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Thursday
May122016

CAFÉ SOCIETY

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Judy Davis, Paul Schneider and Anna Camp.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen

Opening Night Film, 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salle Debussy Theatre.

Rating: 4/5

Given the richness of Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking cinematography and the rose-coloured hint of melancholy it invokes, the urge is to posit Café Society in with Woody Allen’s ‘Americana’ period of the 1980s. Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days reminisced on bygone days, his latest is an often giddy, always gorgeous love-letter to both the Los Angeles of Hollywood’s golden era and New York’s swinging jazz club scene of the 1930s.

Yet for all the declarations of passion and sun-bathed joie de vivre of lovers encircling each other, Allen’s characters are an immoral, shallow, even shady bunch. They are descendants of comic creations that the auteur has crafted superbly in past works, that much is true, just not the films that Cafe Society aesthetically recalls. These self-absorbed philanderers and shallow socialites are the miscreants of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point.

To his own narration, Allen opens his film poolside in LA, as a Hollywood party is in full swing. Uber-agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) is holding court, name-dropping with sleazy Hollywood abandon (“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers”), when he hears from his East Coast sister, Rose (Jeanne Berlin, stealing most scenes she is in); his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading his way and needs work. The young man’s arrival leads to some neat fish-out-of-water bits that don’t particularly further the plot (notably an extended gag about Bobby’s first visit from a professional girl), before he is given a menial job at the agency and assigned to Phil’s PA Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) on weekends to be shown around town.

Eisenberg, riffing on Allen as has become de rigueur for the director’s leading men, and Stewart, whose lightness of touch proves a revelation and classically photogenic charms are adored by Storaro’s lens, have developed a sweet rapport after past efforts together (Adventureland, 2009; American Ultra, 2015). Their courtship scenes are the best moments in Café Society, especially a sequence that has them tour Beverly Hills, taking in the star’s palatial digs while wonderfully revealing character and chemistry. Another glorious set-up, during which the electricity in Bobby’s apartment blacks out and he tends to Vonnie’s broken heart by the glow of candlelight and streetlamp, all but guarantees DOP Storaro mention come Oscar time.

Soon, the machinations of plot take over and we learn that the love that keeps Vonnie from Bobby is very close to home. The west coast scenes skip along at a lively pace, endearing each character and milking the most from a storyline that is not very ambitious (and, to Allen’s fans, a tad familiar) but which engages thanks to Allen’s ensemble and masterful sense of timing.

The story shifts to New York and characters that were peripheral comedy relief become the centre of an ever-expanding narrative. Bobby returns home and begins to walk in the shadow of thuggish big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), robbing the film of Carell’s and Stewart’s presence and the ‘zing’ they share with Eisenberg. As Bobby’s east coast love interest Veronica, Blake Lively is every bit as captivating as Stewart but is afforded far less character development; an underworld subplot that involves murder and corruption feels unconvincing and perfunctory (and often overtly bloody). The Woody Allen who once perfectly captured the alienation of a New Yorker in Los Angeles is nowhere to be found here; Allen’s LA story is sublime, while his NYC-set narrative stutters.

Allen last filled the Cannes opening slot with arguably his best film in recent memory, Midnight in Paris. If Café Society does not match the sheer delight of that period piece gem, nor attains the caustic and captivating immorality of, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours, it fits with a body of work from a director still determined to explore the shading between the themes of love and deceit, truth and pretension, desire and commitment. Though not the sum of its many wonderful parts, Café Society still represents a captivating melding of the light-and-dark complexity of Allen’s best work. 

Thursday
Apr282016

YOU AND ME

With: David ‘Barney’ Miller, Katherine Southwell, Mick Fanning, Drew Derriman, Ella Chowdhurry, Lara Sonntag, Tania Brown, Sharron Southwell, Jason Southwell, Ken Ware and Jan Carton.
Writers: Shaylee Gomes, Taylor Montemarano and Lorenzo DeCampos
Directors: Lorenzo DeCampos, Michael Lawrence and Taylor Montemarano.

Rating: 4/5

The bonding of two broken souls and the combined strength to survive that they inspire in each other makes for a heartfelt, deeply moving character study in You and Me. This stirring, superbly crafted feature deserves breakout success for its backers, Garage Productions, the Sydney-based action-sports distributor whose principal, co-director Michael Lawrence, oversaw the four year shooting commitment.

As the title suggests, You and Me is an ‘everyman’ narrative; the fate that befell David ‘Barney’ Miller, a larrikin Aussie surfing protégé struck down in his prime and Kate Southwell, the country girl who finds her own resurrection while sharing his struggles represents the type of interpersonal journey that will be familiar to many. To the great credit of Lawrence and his team of co-directors, You and Me finds the extraordinary in the everyday; the warm familiarity of the lives touched by the hardships faced by David and Kate ensures resonance and empathy.

Archive footage and first-person recollections paint a picture of the young Miller as a charming, blokish, decent teenager, well known and well liked in the New South Wales north coast surfing enclave of Sawtell. In 1999, a speeding car in which he was a passenger left the road and struck a tree, leaving him a C6 Quadriplegic with no chance of independent movement for the rest of his life. Home video of Miller’s rehabilitation and subsequent descent into self-medicated depression is gruelling to watch, rendered starkly real via the heartbreak conveyed straight-to-camera by the man himself.

At Miller’s lowest point, the film shifts focus to the inland township of Cowra where we meet the Southwell family and their vibrant little girl, Kate. A mixed heritage has made her the target of bullies and the teenager is soon sliding into her own alcohol haze and misguided life path. To save their daughter, her parents send her to family in Coffs Harbour, the largest regional centre nearest to Sawtell.

After a fateful meet-cute (Lawrence utilises his ‘stars’ to recreate sweet moments from their blossoming romance), the extraordinary details of their journey are pieced together with slick filmmaking clarity. The storytelling brio and passion for surfing culture that Lawrence oversaw as producer on the doco hits Bra Boys (2007) and First Love (2010) are keenly evident in You and Me, nowhere more so than in sequences featuring world champion Mick Fanning, whose mateship with Barney is conveyed in some of the film’s most endearing moments.

One cannot begrudge the production for laying on the inspirational music and sweeping coastline photography a little thick at times; at it's core, it is the true story of a deeply enriching, achingly sentimental journey. That it also serves to highlight the endeavours of such institutions as Project Walk, Wings for Life World Run and Aussie Ken Ware’s neurophysics functional performance initiative is to the film’s credit. The ‘advocacy documentary’ has become an overworked genre in recent years but when skilled filmmakers keep the focus on the human struggle, any inherent call-to-action is earned, even welcome.

The mending of Barney and Kate’s lives and the shared spirit they embody pulses through You and Me. As one of the family friends predicts early in the story, the feel-good crescendo to which the film truthfully soars will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Saturday
Apr022016

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Stars: Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Kylie Rogers, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Bruce Greenwood, Jane Fonda, Quvenzhane Wallis, Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer.
Writer: Brad Desch.
Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screening at the 2016 Young at Heart Film Festival.

Rating: 3/5

Despite a title that implies a broad ‘everyman’ perspective, Fathers and Daughters offers little resembling the ‘real world’. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author prone to public seizures to the social worker sex addict reconnecting to the world through the mute orphan, Gabrielle Muccino’s overripe melodrama positively overflows with a giddy commitment to its own ‘only in the movies’ excess. Audiences who well-up at the first sound of a single violin note will find enough to moisten a hankie or two in this lushly packaged, star-heavy soap opera; cynics, stop reading now.

Thematically tackling in sweeping brushstrokes the connect between childhood trauma and adult dysfunction, Muccino ultimately relies very heavily on editor Alex Rodriguez (Y Tu Mamá También, 2001; Children of Men, 2006), whose skill is tested to the limit in his handling of first time scribe Brad Desch’s back-and-forth narrative timeline. In 1989, a car crash leaves upwardly mobile writer Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) a widow and his cutie-pie daughter Katie (Kylie Rogers) without a mom; when mental health issues dictate Jake needs time in a sanitarium, Katie is put in the care of Aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger, gnawing on the set mercilessly) and Uncle William (Bruce Greenwood). When Jake’s latest book bombs despite the best efforts of lit-agent friend Teddy (Jane Fonda), Bill and Liz make their move on the tyke, seeking full time custody.

As all this high drama unfolds in the distant past, we become entangled in the present-day life of adult Katie (Amanda Seyfried), now a caseworker at an inner-city clinic. One minute, a hollow commitment-phobe who partakes in binge-boozing and public bathroom sex to feel any kind of connection, the next an empathetic human connection for recently orphaned Lucy (Quvenzhane Wallis), Seyfried’s doe-eyed performance runs the gamut from passion-free blankness to public histrionics. By her side in her exploration of daddy issues is writer Cameron (Aaron Paul), who brings his own obsession with Jake’s writing.

Gabrielle Muccino’s embrace of shamelessly saccharine sentimentality has found favour with international audiences previously. After scoring big beyond his homeland with the arthouse hit Remember Me, My Love (2003), Hollywood beckoned; he obliged, delivering the Will Smith double The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Seven Pounds (2008). Returning to grand family drama after the dire rom-com Playing For Keeps (2012), the Italian stages Jake and Katie’s journey with an unyielding commitment to gorgeousness; in line with the florid dramatics on show are DOP Shane Hurlbut’s rich visuals, production designer Daniel Clancy’s lavish sets and composer Paolo Buonvino orchestral score. When the time-hopping plot starts to strain, there is always something cinematically compelling in Fathers and Daughters.

However, Muccino’s greatest assets prove to be more personal, in the form of leading man Russell Crowe and co-star, Kylie Rogers (a seasoned pro despite her tender years after roles in Space Station 76 and the current release, Miracles From Heaven). The pair’s genuine warmth and chemistry is energising, even when the film is running off the rails in every other regard. In addition to conveying the horrible physical stresses of a grand-mal seizure on several occasions, Crowe gives a performance that invests Jake with a grounded dignity; the effortless nature of his scenes with a quivery-lipped Rogers recall the father/child dynamic between Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer (yet, in all fairness, comparisons with that or any Best Picture winner must end there).

Thursday
Mar102016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr and Suzanne Cryer.
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg.

Rating: 4.5/5

Twisting a tightly wound, detail-rich narrative into a superbly crafted, white-knuckle chamber piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane defies all genre expectations, including the generalisation that long overdue 'sequels' are inherently inferior to their source material.

Invoking both Hitchcock’s grasp of psychological drama and Spielberg’s genre storytelling precision, producer JJ Abrams and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg don’t so much forge a followup to but rather adopt as a reference point the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. But by whatever measure, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves an entirely different and vastly superior vision; if Cloverfield was a product of its time, employing first person shaky-cam when it still felt fresh, Trachtenberg’s taut, slow-burn thriller is a glorious throwback to the days of 'serious' genre cinema.

The first of many decisions that Abrams’ production outfit Bad Robot gets right is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman fleeing a failing engagement (the fiancé, revealed only via phone messages, is voiced by Bradley Cooper). Following an expertly-staged car crash, Michelle awakens in a bare concrete room, manacled and disoriented; Winstead conveys both the terror of this development while also exhibiting the survival instinct cunning that serves her so well as the plot progresses. After false starts in troubled productions (The Thing; Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter; A Good Day to Die Hard) and great work in little-seen pics (Death Proof; Smashed; Alex of Venice), the wait is over for patient fans that have known her A-list status was inevitable.

The room is part of an extensive bunker constructed by doomsday enthusiast Howard, a troubling, complex personality who purports to have rescued Michelle, both from her wrecked vehicle and some kind of extinction-level event that has made life above-ground impossible. As Howard, the great John Goodman creates one of the most chilling screen personalities in recent memory; having spent the last decade energising support parts in Argo, The Artist, Flight and Inside Llewellyn Davis, the actor gets to dominate a film with subtle, multi-tiered character work. Rounding out the claustrophobic dynamic is the terrific John Gallagher Jr as decent good ol’ boy Emmet, his fully fleshed-out performance elevating what could have been a mere ‘plot device’.

The confines of the underground world are slightly more elaborate than the four-wall environs in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-winner Room, yet the challenge to give the space a dramatic vastness is conquered with a similar mastery of craft. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery work wonders with space, maximising the dramatic and artistic potential of every bare wall, dark corner or glimpse of sunlight. Equally evocative is the film’s rich soundscape, including the pitch-perfect score by Bear McReary. By the time Trachtenberg’s remarkably assured direction draws a clear line between the sequel and its predecessor, all contributors have ensured audience involvement is peaking.

Many purists have refused to bestow the ‘new Spielberg’ tag onto J.J. Abrams, no matter how determined the multi-hyphenate is to wear the moniker. The mini-mogul cites ‘classic Spielberg’ - Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, ET The Extra-terrestrial – as the defining creative influence on his career. But for too many, Abrams has mirrored the style yet failed to grasped the essence of Spielberg’s oeuvre; it is the reason a lot of people liked Super 8, his 2011 ode to Spielberg-ian wonder, but no one really loves it.

With 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams finally graduates from Spielberg wannabe to Spielberg protégé; it is an evocative reworking of B-movie beats that could have emerged from the darker-hued period that included A.I., War of The Worlds and Minority Report. Abrams and his team have delivered a thrilling tale of human endurance within the science-fiction milieu that would not be out of place amongst the legendary director’s filmography.

Monday
Mar072016

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: MARDI GRAS FILM FESTIVAL 2016

As this year’s edition of the Mardi Gras Film Festival wraps its inner city run and prepares for regional screenings, one key programme strategy became clear. In the words of festival director Paul Struthers, “It’s important to choose films that cater for all aspects of the LGBTQI story, but also…cater for all cinema fans as well.” The vast range of narratives and themes that emerged over the 14 day celebration of diversity and inclusivity all shared a common human experience, contextualised by gay community issues. SCREEN-SPACE looks at five films from the 2016 festival line-up that challenged, engaged and entertained audiences…

A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS: THE AMINA PROFILE (Dir: Sophie Deraspe / US; 84 mins. Pictured, above)
Of all the repressed voices heard across the globe in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising, few found the immense audience that Syrian lesbian Amina Arraf did via her blog site, “A Gay Girl in Damascus.’ The deeply personal, regime defying content became cause celebre for the gay activist community, human rights advocates and global media giants. But when the site was revealed to be an elaborate fake, no one was as shattered as Canadian Sandra Bagaria, who had become intimate with the ‘Amina’ online presence. From its bare-skin opening shots and text-message grabs that allude to the frank honesty that lays ahead, Sophie Deraspe’s elegant, angry work is part doomed relationship saga, part searing insight into the identity manipulation inherent to the faceless impersonality of the www. A warm and empathic presence, Bagaria bravely steps before the cameras to face the man who perpetrated the hoax and broke her heart. “Am I a sociopath? A schizophrenic?” he poses. Deraspe’s film gives you a wealth of insight then lets you decide.
Rating: 4/5

BARE (Dir: Natalie Leite / US; 88 mins)
The restless small-town girl with a vague but compulsive yearning for more from love and life is a well-trodden path (notably, Donna Deitch’s 1985 arthouse hit, Desert Hearts). Yet writer/director Natalie Leite and her luminous leading lady Dianna Agron explore a fresh, captivating perspective in Bare, a bittersweet, low-key drama of a young woman grasping at any new life experience with an often reckless regard for the consequences. Graduating from the perky camp of TV’s Glee, Agron compels as Sarah, the Nevada dreamer coping with family loss and directionless friends. When drifter Pepper (Paz de la Huerta, enigmatic as ever) befriends Sarah’s kindred lost spirit, an enriching if dangerous new life of drugs, homosexual experimentation and strip-club melodrama takes hold. Leite’s direction is artful and insightful, her dialogue sparse and real; her debut feature signifies she is a talent to watch. The project’s greatest asset is Agron, the next-big-thing starlet exhibiting qualities that suggest a Michelle Williams and/or Sharon Stone trajectory.
Rating: 4/5

GAME FACE (Dir: Michiel Thomas / US; 95 mins)
Embracing one’s own sexuality or transgender nature can be challenging enough, but those hurdles prove nearly insurmountable when they emerge within the rigidly defined traditions of elite sport. The moving and even-handed doco Game Face presents two athletes struggling with their identities while striving to compete in their chosen fields: Fallon Fox is a transgender MMA fighter, while Terrence Clemens is a basketball protégé and gay African-American. Director Michiel Thomas, making his feature documentary debut, gamely balances ‘big picture’ issues (corporate backlash; community acceptance; team mate and competitor tolerance) with the personal cost to his protagonists; the resulting account of the acceptance of diversity in the sporting community, not too surprisingly, plays out as a microcosm of society at large. Both Fox and Clemens are not immediately easy to warm to (a result of a lifetime spent guarding their true selves, perhaps), but Thomas’ embedded camerawork and the hope his subjects inspire ultimately reveal their true nature, making for rousing factual filmmaking.
Rating: 3.5/5

NAZ & MAALIK (Dir: Jay Dockendorf / US; 86 mins)
Two gay teenage African-American Muslims struggle with their faith, feelings and New York’s post 9-11 prejudices in Jay Dockendorf’s debut feature. When not shilling perfume vials and lottery tickets to passersby, the chilled Maalik (Curtis Cook Jr) and the more orthodox, Kufi-adorned Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr) meander from corner to corner, acutely aware of the familial and societal consequences should their affection for each other be revealed. The passionate highs and tension-filled lows of their dynamic provide the essence of Dockendorf’s self-penned narrative, the spirit of Spike Lee’s NYC oeuvre in every frame. Other machinations utilised to structure a traditional three-acts (Anne Grier’s FBI agent’s surveillance of the pair; misbegotten plans to halal-kill a chicken) provide a change of tempo but little dramatic value. As the title suggests, the film is at its best when the focus is the existential struggles of the two leads. Bolstering the pic’s mood are the rich rhythms of Adam Gunther’s pulsating soundtrack.
Rating: 3.5/5

4TH MAN OUT (Dir: Andrew Nackman / US; 86 mins)
Smalltown USA is recoloured red-white-&-pink in 4th Man Out, a blokey coming-out comedy that proves to be both slyly insightful and broadly funny in equal measure. Buds since junior high, a quartet of mid twenty-somethings are confronted with an unexpected development when one of their own opens up about his homosexuality. As gay dude Adam, Evan Todd is likable and sweet; the real personalities in Andrew Nackman’s dramedy are his bros, led by Parker Young as Chris, the bestie who struggles with Adam’s secret and how it might redefine their dynamic. Social and religious prejudice are explored in a succinct comedic manner that doesn’t overstate the issues; ‘young guy’ problems, like sex and partying and parental hassles, are dealt with in a mirthful and perceptive mix of hetero/homo attitudes. Although a bit ‘sitcom-y’ at times, Aaron Dancik’s loose and free-spirited script never looses sight of its feel-good intentions and nails key moments with disarming charm. Despite appearing to be determinedly non-confrontational in its soft-hearted approach, the easy warmth of 4th Man Out ultimately challenges short-sighted bias with a potent effectiveness.
Rating: 4/5

Read our review of festival highlight CHEMSEX here.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival will screen a selection of its 2016 lineup at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre and and the Carrington Hotel in The Blue Mountains in the weeks ahead. Ticketing and venue information can be found at the official website

Tuesday
Feb162016

RISEN

Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Tom Felton, Cliff Curtis, Maria Botto, Luis Callejo, Antonio Gil, Stephen Hagan, Stewart Scudamore and Joe Manjon.
Writers: Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello.
Director: Kevin Reynolds.

Rating: 3/5

For those already imbued with the spirit, Risen will have you praising the heavens…or, at the very least, Sony Pictures, who have jumped on the profitable faith-based film resurgence via their new worldwide acquisitions division, Life Affirm. For secular types, director Kevin Reynolds’s modestly mounted take on the mythology of Easter will play as two distinct halves; an old-Hollywood ‘Roman scandal’ spin on the threat of the prophet to the Empire’s might, that morphs into a dramatically inert ‘greatest hits’ package of the newly reborn Saviour’s miracles.

The central figure is Roman tribune Clavius, a career soldier introduced slaying anti-Roman zealots with a soulless indifference to life. Joseph Fiennes, his eyebrow ridge and leathery visage recalling a young Roy Scheider, delivers a performance that spans ‘brooding intensity’ and ‘distracted nonchalance’; it is one of the lesser Fiennes' better roles, though entirely in line with the production’s mid-level ambitions.

Clavius’ God-of-choice is Mars, so when called upon by Pontius Pilate (a typically theatrical Peter Firth) to see off the latest would-be messiah down in the crucifixion district, he begrudgingly saddles up and heads for the ceremony, his green 2IC Lucius (Tom Felton) by his side. Upon arrival a passionate crowd of followers, wailing for their slain oracle, greets him; Clavius’ interaction with the disciples and encounter with the martyred prophet, Yeshua of Nazareth, are some of the film’s most affecting scenes (though, thankfully, come up well short of the physical horrors depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ).

Pilate, pressured by Rome to rid the landscape of dissenting voices before a Jerusalem uprising gathers strength, entrusts Clavius with the cave burial of Yeshua. The gravesite entrance is sealed with a boulder wrapped in rope and wax (!) and left in the care of two surly guards (whose broad Brit accents and constant whining veer dangerously close to Monty Python territory). When the tomb is disturbed and Yeshua’s body vanishes, the pressure is on Clavius to hunt down the corpse and bring to justice those responsible. A real-world explanation for the image on The Shroud of Turin represents a key moment of objectivity and brings a degree of balance, at least to this passage of the plot.

Reynolds handles the ‘manhunt’ narrative with a pro’s touch, the journeyman director hoping for his own resurrection after a wilderness period following notorious debacles (Rapa Nui; Waterworld) and box office duds (Tristan & Isolde; Red Dawn). The first half of Risen benefits immeasurably under the experienced filmmaker’s assured touch, the lean drama clipping along at an engaging pace. 

But Reynolds’s best efforts can’t provide Risen with much forward momentum after the apparent resurrection of Yeshua. Clavius becomes fixated upon the reborn man, his hardened non-believer status melting away as he witnesses miracles for which Reynolds and neophyte co-scripter Paul Aiello provide no reasonable context or explanation; they just happen, sending Yeshua’s unquestioning, doe-eyed disciples (both on-screen and, one assumes, amongst the target audience) into joyous rapture.

To borrow a line from comedian Greg Proops’ podcast, these scenes constitute the boring, preachy part; the Roman soldier’s transformation from heathen killing machine to breathy advocate of Yeshua’s journey may be the film’s reason for being, but it never rings true. Events told of in Sunday schools the world over are well staged (the bounty of fish provided for his starving followers; the laying of healing hands upon a leper), but they serve no dramatic purpose and exist only to bolster the ‘message’.

Of particular interest is the casting as Yeshua of Cliff Curtis, a respected character actor after a series of ethnically diverse portrayals (African American in Bringing Out the Dead; Iraqi in Three Kings; Latino in Training Day; Colombian in Blow; Indian in A Thousand Words; his native Maori in Whale Rider and breakthrough film, Once Were Warriors). Recent theorising by scholars opines that the alleged time and place in which the scriptures took place suggest Yeshua was likely of ‘middle Eastern’ appearance. Given that the film’s demographic resides in the middle-American bible belt, the portrayal of Christ as anything other than the blonde, bearded archetype favoured for centuries in western art and literature (as will be seen when Ewan McGregor’s take on Jesus in The Last Days in The Desert emerges late in 2016) must be considered risky. Curtis' dark-skinned incarnation represents a welcome gamble-of-sorts in an otherwise conventional, if mostly effective, biblical retelling.

Saturday
Feb132016

CHEMSEX

Directors: William Fairman and Max Gogarty.

Rating: 4/5

The quest for sexual euphoria is examined as a sad acting-out of disenfranchisement and addiction issues in Chemsex, an achingly intimate and insightful study of a self-destructive sub-culture amongst London’s gay male community.

Backed by global web presence VICE, documentarians William Fairman and Max Gogarty do not flinch in their depiction of a party scene that combines the immediate nature of social media contact platforms with the availability and acceptance of chemicals such as crystal meth (or ‘Tina’), GBL/GBH and mephedrone. Their camera is afforded access to ‘chemsex’ events, in which men of all ages from all social strata ‘slam’ their drugs of choice and partake in orgies with predominantly anonymous partners sourced online.

Fairman and Gogarty present subjects for whom the sex/drug party culture and ‘hook-up’ network has become the singular controlling force in their lives. Each young man relates a story unique and moving in the telling, but which ultimately ends in the depths of depression and that moment of realisation that addiction is upon them. When these instances of clarity are captured on film, it proves undeniably profound; the bravery each subject exhibits in recounting shocking moments of often life-threatening self-abuse makes for heartbreaking footage.

Chemsex also reveals the unhinged personalities for whom young, naïve men seeking validation via a drug-induced haze represent a gateway opportunity to anti-social behaviour. Several of the subjects recount evenings that have veered dangerously off course; one recalls having a cocktail of drugs forced upon him only to awaken hours later battered and bruised on a bathroom floor. At its most shocking, this predatory element is personified by those who partake in HIV transmission as an extreme form of sado-masochistic practice.

The inevitable regret, shame and humiliation that chemsex partygoers experience is central to the documentary’s raison d’etre. In addition to the dungeons and dance clubs, Fairman and Gogarty also visit 56 Dean Street, the U.K.’s only clinic for mental and sexual health issues amongst the LGBTQI community. Here, health worker David Stuart deals with addicts of chemsex culture, while acting as narrator-of-sorts for the production. Himself a recovering sufferer of substance abuse and emotional trauma, Stuart is a square-jawed embodiment of newfound health and maximised potential, his very presence sending a none-to-subtle message as to just how much better a sober life can be.

Those of a weak constitution beware, as the film graphically captures both the free-spirited sexual highs and needle-and-vein desperation that is inherent to chemsex culture. More challenging still is the raw emotionality of the subjects who tell their stories. As shocking as the details of chemsex life are revealed to be, it is the universality of the struggle each of these men face that ultimately defies orientation and gender. The note of hope that the film ends on can and should be felt by everyone.

Read our two-part feature The History of LGBT Cinema in Australia here.

Chemsex will screen as part of the 2016 Mardi Gras Film Festival. Session and ticketing information can be found at the event’s official website.

The film is being distributed in Australia by Bounty Films.

Saturday
Feb062016

THE MONKEY KING 2

Stars: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, Feng Shaofeng, Kelly Chen, Xiao Shenyang and Him Law.
Writers: Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi
Director: Pou-Soi Cheang

Rating: 3.5/5

The Lunar New Year festivities heralding in The Year of The Monkey will assuredly include celestial box office takings for the epic and emotional fantasy adventure, The Monkey King 2.

Featuring Aaron Kwok in a vibrant, vivid rendition of the legendary simian deity, Sun Wukong, and an giddy parade of artfully rendered special effects showpieces, Pou-Soi Cheang’s sequel to his 2014 blockbuster proves an infinitely more engaging and impressive mounting of key elements from  Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel, Journey to The West. The narrative troughs and visual overkill of the first film are nowhere to be found in the sequel; leaner and more focussed, the central characters take on greater emotional resonance and the artists crafting wondrous visions of this fantasy landscape come into their own.

Despite the title, most central to the plot is young monk Xuanzang (William Feng), an idealistic traveller who, whilst fleeing a tiger attack, finds himself deep within the Five Elements Mountain, prison to the impish Wukong for 500 years. Having spectacularly dispatched the tiger (rather too enthusiastically for some animal lovers, it may be said), Wukong is visited by the Goddess Guanyin (Kelly Chan) and summoned to accompany Xuanzang on a journey west to acquire ancient Buddhist scrolls, or sutras, that will calm the natural order of Earth. The pair are accompanied by two of the book’s most beloved characters, pig/man Baije (Xiao Shenyang) and blue-skinned water spirit, Wujing (Him Law). 

Soon, supernatural villainy arises in the form of beautiful but lethal White Bone Spirit, Baigujing, played with a seething malevolence by the terrific Gong Li. The actress dominates every scene she’s in, her larger-than-life presence and ethereal beauty perfect for the role. Wukong’s role as bodyguard and protector of Xuanzang leads to a series of spectacular wire-&-CGI encounters with Baigujing and her scantily clad demonic minions (who may prove too nightmarish for the under 10 audience). The film poses some unexpectedly weighty moral questions when the hero is called upon to defend his charge against spirits in the guise of a young girl and her mother; this ‘death of the innocents’ moment is a bold move in a fantasy pic and one that the director and the writing team of Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi pull off with maturity and grace.

In terms of cultural impact and literary significance, perhaps the closest that western audiences have to Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century text is Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings books. And not unlike The Two Towers, the second cinematic chapter of the Rings Trilogy, The Monkey King 2 proves by any measure a superior work to its predecessor. At 120 minutes, it also shares a hefty running time with Peter Jackson’s film that feels over indulgent at times, but that minor complaint want prove any hindrance at all to mainland audiences and Chinese diaspora worldwide. New Years celebrations (and global box office for international distributor China Lion) will be enhanced by arguably the finest big-screen vision to date of Chinese culture’s most beloved literary figure.

Wednesday
Feb032016

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: BRISBANE UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016

The very nature of the ‘underground film’ ensures that opinion will be both passionate and divided as to the artistic worth of films wearing that badge. The line-up for this year’s Brisbane Underground Film Festival is as eclectic as any in the 3-day event’s history. SCREEN-SPACE was very kindly afforded access to a cross-section of this year’s feature entries and found the 2016 mix just as invigorating, engaging and, well, ‘divisive’ as we could have hoped for…

600 MILES (Dir: Gabriel Ripstein / U.S., Mexico; 85 mins)
Gabriel Ripstein’s slow-burn desert-noir thriller presents a compelling narrative; a hardened ATF agent (Tim Roth, superb) finds himself on a knife-edge odyssey as the prisoner of a low-status arms runner (Kristyan Ferrer). Set against the border tensions that pit corrupt officials, Mexican cartel ethics and Gringo arrogance against each other, the debutant director’s low-key aesthetic and ultra-realism proves gripping and insightful. Despite the potential for the film to degenerate into B-movie posturing and familiar ‘Mexican bad-guy’ tropes, 600 Miles remains steadfastly a character piece, dissecting both the shared journey of the dual protagonists and the culturally imbalanced discourse between nations north and south of the border. The film misses Harrison Thomas as Carson, a short-fuse white trash big talker whose procuring of illegal arms opens the film with a unique, pulsating intensity. Alongside the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, Ripstein’s vision suggests US filmmakers are considering a new perspective on the Mexican-US drug war.
Rating: 3.5/5

GIUSEPPE MAKES A MOVIE (Dir: Adam Rifkin / U.S.; 82 mins)
The destinies of Adam Rifkin and Giuseppe Andrews seemed inexorably aligned. Sensitive and appealing on-screen, Andrews was on course to stardom, after parts in Never Been Kissed, Independence Day and Pleasantville; Rifkin rattled cages with the cult shocker The Dark Backward, then went mainstream with The Chase and scripts for Mousehunt, Small Soldiers and Underdog. Hopes were high when Rifkin and Andrews teamed on 1999’s Detroit Rock City, but it bombed. Thirteen years later, the pair are reunited for this idiosyncratic, deeply personal work. Rifkin's verite camera tracks a dishevelled but vibrant Andrews, who now lives amongst the down-on-their-luck denizens of a trailer park in Ventura, as he directs his new opus, 'Garbonzo Gas'. The work is the latest of many coarse, crazed character studies starring the drunks, drug addicts and manic-depressives he calls his neighbours. Rifkin clearly understands the boundless drive and feverish creativity that fuels Andrews. Giuseppe Makes a Movie celebrates the redemptive essence and raw power of barebones filmmaking and the meaning it can bring to damaged lives.
Rating: 4/5

UNCLE KENT 2 (Dir: Todd Rohal / U.S.; 73 mins)
Only diehard Joe Swanberg completists will recall his 2011 film Uncle Kent; the notion of a sequel seems particularly odd (Ed: we’ve not seen it). But Uncle Kent 2 is not the usual Hollywood cash-grab follow-up. Swanberg’s collaborator Kent Osborne (pictured, right) plays a version of himself, a fringe industry presence desperately trying to a) gather the approval of his Uncle Kent co-stars (including Swanberg) for the new project, and b) struggling with writer’s block as the world literally comes to an end around him. Of all the BUFF 2016 films, director Todd Rohal’s proves the most energetically subversive; Osborne’s not really an actor and the film never entirely commits to any conventional notion of a narrative, but both prove beguiling and compelling. Recalling The Coen Brother’s Barton Fink in its soul-crushing study of ‘The Block’, Uncle Kent 2 is fearless, farfetched and very funny.
Rating: 4/5   

NASTY BABY (Dir: Sebastian Silva / U.S. , Chile; 101 mins)
A trio of natural performances imbued with real-world chemistry highlight Sebastian Silva’s New York-set drama. The writer/director takes centre stage as Freddy, a highly-strung artist in a committed relationship with boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) and a loving friendship with the free-spirited Polly (Kristen Wiig). She wants a baby by Mo’s seed, and the majority of the film’s first half focuses in on the comedy/drama inherent to that plotline. But the presence of neighbourhood nuisance ‘The Bishop’ (a terrific Reg E. Cathey) is impacting their lives; from revving his leaf blower at dawn and judging sranger’s parking skill to increasingly disturbing and intrusive acts, The Bishop is proving to be Freddy’s neighbour-from-hell. So light and natural is Silva’s take on Big Apple life, the encroaching menace that The Bishop represents and the rage he inspires in Freddy proves particularly disconcerting and, ultimately, shocking. After the off-kilter weirdness of Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus, the Chilean director returns to the dark-shaded humanity of his breakout hit, The Maid. Nasty Baby is his most satisfying work to date.
Rating: 3.5/5  

A FEAST OF MAN (Dir: Caroline Golum / U.S.; 82 mins)
Never as clever or funny as it thinks it is, director Caroline Golum’s tone-deaf riff on social manners and class mores pits a bunch on annoying one-dimensional constructs against each other in a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ spin on the ‘would you rather…’ game. Reuniting after the death of a mutual friend at his extravagant estate (one of many irksome nods to America’s entitlement culture), the shrill, false personalities work through some not very interesting issues while musing over whether or not they do what the dead friend’s will asks of them – eat the corpse to get a slice of the millionaire’s bank balance. Sometimes Golum plays it uninspiringly broad, like an old bedroom-hopping/door-slamming farce; sometimes she strives for whitebread chamber-piece wit, a ‘la Whit Stillman. Very little of it works, the ultimate failing a final act twist in which the denouement betrays those patient enough to have stuck with the premise. Produced by Fifth Column Features, an initiative that boasts of an anti-establishment agenda…while indulging in the same tired ‘Lloyd Kaufman cameo’ schtick as fifteen(!) other 2016 B-pics.
Rating: 2/5 

Unpreviewed:   APPLESAUCE (Dir: Onur Tukel / U.S.; 91 min, 2015)

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Preview: 2016 Brisbane Underground Film Festival here.

Sunday
Jan172016

SKIN DEEP

Stars: Zara Zoe, Monica Zanetti, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jeanie Drynan, Billie Rose Prichard, Monica Trapaga and Robert Alexander.
Writer: Monica Zanetti
Director: Jon Leahy

Rating: 4/5

A dozen drunken dusk-to-dawn hours on the streets of Sydney’s boho mecca, Newtown, prove ample time for two strangers to find friendship and grapple with existential angst in director Jon Leahy’s impressive debut feature, Skin Deep.

The intoxicating free spirit and soft-hearted toughness synonymous with the arty inner-city enclave pulses through writer and co-lead Monica Zanetti’s simply structured but insightful script. The premise of stereotypes being deconstructed and souls being bared over the course of a night time odyssey is not new; no less than Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy is the genre standard bearer and has inspired many imitators. But Zanetti and Leahy find a freshness in their characters and a frank honesty in the drama that is entirely engaging.

The protagonists are prim Northern Beaches ‘straightie’ Leah (a very fine Zara Zoe), outwardly composed but bravely facing her own young mortality; and, Caitlin (Zanetti, a natural and compelling presence), an out-and-proud lesbian struggling with her own post-breakup inner turmoil. When they ‘meet-cute’ over a CD dump-bin just off King St (one of many nods to local flavour that inner-west audiences will warm to), circumstances lead to a few lip-loosening ales at the Bank Hotel and the new friend’s evening of personal discovery takes flight.

The film symbolically references the outer shell which binds humanity in more ways than just it’s ironic title. Caitlin sports bandages on her forearms, suggesting she ‘cuts’ as an outlet for her anxiety; despite her healthy appearance, Leah is riddled with fatal melanoma cells (the story was inspired by Zanetti’s own struggle to overcome skin cancer). Zoe’s defining on-screen moment is a heartbreaking emotional meltdown in a cemetery, the honesty of their time together finally breaking down her defences.

Caitlin’s sexuality remains a non-issue for much of the film, with fleeting references and precise observations imbued with the same integrity that drives the rest of the production. A very sweet passage of dialogue between Zanetti and Robert Alexander as her broad-minded father is indicative of the film’s positive attitude to Caitlin’s life direction. Fittingly, both mainstream and LGBTIQ festivals have received Leahy’s sensitive, low-key take on the lesbian lifestyle warmly.

At a crisp 72 minutes, there is very little room for padding in the narrative; key moments, including a hilarious detour to a tattoo parlour and an awkward encounter with Caitlin’s ex, Isabel (Elizabeth Blackmore), are kept lean and played with a refreshing bluntness. An encounter with some street toughs in a children’s park feels stagey, if only because so much of what has unfolded previously rings convincingly true.

All tech departments deliver big-budget expertise on the low-budget shoot, particularly DOP Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson’s skilful use of after-dark light sources and Adrian Powers’ artful editing, which provides often lengthy passages of dialogue with crucial pacing.

Skin Deep Theatrical Trailer from ScreenLaunch on Vimeo.

 

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