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Wednesday
Oct182017

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE

Featuring: Brian Hooker, Doreen Granpeesheh, Mark Blaxill, Polly Tommey, Bill Posey, Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Written by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Directed by Andrew Wakefield.

Rating: 3/5

When it was bumped from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival amidst claims ranging from bogus science and conspiracy theorising to conflicts-of-interest and political grandstanding, the anti-MMR inoculation tirade Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe earned far more headlines than it ever would have received as a documentary of any note. Such notoriety proves a double-edged sword; the dissenters helped promote the film and its cause, but it also muddied serious consideration of a competently presented piece of investigative filmmaking, albeit one buoyed by the typical heavy-handedness of a heart-over-head polemic.

First time Brit director and deregistered gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield (pictured, below) flaunts long-held beliefs and his own softly-spoken public-school charisma in his often compelling postulating of how Big Pharma and The Centre for Disease Control colluded to silence findings that linked the combined measles-mumps-rubella injection with the onset of autism. Unlike the thundering chorus of disapproval that greeted his film, Wakefield works hard to pinpoint and present his ‘facts’; that being, a significant sample of toddlers around twelve months of age vaccinated with the MMR drug began exhibiting symptoms associated with developmental abnormalities (the statistics when applied to the African American community are even more worrying).

The claims do not suggest the individual vaccines are dangerous, but that the combined dosage at a certain point in a child’s growth has caused damage to a large enough percentage of children to warrant investigation. Wakefield crafts a timeline, employs the impassioned vocal theatrics of journo (and co-writer) Del Bigtree and tugs at the heart with video footage of young sufferers in staking his position. Scientific data and media grabs are utilised in much the same way as in most ‘agenda docs’; just as Al Gore, Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza (director of the pilloried 2016 hard-right rant, Hillary’s America) did before him, Wakefield employs cable newshounds and whitecoaters in a manner that best serves his message. To decry his film’s credibility based upon bias is to tar every modern doc with a fatal imbalance.

He none-to-subtly employs rhetoric and conjecture to draw lines between a self-serving medical profession, the billion-dollar insurance sector and the legal fraternity, all of whom may or may not be in cahoots to protect shared interests. Wakefield proves less adept at drawing together these elements, which proves frustrating. It is entirely plausible that, given the immorality and avarice being revealed every day under the current administration of ‘Big Business’ puppets the industrial practices of the sector are reprehensible, but it is hard to draw that conclusion based on Wakefield’s version of events.

Wakefield’s own discrediting did not help his cause; having published widely read findings on the alleged dangers of MMR vaccination in Britain’s esteemed medical journal Lancet, the scientific integrity of the report and ultimately the reputation of the man himself were called into question once too often. As its title suggests, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe indulges in hyperbolic fear mongering at the expense of hard science more often than it should. 

Which, Mr De Niro, was no excuse to deny the film screens; such a reaction from the Tribeca head was clearly preposterous. Films like Vaxxed should be seen so as to kick start discussion, if only for contrary, more informed voices to prove their claims false.

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE screens at The Melbourne Underground Film Festival on October 29 as part of 'The Golden Age of Censorship' strand with Cassie Jaye's men's rights advocacy documentary, The Red Pill. For ticket and session details visit the event's official website.

 

Friday
Oct062017

THE LAST FACE

Stars: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris and Jean Reno.
Writer: Erin Dignam
Director: Sean Penn

Rating: 1.5/5

Representing an inconceivable disconnect between the humanitarian activist we know him to be and a filmmaker capable of this tone-deaf dreck, The Last Face is a tortuous misstep for director Sean Penn. The global refugee crisis is entitled to a far more respectful and insightful account of its horrors than is afforded in this shrill melodrama, in which the displaced (and often dismembered) people of central Africa are only addressed when it benefits the turgid romance between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.

Shooting the carnage of tribal conflict with the kind of rich colours, ambient music cues and soft focus edges usually reserved for high-end consumer ad campaigns, Penn asks of his movie star leads the impossible – to imbue their rocky, photogenic love story with the same resonance as the hell on earth in which it unfolds. Not a chance, given that Theron’s spoilt brat daddy’s girl and Bardem’s heart-of-gold warzone lothario are two of the most objectionable characters of contemporary cinema.

Bouncing between the conflicts of South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Theron vocalizes her South African origins as Dr Wren Petersen, the beautiful white face of global social activism. Tired of fronting conferences and boardrooms in an effort to affect minimal change, she lands in Africa to join fellow medical heroes on the ground, saving the population with their superior skills and winning smiles (amongst them are the wasted acting talents of French doc Jean Reno and Brit medic Jared Harris). Most charismatic of the lot is Bardem’s Miguel Leon, a smooth-talking playboy surgeon capable of wooing his new charge with his stubble and grin as they celebrate a successful night time jungle caesarean.

But warzone romances never go as planned, and soon Wren and Miguel are bickering, then making up, then amputating legs, crying a bit, then having sex, then riding in jeeps. It doesn’t help that Wren’s cousin Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a past conquest of Miguel’s, keeps turning up (HIV positive, to boot). It does help that the lovebird’s most emotional moments are shot in Africa’s ‘golden hour’ sunlight, the cries of the wounded silenced just long enough for both stars to emote their own pain. All that faux emoting requires some serious padding; cue yet another bloated, droning score from Hans Zimmer.      

In the hands of veteran DOP Barry Aykroyd, Penn’s visual style mimics the floaty, ethereal lens of his Tree of Life director and obvious influencer, Terrence Malick. Yet mimicry is all it is, with The Last Face offering not a single frame of Malick’s contemplative strengths (which, to be honest, have even let Malick himself down lately). Penn’s strengths used to be gritty understatement in the service of society’s fringe dwellers (The Indian Runner, 1991; The Pledge, 2001) and spiritual dreamers (Into the Wild, 2007). In his latest, Penn only proves adept at staging the grotesque horrors of third world civil conflicts; in addition to the birth scene, piles of bodies buzzing with flies and corpses, both dismembered and disembowelled, offer up the pic’s only moments of realism.

Whatever Sean Penn’s good intentions may have been, in every other regard The Last Face is the kind of misguided vanity project/message movie only the egos of Hollywood’s most powerful talents can afford to conjure.

Thursday
Oct052017

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Hiam Abbass and Sean Young.
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Rating: 3.5/5

Having muddied to the point of audience disinterest the mythology of one blockbuster property in the quest for ‘something deeper’, Ridley Scott’s existential musings on origins and creation continue in Blade Runner 2049. Thankfully, in the hands of self-proclaimed disciple Denis Villeneuve, the themes that consume the creator's mind are granted a more finely-attuned grace and depth than they were in the Scott-helmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Bleached bleak yet breathtakingly beautiful in the hands and eyes of DOP Roger Deakins, the sequel that seemed entirely unlikely to Warner Bros and Ladd Company backers who saw red on the first film ultimately befits the legacy of its origin. Blade Runner 2049 embraces the enormous shadow cast by Blade Runner 1982 by crafting a vast immersion in scale and vision, as well as indulging fans the rose-coloured sentimentality with which they fuelled the legend of Scott’s 1982 masterpiece-in-hindsight.

On board as one of the six executive producers (from the somewhat worrying roster of 16 producers), Scott has re-engaged scribe Hampton Fancher to revisit America’s west coast thirty years after the events of his first script; co-writer David Peoples did not return, with Michael Green (Logan, 2017) getting a screenplay credit, having earned Scott’s trust as a story contributor on Alien: Covenant. The writing pair has conjured an expanded setting that recalls key elements from the first film’s neon metropolis aesthetic while crafting new landscapes of desolation and decrepitude.

In 2049, the blade runner cops are themselves ‘skinjobs’, replicants tasked with retiring late model Nexus units deemed too dangerous for mortal relics like the legendary but long-gone Rick Deckard. Blade runners now look like Ryan Gosling’s K, introduced to as he deals with a gentle giant (Dave Bautista) deep in the solar power fields that pass as America’s farmland. In the roots of a long dead tree (‘origins of life’, remember), K makes a discovery that soon reveals a shattering secret that hints at the creation of a new form of life.

That’ll do plot-wise, as most of the critical community have promised the film’s distributors not to divulge key details. Suffice to say (as hinted at in the trailer), Harrison Ford makes a compelling return to his third most iconic character, the script affording him moments of emotion that call on the ageing star to deliver some of the most genuinely moving work he has ever done. Gosling is a sturdy if chilly presence, allowed the time over a whopping (and occasionally testing) 163 minutes to gradually emerge as a more-human-than-human android character (thanks immeasurably to the presence of Ana de Armas as his holographic love interest). As industrialist Niander Wallace, Jared Leto again stumbles as a big production’s central villain, his monologues of sociopathic malevolence sounding a bit too ‘Adam West’ for a film craving deep intellectual connection.

Denis Villeneuve does genre films as darkly-hued psychological explorations, more concerned with the journey than with the destination. As remarkable as it is to reference such films with regards to a Hollywood sequel, Villeneuve’s vision of future-noir hails from 70’s Soviet science fiction, specifically Andrey Tarkovsky’s landmark work Stalker. Under his director, the Oscar-bound Deakins fills every inch of the frame with an artist’s understanding of shadow and light, colour and monochrome, just as Tarkovsky’s lensman Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy did.

His visual obsession with making fleeting moments in time grand experiences means Villeneuve’s storytelling can create issues with endings (see Prisoners, or, Enemy, both 2013; even, for some, Arrival, 2016) and he can’t avoid a sense of anti-climax here. Perhaps that is what drew him to his first sequel - the thought of applying his penchant for inconclusive denouements into a franchise sequel. This is a bridging episode, with character arcs left unresolved and plot developments hinted; all the bluster that the production brings to the closing moments (both physically and, less convincingly, emotionally) can’t hide the fact that after 163 minutes, a satisfying third act eludes him.

One can’t help sense that producer Scott’s true desire is to construct another multi-episode franchise arc driven by origin issues, a la his convoluted Alien hexalogy. In one moment that lasts a mere handful of frames, a bald, muscular Nexus prototype instantly recalls the ‘engineers’ from Prometheus. Does BR2049 share less DNA with BR1982 than it does with recent instalments of Scott’s increasingly irrelevant horror space-opera? (In our Alien: Covenant review, we noted nods to Blade Runner and the replicant mythology).

Fittingly (and, perhaps, thankfully), that’s all in the future; for now, this flawed but ambitious, long but beautiful continuation of a classic can spend its time maneuvering to forge its own lofty genre status.

Wednesday
Oct042017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Stars: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian and Sandy Kane.
Writers: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Director: Sean Baker

Rating: 4/5

The resilience of childhood innocence works hard to beat down real world hardship in The Florida Project, a slice-of-hard-life drama that pulsates with a rawness and compassion all too rare in modern cinema. Set almost entirely within a gaudy Florida hotel peopled with the disenfranchised and forgotten, director Sean Baker’s neo-realistic eye for humour, honesty and heartbreak has crafted a slow burn, potent commentary on America’s struggling underclass. 

In the shadow of Disney World (the original ‘Florida Project’), the strip mall and 2-star motel burg of Kissimmee clings desperately to a more prosperous past, when families of tourists filled the rooms and frequented the ice-cream parlours and fast-food chains in greater numbers. The Magic Castle Motel has become home to six year-old Moonee (the extraordinary Brooklynn Prince), a tough talking, indomitable spirit whose passion for life and take-no-shit survival instincts sees her rule over her own self-styled magic kingdom amongst the noisy sprawl’s highway sidewalks, back alleys and abandoned buildings.

Moonee’s ballsy bravado keeps her above the din of desperation, a trait she has adopted from her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Foul-mouthed and heavily inked, Halley has no idea how to mother except in the purest of forms; she adores her daughter but hates the world, clashing with all in authority and finally turning to soliciting to pay rent on their dishevelled motel room. The compassion of sturdy hotel owner Bobby (Willem Dafoe, Oscar-bound) is tested many times over, his resolve to maintain his establishment’s crumbling façade only matched by his tough-love care for Moonee and dwindling patience for Halley’s outbursts and excuses.

Working once again with co-scripter Chris Bergoch, Sean Baker has captured this vibrant yet precarious part of US society in most of his features to date. From Four Letter Words (2000) to Take Out (2004) to Prince of Broadway (2008), Baker has examined fringe dwellers clinging to hope in the face of mounting hardship; both Starlet (2012) and his last film, the acclaimed Tangerine (2015), featured protagonists determined to shoehorn their personalities and perspectives on life into a society that has pre-determined their course.

Like many of those works, The Florida Project soars in its first act with a freestyle joie de vivre that suggests Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) exist happily in defiance of their lot in life. Baker’s colourful and energetic opening stanza, however, proves every bit that ‘crumbling façade’ that Bobby tries to paint over; or, in grander terms, symbolises the happy face but corporate coldness of the all-pervasive Disney empire and the country in which such entities prosper, above its people. The director has a flair for rich character, tart dialogue and splashy production design that feels buoyant, but Baker’s America is ultimately a sad, hopeless landscape. His films are filled with damaged but wondrously joyous humans for whom the society formed upon 'The American Dream' has no time or place.

 

Tuesday
Sep262017

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE

Featuring: Craig Anderson, Gerard Odwyer, Bryan Moses, Robert Anderson and Dee Wallace.
Director: Gary Doust

Rating: 4/5

Eighteen years after the soul-crushing realities of self-funded film production were exposed in Chris Smith’s landmark documentary American Movie, director Gary Doust puts a warm but no less anxiety-inducing Australian spin on the tribulations faced by the next-to-no-budget auteur in Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare.

Craig Anderson had runs on the board after the TV comedy success Double the Fist (he earned a 2015 AACTA Award for Best Comedy Directing), but the dream was to helm his horror feature script Red Christmas. Nearing 40, Anderson’s life was moribund, reduced to sleeping on the floor of his small office studio surrounded by his VHS tapes and (admittedly impressive) collection of Stephen Pearson prints. Existence hits a low point when a painful condition demands mature-age circumcision. Anderson is frank and funny about the increasingly dire state of his life, which bottoms out with the pathetic reality of having to have his adult foreskin removed while still on his mother’s Medicare card.

Doust had exhibited a natural talent for capturing the torment of a low budget shoot as far back as 2002 with his own award winner, the terrific Making Venus. His affinity for and incisive understanding of the filmmaker’s experience, nurtured during his tenure as head of the film collective Popcorn Taxi and in his doco series Next Stop Hollywood, affords him a sweet and trustful rapport with his subject. Footage inside the Anderson family home, where the desperate director asks his financially stable brother for a loan, provide for a rare kind of awkward intimacy; Anderson’s snowballing anguish over budget/crewing/schedule/union conditions make for some truly stomach-tightening and heart-tugging moments of factual filmmaking.

By the time the Red Christmas shoot gets underway in regional New South Wales, Doust and his camera are deeply embedded within the on-set dynamic. Personalities emerge that bring Anderson into sharper, deeper focus – actor Gerard Odwyer, a Down Syndrome sufferer who proves to be accomplished actor and strong emotional core, for both productions; first AD Bryan Moses, often the voice of reason amidst the madness (he and Anderson co-directed the 1999 Tropfest winning short, Life in a Datsun). Not for the first time in her career, leading lady Dee Wallace (pictured, above) proves a winning (and suprisingly sweary) presence and inspires her director to stretch his talents.

The final stages of Anderson’s Red Christmas journey provide insight into the end-to-end process of envisioning, realising and selling your work (including a post-production stretch on a cruise ship that seems slightly incongruous given the penny-pinching woes that make up so much of the film). In practical terms, Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare should be required viewing in film schools nationwide for its matter-of-factness. The film truly soars as an endearing character study; an examination into the determination and borderline delusion it takes to make one’s vision a reality. In Craig Anderson, Gary Doust honours the archetypal passion-fuelled dreamer of great cinematic lore.

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE will have its World Premiere at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the event's official website.

(Footnote: SCREEN-SPACE attended 2016 Sydney Film Festival screening of Red Christmas, but did not publish a review. We did provide a 2.5 star rating on our Letterboxd page.)

Monday
Sep182017

KUSO

Stars: Iesha Coston, Zack Fox, The Buttress, Shane Carpenter, Oumi Zumi, Mali Matsuda, Tim Heidecker, Hannibal Buress, Donnell Rawlings, Anders Holm, Regan Farquhar, David Firth and George Clinton.
Writers: Steven Ellison, David Firth and Zack Fox.
Director: ‘Steve’, aka Flying Lotus.

CONTENT WARNING: Some details in the review may offend.

Reviewed at The Factory Theatre as part of Sydney Underground Film Festival; Closing Night selection, Sunday September 17, 2017.

Rating: 2.5/5

When John Waters asked Divine to eat a fresh dog poo in Pink Flamingos (1972), or Pier Paolo Pasolini tortured the innocents in Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), it was cinema that confronted its own power to influence and defied standards of decency within society. They were frames of an altered reality, a dangerous and challenging new use of the art form. The most important (frankly, only) consideration that arises after watching Kuso is, ‘Can cinema still perform that function?’

The debut feature from musician and hip-hop artist Steve Ellison, a.k.a. ‘Steve’, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, features a scabby, pustule-covered young man having sex with the mouth of a cancerous talking boil that has grown on the neck of his equally putrid girlfriend. The sequence comes after 90-odd minutes of raucous bad taste; penises are pierced, faeces are smeared, eyeballs are consumed then regurgitated, all set to a soundscape of screeching incoherence. Kuso is an anthology film, the segmented narrative able to afford Ellison greater opportunity to explore his scatological, menstrual and anal fixations.

Of course, that all sounds pretty ‘shocking’, as was certainly his intention above all else. There is very little indication this film has any greater ambition than to disgust and disturb the audience that will seek this out when search engines turn up…oh, let’s go with ‘Giant Anus Cockroach,’ or ‘Laser Ray Abortion’. It is all set in a post-earthquake L.A., where the freshly scabby population has turned moronic (turned?) and transdimensional portals exist that allow hairy creatures with TV monitor faces to live amongst us. Maybe Ellison is working some satirical angle, commenting on the nature of modern living or the destruction of society by the media or something like that, but it seems unlikely.

But is it possible for cinema that sets out to shock to achieve the genuinely shocking anymore? Kuso is certainly distasteful, but can make-up and prop department versions of shit, piss, cum and blood really disturb when those who seek those diversions can surf all night to their heart’s content. Society’s standard bearers for ‘goodness’ will feel compelled to rise in defiance of ‘art’ like Kuso, whether that be the current generation of trigger-happy PC-enriched snowflakes or the ageing ultra-conservative baby boomers that initially embraced then abandoned counterculture principles. But is the content worthy of their fight? Might they just be wagging fingers at a naughty little boy who drew the movie equivalent of a pee-pee on the wall with his new box of digital crayons?

The film’s debut at Sundance was met with walkouts, although subsequent reports indicate this was less about paying customers being rattled by the content and more about industry types realising there was little more to Ellison’s film than bluster and bravado.

In all fairness, there is a little bit more. The various narrative strands are bookended by some wildly imaginative montage animation, as if Terry Gilliam had helped Charles Manson with his film school assignment, and one truly beautiful CGI-rendered sequence features frozen chickens being launched by an immense spacecraft over Los Angeles (pictured, above). In 'Smear', the best of the anthology segments, a diarrheic mutant schoolboy connects with a giant sphincter in the woods as a sort of surrogate father, affording Ellison a modicum of sentimentality to fill his frame with some warm composition. There is no denying that some passages achieve the truly nightmarish, though that accomplishment brings further disconnect from character engagement, an element desperately lacking in most of the film.

Loud, objectionable, occasionally funny but mostly trying, the visual experimentation and adherence to all things ugly quickly grows tiresome. By the time Ellison unveils the ‘neck boil sex’ moment, Kuso has devolved into a filmic manifestation of a high school boys’ diary, filled with gross, puerile wanderings of the mind that might shock the kid’s mom, but just bring raised eyebrows from everyone else.

 

Wednesday
Sep062017

IT

Stars: Jaeden Lieberher. Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Olef, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague, Logan Thompson, Jake Sims and Bill Skarsgård.
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; based on the novel by Stephen King.
Director: Andy Muschietti.

Rating: 4/5

The new millenial obsession with all things 80s may have reached its zenith with Andy Muschietti’s spectacularly terrifying and terrifically satisfying retro-riff on Stephen King’s bestseller, It. Condensing the source material’s mammoth narrative into a workable 135 minute film has taken some lithe restructuring, yet what remains is a lovingly faithful rendering of the themes, characters and milieu of the landmark horror tome. And, for all the warm familiarity and unexpected sweetness conjured by the production’s adherence to nostalgia, ‘horror’ it most certainly is.

Muschietti leaves no one guessing just how horrifying his adaptation will be with a rain-soaked opening setpiece that perfectly visualises King’s unforgettable first pages. Drawing upon his origins as a short-form horror visionary (his 2013 feature debut, Mama, was a reworking of his own 2008 mini-movie), the director’s masterly pre-title sequence could stand alone, called ‘The Taking of Georgie Denborough by Pennywise the Clown’. As both a tone-setter for the frights to come and an introduction to King’s most iconic horror figure, it is the ideal primer.

Act 1 jumps several months ahead to the final day of the school year, the thrill of summer vacation tempered by a town on edge; a curfew keeps the children indoors after dark, so prevalent is the threat of unexplained disappearance. A tightly packaged and deftly handled piece of scripting brings to vivid life the friends who call themselves The Losers Club. Georgie’s older brother, stutterer Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is coping with his grief by surrounding himself with best buds, including momma’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), nerdish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and bespectacled Richie (Finn Wolfhard, stealing every scene). This group of under-the-radar types spend their days dodging bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, channelling a young Kevin Bacon) and firing off coarse insults about each other’s mothers (the other 80s King property It most resembles is Stand By Me). Soon joining the group are fellow outsiders, big-boned history buff Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and the older but no less alone alone Beverly Marsh (the film’s breakout star, Sophia Lillis).

A key theme in much of King’s oeuvre is facing and overcoming that which you fear the most, and each of the group must contend with grotesque manifestations of what haunt their young psyches. Muschietti proves his mettle in this regard; it is no small accomplishment that, in a film that features so grotesque a representation of terror as Pennywise, a whole series of equally nightmarish creations populate the screen. Of all in the group, it is Beverly’s pubescent transformation into womanhood (and her implied abuse by a lecherous father) that carries with it the most profoundly disturbing and ultimately moving challenge to overcome.

Capturing the decade extends beyond the precise costuming, hairstyles and production design flourishes. Muschietti adopts a strong stylistic adherence to 80s cinema, employing that most Spielberg-ian of camera movements, the ‘dolly-in close-up’. A memorable sequence involving a slide projector evokes specific memories of the Spielberg-produced/Dante-directed Gremlins; The Goonies is another Spielberg production that courses through this film’s DNA. Veteran South Korean DOP Chung-hoon Chung tones down the overtly 'cinematic' richness of some of his most acclaimed work (Oldboy, 2003; Lady Vengeance, 2005; Stoker, 2013; The Handmaiden, 2016), only employing his consummate skill with colour, shadow and movement when the film earns that indulgence. The result is a film that draws a distinctively well-defined line between the bright warmth of a summer friendship and the otherworldly void of the supernatural. 

After the very public casting (and recasting) of the role made famous by Tim Curry, the burning question is how the relatively unknown actor Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan) cuts it as one of the purest visions of supernatural evil in modern literature. With one pupil cocked askew and a stalagmite of spittle heading south from his pursed, crimson lips, Skarsgård’s Pennywise recalls both Freddy Krueger and, somewhat unexpectedly, ‘Ed’, the most unhinged hench-hyena from The Lion King. Under the prosthetics and grease paint (and occasional CGI enhancement), Skarsgård goes to hell and back to craft a truly malevolent creation, utterly believable as the black soul of King’s cursed small town.

Tuesday
Aug292017

COALESCE: A CITY COMPOSED

Featuring: Megan Jonas and Jordan Ignacio.
Director: Joshua J. Provost.

WORLD PREMIERE: Fer Film International Film Festival, September 2-6, Ferizaj, Republic of Kosovo.
AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: flEXIff Experimental Film Festival, September 23-24, Sydney, Australia.

Rating: 4.5/5

The connectivity of creation that artists share is examined with profound beauty and sensitivity in Coalesce: A City Composed, the inspiring debut feature from Phoenix-based filmmaker, Joshua J. Provost. An intimate account of the formation of a uniquely envisioned art installation in the Arizona capital, the film can rank amongst its many fine accomplishments the re-imagining of the director’s rather unremarkable hometown as, in the eyes of these beholders, a place actually quite beautiful.

Imbuing Provost’s work with a spiritual centre are his subjects, artist Megan Jonas (pictured, top; on location in Phoenix) and composer Jordan Ignacio. Born-and-bred Arizonian Jonas creates unique and beautiful landscapes of Phoenix’s most mundane features; telephone wires, traffic intersections, footpaths, fuse boxes and alleyway weeds are all featured in her paintings, which Provost’s tight but non-intrusive camera captures from blank canvas to stunning life. East Coast muso Ignacio (pictured, below), aka The Languid Current, is a self-taught instrumentalist and master of the atmospheric aural soundscape.

Coalesce: A City Composed features four works by Jonas that capture her city as it transitions daily between light and dark. The artist forwards stages of her paintings to Ignacio, now embedded in his own Phoenix digs, who uses her work to inspire music that would eventually accompany the paintings during a season at Phoenix’s Grand ArtHaus Gallery, from December 2016. In hushed, intimate tones, Provost’s on-screen collaborators speak of that which inspires, influences and ultimately determines the essence of their art, all while it finds form before our eyes.

Provost is clearly in the same creative headspace as his subjects; from capturing their inspiration with a precise insight to giving over his film to their commentary unhindered by clunky voice-over, Provost affords Jonas and Ignacio the space and respect needed for true freedom of expression. Rarely has a film been so in tune with the ‘artistic process’, or conveyed with such clarity the workings of the artist’s mind.

Coalesce: A City Composed ends with a flourish of bravura film-making that is a breathtaking coming-together of all three art forms. Each painting takes shape before your eyes, via daring post-production wizardry, to the compelling strains of the richly-realized soundtrack; three distinct disciplines creating one beautiful piece of art. A final nod to the locations that inspired the paintings/music/film is a heartfelt touch by Provost, who has crafted a deeply engaging film of intelligence, integrity and sincerity.

Thursday
Aug172017

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE

Stars: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Emily Robinson, Jessica Gomes, Kaleti Williams and Adam Goldberg.
Writers: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen.
Director: Mark Cullen.

Rating: 3/5

As the afternoon orange bathes California’s Venice Beach neighbourhood, imagine Hudson Hawk barrelling along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, collecting John Wick as he enters from Brooks Avenue, before both are rammed by the Inherent Vice bus on Main. The resulting tangled mass in the middle of the intersection would be Mark and Robb Cullen’s Once Upon a Time in Venice.

Conjured as a free-spirited vehicle for the charms of their leading man in his wisecracking heyday, the brothers Cullen reteam with Bruce Willis to try to right the wrong that was 2010’s Cop Out, the Kevin Smith-directed travesty that put a handbrake on Tracy Morgan’s film momentum. Mark’s directing debut is equal parts crime thriller, family drama and Cal-noir detective story, complete with some tone-deaf stereotyping and cute dog moments. The goofy, off-kilter riff on LA sleaze fits within a genre highlighted by better films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pinchon adaptation, The Coen’s The Big Lebowski or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Renny Harlin’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, too, but whether that was superior is a maybe).

Like the traditional fairy tales from which the film takes its title, Once Upon a Time in Venice has a storyteller, in the form of John (Thomas Middleditch), a nerdy intern/protégé for ex-LAPD cop Steve Ford (Willis), a not-very-successful private-eye sliding further into the underworld morass he mostly frequents. The film opens with a patently ridiculous sequence in which Ford, having bedded his client’s daughter Nola (Australian supermodel Jessica Gomes), escapes her family thugs by fleeing naked into the night on a skateboard. The entire gag takes a long while to play out (the money shot - close-up on a set of buttocks most definitely not those of the 62 year-old Willis), though it is infused with the kind of nutty energy that Willis last exhibited in his 1991 megaflop, Hudson Hawk (a film that has since acquired an army of ‘guilty pleasure’ defenders, including yours truly).

Things get personal for our hero after heavies working for local drug kingpin Spyder (a very funny Jason Momoa), rough up the family home of Ford’s sister, Katey (Famke Janssen, deserving of better) and niece, Taylor (Emily Robinson). When they dog-nap the beloved pet, Buddy, the PI undertakes a series of schemes and capers that land him deeper in the mess he has created. All the while, a frantic Ford is working a case involving land developer ‘Lew the Jew’ (Adam Goldberg), whose deal is being scuppered by a mysterious graffiti artist painting X-rated murals of the real estate tycoon (a subplot as puerile as it sounds, though undeniably funny in parts).    

Filling out the ‘old chum’ role here that Danny Aiello played in …Hawk is John Goodman, bringing some welcome comedic skill as Dave, an ageing holdover from 70’s Venice hippy/surfie culture on the verge of losing everything (including his mind) in a messy divorce. He is one of several known names who front up for bit parts, probably because they all live within blocks of the production’s West coast locations; among them are Elisabeth Rohm, Kal Penn, Adrian Martinez, Christopher McDonald and, for a few utterly bizarre seconds, David Arquette.

Only occasionally exhibiting the advance of time, Bruce Willis clearly enjoys an all-too-rare opportunity to flex his brand of on-screen comedic skill. One can see the smooth charm of Moonlighting’s ‘David Addison’, the slapstick energy of Blind Date’s Walter Davis and the scummy antihero of Bonfire of The Vanities ‘Peter Fallow’ in Ford. You may find yourself muttering, “He’s still got it,” if only because, not for the first time in his career, he elevates what could have been misguided chaos into something entirely watchable, even likable.

Tuesday
Aug082017

TEXAS HEART

Stars: Erik Fellows, Daniela Bobadilla, Kam Dabrowski, Lin Shaye, Johnny Dowers, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Clark and John Savage.
Writers: Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith.
Director: Mark David.

Rating: 3.5/5

A genuinely warm affinity for red state Americana and a flair for strong characterisation generally counter the occasional detour into bumpy narrative terrain in Texas Heart, director Mark David’s solidly staged and well-acted neo-Western. One can easily envision the likes of Montgomery Clift, Robert Mitchum and Walter Brennan filling key roles in a dusty 1950s horse-opera version of this low-key but engaging small-town story.

As Peter, an LA lawyer who has no qualms about servicing the legal needs of disreputable types, Erik Fellows (pictured, above) balances square-jawed movie-star appeal with an empathetic quality that affords him viewer’s goodwill. When a witness stand meltdown derails his defence of the son of an underworld matriarch Mrs Smith (Lin Shaye, having fun playing to the back of the theatre), Peter is marked for murder and must flee his West Coast lifestyle, relocating incognito to the backwater burg of Juniper, Texas (played by Charleston, Mississippi).

Pitching himself as New York novelist ‘Frank Stevens’, Peter fends off the ‘city slicker’ jibes and soon acquaints himself with the lives of the locals. Key amongst them is Tiger (a fine Kam Dabrowski), a young man of challenged mental capacity, and Alison (the captivating Daniela Bobadilla; pictured, below), the homecoming queen burdened with a troubled home life. When Alison goes missing and a case is made by Sheriff Dobbs (Johnny Dowers) against Tiger, Peter drops his façade and takes on the case for the defence.

Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith’s script teeters on the brink of stereotype at times, but they imbue their characters with an integrity that overcomes the familiarity. The accomplished cast, including Jared Abrahamson (as ill-tempered jock boyfriend Roy) and John Savage (as Alison’s damaged, drunken father Carl) are given enough quality dialogue and conflict to spark the narrative at opportune moments.

Although the title conjures a sprawling landscape, Texas Heart is a film that works best in tight, two-character scenes, such as when Peter connects with Tiger at a football game, or Alison and Peter share their dreams on a late night drive. One particularly impactful sequence, in which Dobbs bullys and coerces Tiger into a confession, inevitably recalls the plight of Brendan Dassey, the 16 year-old youth convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of Teresa Halbech in 2005, whose manipulation by law enforcement officers was uncovered in the landmark documentary series, Making a Murderer.

The genre machinations of the plot are less involving and, at times, not entirely convincing. There is little tension generated by the presence of Mrs Smith’s two burly hitman, who only manage to track Peter down after the lawyer blows his cover in an ill-advised television interview. The director wraps up the criminal element story strands rather perfunctorily, suggesting his heart was far more invested in his characters than the structure that binds them.

Which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. A finer, more compelling and ultimately satisfying drama than it’s initial premise might suggest, Texas Heart is destined to find acceptance and appreciation from those seeking quality alternatives via their home-viewing platforms.