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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.

 

Sunday
Dec032017

THE COMET KIDS

Stars: Xavier West, Juliette Salom, Paris Hay, Liam Pope, Harrison Bradley, Hamish Triggs, Tiriel Mora, Marty Rhone and Reg Gorman.
Writer: Bethia Triggs and Glenn Triggs.
Director: Glenn Triggs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Drawing upon a film education forged from a decade when adventure, imagination and the teen demographic ruled the box office, Glenn Triggs has conjured a rousing family adventure in The Comet Kids. While the under-15s squeal with delight at the escapades of their bigscreen alter egos, parents can bask in some nostalgic warmth recalling the films of the 1980s that have lovingly inspired the prolific young director’s fourth feature.

A nursing home visit kick-starts the recollections of old man Lucas (Aussie acting great, Reg Gorman), who ponders a defining moment from his small town Americana upbringing. Young Lucas (a very fine Xavier West) is enamoured with his astronomer dad (Tiriel Mora), who has stumbled upon a previously unknown comet that hits earth not far from their sleepy burg. When ill health tragically claims his dad, Lucas finds himself in a fight with his father’s opportunistic offsider Cliff (70s pop heartthrob, Marty Rhone) to stake a claim for the space rock’s discovery and ownership.

This means ‘cross-country adventure’ for Lucas and his very ragtag group of misfits chums, amongst them schlubby action-man Guns (Liam Pope), nerdy would-be magician Tricks (Harrison Bradley), tech wizard Inertia (Paris Hay), sweet new girl in town Claudia (Juliette Salom) and junk-yard dog turned soft-touch, Archie (the family dog Hamish, one of several of the Triggs clan to help out on the production). Narrative momentum occasionally takes a back seat to shenanigans (a public pool set piece, featuring a butter-drinking lifeguard; at least three nail-biting escapes from the bad guys), but young audiences caught up in the moment won’t mind immediate thrills over plot pacing.

The big three influences are clearly Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985) and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986), with an over-arching adherence to sentimentality that is pure Spielberg. Triggs references the great director’s works even in the most throwaway moments; when ‘Old Lucas’ is left waiting for his family at the nursing home front door, one recalls a similar moment befalling Bill Quinn in ‘Kick the Can’, Spielberg’s segment of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.

If audiences get a whiff that this type of thickly-rendered homage is not from the filmmaker’s heart, resentment can fester. But Triggs goes all out to honour his filmic inspirations, exhibiting his own strengths as a storyteller and filmmaker while still embracing the legacy left by great 80s family cinema. With a committed cast and tech-savvy crew (DOP’s Bernard Winter’s widescreen camerawork is lovely; the production design team convincingly recall the period setting), The Comet Kids proves an entirely winning, wonderfully engaging throwback to the grand-scale PG-rated romp.

Read the 2012 SCREEN-SPACE Interview with Glenn Triggs here.

Wednesday
Nov292017

THE SEEN AND UNSEEN

Stars: Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih, Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena, Ayu Laksmi, I Ketut Rina, Happy Salma and Gusti Ayu Raka.
Writer/Director: Kamila Andini

WINNER: Best Youth Feature Film, 2017 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Rating: 4.5/5

The slow dissolution through mortality of the physical bond that twins share only serves to strengthen the spiritual and emotional resonance of their union in Kamila Andini’s quietly devastating The Seen and Unseen. Drawing upon Balinese lore that embraces an existential duality called Sekala Niskala, the Indonesian writer-director crafts a profoundly moving narrative that recalls Niki Caro’s Whale Rider in its depiction of innocence, tradition and destiny colliding.

A natural progression of the themes of youthful sadness and the strength needed to cope that she explored in The Mirror Never Lies (2011), Andini’s second feature glides between a family’s real-world heartbreak and one sibling’s soaring fantasy world. Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) and her brother Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena) live a life of perfect harmony in rural Bali, until Tantra wanders away from his sister and the living world one day; the boy has a brain tumour and slips into a coma, his days now spent prone and silent on a hospital bed.

Tantri’s life is now half the existence she has ever known, yet she refuses to deny herself or her brother the richness of their shared imagination. The young woman defies the trauma of a fading soul mate by engaging with her brother’s still-buoyant spirit; the pair indulges in traditional costume dancing, shadow theatre puppetry and rice planting, the daily activities that once brought them so much joy. Andini seamlessly melds the real and conjured worlds, often employing long takes and stationary camera set-ups that demand the young actors fill the frame with an entrancing connection between both themselves and the audience.

Western critics have been quick to place the ‘magic realism’ label on The Seen and Unseen, which perhaps diminishes how intricate a connection to the physical and supernatural world the people of Indonesia view their existence. Little difference is implied between, for example, the sadness of a parent’s hospital vigil and the joy of an imagined costume dance, during which the twins leap about the ward with abandon. This connection is no more stirringly exemplified than in the ‘moon dance’ sequence; Andini and her DOP Anggi Frisca frame an early evening full moon, a bamboo tower and a soulful dancer to create what may be the most beautiful series of wordless images in cinema this year.

Though never called upon to over-emote or deliver lengthy dialogue passages, Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih is heartbreaking as Tantri, her slightest movement or glance enough to provide insight into and inspire the deepest of emotions. Her free-spirited scenes in the fantasy realm with Mahijasena, also remarkable, are a wonder to watch.

Instantly worthy of inclusion in the annals of classic children cinema, Kamila Andini has woven a major work of fantasy that courses with a rare humanism. The Seen and Unseen is steeped in eastern philosophy and tradition but universal in its conveying of defining moments, both shattering and joyful, in this life and the next. 

Tuesday
Nov212017

LANDFALL

Stars: Kristen Condon, Rob Stanfield, Daryl Heath, Andy Bramble, Bailey Stevenson, Shawn Brack, Tony Bonner, Anthony Ring and Vernon Wells.
Writer/Director: Travis Bain

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Sunday November 26 at 12.30pm at Melbourne’s Lido Cinema.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pitching all the elements at just the right serious/comic tone to pull off a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Landfall is a tough ask; too much either way, neither works satisfactorily. So all credit to multi-hyphenate Travis Bain, who gives it a damn good shake in his slyly funny, convincingly twisty exercise in narrative acrobatics and Tarantino-esque pop culture riffing.

Set against the same F.N.Q./tropical cyclone backdrop as his debut Scratched (2005), the director introduces young couple Maisie (Kristen Condon) and Dylan (Rob Stanfield) in a beachfront home with time running out. Just as they decide to head for higher ground, an ambulance, its lights darkened, pulls into the driveway. Imposing themselves on the young couple are three unsavoury types, decked in paramedic garb – the badly injured Ringo (Bailey Stevenson), a gravelly-voiced George (Andy Bramble) and the weapons-wielding leader, Paul (the imposing Daryl Heath).

The group dynamic is skilfully constructed, with barely a breath taken before all the elements are in place – the details of the crime committed, the McGuffin in the corner of the room, the backstory that binds the diverse group together. Bain does not allow the premise’s occasionally creaky credibility to sneak into his story until well into the second act, when burly cop Wexler (Vernon Wells) becomes entangled in the increasingly convoluted intrigue. The extent to which Bain's script explores all possible avenues for his characters and their motivations becomes a tad exhausting, though ultimately answers all the questions he poses.

But the young director has more on his mind than uncoiling genre machinations. A film-buff’s pedigree begins to reveal itself, notably in a terrifically funny piece of dialogue between Paul and Wexler, in which the criminal riffs on his favourite movies. Heath’s thuggish brute offers up (in this critics opinion) a long overdue takedown of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which Bain then recalls in the film’s final moments; the biggest laugh comes when Paul drops one particular fave, allowing Wells a priceless few frames of film to respond.

Spinning his violent home invasion thriller off into QT territory is a bold move; some viewers and critics may be less forgiving of the dogleg tonal turn. However, what Bain does achieve with an especially assured touch is a knowingness that lifts it out of its ‘competent B-thriller’ confines and ups its value as genre homage.

On those terms, Landfall unexpectedly plays like a mash-up of two undervalued Nicholas Cage pics – the goofy three-crims-on-the-run comedy Trapped in Paradise (1994), and the actors’ own twisty kidnapping thriller, Trespass (2011), opposite Nicole Kidman. The film is also under the spell of Cape Fear (1991), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Ref (1994), to name just a few.

The other benefit brought from accepting Bain’s pitch-black comedy stylings is that several performances sharpen from broad caricature into cutting satire; best amongst them are the terrific Heath, Condon’s counter-intuitive damsel-in-distress and young Stevenson, as the firebrand Ringo. Further confirmation of the pic’s cheekiness are the cameo turns from Shawn Brack and Australian acting legend Tony Bonner as mates, ‘Trev’ and ‘Kev’.

 

Saturday
Nov182017

TARNATION

Stars: Daisy Masterman, Emma-Louise Wilson, Danae Swinburne, Blake Waldron, Jasy Holt, Joshua Diaz, Sean McIntyre, Sarah Howett and Mitchell Brotz.
Writer/Director: Daniel Armstrong.

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Friday November 24 at 9.30pm at Melbourne's Lido Cinema. 

Rating: 3.5/5

It is easy to imagine Sam Raimi giggling with gleeful pride should he ever stumble across Daniel Armstrong’s Tarnation. Stretching a meagre budget and pushing a game cast are two of Armstrong’s great strengths as a director; another is clearly a love for the works of Michigan’s favourite filmmaking son, whose Evil Dead epics are paid the type of knowing homage only a true fan could conjure.

The unselfconsciously preposterous plot centres on wannabe singer-songwriter Oscar, played by the endearing Daisy Masterman with the same spirited abandon that Bruce Campbell displayed 36 years ago. We meet Oscar as she gets marched from her singing gig by her band’s manager (Sean McIntyre), a creepy golf-enthusiast who recommends she get some R&R at his log cabin just outside of the township of Tarnation. With BFF Rain (Danae Swinburne) and two ill-fated beau-hunks along for the ride, they are barely through the door when the spirits that possesses the property start playing up.

With its veranda awning and Tardis-like interiors, the cabin is a masterfully recreated version of Raimi’s Evil Dead cottage, and Armstrong uses every corner of the set to offer shout-outs to his favourite genre works. Like-minded fans will have a blast spotting references to such cult pics as Friday the 13th, Night of The Creeps and Basket Case. The prolific young filmmaker is not above trumpeting his own contributions to DIY-horror, with posters for his past films From Parts Unknown (2015), Murder Drome (2013) and Sheborg Massacre (2016) pinned to the wall.

While it is clear that Armstrong has little regard (or budget) for elements such as logic or continuity, the on-screen energy that he skilfully crafts puts him in the same league as contemporaries Kiah Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood: Road of The Dead, 2014) and Christopher Sun (Charlie’s Farm, 2014; Boar, 2017) and Ozploitation greats like Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot, 1982; Dead End Drive-In, 1986). His nighttime sequences achieve more with one source light and a fog machine than most would with twice the resources, while his old-school practical effects (including a possessed and rotting kangaroo whose design recalls the goat-monster from…that’s right, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) are top tier.

As with any independent filmmaker worth their weight, Armstrong calls in favours to realise his project. Oscar’s band is played by soundtrack contributors The Mercy Kills, who have utilised Armstrong’s vision in the past for their film clips; Tarnation reunites the director with the star of Sheborg Massacre and From Parts Unknown, actress/stuntwoman Emma-Louise Wilson, who brings some well-timed and tasteless laughs as the wheelchair-bound ‘Wheels’.

Saturday
Nov182017

KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN

Featuring: Larry Cohen, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, John Landis, Fred Williamson, David J Schow, Eric Roberts, Michael Moriarty, Traci Lords, Barbara Carrera, Laurene Landon, Yaphet Kotto, Nathaniel Thompson, Paul Kurta, Rick Baker, J.J. Abrams and Martin Scorsese.
Writer/Director: Steve Mitchell.

SYDNEY PREMIERE: Screening Saturday, September 15 at the SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL.

Rating: 4/5

Hagiographic as hell and fiercely proud of it, Steve Mitchell’s wildly entertaining bio-doc King Cohen hurtles through the life of showman director Larry Cohen with a rat-a-tat urgency and ‘get the shot and move on’ attitude. If it was Mitchell’s intent to mirror the work ethic, rough-hewn edges and on-set energy of Cohen’s great, ‘guerilla-style’ B-epics of the 70s, such as Black Caesar, God Told Me To and Q The Winged Serpent, he nails it.

An introduction by J.J. Abrams recalls that defining LA-moment when he met Cohen at an LA bus-stop, an encounter that the ageing director recalled 30 years later when the young Hollywood prince lunched with the old-school industry icon. Cohen proves a mensch, a naturally kind and accommodating type all too rare in the industry, while also being a results-driven multi-hyphenate pro, able to read and respond to both the artists with whom he creates and the audience he seeks.

After some upbeat retro opening credits, Mitchell (still best known as the writer of the 1986 home-vid schlockbuster, Chopping Mall) calls upon peers, academics and, most refreshingly, The Man himself to reflect. With no inherently artistic family members (save for a banjo-playing grandfather), it was up to the young Cohen to forge a career in storytelling, a path that began with an obsessive passion for the picture palaces of New York City. There is room for turgid sentimentality in this type of rose-coloured recollecting, but Mitchell and Cohen bounce through the childhood years buoyantly, exhibiting little melancholic regret or unfulfilled yearnings.

From his role in the ‘golden days’ of television to the decision to direct after watching so many of his scripts ruined by hacks, Cohen is portrayed as an inventive filmmaker of unparalleled integrity. That quality remains intact even when his powers of recollection are questioned, albeit light heartedly, by the likes of actor Fred Williamson, the star of Cohen’s 70’s blockbusters Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, and Michael Moriarty, his 80s muse in cult films Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. (Pictured, above; Cohen, right, directing Eric Roberts and Megan Gallagher in 1990's The Ambulance)

Most endearing is the closeness Cohen shares with the cinematic greats of his childhood, both professionally and personally. Director Samuel Fuller, comedian Red Buttons and, somewhat less warmly, an ageing Bette Davis have been central to Cohen’s remarkable career and feature in some of the most charming and insightful passages of Mitchell’s film. Enduring respect is a key thematic component of Mitchell’s account of Cohen’s life; first wife and producing partner Janelle Webb and current spouse Cynthia Costas-Cohen both wax lyrical about their man.

The modern-day Larry Cohen hawks his memorabilia at fan cons, his self-deprecating drollness helping him cope with the industry today. Mitchell doesn’t skimp on that footage, instead allowing the 80 year-old director’s indomitable spirit and quick wit to guide us through his twilight years (he still writes feverishly, in long hand). He is not accepting the industry’s lifetime accolades he so richly deserves, but nor is he seeking them. Larry loves the industry and yet, barring the adoration offered by hardcore fans and like-minded cinephiles such as Joe Dante, John Landis, Mick Garris and Martin Scorses, gets little love in return. Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen does a great deal to redress that imbalance.

Read the Screen-Space feature THE BEST OF LARRY COHEN here.
Read Screen-Space editor Simon Foster's interview with Larry Cohen here (courtesy of SBS Movies)

Monday
Nov062017

ARRHYTHMIA

Stars: Alexander Yatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva.
Writers: Boris Khlebnikov and Natalia Meshchaninova
Director: Boris Khlebnikov

WINNER: The SCREEN-SPACE Award for Best New Russian Film; Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney, Australia. Announced at the Closing Night ceremony, November 5, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The increasingly tenuous emotional bond a married couple share achieves a simple yet profound universality in Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia. With a pair of achingly endearing lead performers to guide the narrative through the rocky relationship terrain, the Russian writer/director has crafted a sweet, sad, deceptively affecting drama that captures two young, professional Muscovites living in a cramp apartment yet drifting a world apart.

Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) is an EMT paramedic; Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), a young doctor pulling long shifts well into the night. Their marriage has grown functional, the couple still attending family gatherings and being available to share transport, but communication and connection are strained. Oleg numbs himself to their disconnect through booze; Katya, however, is more attuned to their troubles and seeks a divorce (via text, at her father’s birthday party after Oleg acts the boorish lush).

Yatsenko won Best Actor honours at the 2017 Karlovy Vary Film Festival for a performance that challenges leading man conventions, defying audience sympathy yet forging an understanding that goes some way to explaining why Katya would tolerate his understated yet often loathsome manner. Despite the central arc being Oleg’s, Gorbacheva delivers the film’s most emotionally resonant performance; the actress’ doleful expression and admirable yet potentially self-destructive empathy for her troubled husband is heartbreaking, yet never plays as weak. Her mid-traffic jam meltdown, a terrific piece of screen acting, is a lump-in-the-throat sequence; her free-spirited kitchen dance to a favourite pop song from her teen years, perfectly pitched.

With co-scripter Natalia Meshchaninova, Khlebnikov (Roads to Koktobel, 2003; A Long and Happy Life, 2013) deftly handles a subplot that addresses his nation’s crumbling healthcare industry. Oleg’s professional life is taking on new pressures as the ambulance sector is forced into cost cutting and reporting measures, drawing him into direct conflict with his superiors. In addition to highlighting the sad state of Russian health care, scenes of Oleg defying protocol to save lives help to broaden audience understanding of the character. Katya’s workplace stresses are not afforded the same focus, although the realities of her job are plainly evident in her sleep schedule and complete lack of social distractions.

Arrhythmia does not dwell in the deep, dark realm of social-realism that, rightly or wrongly, is often synonymous with Russian cinema. Khlebnikov brings a modern European sensibility to his storytelling that recalls the intimacy of The Dardennes Brothers and the works of Romanian New Wave auteurs such as Cristian Mungiu (notably, 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu). It is a beautiful, infuriating, entirely human study of flawed, floundering lives intertwined to the point of being inseparable; for Oleg and Katya, that is both a wildly romantic and sadly final place for young lives to exist.

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