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Wednesday
Jul042018

ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT

Featuring: Jan Broberg, Mary Ann Broberg, Bob Broberg, Pete Welsh, Karen Campbell, Joe Berchtold, Susan Broberg, Cor Hoffman, Sinclair DuMont and Devin Ordoyne.
Director: Skye Borgman

Screening at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 12.

Rating: 4.5/5

As profoundly insightful as any bigscreen rendering of the psychology and methodology of the sociopathic paedophile, Abducted in Plain Sight sits alongside current standard-bearers Evil Genius, The Keepers and How to Make a Murderer in that top tier of contemporary true-crime factual films. Stripping her narrative back to bare facts and raw emotions, director Skye Borgman has crafted a gripping work of intrigue, horror and sadness that fully reveals one of America’s most extraordinary abduction and abuse cases.

Robert Berchtold was a husband and father when he and his family moved into the middle-class Idaho suburb of Pocatello in the early 1970s. An attractive, charming man, he immediately ingratiated himself with his new neighbours, good churchgoin' folk The Brobergs; shopkeeper dad Bob, housewife Mary Ann, and their three daughters Susan, Karen and the eldest, Jan. Affectionately called ‘B’ by his newly acquired prey, Robert Berchtold set in motion a meticulously planned, cold-blooded series of events that would compromise Bob and Mary Ann and, more insidiously, allow him to kidnap, psychologically manipulate and sexually abuse Jan.

Afforded an extraordinary level of intimacy by her on-camera subjects, Borgman paints a non-judgemental portrait of a family shrouded in the false warmth of their LDS faith and naïve to the manipulative skill of Berchtold. The parent’s own actions and the subsequent handling of their daughter’s ordeal is, frankly, beyond comprehension, yet in recounting one tragic mistake after another, Mary Ann and Bob Broberg emerge more as collateral victims of Berchtold’s predatory prowess. His psychopathology was of a medieval bluntness and cunning, at a time when suburban America was in the early soporific stages of a new comfortable, modern existence.

Steadfastly central to her own story is adult survivor Jan Broberg, who recounts with bracing frankness the psychological and subsequent sexual abuse inflicted by ‘B’ upon her between the ages of 12 and 15. Sisters Susan and Karen are given camera time to recall the shifting dynamic of the family from their own young perspectives, and Bob and Mary Ann are as open as any documentary subjects can be, but it is Jan’s spirit that soars above the putrid evil inherent to any retelling of Berchtold’s actions. Scenes in which she confronts an aging Berchtold in court exemplify her towering strength in understanding and defying the legacy of his actions.

Convincingly played by Devin Ordoyne in flashback sequences (each expertly shot on Super 8 film by Borgman to capture period mood and detail), Berchtold proves a compelling, utterly chilling figure. Borne of a twisted psyche traced back to his own childhood, he is afforded a few frames of expository backstory by Borgman, but not so much that his vile actions are lessened by why he is what he is and does what he does. The film utilises his brother Joe to provide insight into their family’s dark past; although central to the events, Berchtold’s wife and children are not featured. Former FBI agent Pete Welsh recounts the investigation and frustrated legal process that allowed Berchtold to manipulate the law and justice as efficiently as he did everyone and everything else that he targeted.

Sunday
Jul012018

ANIMAL WORLD

Stars: Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas, Zhou Dongyu, Cao Bingkun and Wang Ge.
Writer: Han Yan, based on the comic by Nobuyuki Fukumoto.
Director: Han Yan

Rating: 2/5

It is inconceivable that anyone might be pining for a film set in the bowels of a floating warehouse where dozens of desperate sweaty lowlifes take on a maths nerd in a high-stakes game of paper-rock-scissors, but here we are. Here, also, is Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas, who will most likely stay hidden behind the pile of cash he earned to play broad villainy when Animal World pops up in any career re-appraisal.

A Chinese-backed adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga classic Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, writer/director Han Yan’s latest is a garish, cumbersome, piecemeal film. At different moments, it is a revved-up fantasy actioner, a grimy dystopian-world survival story, a lecture in statistical odds, and a big-screen spin on poker-machine graphics; it strives yet strains to be a convincing mash-up of Snowpiercer, Rainman and The Hunger Games. It fails on all fronts save some technical prowess, resulting in an aggressively pointless 140 minutes of misdirection and incoherence.

A likable Li Yifeng plays down-on-his-luck arcade-clown Zheng Kaisi, a morose figure falling worryingly behind on hospital payments that keep his comatose mother in care. During those moments when life deals him a bum hand, Kaisi disappears into a complex fantasy realm, the ‘Animal World’, where his clown character is a ninja-style assassin who can lay waste an entire train carriage of CGI-generated monsters. His psychic bond to the clown visage dates back to a childhood moment when his family home was raided and his father removed…all while a cartoon clown dispatched evildoers on the television.

With no means to cover hospital costs and having been swindled out of his family’s property assets by backstabbing childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), Kaisi is left with no options when Douglas’ silver-haired, cold-blooded boss-man comes calling. He is soon aboard a sort of steam-punk freighter/industrialized cruise ship called ‘Destiny’, one of dozens of men who must collect brass stars and offload cards in a game-show-meets-Vegas version of paper-rock-scissors.

Conceptually, there exists the potential for a twisty, heist-like narrative energy as Kaisi’s beautiful mind starts working the different angles that will win him the ultimate goal – freedom from Destiny and a debt-free existence. But director Yan employs low-rent graphics to explain Kaisi’s in-depth analysis of how to beat the house; the 80-minute mid-section of Animal World is a series of interminable and utterly confounding sequences in which the cards that symbolize the three game options dance about cinematographer Max Da-Yung Wang’s otherwise handsomely filled widescreen.  

The heavily circulated trailer for the film promised a pulsating action-fantasy epic, with lashings of Deadpool-type irreverence, that never materialises. The train-carriage monster slaughter (which recalls better moments from the Men in Black films) and an admittedly terrific car chase all take place in the head of the protagonist; they represent nothing more than showy CGI bluster. Not for the first time but perhaps never quite so egregiously, a trailer has ‘buried the lead’ – Animal World is the Paper-Rock-and-Scissors wannabe-blockbuster that absolutely no one ever asked for. That unofficial fourth option the desperate PRS player calls upon– dynamite – would have come in handy.

Wednesday
Jun272018

ADRIFT

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, Grace Palmer, Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Tami Ashcroft, Kael Damiamian.
Screenplay: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.

Rating: 4/5

When free-spirited 24 year-old Tami Oldham met 33 year-old ocean-faring adventurer Richard Sharp in 1983, the attraction was instant and the bond profound. In Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift, the cinematic retelling of the pair’s ill-fated open-ocean undertaking from Tahiti to San Diego, leads Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin must convince not only as seasoned sailors capable of the 4000 nautical mile journey, but also doe-eyed, die-hard romantics in the thrall of each others company.

In adapting Oldham’s autobiography Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea, scripters Aaron and Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith have structured a narrative that serves two masters. Firstly, the blossoming romance of two spiritually compatible young people sharing a destiny; secondly, the tragic trajectory dictated by the facts of the story. The result is a rarity in modern cinema terms; an un-ironic, openhearted romance that doubles as a psychological study in survival trauma. Every bruise earned and every tear shed over the course of the pair’s ordeal feels entirely authentic.   

Having previously explored man’s helplessness in the face of an unforgiving Mother Nature in Everest (2015) and The Deep (2012), Kormákur understands the intricacies of ‘survivalist cinema’. He convincingly conveys the gruesome physical impact a life-threatening event can have, but he also comprehends the essential human qualities that his protagonist must exhibit to ensure their plight engages the audience. Structurally, he utilizes a fractured, Nolan-esque storytelling style that jars at first, but which corals both plot strands into a quietly devastating reveal (at least, for those who haven’t read the book).

As Tami, Shailene Woodley delivers on the dramatic promise of her teen roles (The Descendants, 2011; The Spectacular Now, 2013; The Fault in Our Stars, 2014; the Divergent trilogy) with a performance of strong, sensual physicality, inspiring fortitude and complex emotionality. This role serves a specific functionality for the actress at a key juncture in her career; just as Sally Field did with Norma Rae (1979), or Julia Roberts did with Sleeping With The Enemy and Dying Young (both 1991), or Sandra Bullock did with A Time to Kill (1996), its timing is not accidental. Woodley challenges herself, her fan base and her perception in Hollywood with a role that demands a maturity, technique and natural charisma that she delivers with Oscar-worthy command.

Claflin is handed the less showy of the two performances (he spends most of the movie prone and battered), but creates a likable, charming all-round believably sweet foil for Woodley to fawn over.   

Importantly, Adrift achieves a seamless, entirely believable tropical storm simulation; ‘that’ moment, when the yacht is tossed and Tami and Richard are left at the mercy of the cyclonic conditions, is one of the most convincingly staged of its kind in film history.

Saturday
Jun232018

LOTS OF KIDS, A MONKEY AND A CASTLE

Featuring: Julita Salmerón, Gustavo Salmerón, Antonio García Cabanes, Ramón García SalmerónPaloma García Salmerón, David García Salmerón, Ignacio García Salmerón and Julia García Salmerón.  
Screenplay: Gustavo Salmerón, Raúl de Torres, Beatriz Montañez.
Director: Gustavo Salmerón.

Screening at LALIFF, Los Angeles on June 23 and June 24.

Rating: 4/5

A Spanish matriarch’s recipe for happiness is examined through her son’s melancholy, bittersweet lens in Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, a charming study of family dynamics, shifting generational values and the challenge of just plain growing old from actor/director Gustavo Salmerón.

On her wedding day, Julita Salmerón wished for three things from her new life – a vast family, a pet monkey and a traditional dwelling that recalls the majesty of her homeland’s history. In Julita’s eyes, these are symbols of affluence but by the mid 00’s (the film utilises decades of footage, from family photos dating back a century to iPhone coverage), they have come to represent very different things.

Gustavo (a well-known actor in his homeland), his five siblings and their own families have gathered to empty their parent’s castle of its riches before the bank takes possession, the clan having lost much of its wealth in the economic crisis; the monkey is long gone, having turned from family pet into an objectionable pest who literally bit the hand that fed it once too often. As the family struggles with cumbersome relics such as chandeliers and knight’s armour, Julita recalls the moments, memories and dreams, both lived and unfulfilled, that have shaped her life.

As this lovely film unfolds, Julita transforms from the eccentric, feisty Spanish ‘abuela’ who hoards a lifetime of trinkets (from plastic pipes and knitting needles to her grandparents’ vertebra) into a deeply humanistic presence increasingly consumed with her own mortality and legacy. Both very funny (she convinces her family to indulge in a rehearsal for her own wake) and very sweet (she adores her husband, despite a long period without physical intimacy and his contrary views on Spain’s political past), she speaks directly to her son’s camera with the frankness of a septuagenarian with no reason to keep opinions or secrets to herself any longer.

Her circumstances are specific to her situation, but Julita’s sentimentality and desire for a life that has long passed her by has a universality that is instantly relatable. The intimacy of the footage, the forthright insight she conveys and the openness with which she embraces her newfound role as ‘documentary subject’ is wonderfully endearing. By the final frames of Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, one entirely understands why she is adored, held in awe and quietly tolerated in equal measure.

Wednesday
Jun132018

MY SAGA

With: Adam Harris, Jack Anakin Harris, Perry King, James Arnold Taylor, Steve Gawley, Charles Bailey, Vanessa Marshall, Bonnie Piesse and Erik Bauersfeld.
Writers: Adam Harris, Terry King and David Richardson.
Director: Adam Harris.

World Premiere; Wednesday 13th June at Event Cinemas North Lakes.

Rating: 4/5

There is a moment two-thirds into Adam Harris’ endearing documentary My Saga when the director/narrator utters an understatement as vast as the galaxy itself. In his typically easygoing manner, he observes without a hint of irony, “This was a bit of a geek moment for me.” Anyone who seeks out the Queensland-based filmmaker’s ode to George Lucas’ space opera mythology and how it has shaped and guided his own narrative will experience the same. It is a rousing paean to both fan culture and young fatherhood.

Harris plays cute with the opening moments; a header reads, “Not that long ago, in a country down under…,” before the famous title crawl begins to tell his story. One expects nothing less from a fan opus that wears its heart on its sleeve (who would make a Star Wars-themed film and not open in that way?), but the director and his mentoring co-helmer Terry King understand there is weighty themes at the heart of this story and quickly shift to a more serious tone .

Having established the origins of his Star Wars obsession (a 1983 session of Return of The Jedi at Brisbane’s Regent Theatre), Harris retells the wrenching moment when a scan revealed a dark spot on his brain. The subsequent period of existential introspection led to the realisation he needed to fast track a lifelong memory for his equally Star Wars-enamored son Jack (middle name Anakin, of course). Their destination is America; their plan, to absorb as much Star Wars experience that Jack’s age, Adam’s health and the young family's budget will allow.

The first act of My Saga occasionally teeters near to a ‘fan only’ myopia. The old and young fanboys wander with glassy-eyed wonder around Rancho Obi-wan, the merchandising museum overseen by Steve Sansweet; during a visit to Lucasfilm HQ, Harris interviews Steve Gawley and Charlie Bailey, two ageing Star Wars veterans who recall in detail working with effects gurus John Dykstra and Joe Johnston. Their memories are fascinating, but Jack and his father are largely off-screen for an extended period while these three men convey their own Star Wars journeys.

Harris’ film regains its surefootedness and emotional core when father and son undertake to conquer the madness of Star Wars Celebration 2015, the 4-day 2015 gathering in Anaheim during which the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was launched. The fan response to the teaser, in particular that first sight of an aged Han Solo and Chewbacca is now legendary. The footage of the moment it impacted father and son as it unfolds before them is extraordinary; the roar of a packed auditorium conveying the immensity of the moment, coupled with the profound affect it has on Harris (and the bemused awe conveyed by Jack), makes for a special cinematic moment.

These scenes turn My Saga into ours, as well; the audience engagement is complete. Scenes that reveal the burden that Harris carries – his breakdown when interviewing actor Perry King (the radio play version of Han Solo); his encounter with another father attending Celebration, with an ailing son – are deeply emotional. As Harris continues upon his journey, the essence of the bond it is forging between he and his boy takes on sharper focus. Patriarchal legacy is one of the most resonant themes of Lucas’ mythology and so it becomes with Harris’ beautiful film.

In recent days, the vile toxicity of contemporary fan culture and its impact upon The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran has darkened the Internet. Offering evidence that a shared understanding of and love for creations of the imagination can be life affirming, My Saga is the perfect counterpoint for anyone who harbours ill will within the Star Wars universe. The trolls should be forced to wake up to themselves and reconsider their allegiance from the perspective of Jack and Adam Harris.

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.

  

Tuesday
Jun052018

HEREDITARY

Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Mallory Bechtel.
Writer/director: Ari Aster.

Rating 2.5/5

Last years ‘grief-fuelled descent into domestic relationship hell’ romp, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was met with such wildly divisive, mostly acrimonious opinions by patrons and critics alike, it is hard to believe that the commercial dice has been rolled again on a similar slow-burn, high-concept premise in Hereditary.

If the door was slammed shut on the ‘arthouse horror’ craze by the polemic reaction to the Jennifer Lawrence-meltdown pic, it is locked-and-bolted by Ari Aster’s debut feature. Despite an all-in performance by Toni Collette and enough production design to fill three haunted house films, Hereditary is a style-over-substance Rosemary’s Baby/Wicker Man riff riddled with tension-diluting inconsistencies and hamstrung by a holier-than-thou approach to horror tropes we’ve seen many times before.

The opening feels like a standard horror-movie kicker; the hardened matriarch of a strained nuclear family is being laid to rest, her daughter Annie (Collette) launching into a eulogy that doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of her mother. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, whose last dabbling in B-horror was back in 1999, with Stigmata and End of Days) is a dour, self-medicating type; her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), a typically surly, pot-smoking teen; her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro, her unique features exploited all over the marketing material), a troubled pre-teen with mental and physical health issues who for some reason feels the death of Grandma particularly deeply.

When tragedy doubles-down on the family, Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd, reliable), a member of her grief recovery group, who introduces her to the potential for comfort in conjuring the deceased via that hoary old spooky device, the séance. Soon, Annie is convinced she is a medium, her late-night glass-touching scaring her family and potentially welcoming the unwanted into her home.

By this stage of the narrative, Aster has afforded his audience one legitimately scary glimpse of a ghost, a few genuine frames of icky horror and a handful of red-herring chills, but the young director’s lethargic pacing becomes increasingly ponderous, with set-up after set-up deepening the convoluted backstory while disregarding forward momentum. Plot developments turn so arbitrary as to be ridiculous (does this large modern city have a police department? One character commits negligent homicide yet seems to just sleep it off); at one point, your critic sensed he was being Jacob’s-Laddered, but that brought it’s own set of incoherencies.

One supposes that Hereditary wants to be considered the same kind of enigmatic puzzle of a horror/thriller as The Sixth Sense (for which leading lady Toni Collette was Oscar-nominated). But M. Night Shyamalan’s hit unfolded with precision and earned its chills; Aster’s shot at genre creepiness amps up the artifice of filmmaking – the music; the set design; the lighting – to convey a faux dread. There is little regard for script structure, character or nuance, all the elements that Shyamalan corralled so expertly. Aster and DOP Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls, 2017) share an artist’s eye for composition, but that only carries a film so far in the absence of other convincing components.

Hereditary shares its DNA with a family tree of more evolved films (throw into the mix The Amityville Horror, It Follows and The Others, if it helps), yet has none of the storytelling craft that turns its premise from the supernatural, psychological malarkey it is into an important, resonant piece of horror-as-drama. Actors bringing their big-voice presence in the service of a twisty mystery that is too impressed with its own cleverness does not make a great horror film. That’s all that’s left after Hereditary wraps its hellishly ridiculous, not-at-all scary denouement.

Tuesday
May292018

RISKING LIGHT

Featuring: Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking, Kilong Ung and Oshea Israel.
Director: Dawn Mikkelson.

Screening July 14 at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Session and ticket details at the event website.

Rating: 4.5/5

The immense courage and spiritual will it takes to truly ‘forgive’ beams from the screen in director Dawn Mikkelson’s Risking Light, a triptych of heartbreaking, soul-enriching narratives that combine to present a study in scarred but soaring humanity. Largely foregoing the mawkish sentimentality that such tales of redemption may present, the filmmaker instead favours stark honesty and frank storytelling, resulting in a film of rare integrity and profound emotional involvement.

The production focuses on three individuals who have struggled to overcome the burden of grief and anger in the wake of a grave injustice. In Minneapolis, Mary Johnson relates directly to camera the depths of her despair after her teenage son Laramiun Byrd was killed in a shattering instance of gun violence in 1993; from the coast of Tasmania, Debra Hocking recounts the forced separation from her family as a toddler as part of Australia’s shameful ‘stolen generation’ period, and the subsequent decade of abuse in foster care; and, from the streets of Phnom Penh, Kilong Ung shares details with his young Cambodian-American family of his horrific existence navigating the infamous ‘killing fields’ under Khmer Rouge reign.

Seamlessly intercutting each story so as to find a through-line in their pained existence, Mikkelson then poses the question, ‘How strong must we be to truly create a compassionate society?’ Faced with lives of all-consuming psychological torment, existential angst and an urge for (often violent) retribution, the three sufferers instead forge a path of personal responsibility that refuses to perpetuate society’s heart of darkness. From lives that threatened to decay into insignificance emerge beacons of forgiveness that find personal salvation, while inspiring others to walk a similarly righteous, enlightened path.

An Emmy-award winner for Late Life, the 2014 PBS series on terminal and aged care practices, Mikkelson’s feature work (under her Emergence Pictures banner) has determinedly examined the strength of the human spirit to confront and reconcile with the unfair, often tragic direction modern life can take. Her 2003 debut This Obedience profiled a gay Lutheran pastor’s struggle for the acceptance in the face of conservatism, both in her church and the wider community; in 2007, she traced her supposedly ethical ‘green energy’ source back to its impact on indigenous Manitoba society in Green Green Water; her 2014 small-screen project Planting Creativity examined the revitalisation of struggling townships via the injection of collaborative arts-based initiatives.

Frankly, western society needs more filmmakers like Dawn Mikkelson, and more people like Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking and Kilong Ung. As the world grows darker under leaders determined to segregate and marginalise, the unifying actions of these everyday people as they undertake remarkable journeys of wilful forgiveness should make Risking Light required viewing in our halls of power.

Saturday
May192018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Writers: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas.
Director: Ron Howard.

WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite jettisoning much of the franchise mythology like a shipment at the first sign of an Imperial starship, ring-in director Ron Howard still feels bound to his Lucasfilm overlord for much of Solo: A Star Wars Story. The latest ‘expanded universe’ episode in Disney’s brand expansion offensive, the origin backstory of roguish space scoundrel Han Solo is a lot better than fans had any right to expect, but it is not the ripping yarn we collectively yearned for when the project was first announced.

With no title crawl, no Force, no Darth (Vader, at least), no Death Star and only a smattering of Rebellion angst, Solo is about as ‘stand alone’ as the franchise has allowed itself to become since it was re-awakened in 2015. Yet there is a structural through-line that ties Howard’s film to the series earliest installments, most notably A New Hope. Both films kick start on a remote, unremarkable planet (first up, it was Tatooine, here it is a scummy industrial city on Corellia), where our hero comes into possession of a small but plot-spinning Macguffin (then, it was R2 and his Death Star plans; now, it is a vial of superfuel).

Like young Skywalker, young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), is motivated by notions of romance; his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is left behind as a fleeing Han signs up with the Imperial infantry, yelling to her he will return, Last of The Mohicans-style. While in the midst of combat on a mud-soaked outer world, he meets his paternal mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson in the Alec Guinness part, although more Fagin than Obi-Wan), the leader of a small but high-stakes criminal outfit that includes a terrific Thandie Newton and multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant (the voice of Jon Favreau, in a part that veers too close to the tone and function of Guardians of The Galaxy favourite, Rocket Racoon).

So sets in motion a well-paced, serviceable heist thriller that Howard handles with the assured slickness of an old school Hollywood pro. He calls upon his preferred support player Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind) to chew the scenery as the key villain, Dryden Vos, as well as demanding career-best work from DOP Bradford Young (Arrival; Selma), who proves adept at both murky/grainy and stark/crisp. Howard also conjures a cute bit part for a franchise favourite, whose career he bolstered with his fantasy epic Willow, 30 years ago.

Along the way, loyalists learn the answer to questions they never asked, including ‘How did Han get his surname?’, ‘How did Han get his iconic pistol?’, ‘How did Han meet Chewbacca?’ (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, stepping into the hairy feet for the third time, for a meet-cute that harkens back to Luke’s encounter with the Rancor in Return of The Jedi) and ‘How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian?’ (the super-smooth Donald Glover).

Ehrenreich brings enough charisma in the title role to (mostly) convince that he could morph into the ‘Han Solo’ that launched Harrison Ford into Hollywood history. He proves physically capable when carrying the action sequences, especially the film’s highpoint – a freight-train hijacking set amidst rugged, ice-covered mountains (one of many nods to the series’ Western genre origins); his rapport with his romantic lead needed another polish, with Clarke’s underwritten part a let-down given the strong roles usually afforded women in the Star Wars universe.

The film takes a left-field spin into contemporary politics with the introduction of Lando’s droid offsider, L3-3L (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, channeling the vocal intonations of Tilda Swinton). Spouting ‘equality for robots’ speeches and leading a ‘free the repressed’ mini-revolt at one stage (not to mention an open attitude to human/android coupling), her presence may be construed as either an honouring of or pandering to the #MeToo movement, suffice to say such outspokenness was not founder George Lucas’ strongpoint. Of the two scriptwriters, her voice sounds most like that of the younger Kasdan, Jonathan (he penned 2007’s In The Land of Women); the rest of the script is pure Lawrence – commercially instinctive, effortlessly heroic with endearing human fallibility, all a bit macho.     

Gareth Edwards’ rousing Rogue One still remains the most emotionally resonant and fully satisfying work of the post-Lucas films. Ultimately, there is not enough at stake in Solo: A Star Wars Story to up the narrative ante into that white-knuckle, crowd-stirring realm. It’s a romp, albeit a bit clunky at times; a space-opera, but one that needed a bit more tuning up. Howard delivers an enjoyable US summer movie ‘event’, but as an entry in the greatest science-fiction film series of all time, it is far, far away from the best of them.

Saturday
May122018

BRAVEN

Stars: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Jill Wagner, Garrett Dillahunt, Sasha Rossof, Brendan Fletcher, Zahn McClarnon, Sala Baker, Teach Grant, Fraser Aitcheson, James Harvey Ward and Steve O’Connell.
Writers: Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett.
Director: Lin Oeding.

Rating: 3.5/5

Stuntman-turned-director Lin Oeding skilfully conjures A-grade thrills out of B-movie beats in Braven, an alpha-male actioner that melds drug-deal-gone-bad tropes with wilderness survival struggles. Another satisfying step on the road to Rock-like crossover acceptance for leading he-man Jason Momoa (pictured, above), this Canadian production stays entirely within its genre parameters but does so wholeheartedly, delivering a lean, mean dose of tension, violence and sentimentality.

Biding time until his star soars post-Aquaman, Momoa plays logging company boss Joe Braven, a hardy working class type, loving husband to Stephanie (Jill Wagner, reteaming with Momoa after 2014’s Road to Paloma) and best-friend/dad to pre-teen Charlotte (Sasha Rossof). The one strain on their otherwise lovely domesticity is Joe’s ageing father Linden (Stephen Lang, God’s gift to movies like Braven; pictured, below), whose wandering memory and cantankerous moods are proving troublesome; Joe is called out late at night when his father starts a bar brawl, convinced his long-dead wife is talking to other men.

Meanwhile, one of Joe’s employees, young trucker Weston (Brendan Fletcher) has compromised himself and his boss by taking on board seething baddie Hallett (Zahn McClarnon, giving an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound performance) and a hollowed log filled with lots of drugs. When the truck crashes, the pair stash the contraband in Joe’s remote cabin, forcing trafficker Kassan (Garrett Dillahunt, his demeanour as icy as the mountainous locale) and his personality-free henchmen to go bush and reclaim it. Thing is, Joe, Linden and Charlotte are already on-site…

One of Hollywood’s most respected fall guys (his credits as stunt co-ordinator include Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion and The Equalizer), Oeding delivers action with a choreographer’s eye for fluidity and detail. Gun battles, fist fights and, most importantly, the unpleasant consequences associated with same are nailed with convincing realism within a geography that is well established. First-time scripters Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett allow the occasional incongruity to seep into their structure, but never so that the tense momentum derails.

No specifics are offered as to Joe Braven’s back story; when he starts to ‘Home Alone’ the bad guys, using whatever he can find in his cabin to keep the fight going, one has to assume he’s had some survival and/or combat training, so dexterous is he at hurling a hatchet or manufacturing a bow-and-arrow. Momoa’s take on the heart-of-gold everyman with a killer’s instinct is so engaging, however, such details seem perfunctory.

Braven is as solid a throwback to the ‘80s action movie template as we’ve seen in some time, pleasingly free of the irony that would have spun the film off into wink-wink self-awareness. Its belief in itself inspires the audience to place a similar faith in its characters and narrative; like its star, it is characterised by its broad-shoulders and unshakeable integrity.