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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.

Wednesday
Jun222016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writers: Nicholas Wright, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt.
Director: Roland Emmerich.

Rating: 3/5

Once again, Earth is the battlefield in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s gleeful, cheese-whiz sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. Reuniting many of the original players for a '50's comic-book plot’ that manages to be both preposterously convoluted and gossamer thin, critics the world over are likely to use those words, ‘Earth’ and ‘battlefield,’ with wild abandon when shredding this latest alien invasion spectacle.

But if the clunky dialogue, square-jawed heroics and plethora of ‘puh-leeze!’ moments occasionally recall that Travolta travesty, Emmerich and his army of five(!) writers and tech wizards nevertheless deliver grand-scale sci-fi spectacle and old-school human heroics the likes of which Hollywood has neglected in this era of the Marvel/DC tentpole. As reflected in the re-casting of ageing stars Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and a tagline that sends shivers down the spine of the original film’s then-young key demo, Emmerich’s own resurgence as a director is a 20-year throwback to those glory days of 1996 when large-scale destruction did not recall 9/11 imagery and the scourge of cyber-cynicism was still a ways off.

An attention-grabbing set-up posits the sequel in a vividly imagined alternate 2016, in which the alien technology captured when the Earth armies defeated the space invaders in 1996 has reshaped everyday life. In this world, the President is already a woman (Sela Ward, burdened with some of the script’s most on-the-nose dialogue) and the global community is one, still basking in the US-led glory of borderless comradeship. How a female commander-in-chief and a unified planet will play in the real-2016 climate of fervent fundamental ideologies and rife Trump/Brexit-style nationalism, is perhaps the sequel’s most daring gamble. But, hey, it’s only a movie…

To delve too deeply into the machinations of the plot would be to do Resurgence a disservice and entirely overstate its importance. In B-movie terms, the re-emergence of the aliens and the means by which the human race combat them is conveyed in a handful of scenes where good actors use words like “fusion” and “override” and “window of opportunity,” then repeat those sentences to a room full of gathered extras who nod and look worried.

Similarly, personal subplots that are easily defined and resolved with instantly accessible sentiment are all these cast-heavy disaster spectacles require. Jeff Goldblum, a bespectacled silver-fox cut from the ‘Indiana Jones’ school of heroic academic, returns as tech whiz David Levinson, whose role in the 1996 victory has seen him elevated to valued government advisor. The years have not been so good to President Whitmore (a terrific Bill Pullman), who is cursed with nightmares and mental fatigue that begin to take on prescient qualities (and which also afflict the not-dead-after-all Brent Spiner as Dr Okun and Deobai Operai’s African warlord, Umbutu).

A trio of new faces provide the bulk of the derring-do, including Liam Hemsworth as the roguish fighter pilot-turned-moon tug captain Jake Morrison; It Follows' Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patricia, a Presidential aide and Morrison’s gal pal; and, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, an academy ace and son of the late Steven Hiller, thereby providing the only connection (aside from a fleetingly glimpsed portrait in the rebuilt White House) to the original’s action lead, Will Smith. Sidekick duties are performed by Travis Tope as Jake’s co-pilot Charlie, bringing the ‘Anthony Edwards/Goose’ vibe; Chinese starlet Angelababy as the best of the East’s pilots (and a none-too-subtle nod to the current importance of global distribution); and Judd Hirsch, still nailing ‘grizzly Jewish father’ with bravado as Julius Levinson. And, providing that unexpected first degree of separation to Euro-badboy Lars von Trier, an occasionally bewildered Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, that Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a French/UK psychiatrist.

Upping their profile this time around are the invading hordes, whose physicality resembles a mash-up of great space visitors from the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, primarily James Cameron’s Aliens and John McTiernan’s Predator (as well Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and the little-seen 2012 Italian sci-fier, The Arrival of Wang). Their CGI rendering is detailed and impressive, yet remains just this side of over-polished; there is an overall retro-vibe to the effects work and a faded palette to the visuals that thankfully denies the epic the shimmering, fake textures of most modern blockbusters.

Roland Emmerich’s career has been peppered with fine ‘half-movies’, films that build to a second-act climax then have nowhere interesting to go for an hour. Think of the wave hitting New York in The Day After Tomorrow; the big lizard hitting New York in Godzilla; the destruction of America’s west coat in Independence Day. All awe-inspiring sequences, some even achieving a high emotional element, yet robing their respective narratives of momentum, leaving a third act that hobbles to the finish film.

He overcomes this narrative failing in Resurgence. The mid-section arrival of the alien spacecraft delivers immense scope and scale, but the film kicks on to a denouement that, like the enormous intergalactic vessel of war, can be seen coming from miles away but provides bang for buck. He also manages to temper the jingoism of the 1996 film, a time when America’s role as the world’s do-gooders did not cast its own immense shadow like it does today.

Independence Day: Resurgence entertains like few Hollywood blockbusters have of late, largely by foregoing pretension on every level and drilling down on the basic tenets of popcorn moviemaking. Haters going to hate, but those looking for old Hollywood (i.e., 1996) thrills will be over the moon.

Wednesday
Jun152016

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie and Ty Olwin.
Writer/director: Olivier Assayas.

Selected In Competition at 69th Festival de Cannes; screened at 7.00pm on Monday, May 16 at Salle Debussy, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

A lonely existence tormented by distant voices is examined in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a moody, occasionally frustrating, often brilliant study in isolation, grief and disenfranchisement. Although it is likely to prove more critically divisive than his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, the French director’s latest is a typically challenging drama employing such disparate flourishes as murder, high fashion and the supernatural. Reports of audience discontent at the Cannes screening your critic attended were greatly exaggerated; the absorbing work should further strengthen the director’s reputation as one of world cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.

Assayas sets a chilly tone with a haunted-house opening sequence that introduces Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a twenty-something American suffering the emotional stress of having recently lost her twin brother, Lewis. Walking the dark halls of an empty, vast suburban home, Maureen reaches out to her sibling’s spirit; as a medium, her will to connect with the afterlife is strong and soon evidence of her twin’s presence becomes clear. Assayas seems to enjoy the genre tropes inherent to a ghost story. The cloudy wisps of ethereal intrusion into her world that are glimpsed in the corner of a room or over Maureen’s shoulder bring on the goose pimples; a last-reel development leaves a last-gasp impression not soon forgotten.

In the real world, Maureen is a ‘retail expert’ for flighty model/starlet Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), tasked with sourcing the latest Euro-threads for an employer she rarely sees. A cross-borders train ride that consumes the second act pits Maureen against a nameless text-stalker, whose flirtatious words initially empowers her (she is ‘seduced’ into visiting a hotel room and dress in erotic attire to appease his wishes) but soon become sinister and frightening. Assayas proves a deft hand at these Hitchcock-like machinations; the text may be from Kyra’s smarmy boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) or, more intriguingly, from beyond the grave.

For over two decades, Olivier Assayas has provided complex, multi-dimensional roles for women, from Clotilde de Bayser in Winter’s Child (1989) and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Connie Nielsen in Demonlover (2002) and Juliette Binoche in Summer Hours (2008); the female lead in an Assayas film requires an actress of international standing at the top of her game. Kristen Stewart proved she had the mettle to carry a support part as (another) personal assistant opposite Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria; she became the first American to win a Cesar, taking a Supporting Actress trophy for the role.

Stewart steps into an Assayas lead role with a performance of slowly unravelling psychology coupled with a brittle emotional and physical presence. The scenes where she calls forth the afterlife capture a heartbreaking longing for her late brother. The connection he provided to human emotion is now gone from Maureen’s life; she talks to a distant boyfriend via Skype, about a job that she undertakes alone, in a city that speaks in a foreign language. Her sadness is conveyed in such an understated manner by Stewart, the inevitable moments when her disconnect consumes her and she begins her journey back to self-belief proves deeply moving.

Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterisation; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Feature on Kristen Stewart, 'Can The Queen of Cannes Conquer The World...Again?' here.

Wednesday
Jun082016

GOLDSTONE

Stars: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver, Michelle Lim Davidson, Pei-Pei Cheng, Michael Dorman, Max Cullen, Kate Beahan, Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil.
Writer/director: Ivan Sen.

Opening Night Film of the 63rd Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Australian auteur Ivan Sen accomplishes that all-too-rare sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor with Goldstone, a compelling continuation of the journey of damaged detective Jay Swan. Having established a richly atmospheric sense of outback geography and populated it with vivid genre character types in 2013’s Mystery Road, the director recaptures his fluid handling of dusty tough-guy dynamics while succinctly revisiting weighty thematic strands.

As with Mystery Road, classic ‘western’ beats with a strong hint of ‘noir’ intrigue pulse through Goldstone, so named for the one-cop/tin-shed township and its barren surrounds in which Sen sets his action. Seeming to exist only in service of the mining conglomerate that is gutting the sacred land of the region, the pre-fab settlement appears to consist of a police station, a brothel and the mayor’s home office (why such a meagre outpost has a mayor at all is never fully explained).

Young and alone in his new posting is cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell, solid), who has learnt to keep the peace by not ruffling too many feathers, notably those of mining boss Johnny (a slimy David Wenham) and mayor Maureen (Jacki Weaver, bringing her best ‘Barbara Stanwyck’ in a cheerfully untrustworthy role). The status quo begins to unravel after Josh cages a barely-conscious drunk driver, soon revealed to be Sen’s complex anti-hero, Jay Swan.

Reprising the role of the grief-stricken, dangerously depressed indigenous officer is the terrific Aaron Pedersen. Carrying the emotional burden of a father denied his daughter in every shuffle and grimace, Pedersen’s remarkable performance is also one of immensely understated heroic might. As convincing as the hard-as-nails machismo is conveyed, the actor’s best scenes are quieter ones opposite national treasure David Gulpilil, as the elder who re-energises Swan’s sense of self during a journey into the spiritual heartland.

The central narrative involves Swan’s exposing the trafficking of young women, shipped in to stock ‘The Ranch’ and service mine employees under the watchful eye of Mrs Lao (respected Chinese star, Pei-Pei Cheng) and the quest to find a missing girl who took flight into the unforgiving desert. Sen’s script explores exploitation on several levels – the land, its rightful owners and the legacy of abuse and misuse that has been endemic since the earliest days of outback settlement (the film opens with a sepia montage of immigrant labour images from Australia’s shameful past). Goldstone revels in its genre roots, but like Sen’s best work (Beneath Clouds, 2002; Toomelah, 2011) it offers social and cultural insight into the issues and history of minority abuse in Australia. The presence of Pedersen, Gulpilil and fellow indigenous acting great Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978) speaks to the respect afforded the filmmaker and his storytelling by the Aboriginal community.

Coupled with some downbeat moments, Sen’s pacing occasionally feels laboured (an observation that your critic levelled at the mid-section of Mystery Road, too); the beautiful Kate Beahan turns up for an odd cameo as a roadside hooker called ‘Pinky’, doing business from a caravan straight out of ‘Priscilla…’ But these are minor distractions in an otherwise fine dramatic thriller, primed for festival and specialist theatrical distribution both at home and abroad.

Technically, the production is first-rate; superb use of drone cameras allows the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, acting as his own DOP, to capture stunning desert landscapes from towering angles, in a film whose palette and framing reflects the director’s affinity for the red rock and ochre setting.