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Entries in Australian film (47)

Saturday
Oct052019

TWO HEADS CREEK

Stars: Jordan Waller, Kathryn Wilder, Helen Dallimore, Gary Sweet, Kevin Harrington, Stephen Hunter, Don Bridges, Madelaine Nunn, Kent Lee, David Adlam and Kerry Armstrong.
Writer: Jordan Waller
Director: Jesse O’Brien

AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: Saturday October 12 at Cinema Nova as part of Fangoria x Monster Fest 2019 | Melbourne.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Under the guise of a raucous, bloody horror-comedy, writer/star Jordan Waller and director Jesse O’Brien nail some timely social commentary in their wildly entertaining collaboration, Two Heads Creek. A risky rumble with the Ocker archetype, the likes of which have fallen hard in the past (remember Welcome to Woop Woop?), this U.K./Australian co-production instead rips into racial stereotypes as incisively as it does muscle and bone.  

Bolstered by high-profile Oz acting talent not usually associated with this type of splattery romp, Waller and O’Brien expose the pink underbelly of systemic bigotry through broad satire, taking to it with all manner of barbed tools, literally and figuratively. At a time when the thinly disguised politics of hatred has infiltrated the mainstream, films that take the perpetrators down a peg or two are more important than ever.

In a remarkably assured left turn from his plummy work in the TV series Victoria, Waller stars as Norman, the sole remaining proprietor of a family-owned British butcher shop facing its final days. Despite his toffee Brit blonde-ness, Norman cops constant verbal and occasionally faecal abuse from his pro-Brexit working-class community (he’s Polish, it seems). When the opportunity presents itself to head Down Under and reconnect with his birth mother, he follows the spirited guidance of his fiery sister Annabelle (the terrific Kathryn Wilder, sharing convincing sibling chemistry with her co-star) and is soon in transit to the titular township.

Arriving in the rotting remnants of a once thriving rural life along with the ubiquitous Asian tour group, Annabelle and Norman soon become acquainted with the residents - boisterous blonde Apple (Helen Dallimore); her under-the-thumb hubby Noah (Kevin Harrington); displaced German aristocrat Hans (Gary Sweet); cranky old racist Uncle Morris (Don Bridges); and, effeminate publican Eric (David Adlam). The townsfolk represent the ugly elements of old Australia, an Anglo-European enclave of entitlement and inflated self-worth, ignorant of their life collapsing around them.

With only the highbrow sci-fi Arrowhead (2016) on his feature resume, O’Brien proves a naturally gifted director of anarchic yet pointed storytelling and the perfect conduit for Waller’s fish-out-of-water protagonist. By the time the third act kicks in, and thematic subtext of ugly racism meets the gory narrative trajectory of small-town cannibalism, O’Brien and Waller’s pacing and delivery is skilfully syncopated.

A smart, yet deliriously insane take on our dangerously ridiculous modern society, Two Heads Creek plays like a Monty Python-meets-Peter ‘Braindead’ Jackson reworking of Wake in Fright; a journey into the dark heart of ugly Australian culture by way of Sideshow Alley. The redemptive ray of light at the end of the horror tunnel is the notion that prejudice and intolerance can’t win and that, ultimately, ugly racism will eat itself.

Friday
Aug162019

MORGANA

Stars: Morgana Muses, Petra Joy, John Oh, Anna Brownfield, Judith Lucy and Candida Royale.
Directors: Josie Hess and Isabel Pappard

WORLD PREMIERE: Melbourne International Film Festival, Friday August 16 at The Capitol Theatre.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The emergence of a vibrant, creative free spirit from the constraints of societal expectation is captured with genuine affection in Morgana, co-directors Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s expansive yet deeply personal account of one woman’s coming-of-middle-age journey. Charting a course from the depths of despair to artistic and emotional fulfilment then back again, this frank, often funny and very moving portrait piece is an engaging crowd-pleaser, particularly for those who adhere to the sex-positive beliefs of their protagonist.

Having grown up in the harsh climes of Coober Pedy, Morgana Muses bought into the ‘suburban ideal’ of her mother’s longings and was soon constructing her own middle-class façade. Having married well and embraced motherhood, she soon found herself sadly unfulfilled in a union devoid of warmth; the dissolution of her marriage and subsequent disconnection from friends and family led to thoughts of self-harm. These moments are thoughtfully reconstructed through a ‘little boxes’ motif, in which Morgana is captured peering longingly through the windows of a grey suburban landscape.

The turning point came as Morgana’s life force was at its lowest ebb; a ‘last hurrah’ sexual experience awakened in her a hunger to explore the boundaries of what she always believed were acceptable sexual practices. With her old life fading fast, Morgana Muses reinvents herself as a feminist porn actress-filmmaker, her debut film Duty-Bound becoming an award-winning global hit that takes her from suburban Melbourne to the BDSM mecca, Berlin.

Via her friendship, co-director Hess (who features at key moments in her own doco) is afforded rare access into Morgana’s highs and lows over a period of several years; the 70-minute feature began life as a short, morphing into a frank and confronting study of mental health and its impact upon the creative process. Hess and Peppard, one of the local industry’s most respected animators and horror sector artists, are clearly advocates for the practice of ethical pornography and strong feminist ideals, but these themes, while central, never overshadow the universal humanity at the core of Morgana’s narrative.

Most importantly, the woman herself proves a complex, fearless frontwoman for her own story. Muses bares all, yet it is her physical openness which ultimately proves the least shocking of her revelations; the self-reflection and psychological torment she is willing to expose for the documentarian’s lens is first-person storytelling at its bravest. Audience empathy is so engaged that, by the time the ‘cherry-on-top’ moment happens deep in the third act, the intimacy required to fully accept every inch of Morgana Muses is comfortably in place. So sex positive and emotionally resonant is her factual film journey, everything about the body and soul baring of Morgana Muses feels convincingly empowering and wonderfully real.

Morgana Documentary - 'First Look' Teaser #2 from House of Gary on Vimeo.

Wednesday
Jun052019

PALM BEACH

Stars: Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Sam Neill, Jacqueline McKenzie, Richard E. Grant, Heather Mitchell, Matilda Brown, Aaron Jeffery, Claire van der Boom and Charlie Vickers.
Writers: Joanna Murray Smith and Rachel Ward.
Director: Rachel Ward

Reviewed at the OPENING NIGHT of the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, held at the State Theatre, Sydney on June 5.

Rating: ★ ★ ½

An amiable meander across the surface of middle-age melancholy, director Rachel Ward leaves little stylistic or narrative footprint on her second feature, Palm Beach. Largely turning her film over to production designer Melinda Doring and art director Sophie Nash, Ward’s boomer friendship fantasy is light on real world issues and heavy on champers, sunshine and how life’s little hiccups can take the sheen off wealthy privilege. Unlike the vast blue expanse off the titular shoreline, this is pretty shallow stuff.

Set amongst the bushy, seaside millionaire’s row at the far end of Sydney’s northern beaches, the thematic thrust of Palm Beach addresses that mature life moment when that which fulfils you, however shallow, comes under threat. For birthday boy Frank (Bryan Brown), it might be his aimless son Dan (Charlie Vickers), who may be the by-product of a fling between Frank’s wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi) and friend Leo (Sam Neill); for snotty cad Billy (Richard E Grant), it is his ad industry status and the aging glamour of his actress wife Eva (Heather Mitchell), herself struggling with career transition; and, for Leo’s noble wife Bridget (cast standout Jacqueline McKenzie, terribly underused), it is the life and love she has for husband and family.

Most of the first act is spent establishing the raffish bond the men share, the by-product of their days as mid-70s one-hit wonders The Pacific Sideburns (!) Having gathered at Frank’s sun-dappled mansion, they drink and sing and eat, just as Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble did but with far greater resonance in 1983s The Big Chill (clearly the template for Ward and co-scripter, Joanna Murray-Smith). Until the is-he-isn’t-he DNA conflict kicks in, there is little dramatic thrust, scene after scene merely coasting on the charismatic presence of a cast that works hard to make their decades’ long friendship at all believable.

The narrative moves from a boozy lunch, to a fancy dinner, to a pretty picnic, with little of convincing emotional heft at stake. Laughs come cheap, including such uninspiring set-ups as a farting yoga moment, a drunk-in-a-treehouse sequence and a stiffie joke (in service of a stiffie subplot). Some rote hospital scenes allow for Brown and Scacchi to capital-E emote; the ‘genetic origins’ drama resolves in an entirely perfunctory manner (admittedly, earning one of the film's few big legitimate laughs), reinforcing it was a meagre plot device to start with.

Young support players, including the director’s daughter Matilda Brown as Frank and Charlotte’s eldest child and Claire van der Boom and Aaron Jeffery as hot-&-cold lovers, are ok; Jeffery’s Esky-carrying, beer-drinking, squared-jaw sheep farmer is so morally upstanding his working-class hero is essentially the film’s ‘noble savage’ archetype. The top-heavy cast list means many of the actors are little more than background movement for long passages (particularly Grant, who seems to disappear entirely at key moments). Australia’s diverse multicultural society gets a tokenistic look-in when an Asian doctor and a cabbie of indeterminate European origin pop up for line readings.

In her feature directorial debut Beautiful Kate (getting a retro run at this year’s Sydney Film Festival), Rachel Ward weaved a solid dramatic thriller out of a ‘secrets of the past encroaching on the present’ premise; the inherent darkness of spirit and core existential struggle present in the 2009 film seemed to energise her storytelling. No similar elements exist in Palm Beach; it merely reinforces the perception held by much of rest of The Harbour City’s population that the suburb is an elite social enclave. If it does reflect anything truthful about modern Sydney society, it is that just because you’re pretty, it doesn’t mean you’re interesting.

Monday
Apr082019

MAYBE TOMORROW

Stars: Tegan Crowley, Vateresio Tuikaba, Chloe Martin, Ryan A. Murphy, Fabiana Weiner, Christapor Yaacoubian, Eva Seymour, Felise Morales, Alexandra Hines and Lucy Moir.
Writers/directors: Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones.

WORLD PREMIERE: Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5, 2019 at Home of the Arts (HOTA), Gold Coast, Queensland.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Two wide-eyed new parents decide to double-down on the stress of raising one newborn by creating another, in the form of a no-budget indie film, in Maybe Tomorrow. A bittersweet tug-of-war two-hander showcasing shifting gender roles, the drive to be creative and the hidden responsibilities of adulthood, the latest from the writing/directing team of Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones plays free-spirited and loose for much of the first act before the realities of the ‘work-and-family-balance’ myth kick in.

Farrugia, Jones and their acting troupe have eked out a niche following with their slice-of-young-inner-city-life films Lazybones (2017) and So Long (2017) and Maybe Tomorrow represents a natural progression for the auteurs, both narratively and artistically. They provide warm insight into the pressure placed upon grounded but idealistic Erin (Tegan Crowley) and her partner, the responsibility-averse, man-child Pat (Vateresio Tuikaba) as they determinedly prepare to shoot what emerges as an uncomfortably raw version of their pre-parenthood life together.

Crowley is an engaging presence as Erin, a young woman for whom childbirth has led to an acceptance of personal duty; she works a part-time café job, prepares shooting schedules and affords Pat a stay-at-home lifestyle in which he fully indulges. When her psychological edges start to fray, it feels particularly real. As Pat, Tuikaba is very likable in that cool, late-20s one-time party-guy way, so the struggles he begins to face in the early stages of manhood will strike a nerve with those at a similar existential crossroads.

Michael Jones has stated that the title refers to the late night response that spouses often give each other when one feels ready for love and the other doesn’t. That explanation speaks to the inevitable lessening of physical intimacy that new parents like Erin and Pat experience, although it is a phenomenon not really explored in the film. Their degree of intimacy has extended beyond the sexual into that relationship realm where you discuss heavy periods and bad farts with graceless familiarity.

However, the term ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ also represents a generational malaise synonymous with millennial culture; an October 2018 study of US citizens aged 18-34 found they are prone to procrastination above any other demographic, a theme explored with resonance and insight by the leads (in scenes of largely improvised dialogue). Erin is striving to stay above and move beyond the more mundane aspects of her world, while Pat is only just realizing that life may seem idyllic but is in fact moving past him.

While Farrugia and Jones empathise with their protagonists, they are not above some skewering of millennial pretension; Pat’s theory of keeping apple quarters in mason jars so he can yell moods into them is hilarious. With the film-within-a-film stuttering through production, Pat uses some downtime to blend homemade kombucha, to which boom operator Eva (Eva Seymour) enquires, “What do you do on this set?” Not every scene nails its intent; that hoary old comedy bit, the ‘awkward family Christmas meal’, feels like padding, while a rehearsal montage of bad actors trying for parts in Pat and Erin’s film is overplayed.

Where Maybe Tomorrow works, and works beautifully, is in its study of the strain placed on love and commitment that dreams and desires can bring. The final frames inspire a longing for the young couple’s happiness, but play out ambiguously; we hope for their mutual fulfillment, but are left wondering whether they can make that happen for each other.

Tuesday
Jan222019

EMOCEAN

With: Brent Bielman, Baptiste Gossein, Mike Prickett, Jeff Schmucker, Dave Kalama, Jamie Mitchell, Jamie O’Brien, Trevor Carlson, Jeff Clarke, Matt Becker, Andrew Brooks, Paul Witzig, sacha Guggenheimer and Dave MacAuley.
Writer/Director: Tony Harrington

Screening at 2019 Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5 at the BCC Cinemas, Coolangatta.

Reviewed at 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 20 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour.

Rating: ★★★★½

Part lyrical ode to the lure of the sea, part giddy sports adventure travelogue, Tony Harrington’s latest epic ocean odyssey Emocean is as heartfelt a love letter as man has ever penned for The Big Blue. In seeking out the essence of our attraction to and affinity with the wild, natural wonder of the planet’s water environments, the legendary cameraman has profoundly defined humanity’s oceanic bond, while also redefining just how insightful and moving the sports-doc genre is capable of being. In the film's own words, "That metre, above and below the water, has got something special...".

Drawing upon his experiences exploring the world’s most majestic coastlines and a rolodex of global contacts whose lives are intricately linked to life underwater, Harrington finds tragedy, joy and wonder in the recollections of his interviewees. His film is most engaging when he tracks generational ties to the sea, such as the love that Western Australian pro-surfing great Dave MacAulay shares with his daughters, pro international Bronte amongst them; South Australian coastal conservation pioneer Andrew Brooks, whose vision preserved the beauty of vast waterfront bushland for surfers for years to come; and, fisherman Jeff Schmucker, whose family have lived off the bounty and beauty of the South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula for four generations.

Few documentarians can claim to have as unique an understanding of their subject’s psyche as Harrington clearly does. The families of surfers, fisherman, scientists or beach dwellers who view their connection to the ocean as integral to their very existence mirrors that of the filmmaker; in drawing out their experiences, he is exploring and questioning his own life choices in a manner that strengthens the community of which he is part. 

Most soulful of the on-camera personalities are those who have fallen victim to the dangers of the deep yet are still drawn to the life. Young French surfer Baptiste Gossein, rendered paraplegic surfing Teahupo’o, or cinematographer Mike Prickett, left wheelchair bound after rescuing his scuba partner but suffering a crippling attack of decompression sickness, aka ‘the bends’, open up to Harrington’s camera with a courage and matter-of-factness that is truly inspiring.

Of course, Harrington’s legend was built upon his surfing footage, and Emocean is most energised when it explores the compulsion that otherwise sane men have to surf waves four-storey’s high. To the surfing community, exploring the passion and personalities of such icons as Maverick’s groundbreaker Jeff Clarke, fearless conquerors of the Maui ‘Jaws’ swell like Trevor Carlson and Dave Kalama, and Pipeline great Jamie O’Brien will be worth the price of admission; the footage that accompanies their accounts of lives spent hurtling down the face of a water-walls that can reach 50-feet into the air is breathtaking (the frame-perfect editing of Trinity Ludlow Hudson is technically superb). Wipeout footage is used sparingly but delivers the bone-crunching feels when called upon.

There is an undeniable sense of destiny about Harrington’s assured direction and storytelling in Emocean, that his latest film is the one he has been building towards. It is a work that not only displays the consummate skill of a cinematic craftsman at the peak of his prowess, but also of a man who has tapped what is most profoundly essential to his life to help him forge his most potent creative statement to date.

EMOCEAN - Trailer from HarroArt on Vimeo.

 

Thursday
Jan172019

SALT BRIDGE

Stars: Rajeev Khandelwal, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Usha Jadhav, Kaushik Das, Shoorjo Dasgupta, Adam Grant and Mayur Kamble.
Writers: Abhijit Deonath and Shvetal Vyas Pare.
Director: Abhijit Deonath.

Rating: ★★★½

Examining the Indian immigrant experience from a fresh and personal perspective, director Abhijit Deonath melds traditional male role-model expectations with contemporary relationship melodrama to largely winning affect in his debut feature, Salt Bridge. Shot entirely in Australia, with Sydney and Canberra locales doubling as the fictional township of the title, the long-in-production independent project will play well with diaspora populations, who all-too-rarely get to see their transplanted lives in a thoughtful big-screen narrative.

Most recently, of course, Garth Davies’ hit Lion (2016) cast an eye over the Indian expat existence; central to Deonath’s plot are the shared themes of memory and reconciliation with the past (though far less overtly stated here). The director introduces his protagonist, thirty-something medical researcher Basant (Rajeev Khandelwal) staring longingly from a train window, his mind revisiting a moment long ago that still consumes him. Khandelwal is terrific, exuding the soulful sensitivity of a man burdened with a dark past, yet every inch the classic Indian leading-man type (his brooding pout recalling Hollywood actor Jason Patric in his prime).

With his equally-photogenic wife Lipi (Usha Jadhav) and listless teen son Riju (Shoorjo Dasgupta) counting on him to fulfill his potential and provide for their new Australian suburban life, Basant decides to take driving lessons with instructor Madhurima (Chelsie Preston Crayford). Also immersed in the migrant life (she’s a New Zealander, married to an Indian), the pair soon bond in the most charming and innocent of ways. One of N.Z.’s most accomplished young actresses, Crayford (What We Do In The Shadows, 2014; Eagle vs Shark, 2007) and her leading man share a lovely chemistry, ensuring their developing platonic friendship is entirely believable.

Soon, their friends and then the wider Indian society take an interest in the new besties, assuming the most salacious, and Basant finds himself outcast from his community, his family and, regrettably, Madhurima. Having posed the question ‘Can a man and woman just be friends?’, Deonath dissects the issue within the broader context of the modern male’s role in Indian culture. His script (penned with the assistance of Shvetal Vyas Pare) succinctly embraces the hot-button topic of toxic masculinity and India’s patriarchal traditions, but does so through the filter of western cultural influence. If the story structure and momentum occasionally stumbles (most notably, a confusing sequence in the wake of a near-tragedy at the film’s midway point), Deonath’s skill with character and dialogue more than compensates.

Deonath drives home his gender subtext by focussing Basant’s research work on mitochondria, the power generator of any complex living cell, the existence of which is maternally inherited. The nods to modern science extend all the way to the film’s title – a ‘salt bridge’ occurs in proteins, creating a bond between oppositely charged residues that are sufficiently close to each other to experience electrostatic attraction; it is a deft, if slightly highbrow way, of defining the relationship between Basant and Madhurima.

Salt Bridge is a commercially savvy undertaking as well, including an explosively colourful Holi celebration and some neat dance moves, although it is far too influenced by its western setting to go ‘full Bollywood’. Australian viewers will be bemused by the people-free (and very green) parklands, empty highways, pristine cityscapes and autumnal suburban streets that provide the backdrop for the drama; it is a perception of life on these shores that plays well overseas, but is a bit of a stretch to those of us caught in the metropolitan crush of everyday life.

All tech aspects exceed any budgetary constraints, with the film looking lived-in and real while still seeming professionally polished in every respect. Especially noteworthy is Miguel Gallagher’s camerawork, whose eye for finding beauty is even on-song when framing the not-always inspirationally picturesque national capital.

Wednesday
Dec122018

UNDER THE COVER OF CLOUD

Stars: Ted Wilson, Colleen Wilson, Louis Modeste-Leroy, Jessie Wilson and David Boon.
Writer/Director: Ted Wilson.

Screening at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 10-25.

Rating: ★★★½

A bighearted ode to the often-satirised middle-class white suburban upbringing, multi-hyphenate Ted Wilson has crafted a warm, winning low-key gem of a movie in Under the Cover of Cloud. A largely-improvised drama about a writer’s struggle to find inspiration, starring the director’s family and shot verite-style in the suburbs of Tasmania, this meandering yet meaningful take on the ties that bind will reward those seeking a different sort of cinema experience.   

Physically recalling the Matt Day/John Polson type of understated leading man, Wilson plays a journo suddenly without a steady paycheck, facing what he senses is a turning point in his professional development. When that proves all too much for him to deal with (by mid-opening credits), he heads south deciding to write a book about his home state’s best Test cricket batsmen (perhaps a sly joke for cricket lovers, as there haven’t been too many top order players from The Apple Isle).

In a manner that recalls the free-form storytelling styles of Henry Jaglom and John Cassavettes, Wilson re-engages with his mum, siblings and their spouses, niece and nephew toddlers, in scene after scene that seem to be largely about family matters, good memories and happy times. Frankly, a couple of crying 4 year-olds aside, every one seems to be pretty happy in Under the Cover of Cloud (although the title, which certainly corresponds with Tassie’s chilly grey pallor, might also symbolise Wilson’s depressed mood).

Neither Wilson nor his narrative seem to be particularly interested in the book project; he asks every one he knows if they can connect him with Tassie cricketing icon David Boon, which sums up the plot. At one point, the dishevelled author-to-be (who seems to have only bought the clothes he travelled in) sits down to start work, until distracted by chickens. Wilson’s film is not about writer's block or the struggle to create, but about shared moments with loved ones that coalesce as a portrait of a man's formative years. He picks lemons with his mother, plays board games with his sister, digs in the sand with his nephews; these are the daily events that refocus a soul chewed up and spat back from the mainland.

Detractors will say the film resembles an essay on entitlement; Wilson constantly seeks reassurance and aid from his family, who also offer free board (despite his complaints about a cold room) and plenty of meals, while gracing everyone around him with observations on their lives. That he emerges as an empathic and relatable leading character (and man) is arguably one of the film’s more remarkable achievements.

The end justifies the means in Under the Cover of Cloud. There is too much sincerity, charm and insight in Wilson’s family dynamic for cynicism to derail his film. A final frame dedication, which crystallizes the writer/director’s motivation, is a heart-tugger; it provides an added dimension of bittersweet melancholy that reveals what an extraordinary collection of ordinary people The Wilson clan truly are.

Thursday
Aug232018

CHASING COMETS

Stars: Dan Ewing, John Batchelor, Isabel Lucas, Stan Walker, Rhys Muldoon, Justin Melvey, George Houvardas, Gary Eck, Peter Phelps and Beau Ryan.
Writer: Jason Stevens
Director: Jason Perini

Rating: 3/5

‘The engaging true story of a rugby league player’s faith-based search for enlightened soulfulness’ is not the opening salvo a critic expects to ever write, especially given the pre-release marketing for Chasing Comets was all boozy blokes and locker room skylarking. Yet writer Jason Stevens, whose life transformation from laddish layabout to celebrity celibate provides the basis for director Jason Perini’s likably roughhewn sports/faith dramedy, exhibits a keen eye for gentle melancholy and good-natured integrity with his debut script.

Leading man Dan Ewing progresses from playing a country footballer fighting aliens in Occupation (2018) to playing a country footballer fighting temptation in Wagga Wagga. The Home & Away heartthrob stars as the improbably named Chase Daylight, glamour boy of local bush leaguers The Comets and well on the path to first grade NRL glory. Yet ill-discipline and a tendency to be easily distracted by his hedonistic mate Rhys (Stan Walker) threatens to undo all the good faith placed in him by his single mum Mary (Deborah Galanos), manager/mentor Harry (Peter Phelps) and very patient girlfriend Brooke (Isabel Lucas).

When one indiscretion too many proves the final straw for Brooke, Chase descends into a funk that sees him benched by Coach Munsey (Peter Batchelor) and his potential begin to stagnate. At precisely the moment that Chase has a (symbolic) breakdown, up steps ‘The Rev’ (George Houvardas) who, with his daughter Dee (the lovely Kat Hoyos; pictured, below), begins to school Chase in the character building properties of Christian principles, in particular an adherence to abstinence; Chase becomes a born-again virgin. This revelation proves a giggly delight to his teammates, led by player ‘personality’ Beau Ryan (one of several real-life league cameos, including South Sydney general manager Shane Richardson and commentator Daryl ‘The Big Marn’ Brohmann, as well as Sydney socialite-types DJ Havana Brown and gossip journo Jo Casamento).

In the early ‘00s, Stevens garnered sports-page coverage and copped some infantile ridicule when his life of celibacy became public fodder. At the height of his NRL fame, the representative-level tough guy did not skirt around what it meant to be devout, but he largely refrained from religious grandstanding (despite having the sporting stature and media profile to successfully do so). His script for Chasing Comets not-so-subtly redresses that balance; there are preachy passages that will fall heavily on the ears of non-believers and those that have turned up for that blokey yarn about country league shenanigans the trailer promised.

Of course, this tendency towards message-moviemaking does not diminish its legitimacy as a solid slice of local sector filmmaking. Notably, it sits alongside J.D. Scott's Spirit of the Game (2016) as an early Australian entrant in the burgeoning ‘faith-based’ genre coming out of the U.S; Stevens and Perini’s narrative is every frame as committed to the cause as such sports-themed Christian films as the Oscar-winning The Blind Side (2009), Soul Surfer (2011), When The Game Stands Tall (2014) and Woodlawn (2015).

Steven’s screenwriting inexperience cannot be totally ignored – his women characters are largely one-note, either pitched as redemptive angels or sly temptresses; Lucas is neither, but struggles to find much to work with as the hard-done-by Brooke. Also, the production drops the ball at a couple of key moments; for some reason, Chase’s re-emergence as the town’s sporting hero is staged offscreen, the thrill of the game-winning try (surely the very moment for which these sort of films exist) left to veteran Peter Phelps to convey – while alone, listening to a radio in a Chinese restaurant.

Taking into consideration the moments when it stumbles, the most satisfying aspect of Chasing Comets is that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts; it shouldn’t work so well as a contemporary mix of small-town charm, hard man mateship and heavenly intervention, but Steven’s story certainly does.

Wednesday
Aug152018

BOOK WEEK

Stars: Alan Dukes, Airlie Dodds, Susan Prior, Rose Riley, Rhys Muldoon, Pippa Grandison, Thuso Lekwape, Toby Schmitz, Khan Chittenden, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Jolene Anderson, Tiriel Mora, Dean Kyrwood, Vanessa Buckley and Steve Le Marquand.
Writer/director: Heath Davis

WORLD PREMIERE: Melbourne International Film Festival, Wednesday August 15, 2018.

Rating: 4/5

That most engaging, enraging cinematic archetype – the boozy, lecherous but lovable literary talent gone off the rails – is given an Antipodean spin in Heath Davis’ charmingly roguish, bittersweet working-class drama, Book Week. Despite borrowing high-brow observations of the writer’s lot in life from such names as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Bukowski, Davis’ occasionally coarse but lovably melancholy character study is a crowdpleasingly broad tale of personal redemption.

Lifelong support player Alan Dukes masterfully crafts a career-defining lead turn as Nicholas Cutler, the flailing author/reluctant academic wallowing in egotism, irresponsibility and mounting panic. If the actor starts the film walking in the footsteps of Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys (2000) and Tom Conti’s Gowan McGland from Reuben Reuben (1983), Duke soon charts his own, equally wonderful acting path, resulting in a performance every bit as heartwarming/breaking as those revered characterisations.

Cutler once wrote a book that did well, but is now a high school teacher overseeing teens typically dismissive of literary greatness; as he tries to awaken in them a modicum of passion for Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, the students text, “Cutler is a dick.” And they are mostly right; it is a credit to Duke’s leading-man likability (the actor resembling a seen-better-days version of Richard Dreyfuss, by way of Bill Murray’s observational wryness) that Cutler does not come off as too pathetic or wantonly self-destructive to empathise with.

Over the titular period (an Aussie tradition created to drum up interest in reading and usually involving a celebratory dress-up day), Cutler remains either inebriated or trying to be, leading to clashes with upstart student-author Melanie (Rose Riley); drunken sex with free-spirited placement teacher and kindred spirit, Sarah (a terrific Airlie Dodds); inappropriate complications with age-appropriate co-worker Ms. Issen (Susan Prior, wonderful); and, a destined-for-disaster carers role, keeping wayward teen Tyrell (Thuso Lekwape) out of ‘juvie.’

The other key subplot tracks Cutler’s re-emergence as a writer, albeit of a zombie lark that reeks of career desperation, and his anxiety levels ahead of its not-quite-confirmed publication. This narrative strand, with some contributions from Rhys Muldoon, Toby Schmitz and Khan Chittenden, pitched pretty highly. Solid bit-part thesping from the likes of Jolene Anderson, Nicholas Hope, Maya Stange, Pippa Grandison and Tiriel Mora is all of the highest quality, although the film certainly feels overpopulated at times; the small-town complications and interactions occasionally echo beats of TV series formatting (with such a transition certainly viable, as there is the pulse of David Duchovny’s Californication cad Hank Moody in Cutler’s ways and a roster of characters ripe for expansion).

Book Week is most enthralling when Dukes is allowed to delve into Cutler’s darker psyche; several of the film’s best moments are when the actor has the frame to himself, or indulges in introspective angst with Dodd’s Sarah (a breakthrough role for the wonderful actress). Heath Davis announced himself as a skilful observer of damaged talents with his 2016 feature debut Broke, and his similarly-themed sophomore feature is as good a follow-up effort as the Australian industry has seen in some time. For an auteur so well versed in the existential misery of the ‘fallen idol’, Davis has to date fashioned two entirely winning films.

Saturday
Aug042018

LIVING UNIVERSE

Narrator: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
Featuring: Natalie Batalha, Gentry Lee, Avi Loeb, Karin Öberg, Sar Seager, Steve Squyres and the voice of Prof. Tamara Davis.

Rating: 4/5

Melding mesmerizing CGI visions of interstellar starscapes and alien worlds with earthbound wisdom and state-of-the-art tech provided by some of the greatest minds in space science, the Australian/French co-production Living Universe will leave both dreamers and doers pining for what the future folds.

Not for the first time in movie history, posing the question ‘Are we alone?’ proves to be the entry point for a terrific film experience. Mulling over the connotations of that questions are the likes of Steve Squyres, NASA Space Science Advisory Committee chairperson; Swedish astrochemist Karin Öberg; JPL Chief Engineer Gentry Lee, currently serving NASA’s Planetary Flight Systems Drectorate; astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist on NASA’s Kepler initiative; and, Avi Loeb, Harvard’s Professor of Science.

As the collective might of this academic hive-mind ponders the hows, where and whys of intergalactic exploration, the journey of the A.I.-piloted spacecraft Aurora to the distant ‘exoplanet’ Minerva B unfolds, 150 years from now. These sequences are gorgeous flights of fancy, conjured by effects gurus tasked with crafting galaxy clouds, meteor storms and, ultimately, ‘flesh and bone’ manifestations in answer to the question originally posed.

The production stops short of going full-Avatar; to undertake a dirt-to-civilization exercise in world building is best left to the budgets of Hollywood studios. Living Universe instead imagines that the very first moments of contact and discovery, enabled by drone-tech and spider-bot androids, will be at a base biological level but no less wonderful or awe-inspiring because of it.   

The narration of Aussie celeb-scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki will play better with international audiences; local patrons may be too familiar with his floral-shirt public persona to fully accept him in such an earnest mood. That said, his contributions clearly convey information and succinctly posit theories and conjecture that may be otherwise daunting for non-space types.

Emerging as the most engaging presence is Australian astrophysicist Tamara Davis (pictured, above), who vocalises the A.I. operating system ‘Artemis’ aboard the Aurora. Unlike ‘Mother’, the femme-voiced super-computer of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Davis’ cyber-conscience proves empathetic, inquisitive and ideal as Earth’s ambassador at the point of ‘first contact’.

The WORLD PREMIERE Australian Season of LIVING UNIVERSE commences August 9 at Event Cinemas nationally; from August 11 at Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (Sydney); and, from August 30 at IMAX Melbourne Museum. Check the official website for other venues.