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Entries in 80s Cinema (4)

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.

Sunday
Jun182017

MIYUBI

Stars: Owen Vaccaro, P.J. Byrne, Emily Bergl, Richard Riehle, Ted Sutherland, Tatum Kensington Bailey, Lindsay Arnold, Noah Crawford and Jeff Goldblum.
Writer: Owen Burke
Directors: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael.

Screened at VR Experience Lounge 2 at The Hub, Sydney Town Hall, as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Both a sweetly nostalgic love letter to 80’s family rituals and a satirically acidic spin on the fleeting nature of consumer culture, the 40 minute virtual reality ‘feature’ Miyubi is at once warmly familiar and dizzyingly groundbreaking. The story of a toy robot whose life cycle lasts the attention span of a pre-teen boy, this captivating comedy-drama represents one giant leap towards a feature film future that includes unlockable narrative strands and 360-degree perspectives.

Once the goggles and headset are strapped on, the viewer becomes the titular android, a birthday gift for a precocious youngest boy (Owen Vaccaro) that is unwrapped to his unbridled glee sometime in 1982. Recalling the sibling dynamic of Spielberg’s E.T., his older brother (Ted Sutherland) is the wannabe-cool older brother stereotype, while doe-eyed moppet (Tatum Kensington) is the cute kid sister. Filling out the house is the increasingly desperate dad (P.J. Byrne), whose over-eager longing to be his son’s best friend is at odds with his job ‘s travel commitments; a mom (Emily Bergl), who has found the middle-class, wallpapered nirvana of her dreams; and, Grandpa (the wonderful Richard Riehle) whose fading memory and repetitive wartime recollections are testing everyone’s patience.

Miyubi’s journey unfolds as a series of reboots; during the downtime, the robot powers up, runs increasingly troublesome diagnostic checks, and re-emerges into a world in which his value as both a piece of hardware and a friend is waning. The plight of Miyubi echoes the emotional centre of Pixar’s Toy Story, in which Buzz, Woody and the gang are soon shunted for newer, cooler upgrades. At first the object of Grandpa’s derision and contempt (he fought the Japanese, he likes to remind his family, and now their technology is taking over his house), Miyubi and the old man soon bond over their impending obsolescence.

The beautifully rendered work is a collaboration between the Montreal-based Felix Paul Studios, whose principals Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael direct with seasoned skill (they recently inked a deal to explore feature-length VR opportunities with 20th Century Fox); and, humourist Owen Burke, one of the driving forces behind the Funny or Die troupe. His characterisations are pitched high, but the warm, more human moments are undeniably touching; one sequence, in which an airport-bound Dad dons a Rambo Halloween outfit to record a video message for his family, is very tender.

The larger question, of course, is how much of an expansion to the art and craft of cinematic storytelling do Lajeunesse and Raphael achieve via the use of virtual reality. The immersive element is certainly remarkable; sequences that take place in the boy’s bedrooms, set designed to recall pivotal influences in 80’s pop culture history, will stir the hearts and minds of Gen-Xers like no other film experience could (a Battlestar Galactica one-sheet autographed by the late Richard Hatch…I mean, Wow!). The physical reaction the viewer experiences are also without precedent; when a character reaches for Miyubi’s front control panel and inserts a music cassette, one’s tummy instinctively tightens.

The most intriguing advancement represents a melding of the traditional narrative and the tiered storytelling used predominantly in video games. By collecting three secret items, Miyubi accesses an implanted subconscious and is transported to the wondrously cavernous warehouse workplace of The Creator, played with typically eccentric charm by Jeff Goldblum. The sequence is not only a masterclass in richly detailed set design, but it also addresses the very essence of the cinematic ‘fourth wall’. To have Goldblum, deep in character, speak in extreme close-up directly into your eyes challenges the viewer to stay within the narrative, while experiencing a new form of celebrity interaction. (A further level, apparently representing Miyubi’s ‘happy place’, is spoken of by The Creator, but was not unlocked by your reviewer.)

As the medium advances, Miyubi will be looked back upon as a pivotal moment in VR development. A smartly written, emotionally resonant slice-of-life drama, it is an engaging, funny work. More importantly, it is a first for the new technology and represents a seismic shift towards the acceptance of VR films.

Saturday
Dec102016

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Ly Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto and Alexander Calvert.
Writer/director: Kelly Fremon Craig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The beautiful words and deceptively complex humans are entirely the creation of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, but it is undeniable that her remarkable debut feature The Edge of Seventeen has clearly been afforded the wise, guiding hand of producer, James L. Brooks.

On the rare occasion that contemporary mainstream cinema offers up smart, cool teen protagonists such as Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin, they are immediately aligned with the 80’s oeuvre of the late John Hughes, specifically Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. But Nadine’s determination to inflict her defining personality traits upon those with whom she shares this world – general teen angst, profoundly ingrained grief and a fear of loss that manifests as caustic wit and social solitude – more accurately resembles the dark psyches of Brooks’ great anti-heroes, notably Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets and Shirley MacLaines’ Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.

Fremon Craig sets that bittersweet tone from Scene 1; Nadine is in a heightened panic, unloading upon Woody Harrelson’s cool teach Mr Bruner some well-considered suicide options. Defying all the clichés of the flashback device, a wonderful montage establishes Nadine’s long-held outsider status and the importance of her soul mate friend, Krista (Ava Grace Cooper as a tot; a terrific Haley Lu Richardson through the awkward years). After tragedy reshapes the start of her train-wreck teen years, the dynamic she shares with her slowly unravelling mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and stoic, beau-hunk brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) takes on a quite desperation, interspersed with high tension.

The 80s high school vibe is dragged kicking and screaming into the present-day when Nadine’s lustful fascination with brooding senior Nick (Alexander Calvert) is conveyed via an accidental tweet, leading to a tense night-time car park encounter. Fremon Craig and her leading lady subvert both the dramatic and comedic potential inherent in this achingly portrayed sequence; it is a razor-sharp piece of character development that foreshadows a revelatory cathartic Act 3. It is also a reminder that the edge of seventeen is a complex, often dangerous time when girls are faced with navigating their own path into young womanhood.

The Academy’s respect for the younger audience will be reflected in their willingness to reward Hailee Steinfeld with an Oscar nomination. James L Brooks guides his leading ladies to podium glory (three Best Actress trophies, to MacLaine, Holly Hunter for Broadcast News and Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets), but ‘teen pics’ do not always survive award season vetting. Recent nominees who were under 20 include Quvenzhane Wallis (Beast of The Southern Wild, 2012), Gabourey Sidobe (Precious, 2009), Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, 2003), all featuring in films that carried Oscar-friendly thematic add-ons. The only comparable films to find Oscar’s favour have been Juno (for which Ellen Page earned a 2007 nomination) and 1999’s Election (for which Reese Witherspoon did not; the film made the Best Screenplay shortlist).

Steinfeld must be a front-runner for a role that careens between brittle toughness, wordy bravado and heartbreaking sweetness. Also in contention must be Fremon Craig’s script, which plays to the teen audience with recognisable moments of anguish and glee (the romance subplot involving Hayden Szeto’s American/Korean student feels both fresh and warmly familiar) while exploring some very adult emotions; as with the best of the genre, it is a film about teenagers but not just for teenagers.

The teen movie beats ring true because Nadine inspires a faith that fate will cut her a break, despite her best efforts to derail destiny. We shouldn’t cheer, even care, for her, but all her flaws and idiosyncrasies are all ours, too; we adore her because we recognise her struggle. Every generation has a teen character that personifies the real and unreal of those horrible, wonderful years and whose struggles still resonate; Benjamin Braddock, Joel Goodsen, Lloyd Dobler, Cher Horowitz, Tracy Flick. For this generation (and many more to come), there is Nadine Franklin in The Edge of Seventeen, a coming of age journey as good as it gets.

Saturday
Aug022014

ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS

Featuring: Michael Dudikoff, Lucinda Dickey, Richard Chamberlain, Catherine Mary Stewart, Cassandra Petersen, Robert Forster, Bo Derek, Alex Winter, Sybil Danning, Tobe Hooper, Adolfo Quinones (aka, Shabba-Doo), Sam Firstenberg and Gary Goddard.
Writer/director: Mark Hartley.

Screening at Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday August 2 and Tuesday August 12. 

Rating: 4/5

Having chronicled Australia’s unhinged exploitation era in 2008’s Not Quite Hollywood and exposed the madness that was The Philippines film sector with 2010’s Machete Maidens Unleashed!, documentarian Mark Hartley now casts his highly-informed fanboy eye over Israeli-born cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their renegade 80s operation, Cannon Films, for his latest, long-in-gestation work, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Hartley’s films play like wildly enthusiastic thesis submissions from the ultimate student of exploitation cinema. Suitably, the Australian director’s latest reveals a rich vein of excess and chutzpah that paints a picture of old-school operators steeped in shameless B-movie showmanship. More importantly, he also captures two individuals whose love for the cinema of old Hollywood fuelled their ruthless business acumen and boisterous egotism (perhaps explaining the presence of alpha-male moneymen James Packer and Brett Ratner, both on board as producers).

Golan and Globus emerged from an Israeli production community with a great deal of commercial credibility; their 1978 lowbrow teen romp, Lemon Popsicle, had become a domestic blockbuster and the pair became flush with cash. The more senior Golan had stars in his eyes and set about acquiring floundering outfit The Cannon Group, with an eye towards conquering the US marketplace and taking the world by storm.

Hartley’s parade of willing actors, executives and colleagues represents a major coup for the production (the likely contributing factor for the very long period between its inception and MIFF 2014 premiere). Each recall the heady days of Cannon Films ascendency, reminiscing with a mix of face-palming disbelief and warm-hearted sentiment, accompanied by a myriad of clips. Generation X-ers who spent weekends paying overpriced rental rates to watch Cannon ‘stars’ such as Lucinda Dickey, Michael Dudikoff and Catherine Mary Stewart will inevitably feel the glow of sentimental warmth upon seeing their aging heroes; serious film buffs will warm more to the likes of Franco Zeffirelli and Barbet Schroeder, who contributed some of Cannon’s more credentialed works (1986’s Otello and 1987’s Barfly, respectively).

Befitting a glimpse inside the ruthless world of B-movie maneuverings, there is some snark dished out to celebs who refused to be involved (in particular, a brash, young starlet named Sharon Stone) and on those who good-naturedly appeared on camera (Death Wish series director, the late Michael Winner, who acknowledges his occasionally prickly take on creative control). Largely anti-hagiographic, Hartley also rakes his subjects over the coals; in one hilarious montage, they are labelled all manner of insulting terms (both Golan and Globus refused to appear in the film, instead authorising their own bio doco, The Go-Go Boys).   

The film often focuses on Menahem Golan’s superb up-selling of dubious elements (the sad rehashing of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish franchise; the infamous Superman IV debacle; the pointless insertion of T&A) and the subsequent box-office fortunes. This approach largely sidelines the role that the VHS boom played in the company’s bottom line. Presumably, the global impact of the home video craze is a subject best saved for its own doco, but Hartley’s decision to focus on anecdotal making-of memories and “What was I thinking?” mock-remorse robs his film of some important contextual information.

Nevertheless, Electric Boogaloo (after Cannon’s famously misguided 1984 break-dancing sequel, although for no discernible reason) is an undeniably fun, insider look at the business of show. Mark Hartley’s factual films are a passionate collector’s take on the obsessive drive to be creative; whether it be low-budget Oz-ploitation practitioners, the insane fearlessness of Pinoy production methods or the battering-ram ambition of two Israeli showmen, the Australian director understands their motivation and affords them the respect and affection they deserve…and then some.  

(Note: The version reviewed was awaiting some final post-production elements. Due consideration has been given to its incomplete status).