are now mined for instant hilarity. While some of his other pics have exhibited an occasionally bitter streak, Elliott seems to hold true affection for this time and place; despite its high-pitched shrillness, Swinging Safari is his warmest, funniest and most likable film since …Priscilla.

 

Sunday
Dec102017

PERFECT BID: THE CONTESTANT WHO KNEW TOO MUCH

Featuring: Theodore Slauson, Bob Barker, Roger Dobkowitz, Drew Carey and Kevin Pollak.
Director: C.J. Wallis

Rating: 4/5

The curious case of Theodore Slauson and the role he played in one of the most remarkable moments of television history is examined with an acutely insightful eye and jaunty rhythm in director C.J. Wallis’ hugely enjoyable doc, Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much. The 52 year-old survivor of game show infamy proves to be droll and delightful frontman for his own story, which Wallis recounts utilising first-person recollections, archive footage and some stylishly employed bridging animation.

A head for mathematical detail served Slauson well when his obsession with the iconic game show The Price is Right took full flight during his teenage years in the 1970s. The middle child of a middle class family raised in household where television was the centrifugal force, young Ted began to notice that the prizes on offer to contestants would often be repeated. Slauson took notes, first mentally and then electronically; by the mid 80s, with more than a decade of episodes logged, he knew the exact make, model and, most importantly, price of the entire prize catalogue.

The first half of Wallis’ charming, personality-driven profile affords insight into the rare depths that this brand of fandom occupies. There is not a judgemental frame of footage in Perfect Bid, which could have easily taken a mocking tone towards a man who spent the best part of four decades fixated on a daytime game show. In recounting his time spent lining up for a shot at player stardom and the special brand of ‘audience celebrity’ he became in his own right, Slauson’s ingratiating, self-effacing self-awareness proves entirely disarming.

Of course, most obsessions reveal a dark side. For Ted Slauson, it was in the form of Terry Kniess, whom Slauson befriended while waiting in line in September 2008. Kneiss would become the first contestant in the history of The Price is Right to place a perfect bid in the showcase round, with Slauson screaming numbers in support from the front row of the audience (participation encouraged as part of the show’s appeal).    

At the time, the ‘Perfect Showcase’ was deemed an impossible act; new host Drew Carey, in footage gleaned from his appearance on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show podcast, recalls how production was halted when the numbers revealed the anomaly and the consequences of such an event were weighed.

Thematically, Wallis touches on the notion of ‘careful what you wish for’. The fan mantra “Loyal Friends and True” that was preached by the show’s producers was severely tested in the wake of the Kniess incident. For Slauson, any notion of aiding in a scam to cheat the show was mortifying, as was the preposterous notion of a vengeful conspiracy in the wake of the sacking of veteran showrunner Roger Dobkowitz and the departure of beloved host Bob Barker (both of whom lend their beaming personalities to the film; pictured, above, l-r Dobkowitz and Barker).

Wallis’ account of the super-fan’s journey guided, in part, by the power of television proves a joy. In relating an everyman’s life altered/enriched/elevated when it crosses paths with his obsession, Perfect Bid: The Contestant That Knew Too Much will speak with a very clear and relatable voice to those who seek it out. However unwittingly, Theodore Slauson dictated his own destiny through a lifetime of commitment and dedication, two of the key components of the great American dream. As is winning one’s fortune on a game show.

Wednesday
Dec062017

D-LOVE

Stars: Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss and Christine Fazzino.
Writer: Dave Rogers
Director: Elena Beuca

Rating: 4/5

Elena Beuca (pictured, above) and her husband Dave Rogers were at the lowest ebb of their married life when Ditlev Darmakaya, a stranger they met at the airport, energised their world by imparting a rare understanding of spiritual connectivity. So potent was the sense of calm and acceptance of destiny provided by Ditlev, Rogers wrote a screenplay to tell the world of the experience. In the compassionate, steady hands of debutant director Beuca, D-love (the nickname Rogers gave their new friend/spirit guide) proves precisely the tonic these toxic times need.

Small in narrative scope but vast in its universal themes of grief and disconnection from one’s self, this account of the couple’s true story proves remarkable and deeply moving. Rogers had just lost both parents in a short period of time, sending him into an alcohol-numbed depression that kept him homebound and jobless; Beuca was grieving the recent death of her brother (their life glimpsed in beautifully shot flashback sequences), while trying to reconcile their inability to have children. In cinematic terms, such backstories can seem leaden with clichés, but the couple play the plot beats with the authenticity and dignity of those who have lived and left behind such hurdles.

Rounding out the extraordinary behind-the-scenes detail of the film is the casting of the ‘Danish vagabond’ himself in the role of D-love. Though his acting range will never see him be confused with Daniel Day Lewis, Darmakaya conveys precisely the sweetness and life-affirming warmth that won over first Rogers, then Beuca (both engaging playing versions of themselves). Though it seems entirely unlikely that one’s salvation from pain and leader to life fulfilment will emerge from the crazies found in most airport terminals, it proves entirely believable that the physically striking Darmakaya could have such an impact on the struggling couple (pictured, below; Rogers, left, and Darmakaya in D-love).

D-love recalls a brief period from the 1990s when a new-agey spiritualism entered mainstream American cinema. Films that had audiences staring inwards included Bruce Joel Rubin’s My Life (1993), starring Michael Keaton as the terminal patient seeking truth in his final moments, and Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble drama Grand Canyon (1991), in which middle-class suburbanites sought greater meaning in their existence. D-Love sits alongside such works, perhaps taking on greater importance given the current embrace of close-minded intolerance, as opposed to that pre-new millennium sense of hope and change for the better.   

Elena Beuca’s drama occasionally overplays its sweet-natured hand – Michael Monks’ heart-of-gold mechanic, whose soothing words comfort Elena after a fender-bender, is a bit too much; in one scene, Darmakaya (bound for Burning Man, no less) actually stops to smell the roses. Overall, however, these are minor digressions in an otherwise wonderful drama that benefits immeasurably if you beat down any inclination towards cynicism. D-Love is an irresistible addition to that under-serviced film genre that embraces a non-religious philosophy of love and acceptance; few films can boast timeliness so profound.