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Entries in Australian film (26)

Tuesday
Jun272017

FAGS IN THE FAST LANE

Stars: Chris Asimos, Matt Jones, Oliver Bell, Sasha Cuha, King Khan, Aimee Nichols, Puggsley Buzzard, Luke Clayson, Justine Jones, El Vez, The GoGo Goddesses and Kitten Natividad. Narrated by Tex Perkins.
Writers: Josh Sinbad Collins and Steven G Michael.
Director: Josh Sinbad Collins.

WORLD PREMIERE: June 27 at The Astor Theatre, St Kilda.

Rating: 4/5

Primed to fearlessly thrust its phallic fixation into the faces of wildly enthusiastic midnight-movie crowds the world over, Fags in The Fast Lane is a terrifically tawdry, gloriously distasteful celebration of giggly homoeroticism and punkish shock tactics. That it also works well as a bold statement in favour of personal expression and acceptance feels like an added bonus, given its main aim is clearly to entertain and disgust, usually in that order.

Although it defies categorization at every turn, the DNA of director Josh Sinbad Collins’ comedy/musical/splatter/soft-core romp would include the cult classic Flesh Gordon and the lo-fi genius of Mike and George Kuchar. Collins has drawn upon edgy pop culture influences (the ‘Sin City’-inspired opening, for example) to craft a super-hero/revenge narrative about a goofy he-man vigilante named Sir Beauregard, aka The Cockslinger, played by Chris Asimos. The actor is the perfect central figure to bring Collins’ frantic vision to life, his appearance not unlike a muscle-bound Sacha Baron Cohen (comic timing intact).

With a trusty ensemble that includes sidekick Reginald Lumpton (the imposing Matt Jones), converted homophobe Squirt (Oliver Bell) and Persian princess, Salome (lithesome beauty Sasha Cuha), Beau sets off after the ‘Grotesque Burlesque’ troupe The Chompers, led by Wanda the Giantess (Aimee Nichols), whose raid upon the GILF Pleasure Palace has snared them the priceless jewels of madam and Beau’s mother, Kitten (legendary B-queen, Kitten Natividad, in her heyday the muse of sleaze maestro Russ Meyer).

The quest allows for the bawdy band to visit the Bollywood-themed den of iniquity, The Bang Galore, where they meet the distraught Hijra (Indian rock legend King Khan), who joins the gang hoping to recover his stolen Golden Cock, a metallic dildo with supernatural powers. The journey takes them via a swamp, populated by penile-shaped flora and fauna, and the Thunderdome-like ‘Freaky Town’, where The Cockslinger’s gang and The Chompers finally face off.

Collins brings a dazzling sense of invention to the design work on the Fags in The Fast Lane, employing everything from handcrafted puppetry and miniature work to slick animation and desktop effects enhancement. The production matches the OTT enthusiasm of the acting troupe with set dressing and costuming (courtesy of the director’s partner, Barbara ‘Blaze’ Collins) that references tiki culture, Aztec influences, drag queen excess and good ol’ B-movie cheese’n’sleaze.

The all-or-nothing energy of Fags in The Fast Lane is no surprise given the crew list features some of Melbourne underground cinema’s high-profile names, amongst them DOP Stu Simpson (director of El Monstro Del Mar and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla); script editor Lee Gambin (author and head of the popular Cinemaniacs collective); and, actor Glenn Maynard (…Vanilla; Mondo Yakuza). The shoot also represents a fitting farewell for Collins’ now-shuttered nightclub The LuWOW, which served as an ideal backdrop for several of the scripts vividly imagined settings.

Certain to become a must-own for student digs across Australia is a soundtrack that includes The Mummies, Hot Wings, Sugar Fed Leopards and The Seven Ups; music cred is upped even further with the involvement of TheCruel Sea frontman Tex Perkins, who narrates The Cockslinger’s journey.

Monday
May012017

EVENT ZERO

Stars: Ash Ricardo, Zoe Carides, Paul Ayre, Andy Rodoreda, Anna Houston, Raelee Hill, Harry Pavlidis, Yure Covich, Alan Lovell and Nicholas Hope.
Writers: Greta Harrison and Matthew C. Vaughan

Director: Enzo Tedeschi

WORLD PREMIERE. Reviewed April 30 at the The Arts Centre Gold Coast, as the Closing Night film of the 2017 Gold Coast Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

The crisp, crackling action pulse of Enzo Tedeschi’s hugely enjoyable directorial debut Event Zero is destined to satisfy genre fans, who will inevitably gravitate towards its slick production values and relentless pace on streaming platforms globally. Unexpectedly but no less deservedly will be the following it engenders amongst arthouse audiences, primarily those attuned to the acid-tongued skewering of the Harbour City’s shallower end of society and the darker, more disturbing shades of modern political immorality.

Tedeschi and his scripters Greta Harrison and Matthew C Vaughan (tellingly, both Melbournians) open with a blast of purely kinetic cinema, staging a train wreck within Sydney’s subterranean transport grid that unleashes a deadly viral strain. The director is clearly at home in the electrified dark of the underground; he produced Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 found-footage shocker The Tunnel. Tedeschi and his co-writer on the hit film, Julian Harvey, formed the ‘Event Zero’ timeline in the narrative’s previous incarnation as an award-winning 2012 web-series.

Tedeschi utilises multi-tiered character arcs to paint a picture of how the modern Australian metropolis reacts under threat. Spearheading the local government response is Deputy Premier Pamela Laird (Zoe Carides), an idealistic presence faced with the big business influence of altogether untrustworthy powerbroker Langston Charlesworth (Nicholas Hope). Swept up in the tragedy is middle-class dad Jack Winston (Andy Rodoreda), who is left a widower by the outbreak, and whose grief is co-opted by self-serving anti-Muslim agitator Dave Colton (Yure Covich, charmingly despicable in the pic’s best performance).

The heroine that binds the sweeping, occasionally manic story threads is fiery, tough-talking AFP officer Leyla Nassar (a terrific Ash Ricardo), who finds herself entwined in the high-stakes drama when her Muslim leader father Yusuf (Harry Pavlidis) is mistakenly labelled the ‘terrorist’ responsible for the attack. The narrative maintains a compelling momentum, establishing dramatic tensions that suit both the effective use of genre tropes and the deeper thematic questions it poses. Tedeschi plays loose and fast with logic at times and some plotting requires that leap-of-faith moment reliant upon audience goodwill, but so relentless is the action one can’t begrudge the production a few cut corners.  

The inordinately smart subtext at play in Event Zero is most clearly personified in the form of Nick Maricic’s douchey hipster influencer, Pax. The characterisation is broadly comical, that kind of ‘plot device’ voice that can steal scenes when played to the hilt (Brad Pitt in True Romance; Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights), and Maricic gives it his all. But Pax is more than just ‘comic relief’; he is an easily identifiable Sydney archetype. As is Covich’s racist mouthpiece; or, Raelee Hill’s brazenly ambitious political PA; or, Alan Lovell’s greasy palm cop boss; or, Anna Houston’s fear-mongering TV hostess, Elizabeth Haines (a sly dig at 60 Minutes’ matriarch, Liz Hayes?). Although pieces of an action movie puzzle, the characters in fact serve to potently mirror the moral emptiness of modern Sydney’s social and political fabric.

Most profoundly, Event Zero has taken on a perspective that the director and his team could not have envisioned. Tedeschi stages chilling moments of racially motivated violence, of social deconstruction brought upon by nationalistic fervour; the script conjures a world of heartless men performing heinous deeds to further privilege and entitlement. As recently as only a few years ago, this imagined world could only believably exist within the construct of a breathlessly staged genre movie scenario; in 2017, that scenario has become inconceivably real in light of the Trump/Brexit/Alt Right new world order. The film never fully forgoes its primary aim of being rattling good popular entertainment, but timeliness has afforded Event Zero a pertinence that it embraces with a loud, coherent voice.

 

Friday
Apr072017

DANCE ACADEMY

Stars: Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Thomas Lacey, Alicia Banit, Dena Kaplan, Keiynan Lonsdale, Nic Westaway, Tara Morce, Julia Blake and Miranda Otto.
Writer: Samantha Strauss
Director: Jeffery Walker.

Rating: 4/5

Balancing the expectations of small-screen fans and bigscreen newcomers as deftly as a well-executed arabesque, Dance Academy lovingly follows the cherub-faced teens of Australia’s internationally popular TV series (2010-2013) as they rite-of-passage into the realities of reconciling artistic dreams with the onset of young adulthood. Destined to be a slumber-party staple for years to come, the combination of an engaging young cast, moving and understated melodrama and sensationally staged dance sequences make for a commercially potent package.

In the 18 months since the class graduated from National Academy of Dance, fortunes have varied for the key characters. Tara (a terrific Xenia Goodwin) has struggled to recover physically and mentally from a crippling back injury; her bf Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) has channelled his passion into the next generation of dancers, tutoring a harbourside dance class; Abigail (Dena Kaplan) is determinedly sticking to her dreams of dancing lead for the National Ballet Company under ice-queen Madeline Moncure (Miranda Otto, playing to the back row as the film’s closest thing to a villain); and, bombshell Kat (Alicia Banit) has found stardom in the US.

Having knocked back a million dollar payout for her injuries, Tara gambles on her dream and heads to New York where she reconnects with Kat and fallen teen idol Ollie (Keiynan Lonsdale), whose been reduced to the same round of thankless chorus auditions as Tara must endure. It takes the reappearance of series’ favourite Ben (Thomas Lacey), whose own plight puts all other concerns in perspective and refocusses the chemistry and dynamic of the group, to help Tara redefine her goals and ambitions. Oz acting greats Julia Blake and, fittingly, Tara Morice, star of the iconic 1992 dance pic Strictly Ballroom, impact in support roles.


In the hands of alumni helmer Jeffery Walker (director of 8 episodes) and writer and co-creator Samantha Strauss (scribe of 23), this exercise in brand upsizing avoids any notion of ‘cynical cash-in’ by affectionately crafting warmly relatable characters and a (mostly) believable narrative. Australian cinema has a chequered past with TV-to-film reworkings. Michael Carson’s Police Rescue (1994) embraced the larger canvas, resulting in a pleasing if low-key actioner and the late Steve Irwin’s daft family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) was pleasing enough, but more often adaptations resemble stitched-together episodes (Number 96, 1974) or, worse yet, risible misfires that kill off any lingering goodwill (Kath and Kimderella, 2012).

While maintaining the heart that helped make it a small-screen hit, Dance Academy looks every bit the sumptuous bigscreen drama. The film is rich in tech assets, with the dance-friendly widescreen cinematography of 47-episode veteran Martin McGrath (Proof, 1991; Muriel’s Wedding, 1994; Swimming Upstream, 2003), original score by Oscar-nominated David Hirschfelder (Shine, 1996; Elizabeth, 1998) and the precise editing of Nikola Krulj and Geoffrey Lamb all strengthening the legitimate franchise potential. It is a clearly achievable goal, with every frame exhibiting the same crowd-pleasing qualities as profitable properties Pitch Perfect and Step Up.

Saturday
Mar182017

BLOODLANDS

Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.

Rating: 4/5

‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.

Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).

Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.

The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).

A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.

Thursday
Feb092017

ROUGH STUFF

Stars: Gareth Rickards, Vincent Andriano, Sam Glissan, Hayley Sullivan, Katie Garfield, Jamie Kristian, Adam Horner, Bobby Babin and Ernie Dingo.
Writer/Director: Jonathan Adams

Rating: 3.5/5

A raucous, rambling off-road romp that plays unashamedly broad and loud, director Jonathan Adams makes up for a complete disregard for subtlety by delivering a ballsy, sweary celebration of all things alpha-Aussie in his debut effort, the appropriately titled Rough Stuff. Both soft-hearted and tough-as-nails, the ladish adventure so adores its depiction of the ‘Australian Male’, it may stir patriotic yearnings for the rugged bushman of local cinematic lore and emerge as a box office bloke-buster.

From the film’s first images – a kookaburra, a thorny lizard, a vast dusty expanse about to be ravaged by a wild 4WD ‘bush bash’ – Adams and his DOP Jack Crombie make no bones about the sort of tale they are going to tell. Nor do they flinch in referencing influences from our century-old silver screen history. Intentional or otherwise, nods can be found to everything from Crocodile Dundee and Wolf Creek to The Chain Reaction and Ground Zero in Adams’ patchwork plotting, suggesting Rough Stuff is as much a homage to our film heritage as it is a love letter to the land.

Towering over the film in a performance as big as Australia itself is leading man Gareth Rickards, a barrel-chested and naturally gifted screen presence who recalls the square-jawed appeal of past Antipodean 'real men' like Andrew Clarke and Errol Flynn. Rickards plays ‘Buzz’, a contemporary incarnation of colonial bush-lifers known as ‘Rovers’, a man who has dedicated his life to searching for a mythical deposit called Stray’s Gold, his best mate Abe (Vincent Adriano) by his side. When an eco-activist documentary crew entice Buzz and Abe (alongside Sam Glissan’s trusty mechanic Scraps) to guide them through treacherous bushland with a map to the legendary mother lode, the duo reluctantly sign on.

Villains in blue-collar adventures such as Rough Stuff can be spotted a bush mile away. Pony-tailed, clean-shaven vegan Eric (Jamie Kristian) and snooty offsider Tom (Adam Horner) have ulterior motives which have little to do with a gold strike; they have coerced an out-of-her-depth Tori (a particularly fine Hayley Sullivan) to tag along and teach her mining magnate father Daniel Madsen (Bob Babin) a lesson in green terrorism. Not in on the ruse, spunky documentarian Skye (Katie Garfield) finds herself caught up in the increasingly dangerous events.

Adams’ deftly sets up a strong set of principal characters, exhibiting natural skills as a storyteller, before a cumbersome third act stalls the momentum. Throw in a mysterious, menacing vigilante figure called ‘The Ranger’ who appears intermittently and it becomes increasingly evident that not all story strands and character arcs are going to gel. International territories beckon, given the flavoursome Aussie imagery and Rickards’ broad-shouldered He-man hero, though sales agents are likely to demand some judicious trimming of the 119 minute running time.

Shortcomings aside, Rough Stuff proves an always engaging, rousing tale that celebrates the spirit of our bush folk without a hint of irony. It is not a film for the ‘cultural cringe’ crowd, that elitist niche who resent any depiction of our population as descendants of rough’n’tumble rural folk. But nor is it meant for them. In one of the most impressive calling card pics in recent memory, Jonathan Adams has rediscovered and contemporised the charms of a terrific bush yarn.

Wednesday
Nov302016

SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD

Stars: Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Dacre Montgomery, Aleks Mikic, Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton.
Writers: Zack Khan and Chris Peckover.
Director: Chris Peckover.

Reviewed at the Australian Premiere at Monster Fest 2016, Sunday November 27 at Lido Cinema 4, Hawthorn.

Rating: 4/5

In an alternate mid-80’s universe, director Joe Dante’s follow-up to his grim Yuletide fairy tale Gremlins would have been Safe Neighborhood, a crisp, crackling, black and bloody Christmas comedy/horror that came to fruition after Dante glimpsed an early draft of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games script. Seasonal cinemagoers would have surely warmed to its crowd-pleasing, nerve-twisting verve, setting it on a path to festive season VHS-viewing immortality.

Of course, this would have denied 2016 audiences the giddy thrill of watching a young directing talent emerge in Chris Peckover, who exhibits slick technical skill and an ease of touch with the chills and giggles in his script, co-written with Zack Khan. Peckover’s well-received 2010 debut Undocumented gave no indication that his sophomore effort would define him as such a confident storyteller, well-schooled in character, atmosphere and mise-en-scène. No less crucial to the grasp his film maintains on its audience is the chemistry and energy of his three leads, a triumvirate of tweenage talent destined for prolonged and deserving bigscreen careers.

Taking his cue from Dante’s frost-tinted, green-&-red hued view of Spielbergian suburbia, Peckover and his masterful DOP Carl Robertson paint a picturesque façade of blissful well-to-do family life that begins to crack almost immediately; a snowman is beheaded, while the joyful playing of young siblings descends into a brutal snowball fight. Every-girl teen archetype Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), texting while driving through the crowded residential avenues on her way to a babysitting gig, barely brakes in time to avoid a black cat that runs across her path.

Inside an expertly production-designed middle class home that effortlessly evokes the McCallister abode in Home Alone (the influence of Chris Columbus’ cinematic kindred spirit running through the film's DNA), acerbic mum Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and goofy dad Robert (Patrick Warburton) are preparing for their night out. Son Luke (Levi Miller) and his bestie Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), embodying the roles that the Corey’s would have played 30 years ago, are bantering about how Luke can fulfil his pubescent urges and impress upon Ashley his intentions.

Miller is a revelation; the Australian teenager fronted the notorious 2015 misfire, Pan, but has grown in stature and on-screen presence (he also anchors the blockbuster-to-be, Red Dog True Blue, debuting Boxing Day Down Under). As Luke, the transformation that Miller undergoes represents an arc that actors four-times his age would struggle to capture (keeping any coverage spoiler-free is tough but an absolute must). He is, in key moments, mesmerising to watch. Cast mates and fellow Aussies De Jonge and Oxenbould (reteaming on-screen having played siblings in M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) are equally committed and impressive.

The first act set-up is meta-horror 101, delivered with knowing humour and great pacing. To delve too deeply into the Scream-like Act 2 spin that Peckover employs would do a disservice to the dexterity with which he both manipulates the narrative and amps up the tension. Suffice to say, by the time the Bueller-esque final moments unfold, the next-big-thing directing talent has not only referenced and honoured that subversive period of 80’s mainstream cinema during which Reagan’s America was slyly being diced and sliced; he has also conjured a wonderfully witty, bracingly shocking and completely contemporary home-invasion/slasher-pic reinvention.

Saturday
Aug272016

BURNS POINT

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

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

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

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

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

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

Friday
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. 

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.

Thursday
Jun022016

UNIQUE ARTISTRY FINDS LOVE AT MELBOURNE DOC FEST

From Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse to Crumb to American Movie; from Burden of Dreams to The Devil and Daniel Johnston to this years’ Oscar winner, Amy. Arguably, the most compelling sub-genre in the documentary field are the works that examine the complexities of the creative process and the fragile, brilliant psyches from which it emerges. Commencing its vast 2016 program on July 9, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival features four factual films that delve deep inside the artist’s mindset, probing the passion, ego and talent needed to leave a lasting impression…
MAD TIGER (Dirs: Michael Haertlein, Jonathan Yi / USA; 82 mins)
Proclaiming themselves the ‘Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander’, Peelander Z are a colourful cult oddity who spruik their punk-stunt brand of raucous J-music to loyal if dwindling numbers across the US. Led by charismatic, dictatorial frontman Kengo Hioki (pictured, above), aka Peelander Yellow, the band have been pushing their trademark Jackass-style stage show and Power Rangers-inspired aesthetic for nearly two decades, their alternative musical stylings enlivened by a not entirely self-aware parody element. Co-directors Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi capture Peelander Z as the band faces a crucial juncture – guitar hero Peelander Red (Kotara Tsukada) is leaving the band; Hioki is taking the departure with a mix of philosophical resignation and bullying petulance. Let’s face it, the music is awful, but the inter-personal drama and backstage dynamics ensure Mad Tiger is a tense, at times sad peek inside the ego and ambition that motivates the artist. A welcome reprieve from the band’s inner and outer turmoil is a softly-spoken interlude that follows Hioki back to his roots and the warmth of his religious family home (although it raises the question, ‘Why have they not sought fame in Japan?’)
RATING: 3.5/5

YOU BETTER TAKE COVER (Dirs: Harry Hayes, Lee Simeone / Australia; 29 mins)
When a music-quiz show innocently revealed that one of the most famous pop riffs in Australian music history was very similar to an Aussie bush ditty of yore, the monster that is litigious law was awakened. Men at Work’s iconic hit Down Under is filled with homage after homage to this great southern land, from Vegemite to combi-vans to ‘chunder’. But when composer, the late Greg Ham and the band’s production team settled on a flute interlude that referenced ‘Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree’, they had no idea that Larrikin Music owned the rights to what many assumed was a public domain property. Harry Hayes and Lee Simeone’s brisk, melancholy doc You Better Take Cover traces the origins of the song, the creative forces and fateful turn-of-events that propelled it to global recognition and, most winningly, the recollections of those that were there. Emotions run the gamut in this comprehensive account; local audiences will puff their chests with national pride during scenes of America’s Cup and Commonwealth Game jubilation, but expect teeth to grind when the details of the copyright law court case engineered by Larrikin are brought into cold, greedy focus. Chunder, indeed.
RATING: 3.5/5


ROOM FULL OF SPOONS (Dir: Rick Harper / USA; 113 mins; trailer, above)
That one of the worse films ever made should be the subject of one of the most comprehensive and insightful making-of docs in recent memories just adds to the myriad of ironies that have come to be associated with The Room and the enigmatic creative force behind it, Tommy Wiseau. Canadian alpha-fan Rick Harper knows the ‘Best Worse Movie Ever’ inside out; fans will appreciate that he gets into the minutiae of the wretched melodrama, referencing such crowd favourite moments as ‘the neck lump’, ‘the moving box’, ‘tuxedo football’ and ‘the crooked boyfriend’. Cast members prove open and endearing; key behind-the-scenes contributors (including Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor who argues that, in fact, it was he who directed The Room, not Wiseau) reinforce the tales of legendary, often hilarious ineptitude during the shoot. But Room Full of Spoons goes beyond fan-fact fun when it digs deep into such mysteries as the film’s funding and, above all else, the force of twisted nature that is Wiseau. His origins, inspirations and eccentricities are respectfully but determinedly dissected by Harper, who inserts himself into his narrative with appropriate succinctness.
RATING: 4/5
 
TODD WHO? (Dirs: Gavin Bond, Ian Abercromby / Australia; 58 mins)
The term ‘hagiography’ is too often used pejoratively, suggesting sycophantic bias. But what if the primary focus of a biography is to be wondrously, majestically hagiographic? With co-director Ian Abercromby pulling focus (literally and figuratively), Gavin Bond deifies low-key music industry visionary Todd Rundgren in his rousing, roughhewn love letter, Todd Who? Rundgren found fame in the mid 70s with his sweetly melodic yacht-pop hits Hello It’s Me and Can We Still Be Friends, before embarking a producing career that was filled with innovation and experimentation alongside the likes of Cheap Trick, The Tubes, The Psychedelics Furs and iconic Australian band, Dragon. Not that anyone knows it, except the likes of Paul Schaffer, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, Daryl Braithwaite and Jim Steinman, all of whom put their hands up to sing the praises of Rundgren (now in his 60’s, living in Hawaii and still touring). Bond’s larrikin charm sets the tone for the doco, before a stream of toe-tapping classics and fun, vital facts are employed to chart Rundgren’s influence and personality. Despite some tech shortcomings (mic placement and audio post is not the productions’ strong suit), this is a heartfelt, feel-good ode to a unique talent. If Todd Who? achieves its aim, and it deserves to, that title will become ironically redundant.
RATING: 4/5

The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is held from 9th – 11th July at Howler Art Space in Brunswick. Session and ticketing information can be found at the event’s official website.