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Entries in Australian film (32)

Wednesday
Dec132017

SWINGING SAFARI

Stars: Radha Mitchell, Guy Pearce, Julian McMahon, Kylie Minogue, Asher Keddie, Jack Thompson, Alice Lanesbury, Georgia Mae, Jacob Elordi and Jeremy Sims.
Writer/Director: Stephan Elliott

Rating: 4/5

People of a certain age (i.e., me) love rose-coloured glassing what a freer, wilder, uninhibited time the 1970s was to grow up an Australian. As Richard Roxburgh’s dulcet tones confess in the opening narration of Stephan Elliott’s raucous ode to that decade’s suburban debauchery, such recollections are probably blown out of realistic proportion. In cinematic terms, that is called ‘artistic licence’, and while it will be the only time ‘artistic’ is used to describe anything about Swinging Safari, that won’t matter a bit to audiences primed for retro fashions, loose morals and capital-B broad comedy.

Playing like a boozy, floozy Antipodean mash-up of TV staple The Wonder Years and Paul Mazursky’s middle class mores romp Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Elliott casts the terrific Atticus Robb as his adolescent alter-ego Jeff Marsh, a sensitive teenager whose obsessions know only two forms – movies and girl-next-door Melly (Darcey Wilson), an equally ill-at-ease tweenager barely coping with the madness that unfolds daily in their cul-de-sac existence. Jeff ropes in the neighbourhood kids to make life-threatening Super 8 action films under his ‘Deathcheaters’ banner, while Melly struggles with a Jan Brady-like life of perpetual moodiness and parental indifference.

While Jeff’s ‘backyard Spielberg’ narrative reflects Elliott’s early directorial flare, the bawdy adult exploits in Swinging Safari capture the essence of the filmmaker’s grown-up career output, as a maelstrom of sexual tension sweeps through the neighbourhood in the wake of a failed spouse-swapping incident. That antiquated alpha masculinity that plays as hilariously sexist in today’s climate is captured in Guy Pearce’s bottle-blond, moustachioed man-child Keith, Julian McMahon’s gaudily wealthy leer Rick and Jeremy Sims’ loud-but-decent third wheel Bob; their respective spouses are Kylie Minogue’s neurotic souse Kaye, Radha Mitchell’s sexed-up swinger Jo and Asher Keddie’s tightly-wound, image-conscious Gale.

Every one of the game stars plays to the back row with performances that demand the kind of largeness needed to dominate their director’s frantic pacing (courtesy of ace editor Sue Blainey) and raucous soundscape. Elliott’s work has favoured settings and circumstance rich in generally distasteful, occasionally funny comedy and characterisations as big as the Outback often, not coincidentally, filmed in the Outback (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, 1994; Welcome to Woop Woop, 1997; A Few Best Men, 2011).

The red dust of Australia’s centre is replaced by the golden sands of Nobby Beach and shimmering bitumen of Wyong Place in Swinging Safari, but perhaps more than ever the mise-en-scène is the true star of a Stephen Elliott film. Every frame is filled with lovingly detailed recollections of the plastic period that will instantly engender that warm nostalgic glow in those lucky enough to have lived it. The fashions are the most obvious call back, but everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken TVCs, the entire K-Tel catalogue, moon chairs, Valiant chargers and cheese fondue sets are referenced. Colin Gibson’s production design, Jodie Whetter’s art direction and Justine Dunn’s set direction bring Elliott’s memories to vivid life in what must have been a dream gig; Oscar winner Lizzy Gardner’s costuming is, expectedly, a treat.

Even more resonant are the behavioural and social beats that Elliott skewers; parenting techniques and beach etiquette that seemed entirely appropriate in the day yet are now mined for instant hilarity. While some of his other pics have exhibited an occasionally bitter streak, Elliott seems to hold true affection for this time and place; despite its high-pitched shrillness, Swinging Safari is his warmest, funniest and most likable film since …Priscilla.

 

Tuesday
Nov212017

LANDFALL

Stars: Kristen Condon, Rob Stanfield, Daryl Heath, Andy Bramble, Bailey Stevenson, Shawn Brack, Tony Bonner, Anthony Ring and Vernon Wells.
Writer/Director: Travis Bain

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Sunday November 26 at 12.30pm at Melbourne’s Lido Cinema.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pitching all the elements at just the right serious/comic tone to pull off a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Landfall is a tough ask; too much either way, neither works satisfactorily. So all credit to multi-hyphenate Travis Bain, who gives it a damn good shake in his slyly funny, convincingly twisty exercise in narrative acrobatics and Tarantino-esque pop culture riffing.

Set against the same F.N.Q./tropical cyclone backdrop as his debut Scratched (2005), the director introduces young couple Maisie (Kristen Condon) and Dylan (Rob Stanfield) in a beachfront home with time running out. Just as they decide to head for higher ground, an ambulance, its lights darkened, pulls into the driveway. Imposing themselves on the young couple are three unsavoury types, decked in paramedic garb – the badly injured Ringo (Bailey Stevenson), a gravelly-voiced George (Andy Bramble) and the weapons-wielding leader, Paul (the imposing Daryl Heath).

The group dynamic is skilfully constructed, with barely a breath taken before all the elements are in place – the details of the crime committed, the McGuffin in the corner of the room, the backstory that binds the diverse group together. Bain does not allow the premise’s occasionally creaky credibility to sneak into his story until well into the second act, when burly cop Wexler (Vernon Wells) becomes entangled in the increasingly convoluted intrigue. The extent to which Bain's script explores all possible avenues for his characters and their motivations becomes a tad exhausting, though ultimately answers all the questions he poses.

But the young director has more on his mind than uncoiling genre machinations. A film-buff’s pedigree begins to reveal itself, notably in a terrifically funny piece of dialogue between Paul and Wexler, in which the criminal riffs on his favourite movies. Heath’s thuggish brute offers up (in this critics opinion) a long overdue takedown of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which Bain then recalls in the film’s final moments; the biggest laugh comes when Paul drops one particular fave, allowing Wells a priceless few frames of film to respond.

Spinning his violent home invasion thriller off into QT territory is a bold move; some viewers and critics may be less forgiving of the dogleg tonal turn. However, what Bain does achieve with an especially assured touch is a knowingness that lifts it out of its ‘competent B-thriller’ confines and ups its value as genre homage.

On those terms, Landfall unexpectedly plays like a mash-up of two undervalued Nicholas Cage pics – the goofy three-crims-on-the-run comedy Trapped in Paradise (1994), and the actors’ own twisty kidnapping thriller, Trespass (2011), opposite Nicole Kidman. The film is also under the spell of Cape Fear (1991), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Ref (1994), to name just a few.

The other benefit brought from accepting Bain’s pitch-black comedy stylings is that several performances sharpen from broad caricature into cutting satire; best amongst them are the terrific Heath, Condon’s counter-intuitive damsel-in-distress and young Stevenson, as the firebrand Ringo. Further confirmation of the pic’s cheekiness are the cameo turns from Shawn Brack and Australian acting legend Tony Bonner as mates, ‘Trev’ and ‘Kev’.

 

Sunday
Nov052017

THE MARSHES

Stars: Dafna Kronental, Sam Delich, Mathew Cooper, Zac Drayson, Amanda McGregor and Eddie Baroo
Writer/Director: Roger Scott.

Reviewed ahead of the Australian Premiere at the 2017 A Night of Horror Film Festival; December 1, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The jolly swagman of Australian folklore is not so jovial in Roger Scott’s swampy psycho-thriller, The Marshes. A nasty piece of work in which the spirit of the bushman traveller escalates his penchant for opportunistic crime from sheep stealing to stalking and stabbing, Scott’s twisty deconstruction of slasher pic tropes is as good a calling-card pic as we’ve seen from a young Aussie genre filmmaker since Damien Power’s similarly sinister Killing Ground in 2016.

The Marshes adheres to a well-trodden ‘big smoke-vs-hillbilly’ opening act, as in when eco-warrior academic Dr Pria Anan (Dafna Kronental) has some fightin’ words at a last-stop gas station with brawny pig-hunter Zac Drayson. With her offsiders Will (Sam Delich) and Ben (Matthew Cooper), she forges ahead with her research field-trip deep into remote marshlands, only to have her days filled with further pig-hunter angst and her nights disrupted by a nightmarish presence haunting her campsite.

Scott’s storytelling skills kick into high gear in Act 2, when the threat turns out to be more than a cranky shooter and the landscape of the marsh reveals otherworldly secrets dating back to wild colonial days. With the aid of some skilful lensing from DOP Giovanni Lorusso, who switches from lush, sun-dappled widescreen location work to tight, terrifying close-ups, Scott amps up the menace and revs up the gore at expertly timed intervals.

Audiences will be challenged at times to go with the film’s divergent path into the slightly surreal. Some narrative ‘dog legs’ recall the occasionally head-scratching developments in the TV hit Lost, yet the cut-and-slice thrills of classic Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type entertainment remain ever present throughout the pic’s second-half.   

Traditionalists who view the larrikin swaggie of ‘Waltzing Matilda’-fame as some kind of Aussie hero are going to be rattled by Scott’s version of the iconic figure, brought to hulking, horrifying life by big-man actor Eddie Baroo and kitted out in period-authentic swag-and-drizabone attire by costumer Maria Papandrea. As Pria, the terrific Kronental (channelling Sigourney Weaver, circa ’79, in both looks and intensity at key moments) offers a striking and powerful version of the ‘final girl’/horror heroine.

The Marshes is technically top tier, with Jessica Mustacio’s cutting of the intense handheld camerawork a standout, Nigel Christensen’s sound design crucial to The Swagman’s ominous presence and Tristan Coelho’s atmospheric score adding immeasurably to the tension. Despite the cultural origins central to the story and some broad colloquial language, the authentic locations (which look to have made for an arduous shoot) are not typically synonymous with the Down Under setting and should help sales agents spruik The Marshes as a deserved global marketplace player.

 

Thursday
Nov022017

THREE SUMMERS

Stars: Robert Sheehan, Rebecca Breeds, Michael Caton, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Kelton Pell, Peter Rowsthorn, Kate Box, Nichola Balestri and Jacqueline McKenzie.
Writer/Director: Ben Elton

Rating: 1/5

Conceptually, the lives that criss-cross during a Western Australian regional music festival over three years should at least yield an amiable, toe-tapping crowd pleaser perfectly suited to this country’s larrikin storytelling skills. One imagines that was exactly the film that funding bodies Screenwest and Screen Australia must have trusted director Ben Elton would deliver when they backed whatever version of his script they okayed.

Because what the British-born/WA-based filmmaker delivers could not possibly be the movie that our best ‘creative minds’ gave their blessing and our dollars towards. If that isn’t the case, and Three Summers is what the production sector deems to be a comically engaging and commercially viable final product…well, the industry is in as bad a shape as the naysayers claim it to be.

Three Summers uses the coming together of a culturally diverse group of musos and assorted hangers-on for the fictional  ‘Westival’ music event as the device to paint a portrait of Australia Today. Over the titular months, this blazingly obvious, one-dimensional microcosm of the nation’s race and gender biases moves at a snail’s pace towards a fanciful and insultingly tone-deaf sequence of reconciliation, featuring a Morris dancer and a troupe of Indigenous boys, that represent some of the worst frames in Australian cinema history.

The central romantic players are an insufferable Irish theremin whiz (Robert Sheehan, bringing hipster pretension without a breath of irony) and a feisty folk-fiddler (Rebecca Breeds, whose sheer likability and grounded sweetness make her the film’s sole saving grace). Their meet-cute is lacklustre, then they blather on interminably that requires both actors to pitch higher and work harder than any actor should. Elton doesn’t write real-world dialogue, instead favouring cute quips and, when called upon, long issue-based diatribes that emerge randomly, awkwardly, and with little relevance to the dramatic context.

Because, above any other concern, Three Summers wants to present a fierce far-left political statement on the ills inflicting contemporary Australian society. However twee and cute-sy it colours itself (which it does, gratingly so), Elton’s film most wants to be a smashing takedown of the intolerant and ignorant. Every character rants against and/or deals in the extreme with situations such as racism, date sexual assault, alcoholism, Indigenous rights, etc, etc.

Via his ‘racist old white guy who sees the truth’ stereotype Michael Caton, the director offers up a solution; try to understand each other better, so that you may better understand yourself. If that sounds like a meme you hurriedly scroll past in your Facebook feed, the kind accompanied by a picture of a monkey hugging a lion cub, then you understand its effectiveness as a feature film’s central theme.

The film’s shallow phoniness is easy to pinpoint. It preaches tolerance, yet makes a gag out of a burly security guard’s weakness being her latent homosexuality. Elton sidetracks the plot entirely to indulge in a detention centre rant, delivered by the handsomely groomed lead singer of an Afghan folk-group, who describes their existence as “hell” (a hell in which they can rehearse a music festival set, apparently). And it tanks even as the most basic of rom-com conceits; the leads seem to genuinely dislike each other’s company, and the support players (usual Screen Australia-approved faces like Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Magda Szubanski and Michael Caton) fail to bring background laughs or gravitas.

Take away from the mess that is Three Summers this thought: is the current funding model that determines what big screen, commercial comedies get made in Australia working? What the script consultants and financing heads are currently signing off on – in the last few years, critical and commercial duds like Spin Out, A Few Less Men, UNindian and Now Add Honey – suggests not; good comedies get made – A Girl Asleep, That’s Not Me, Down Under – but can’t draw audiences. Three Summers is another red mark against the current regime calling the shots on what they think the Australian public will find funny.

Friday
Oct272017

THE GATEWAY

Stars: Jacqueline McKenzie, Myles Pollard, Hayley McIlhinney, Shannon Berry, Troy Coward, Ben Mortley, Ryan Panizza and Shirley Toohey.
Writers: John V Soto and Michael White.
Director: John V Soto.

Opening Night selection of the 2017 SciFi Film Festival; reviewed at Event Cinemas George Street, October 11, 2017.

Rating 3.5/5

A compelling turn from a committed leading lady and a twisty premise skilfully executed will ensure The Gateway finds avid fans amongst sci-fi types seeking thoughtful, discussion-starting cinema. Having previously spun fan-friendly yarns in the fields of 80s-style erotic thriller (Crush, 2009), horror (Needle, 2009) and police procedural (The Reckoning, 2014), Perth-based auteur John V. Soto takes on the science-fiction realm with his typically slick visual style and strong adherence to that all-important ‘internal logic’.

Working with the learned mind of co-writer Michael White (co-author of non-fiction tomes profiling the likes of Hawking, Darwin, Asimov and Einstein), Soto explores the notion of parallel planes of existence via the science of particle and quantum physics. Providing the crucial emotional centre to a narrative that occasionally requires wordy exposition is the wonderful Jacqueline McKenzie, whose layered portrayal of a grieving woman willing to compromise time and space to reunite with her dearly departed is great genre acting.

McKenzie plays Dr. Jane Chandler, a particle physicist running a small-scale lab with offsider Regg (Ben Mortley), the pair on the verge of cracking the secrets of molecular deconstruction and teleportation. The experiments have led to the discovery of multi-dimensional realities; not only do teleported objects reappear, but they are tracked through alternate worlds, similar but distinctly different to our own.  

When Jane’s world is sent into a downward spiral following the sudden death of her partner Matt (Myles Pollard), she acts with her broken heart and not her level head (in scenes that recall those moments of Jeff Goldblum’s ill-fated melancholy in Cronenberg’s The Fly); the doctor teleports herself into a darker, more ominous other-world and re-acquaints herself with the ‘other-Matt’. Blinded by her sorrow to the trickle-down consequences of her actions, Jane puts herself and her shared worlds at risk, leading to desperate (and, frankly, slightly too convoluted to detail here) attempts to right her wrongs.

McKenzie is an actress confident within the sci-fi/horror milieu, primarily because she largely ignores the genre trappings and drills down on the emotional and psychological underpinnings of her characters. She wasn’t given that much to do in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999), yet remains fondly remembered for the role; as the lead in the series The 4400, she imbued the entire production with immense integrity. Such is her impact in The Gateway; the actress explores the film’s soulful consideration of grief, desperation and compromised principles with maturity, warmth and insight.

At time of writing, The Gateway has already impressed those in the know, with trophies at Austin’s Revelation Film Festival and nominations from several other genre juries. It bodes well for Soto’s ambitious vision, which punches above its budgeted weight thanks to strong contributions from Western Australia's acting community, pro lensing by DOP David Le May and the production design of Monique Wajon.

Smart, emotionally resonant science-fiction is a rare commodity; The Gateway will chart a course through international markets that reinforces the Australian industry does it as well as any sector.

Tuesday
Sep262017

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE

Featuring: Craig Anderson, Gerard Odwyer, Bryan Moses, Robert Anderson and Dee Wallace.
Director: Gary Doust

Rating: 4/5

Eighteen years after the soul-crushing realities of self-funded film production were exposed in Chris Smith’s landmark documentary American Movie, director Gary Doust puts a warm but no less anxiety-inducing Australian spin on the tribulations faced by the next-to-no-budget auteur in Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare.

Craig Anderson had runs on the board after the TV comedy success Double the Fist (he earned a 2015 AACTA Award for Best Comedy Directing), but the dream was to helm his horror feature script Red Christmas. Nearing 40, Anderson’s life was moribund, reduced to sleeping on the floor of his small office studio surrounded by his VHS tapes and (admittedly impressive) collection of Stephen Pearson prints. Existence hits a low point when a painful condition demands mature-age circumcision. Anderson is frank and funny about the increasingly dire state of his life, which bottoms out with the pathetic reality of having to have his adult foreskin removed while still on his mother’s Medicare card.

Doust had exhibited a natural talent for capturing the torment of a low budget shoot as far back as 2002 with his own award winner, the terrific Making Venus. His affinity for and incisive understanding of the filmmaker’s experience, nurtured during his tenure as head of the film collective Popcorn Taxi and in his doco series Next Stop Hollywood, affords him a sweet and trustful rapport with his subject. Footage inside the Anderson family home, where the desperate director asks his financially stable brother for a loan, provide for a rare kind of awkward intimacy; Anderson’s snowballing anguish over budget/crewing/schedule/union conditions make for some truly stomach-tightening and heart-tugging moments of factual filmmaking.

By the time the Red Christmas shoot gets underway in regional New South Wales, Doust and his camera are deeply embedded within the on-set dynamic. Personalities emerge that bring Anderson into sharper, deeper focus – actor Gerard Odwyer, a Down Syndrome sufferer who proves to be accomplished actor and strong emotional core, for both productions; first AD Bryan Moses, often the voice of reason amidst the madness (he and Anderson co-directed the 1999 Tropfest winning short, Life in a Datsun). Not for the first time in her career, leading lady Dee Wallace (pictured, above) proves a winning (and suprisingly sweary) presence and inspires her director to stretch his talents.

The final stages of Anderson’s Red Christmas journey provide insight into the end-to-end process of envisioning, realising and selling your work (including a post-production stretch on a cruise ship that seems slightly incongruous given the penny-pinching woes that make up so much of the film). In practical terms, Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare should be required viewing in film schools nationwide for its matter-of-factness. The film truly soars as an endearing character study; an examination into the determination and borderline delusion it takes to make one’s vision a reality. In Craig Anderson, Gary Doust honours the archetypal passion-fuelled dreamer of great cinematic lore.

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE will have its World Premiere at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the event's official website.

(Footnote: SCREEN-SPACE attended 2016 Sydney Film Festival screening of Red Christmas, but did not publish a review. We did provide a 2.5 star rating on our Letterboxd page.)

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.