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Sunday
Sep112016

THIS PAPIER MACHE BOULDER IS ACTUALLY REALLY HEAVY

Stars: Christian Nicolson, Sez Niederer, Daniel Pujol, Lewis Roscoe, Joseph Wycoff, Tansy Hayden and Jarred Tito.
Writers: Andrew Beszant and Christian Nicolson.
Director: Christian Nicolson.

Rating: 3/5

Playing sweet and silly while keeping irony in check is one of the many endearing traits of multi-hyphenate Christian Nicolson’s fan-boy movie-gasm, This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy. The Auckland-based writer-director’s passion project is roughhewn but undeniably crowdpleasing, deriving some big laughs from a barrage of references that draw upon the two great periods of popular science fiction entertainment –the B-movie cheapies of the 1950s and the post-Star Wars boom of the 1980s.

Working with co-scripter Andrew Beszant and exhibiting an unwavering commitment to improvised energy, the premise stems from Nicolson’s deep understanding and clear affection for such properties as Blakes 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Red Dwarf and Star Trek (whose fan base are already nodding knowingly at the title); large dollops of comedic inspiration come from the likes of Monty Python, the Simon Pegg series Spaced and, in one nutty nod, The Benny Hill Show. Low- to no-budget constraints clearly posed zero concern for the cast and crew, who commit to their director’s enthusiastically loopy vision regardless of wobbly sets, home-stitched costuming and paddocks-as-planets location shoots.

Nicholson stars as Tom, the almost-cool one in a mismatched trio alongside schlubby eye-roller Gavin (Lewis Roscoe) and sci-fi geek Jeffery (Daniel Pujol). Reluctantly roped into a day at the mini-con ‘Quest Fest’, they are drawn to a screening of the schlocky space-opera, Space Warriors in Space. With barely a paragraph of cumbersome exposition, the three are zapped into the film, where Jeffery morphs into the fictitious Captain Kasimir, the trio put offside the evil galactic battle lord Froth (Joseph Wycoff, very funny) and Tom fosters affections for the feisty heroine Emmanor (Sez Niederer). Developments involving giant lizards, leery bikini-clad Amazons, a muppet and tribesmen with a Groot-like economy for words add to the overall air of free-for-all lunacy.

The meta-friendly ‘trapped-in-a-movie’ device allows for lots of knowing satire, utilisation of well-worn tropes and examination of the fan-to-film dynamic. Unlike the melancholy romanticism of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo or smart social commentary of Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, Nicolson uses the structure to play for broad laughs, as Peter Hyams did in the 1992 cult item Stay Tuned, which saw John Ritter and Pam Dawber cast into a cable TV nightmare. The other clear inspiration is Dean Parisot’s 1999 hit Galaxy Quest; less obviously, due to it barely having seen a release outside of the UK, is Alan Donohoe’s Star Wars fan-pic, I Have a Bad Feeling About This, which recounts the odyssey of two Lucas-obsessed lads determined to catch a screening of the original trilogy.

In hindsight, Nicolson may have handed his post-production hyphen over to a fresh pair of eyes; at 112 minutes, the whimsy is not always maintained and the film could do with a tight trim. But one can’t begrudge Nicolson and his cast and crew the urge to put all they shot on-screen for all to see; the sense that every set-up was forged with passion and persistence imbues this giggly, goofy and genuinely likable genre farce.

This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy begins an exclusive New Zealand screening season on September 14 in Auckland. Full screening and ticketing information on the film’s official website.

 

Friday
Sep092016

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER

Stars: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Lucy Lawton, Bruce Bohne, Matt Roy and Dee Noah.
Writers: Billy O’Brien and Christopher Hyde, based upon the novel by Dan Wells.
Director: Billy O’Brien

Rating: 4/5

The ‘teenage American Gothic’ ambience of Dan Wells’ young-adult novel I Am Not a Serial Killer is recaptured with an occasionally morbid yet invigorating cadence in director Billy O’Brien’s bracingly icky, hugely entertaining adaptation.

In equal measure a small-town murder mystery, alienated teen saga and bloody body count slasher, O’Brien and co-scripter Christopher Hyde have crafted a work that has had reviewers recalling everything from TV’s series Fargo, Dexter and Six Feet Under to publishing franchise Goosebumps to George Romero’s 1977 film Martin (we’ll offer up Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil and some Twin Peaks, too). But the atmospherics soar when it is bringing its own uniquely dark and dirty take on murderous urges and giving the forward momentum over to its two outstanding leading men.

Key protagonist is John Cleaver, a young man pulling shifts draining blood at his broken family’s mortuary while being completely self aware of his borderline sociopathic state. In the hands of the great Max Records, Cleaver takes his place alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko as one of contemporary teen cinema’s most vividly etched characters; like Darko, O’Brien’s anti-hero is introduced peddling his own way through a landscape that is at once familiar yet disorienting. His snow-covered Midwestern burg is in the early stages of a serial killing spree, the by-product of a mindset with which Cleaver is himself grappling.

Cleaver’s ‘Hardy Boys’-like guile has him zeroing in on a suspect; when he witnesses the stranger smooth-talk his elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) into a car trip into the wilderness, Cleaver suspects the worst. In one of the great second act kickers in recent memory, O’Brien spins the story into a whole new and shocking realm that rattles both Cleaver and the viewer. To detail the narrative developments would be unavoidably spoiler-y, suffice to say it allows for Cleaver to fully explore and better understand the nature of his own tendencies while still wonderfully servicing the requirements of both the ‘teen loner hero’ and ‘slasher pic’ tropes.

Expect Christopher Lloyd’s performance to come into sharp focus during award season prognosticating. It is entirely deserving of recognition in the always hotly contested ‘Supporting Actor’ category, so menacingly understated and against type for the actor, still best known as Back to the Future’s Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (in a perfect world, he will be up against John Goodman’s similarly enigmatic mystery-man Howard in 10 Cloverfield Lane). An Independent Spirit nod seems most likely; could A.M.P.A.S. see past the film’s genre roots (horror rarely gets noticed) to award Lloyd, one of Hollywood’s most beloved ageing icons? Records nails the tone required of him by his director, as well; his delivery of Cleaver’s ‘cardboard box’ speech, in which he dresses down a bully with eloquent insight into how he keeps his homicidal drive in check, is an instant classic.

O’Brien has reworked some hoary horror tropes in the past to deliver sly, sinister, engaging B-movies (genetically-modified farm horror in Isolation, 2006; rampant alien-human crossbreeding in The Hybrid, 2014). I Am Not a Serial Killer is more of the same, only better. Blessed with a macabre sense of the absurd, a pulse that beats with as much emotion as it does blood and the mean streak required to pull off the inherent nastiness of the premise, Dan Wells and Billy O’Brien’s nightmare world is a horror fan’s dream come true.

 

Saturday
Aug272016

BURNS POINT

Stars: Andrew Lowe, Ron Kelly, Francesca Bianchi, Aleisha Rose, John McNeill, Joel Spreadborough and Brad McMurray.
Writer: Chris Blackburn
Director: Tim Blackburn

World Premiere at CinefestOz 2016; screened at Margaret River Cultural Centre, Saturday August 27.

Rating: 3.5/5

A slow-burn crime melodrama that recalls such significant Australian works as Ray Lawrence’s Lantana and Anna Reeves’ The Oyster Farmer, the coastal-set thriller Burns Point proves a compelling calling-card effort for debutant director Tim Blackburn and his scriptwriter dad, Chris.

Utilising the picturesque surrounds of the New South Wales’ township of Ballina, the young filmmaker confidently weaves an ambiguously murky morality narrative steeped in revenge, family ties and dark anti-heroism. The thematic heritage, protagonist’s vengeful motivations and vast, photogenic backdrop (captured in all its widescreen beauty by rising DOP talent, Kent Marcus) posits Blackburn’s film as a ‘revenge western’ update darkened with shades of film noir.

Despite his boyish presence as the frontman of an otherwise muscular work, Andrew Lowe is capable as Jeremy Wilman, returning to his childhood hometown as the grieving brother of a murdered girl (Lyndal Moody, fleetingly). The killer has walked free thanks to the influence of crooked cop father Ken Stafford (a seething Ron Kelly), but Jeremy cannot let his sister’s murderer escape justice; he draws upon local connections in the form of Joel Spreadborough's memorable tough guy to inflict some eye-for-an-eye retribution (the revenge is swift and brutal, in one of the otherwise understated film’s nastier moments.)

As word spreads of his involvement, Wilman finds solitude and shelter in a canefield clearing, the expanse filled with the shells of former homes that are now only weathered reminders of past lives (the historic Empire Vale providing the evocative backdrop). Here, he reconnects with a sense of family, befriending the gruff landowner Bryan (John McNeill) and his wildchild daughter-in-law, Myriam (Francesca Bianchi, the film’s biggest asset), both solid support characters afforded strong dramatics moments by Blackburn Snr, a TV production veteran (Big Brother; My Kitchen Rules; The Gruen Transfer). The final reel ‘showdown’ that the film’s western heritage demands is inevitable but delivers.

The elder Blackburn’s script doesn’t push genre boundaries, favouring strong characterisations and dark atmospherics over new directions. But the father-son creative team prove that blood ties and north coast waters are a good mix; Burns Point is low-key, moody and psychologically complex contemporary storytelling, the likes of which are attempted far too infrequently by Australian filmmakers, and deserves to be noticed.

Friday
Aug192016

THE SHALLOWS

Stars: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corso, Jose Manual, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey and Stevan ‘Sully’ Seagull.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

Rating: 4/5

One must swallow as much salty dramatic logic as Blake Lively does water to make The Shallows work, but work it does. Jaume Collet-Serra’s woman-vs-wild thriller is beautiful, bigscreen Hollywood nonsense that manoeuvres/manipulates the viewer into the kind of submissive state only the finest summer crowd-pleasers can achieve. Unlike Lively’s stranded surfer, who takes on a monster shark with guile and cunning, it’s best to jam any overthinking deep into your psychic beach bag and just enjoy the bounty of gut-level visceral thrills.

So grounded yet mesmerising as if to have risen out of the golden sand itself, Lively plays grieving med student Nancy, who has deferred her studies to travel to the idyllic beach that was dear to her late mom. The reconciliation with her mother’s spiritual home provides a mere shading of real world emotion yet, as sketchy a set-up as that may be, it is all Lively needs to spark the heroine into life. The actress’ innate sweetness and towering physicality proves a potent and photogenic combination. Not unlike her husband Ryan Reynold’s solo turn in Buried (2010; also for a Spanish director, Rodrigo Cortes), Lively maximises her time alone on-screen, her only companion a Wilson-like seagull, whom she names ‘Steven’ (the film’s biggest laugh).

Having taken to the azure waters, she spends the day riding the breaks that her mother once enjoyed. Collet-Serra takes his good time establishing ever-changing, sometimes disorienting nature of the seascape, from the pounding surf to the razor-sharp coral, but this is deliberate. Understanding the geography plays a crucial role in buying into Nancy’s developing predicament. The breathing space that the Lord Howe Island location gives his camera only amplifies his skill at forging tension. And the vastness of the sun-drenched tropical setting is matched only by the multitude of adoring angles the director and his DOP Flavio Martínez Labiano afford their leading lady.

Nancy’s decision to ride one last set is her undoing. A whale carcass has drifted near shore and she veers too near; from the depths, a great white shark checks her out. Soon, she is stranded on a rock that will be submerged come high tide; the shark is a constant presence, as is the threat of unconsciousness and infection associated with the gaping thigh wound she has suffered (if the production takes certain liberties with reality in most other regards, it gets the results of shark teeth on flesh right enough). Set in motion is a slasher pic structure, in which the ‘final girl’ must draw on reserve strength, both mental and physical, to outwit the ‘killing machine’ bad guy who has a myopic focus on carnage.

The Spanish director rarely lets reality usurp genre fun (House of Wax, 2005; Orphan, 2009; Unknown, 2011; Non-Stop, 2014). The Shallows is no different; both narratively (why are no other locals surfing this beach?) and scientifically (why is only one shark attracted to the whale carcass?), Collet-Serra brazenly, occasionally brilliantly, laughs in the face of common sense. He is concerned with cracking B-movie suspense, ratcheting up the thrills via (mostly) superb CGI employment and providing Lively with all the contrivances she needs to survive against her nemesis.

SCREEN-SPACE is adamantly against the demonization of sharks as movie monsters (read our interview with documentarian and shark protection advocate Madison Stewart). But The Shallow’s hulking villain is no more a realistic portrayal of the ocean’s great alpha predator than The Wizard of Oz is of tornadoes. His form and function is pure cinematic villainy; the dark chemistry he creates with his human co-star is perhaps the most realistic element in the film.

Monday
Aug082016

THE ISLAND FUNERAL

Stars: Heen Sasithorn, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk, Yossawat Sittiwong, Pattanapong Sriboonrueang, Kiatsuda Piromya, Anake Srimor and Wanlop Rungkamjad.
Writers: Pimpaka Towira and Kong Rithdee.
Director: Pimpaka Towira.

Reviewed at Melbourne International Film Festival; screened Sunday August 7 at Palace Kino Cinemas, Melbourne.

Rating: 4/5

A character-driven road movie slyly disguising a powerful allegory for Thailand’s shifting, violent socio-religious framework, The Island Funeral signifies a triumphant return to feature narratives for Pimpaka Towira. After more than a decade navigating strictly monitored censorship guidelines via short film and documentary works, the auteur has delivered arguably her best longform film, a thoughtful, challenging and evocative arthouse moodpiece.

The central protagonist of the script penned by Towira and esteemed Thai film critic Kong Rithdee is Laila, a modern, determined Thai woman of Muslim faith, despite no outward, day-to-day acknowledgement of her beliefs. Her soulful strength yet composed presence is captured beautifully in an award worthy performance by the compelling Heen Sasithorn, a future superstar of international cinema.

Laila is led astray by her travelling companions, mopey brother Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) and his college roommate, Toy (Yossawat Sittiwong), as they meander south through Pattani, a region of Islamic resistance. Their plan is to eventually reconnect with her Aunty Zainub. an almost-mythic family figure in the remote township of Al-kaf. Towira deftly conveys the risk connected with journeying through a country in conflict - radio broadcasts offer coverage of rebel bomb attacks; armed soldiers patrol (in menacing slow motion) jungles and abandoned buildings in seemingly random inserts; Toy grows fearful that his non-Muslim beliefs will ultimately prove fatal.

The spectre of the unknown and a general unease soon permeates the trip when Laila, driving late into a stormy night, swears she sees a chain-clad, naked woman run in front of the car. Increasingly disoriented and their modern devices useless (mobiles cease working; none of the group can read a map), they are forced to reconnect with humanity via a chance meeting with local motorcyclist Surin (a charismatic Pattanapong Sriboonrueang). His enigmatic demeanour aside, Surin proves invaluable, leading them to their increasingly mysterious destination, an island only accessible by a lone boatman (Kiatsuda Piromaya, his presence further enhancing the understated paranormal atmosphere).

A utopia of sorts described by the matriarch as being “neither a part of Thailand, nor beyond it”, Towira and her longterm DOP Phuttiphong Aroonpheng (shooting on 16mm) highlight the fractured reality of Al-kaf with stunning camerawork; long, languid, dialogue-free passages capture the trio’s journey along estuaries and through thick undergrowth until the village emerges from the darkness, lit by flickering torches and intermittent surges of generator power. Aunty Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya) proves a soothsayer of profound wisdom, engaging with her niece on matters of personal freedom, nationalism and the idealistic hopes.

There is no convenient conclusion to The Island Funeral; the didactic narrative, which veers effortlessly into a dream-state, almost non-linear realm does not lend itself to a pat denouement. Instead, Towira offers a thoughtful lament; a muted, meditative plea for her nation to cling to an ancestral spirituality in spite of a future led by those that try to deny it. The Island Funeral is a film in which a woman strives to restore faith and bring understanding through respect for the past; in modern Thailand, that constitutes a subversively confronting notion.

Friday
Aug052016

KILLING GROUND

Stars: Aaron Pederson, Aaron Glenane, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Tiarnie Coupland, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes and Stephen Hunter.
Writer/director: Damien Power.

Reviewed at the World Premiere screening, Thursday August 4, presented by the Melbourne International Film Festival at Hoyts Melbourne Central.

Rating: 4/5

Damien Power’s brutal bushland nerve-shredder Killing Ground can rightfully sit alongside such dark kindred spirits as Wolf Creek and The Long Weekend in the annals of Aussie genre infamy. Bolstered by revelatory star turns from Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane as the latest ute-drivin’, pig-shootin’ incarnations of the Australian male’s primal, predatory id, Power’s skilfully crafted feature debut demands global exposure beyond genre fests and midnight showings.

The young director both embraces and deconstructs a myriad of familiar ‘bad ol’ boys’ tropes, the likes of which rankle detractors who argue that such stereotypical characters demean the country folk portrayed in ‘hillbilly horror’ works likes Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, as recently as 2015, Sam Curtain’s similarly-plotted Aussie shocker, Blood Hunt. Regardless of such intellectualising (which is not without merit), there is no denying that this vivid, slow-burn reworking of a well-worn conceit is engrossing and, in at least one extended sequence certain to be examined frame-by-frame by censorship authorities, not for the weak of constitution.

Most thrillingly, Power and his virtuoso editor Katie Flaxman apply a complex narrative device that allows for interweaving storylines to span two distinct chronologies only hours apart. The foreboding sense of inevitable horror that permeates the first two acts of the auteur’s self-penned script works at such a pulsating pitch, it can’t possibly be sustained through to the more conventional but no less riveting denouement; for the faint of heart, that may not be such a bad thing.

The set-up is Horror 101; a young couple - Sam (Harriet Dyer), a doe-eyed twenty-something smitten with her upwardly mobile doctor bf, Ian (Ian Meadows) - indulge in a romantic getaway off a tourist trail in the Australian bush. Staking their claim on a riverbank clearing, they are resigned to sharing the spot with a big orange tent but, as their first night becomes a new day and there are no signs of their fellow adventurers, concern mounts.

Power begins his crosscutting of timeframes nonchalantly, introducing the missing family unit of troubled teen Em (a terrific Tiarnie Coupland), mum Margaret (Maya Stange), cool dad Rob (Julian Garner) and toddler Ollie (Liam and Riley Parkes, sharing the call-sheet). As Sam and Ian become entwined in the mystery of the empty tent, the fate of the young family unfolds at the hands of charming sociopath German (Pederson, giving his all in a thrilling, against-type performance) and Chook (Glennane, arcing his ‘simple man’ archetype from dimwitted follower to coldblooded killer with an agonising intensity). The actors are superb in roles that recall David Argue's and Chris Haywood's moronic, murderous mates in Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, minus the tension-relieving buffonery. When the timelines converge, the narrative is powered by a relentless momentum that essentially doubles-down on the 'final girl' plight synonymous with the genre. 

Displaying a entirely appropriate confidence in his material, Power takes time building character detail and a convincing sense of time and place, which may frustrate gorehounds who like their bloodletting upfront. But the patience the director displays adheres to the traditions of the best of B-cinema (especially the slasher pic heyday of the early '80s) and ensures audience empathy is peaking just as the nasty business kicks in. The cinematic heritage of great grindhouse works is also embraced by ace cinematographer Simon Chapman (Cut Snake, 2014; The Loved Ones, 2009), who captures the wilderness with stark, superb widescreen lensing before getting down and dirty, both figuratively and literally, in the third reel darkness. 

Monday
Aug012016

MONSIEUR MAYONNAISE

Featuring: Philippe Mora, Mirka Mora.
Director: Trevor Graham.

Rating: 4/5

The connectivity of memory, legacy and family is defined with a playful yet profound dexterity in Trevor Graham’s soulful, inspiring documentary, Monsieur Mayonnaise. A portrait of the immigrant experience that is both uniquely personal yet deeply honourable to a generation of ‘new Australians’, Graham’s account of filmmaker Philippe Mora’s search for insight into his parent’s journey from Nazi-occupied Europe to the suburbs of Melbourne deftly encompasses such diverse human experience as the creation of art, the horrors of genocide and the delights of condiment preparation.

Revisiting the same ties that bind the nourishing goodness of food with mankind’s appetite for self-destruction that he examined in his offbeat 2012 crowdpleaser, Make Hummus Not War, Graham has found a willing and compelling cinematic soulmate in Mora. The LA-based expat has embraced a new creative outlet as a graphic novel artist and painter, his broad brush strokes and bold colours recalling the aesthetic that he applied to much of his film oeuvre, several of which are legitimate and beloved cult items (Mad Dog Morgan, 1976; The Return of Captain Invincible, 1983; The Howling II, 1985; Howling 3: The Marsupials, 1987; Communion, 1989).

Graham’s camera travels with Mora to the Melbourne home of his vibrant octogenarian mum, Mirka, a prominent figure for over half a century in the southern capital’s artistic community. Central to their reconnecting is the legacy left by Mora’s late father George, which begins as a warmhearted and mouthwatering recounting of his skill in the kitchen (hinting at but not fully divulging the meaning of the title) before revealing a vast backstory set against the Nazi occupation of Paris and the role George played as the extermination of his people took place around him.

Employing a structure not dissimilar to that which has well served the heritage-themed TV concept ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, Mora’s journey of discovery proves a revelatory experience for both the subject and the audience alike. Having jetted into Paris, Mora travels deep into the countryside of Europe to visit people and places that forged his father’s destiny and the continent’s dark past. The horrors that befell the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign are afforded yet another chilling perspective when Mora finds a museum that honours the hundreds of children lost during the Holocaust, an unforgettable moment that becomes central to a moving final-reel reveal.

As he peels away the layers of family history, Mora also documents his experience on canvas, allowing the film to capture how the events that impact the artist impact his art. It is a meta-rich device that mirrors the experience of the documentarian, forming a triumvirate between the subject, the filmmaker and the audience that transcends the inherent objectivity of the documentary format. Most potently, it imbues the project with a personality and pulse every bit as vibrant and engaging as both Philippe Mora himself and the heritage he yearns to uncover.

Tuesday
Jul122016

GHOSTBUSTERS

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Karan Soni, Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong and Charles Dance.
Writers: Paul Feig and Katie Dippold.
Director: Paul Feig

Rating: 3/5

The army of haters (nostalgists? misogynists? the undead?) that shrieked like banshees prior to seeing Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters will be haunted by the spectre of the director’s goofy, funny reboot. While it falls short of nailing the anarchic spirit and character chemistry of Ivan Reitman’s beloved 1984 blockbuster, Feig and his cast of game comediennes deliver enough thrills and giggles to both justify the long-in-development franchise-starter and smother the internet’s white noise of negativity.

Built upon a framework that will feel familiar to the legion of fans, the script by Feig and collaborator Kate Dippold (The Heat, 2013) reworks the famous ‘haunted library’ opening before honing in on fidgety academic Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig). Just as a career goal looms, her ex-BFF Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) derails Erin’s life plans and throwing the pair back together, reigniting their passion for the study of the paranormal. Fortuitously, New York City is about to experience an apocalyptic upsurge in supernatural activity, thanks to the evildoings of whiny ginger Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Poised to make it big as The Big Apple’s leading paranormal extermination and elimination team, the reunited gal pals team with Abby’s unshakeably cool lab partner Jillian (Kate McKinnon) and street smart NYC girl Patty (Leslie Jones) to face off against the ghouls of centuries past, who are conjuring to life at will and running rampant in downtown Manhattan. Also working against the Ghostbusters are a disbelieving mayoral office (Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong) and some ineffectual feds (Matt Walsh, Michael Kenneth Williams).

As expected, the big laughs fall to Wiig and McCarthy, a key point of difference between the reboot and the original. Reitman’s expertly managed ensemble of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were vividly larger-than-life characters with strong comedic perspectives; it was a pure delight just to be hanging out with them. But very few actual ‘gags’ fell to the trio, and those that did grew organically from their personalities and the nimble plotting.

Feig is a master of onscreen ‘fem-istry’, but his Ghostbusters leads are not as finely etched as the ensemble in his biggest hit Bridesmaids, nor are they as deliriously funny as the key characters in his best film, Spy. Kristen Wiig is corseted as the tightly-wound Erin, the few moments when her trademark ‘zany’ peeks out proving hilariously memorable; McCarthy’s physical comedy shtick and motor mouth skill is well utilised, but a bit familiar; McKinnon is not the breakout star of the film, as was clearly intended, though she gets some big laughs.

Notably lacking in Feig’s reboot is a centralised romance similar to that between Murray’s Peter Venkman and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett, which served to provide both a human warmth and personal stake. Instead, we have a glimmer of unrequited attraction between Erin and Chris Hemsworth’s dim-witted beau-hunk, Kevin, the ‘Ghostbusters’ receptionist, in an overplayed subplot that only amounts to minor giggles. A lot falls on the Australian actor’s broad shoulders, perhaps more than was wise in a cast of top-tier comedic talents, but he handles the part with…enthusiasm.

It is unclear if Hemsworth’s role was meant to fill the shoes of Annie Potts’ front-office firebrand Janine or Rick Moranis’ classic nerd Lewis, whose presence played such a crucial role in the original’s dynamic; it does neither. Also leaving a void is the conflict that was provided by William Atherton’s slimy EPA agent Walter Peck, aka ‘Dickless’; Feig’s film suffers in much the same way that the ill-conceived Ghostbusters 2 did, with no convincing villain to provide character tension and dramatic momentum. Technology denies the production the rich, evocative shadows and ‘real New York’ ambience captured by Reitman’s legendary DOP Laszlo Kovacs; instead, Robert Yeoman serviceably supplies the flavourless digital sheen of the modern film palette.

The ace in Feig’s deck is his obvious fondness for the property’s mythology and affinity with the fan base. The director skilfully mimics visual and audio cues that will (did) bring knowing nods and broad smiles from an audience that holds the original in warm regard. If the reimagining never establishes its own defining personality, it is only because it adheres so affectionately and respectfully to the legacy of its source material.

The ties that bind do not always serve the film well; shoehorned cameos are tonally disruptive and not worthy (one key reappearance reduced to a end-credit outtake slot). Nevertheless, as the latest brand to hop aboard Hollywood’s reboot train, Ghostbusters is better than most repackaged 80s nostalgia and provide no ammunition for those that were priming their keyboards for a misfire of biblical proportions.

Wednesday
Jul062016

SUSTAINABLE

Director: Matt Wechsler.

Rating: 4/5

Through strong voices and high production values, the modern documentary genre is demanding that the global population counter the abuse and exploitation of our resources by mass industry. It is the turn of the mega-farming practices of ‘Big Agriculture’ to be exposed in Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, an elegant, deeply empathic study of the Earth under corporate siege and the pockets of community landowners determined to turn the tide.

Over the last decade, potent statements have been made by factual filmmakers against the mining sector (Gasland, 2010; Frackman, 2015), the automotive industry (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), financial giants (Inside Job, 2010; Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2010) and technology manipulators (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013; Zero Days, 2016), not to mention the cage-rattling oeuvre of agitator Michael Moore. Industrial agriculture, such as that spotlighted by Sustainable, has come under fire before, in passionate works such as Fresh (2009), We Feed the World (2005), Food Chains (2014) and Food Inc. (2008).

Wechsler maintains the rage by highlighting nearly a century of chemical-based mass produce output and the shocking damage it has done to the American farming landscape. However, Wechsler and producer Annie Speichler, the principals behind Hourglass Films, hone their lens on the more personal narrative of Marty Travis, an Illinois farmer and businessman who has reclaimed his family heritage and undertaken to rejuvenate both the soil upon which he farms and the community in which he resides. The title implies hardline ecological beliefs, but also comes to represent a preserving and maintaining of America's proud farming history.

The filmmakers suggest that the future of America’s agriculture industry and, by association, the healthy longevity of the population is tied to men and women like Travis; masters of traditional farming methods that need to be re-employed with a smarter, more holistic approach to the paddock-to-plate cycle. This extends to big-city restaurant owners and chefs, who deal directly with the new wave of primary producers and take an active role in the production of their key ingredients and the lives of their suppliers. 

The film acknowledges that the crucial mechanisms necessary to fix the damage are in its infancy. The breadth of change required to feed the world via sustainable methods is unlikely to happen in the next half-century, but that the science and those willing to apply it do exist and are at the forefront of positive change. It also pitches a convincing line in economic attainability, in an effort to silence naysayers who say changing the industrial paradigm is beyond the nation's means.

Aesthetically, Sustainable is at the high-end of the talking-heads/advocacy genre. Fluid camerawork and golden-hued lensing capture the spiritual essence of the rural setting, further strengthening the key thematic strands of tradition, community and hope. Wechsler keeps the science garble to an effective minimum, often employing simple animation and strong personalities to get information across. The obligatory call-to-action interstitial that is de rigueur for the modern doco, often overstating a filmmaker’s agenda, feels entirely earned in this instance; Sustainable brings a level-headed, humanistic and vital perspective to mankind’s relationship with the planet.

Sustainable screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11. Ticket and session information can be found at the event's official website.

Friday
Jul012016

A BILLION LIVES

Director: Aaron Biebert.

Rating: 4/5

The solidly crafted three-act structure of Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives provides a compelling, infuriating case study in big business dirty tricks. That the tobacco conglomerates are guilty of poisoning the global population and crushing the potentially life-saving emergence of a smoke-free alternative won’t be fresh news to educated audiences who seek out these types of paradigm-shifting, talking-head advocacy efforts, but the slick visuals and thoroughly researched arguments make A Billion Lives one of the best recent examples of the booming genre.

The title is derived from the number of people that might have been saved had ‘Big Tobacco’ not conspired to kill off the e-cigarette, or ‘vaping’, industry in its infancy. The liquid-based steam inhaler movement, which emerged in the late 2000’s and boomed, briefly, in the first half of this decade, was finding favour as a far less toxic option for nicotine-&-tar traditionalists, the removal of the ‘smoke’ from smoking representing a seismic shift in health side effects. However, Biebert’s even-tempered diatribe convinces that the dreams of e-cig entrepreneurs were extinguished by corporations with vested interests all things traditional cigarette.

The first act is a pacey recounting of the birth of the global tobacco industry, entertainingly repackaging already widely known facts into a timeline that brings us to the present. The personal drama that drives the first 30 minutes and infuses the whole film is that of David Goerlitz, the macho face of smoking in the 1980s when he was the ‘Winston Cigarettes Guy’ and who now speaks loudly and proudly against the industry. The second act focuses in on the invention and expansion of e-cigarette technology, while the last act points a bitter, accusing finger at the forces that shut down the sector.

The director’s collection of experts runs the gamut from high-ranking bureaucrats in the health and primary industry sectors to everyman business people to everyday addicts. Each has their own spin on how billion dollar profits and the greasy-palm tactics of both commercial and governmental interests subverted vaping industry growth; most extraordinary are notions that even anti-smoking bodies favoured self-interest over the greater good and helped quash the e-cig momentum.

Biebert plays first-person narrator, posing on-camera observations that extend his voice-over contributions to fourth-wall breaking. Given the profile he affords himself, he may have declared whether the film is a personal plea; he never states what drew him to the e-cig debate or whether he is a ‘vaper’. Where he excels as a storyteller is in the balance he finds between issue-driven details and the more human aspects of the narrative.

A Billion Lives doesn’t quite impact with the knockout punch of Josh Fox’s Gasland or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the polished standard bearers for the ‘Big Business is Evil’ factual-film genre. But Biebert’s lean production team nevertheless land some telling blows against the global industrial complex that unjustly bolsters profits at great cost to the planet’s population. Even non-smokers, who may otherwise find it hard to sympathise with the nicotine addict, will be drawn into the injustice and dark manipulation Biebert captures.

Screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11 2016. Check the official website for session and ticket information.