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Entries in Comedy (19)

Sunday
Jun092019

GHOST LIGHT

Stars: Cary Elwes, Shannyn Sossamon, Danielle Campbell, Carol Kane, Roger Bart, Tom Riley, Scott Adsit, Caroline Portu and Steve Tom.
Writers: John Stimpson and Geoffery Taylor.
Director: John Stimpson

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

The curse of The Scottish Play gets a big screen treatment that one senses William Shakespeare's 16th century fans would have appreciated in the enjoyably dark-hearted romp, Ghost Light. In equal measure a love letter to The Bard, a satirical skewering of theatrical tropes and a cracking Twilight Zone episode, director John Stimpson and co-writer Geoffery Taylor display a clear affection for the stock troupe dynamics of their ensemble cast, but it is when the madness takes hold and the daggers appear that something delightfully wicked this way comes.

Fitting his entire troupe on a bus bound for a barnyard theatre in Massachusetts, increasing jaded director Henry (the wonderful Roger Bart) finds himself more often a caretaker of egos and eccentricities, having overseen his cast and meagre crew for 50 semi-pro stagings of Macbeth. With AD Archie (Scott Adsit) by his side, Henry must contend with the over-emoting tendencies of leading man Alex (Cary Elwes); the increasingly bitter ambitions of snooty Brit import Thomas (Tom Riley); and, Alex’s wife, Thomas’ lover and the production’s Lady Macbeth, Liz (Shannyn Sossamon).

When Thomas defies the legendary superstition of live theatre and brazenly yells the play’s name on stage in a petulant fit, mishaps and mischief begin to befall the production. Some are delightfully daffy; a blow to Alex’s forehead somehow restores his talent (Elwes renders a masterful version of the “Is this a dagger…” monologue), ensuring Thomas’ transition to leading man won’t happen on this staging. Others, infinitely more sinister; Thomas begins seeing apparitions in his quarters, while Liz, true to her stage character, can’t cleanse her hands of her husband’s blood.

While the framework for his narrative is pure Bard, Stimpson enjoys taking aim at such live theatre clichés as stock company pretension, bedroom farce romps, ‘manor house’ mysteries and, of course, good ol’ fashioned ghost stories. A support cast that includes established pros Carol Kane and Steve Tom and relative newbies Caroline Portu and Danielle Campbell play their parts to perfection, injecting what may have been one-note side players with heart and humour.

As Ghost Light careens with an understated glee to its full embrace of The Curse’s supernatural elements, the balancing act that Stimpson achieves with his sure directorial hand becomes more evident. Finding plenteous joys in Shakespeare’s most bloody of tragedies while respecting the source material is no small feat; those that look upon this picture will reflect without regret, ‘What’s done, is done.’

Saturday
Mar162019

DESTINATION WEDDING

Stars: Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves.
Writer/Director: Victor Levin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Finally afforded the screen time together that their Gen-X fanbase has been pining for going on three decades, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder play the most adorably unlovable rom-com couple ever in Victor Levin’s cynical but deceptively sweet Destination Wedding.

From the sitcom-y airport meet-cute in the opening frames to that knock on the door in the final seconds, Levin’s structure is as formulaic as the genre gets. However, the devilish charm of his debut feature is in the caustic detail of his dialogue and his casting of two stars who, despite their iconic status amongst fans of a certain age, have never really been afforded this kind of punchy, rat-a-tat repartee. They have the whole film to themselves – there are no other speaking parts – so the balance is certainly redressed.

Ryder plays Lindsay, a SJW-lawyer who brings down irresponsible corporations; Reeves is Frank, an executive for a company who hands out ‘Best Of...’ awards to big business. They are thrust into each other’s orbit on the way to a destination wedding in San Luis Obispo; Lindsay was once engaged to the groom, who happens to be Frank’s half-brother. Neither are seeking romance or companionship, yet find themselves drawn together via their misanthropy, cynicism and general despair at the notion of a life-long bond and all who seem to be working towards one.

While Reeves and Ryder may not seem the obvious leads for a movie that would have soared in generations past in the hands of, say, Walter Matthau and Eileen Brennan, or Richard Dreyfuss and Lily Tomlin, the darlings of 80s/90s cinema turn their callous-hearted characters into legitimately redeemable love birds. Reeves in particular seems to revel in delivering Levin’s dark, delicious words; the chemistry between he and Ryder (typically flinty, utterly endearing) is both sweet and sour, a coming-together of damaged souls who might just be able to mend each other over time.

Do not expect windswept, late-evening soft-glow late in the third act (as one of the interstitial title-cards states, “Just what the world needs – another Goddamn sunset wedding”), but instead a more seasoned perspective on the prospect for enduring romance. In their teen-dream heyday, a Reeves/Ryder romantic entanglement would have set every under-18’s ticker into cardiac arrhythmia; in 2019, the actors get to play understated, doubtful and resigned to a compromised human connection. Their more mature selves provide no less a love story, and Reeves and Ryder prove no less engaging, because of the passage of time.

Monday
Feb182019

THE WAY WE WEREN'T

Stars: Fiona Gubelmann, Ben Lawson, Keith Powell, Amber Stevens, Alexandra Davies, Alan Simpson, Kristi Clainos, Alyssa Diaz, Ronnie Gene Blevins and Tobin Bell.
Writers: Brian DiMuccio, Aran Eisenstat and Rick Hays.
Director: Rick Hays.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Two adorably goofy, not-yet-their-adult-selves thirty-somethings meet cute and get hitched way too quickly in the silly but sweet (and surprisingly saucy) farce The Way We Weren’t, the feature directorial debut of industry tech veteran Rick Hays. Satirically acknowledging in name only the classic Streisand/Redford romance, this occasionally funny, energetically upbeat effort provides a solid vehicle for likable stars Fiona Gubelmann and Australian Ben Lawson, whose performances broadly embody all the things that can go wrong when you lie to a new partner, bed them then wed them with next to no rational thought. In other words, ‘Married at First Sight: The Movie’.

Plotting is a barely-there framework for all the rom-com convolutions viewers tuning into this sort of film will expect/demand. Charlotte has waited 14 years to marry a guy who is no longer interested in a life with her; Brandon is a commitment-phobe who can pull the babes but is deep in debt. When she does time after accidentally toppling her fiancé over a walking trail fence and he finds his latest conquest in passionate throws with another guy, fate brings them together - first online, where lying is standard; then, in person, where the lying continues, mixed in with him spending beyond his means and her vamping it up uncomfortably in the bedroom.

When the seriousness of their romance takes over, the myriad of lies become increasingly hard to conceal. The free-for-all comedy of the first half begins to take on a semi-serious tone by Act 3, which the script (penned by three writers no less, including director Hays) has most certainly not earned. But old pros Tobin Bell and Alexandra Davies, as Brandon’s hippy drug-culture parents, and that old chestnut - the uppity outdoor party featuring potential employers – combine to usher out The Way We Weren’t on the high that the best of the genre delivers.    

Despite its overall air of familiarity, there are some pleasingly left-of-centre flourishes that enliven the episodic plotting. The couple are drawn together in their love for a Swedish cop show, the central character of which narrates the early stages of the romance; Gubelmann’s comic timing is tops, whether taking relationship advice from a grade-schooler or reacquainting herself with the modern bro/dude’s bedroom expectations; and, a couple of sex scenes that are…well, let’s say ideally suited for the European market. The film veers into There’s Something About Mary territory with an extended gag about Brandon’s misshapen manhood.

Although clearly made on a non-studio budget, all tech contributions are top quality. The bouyant, colourful lensing of DOP Paul Toomey captures key LA locales in bright tones that ably supports the underlying sweetness of Charlotte and Brandon’s narrative.

Wednesday
Feb062019

THE LAST LAUGH

Stars: Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Lewis Black, Andie MacDowell, Richard Kind, George Wallace, Kate Micucci, and Chris Parnell.
Writer/Director: Greg Pritikin

A NETFLIX Original film; premiered on January 11, 2019.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The streaming service acknowledges its growing grey viewership with Greg Pritikin’s road-trip buddy comedy, The Last Laugh. The free-spirited, somewhat flimsy premise is made entirely watchable, occasionally very enjoyable, by the chemistry generated by those two pros, Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss, who spice up that familiar ‘grumpy old men’ shtick with a blue (pill) streak of naughty talk.

That said, Pritikin (who knows ‘crude’, having co-written segments of the infamous Movie 43) never strays too far from the warm-hearted schmaltz and age-relevant melodrama, even when asking Chase and love-interest Andie MacDowell to trip on mushrooms. It is a remarkably odd sequence, one that employs grainy rear-projection and has the pair soaring above The Big Apple on a bike pedaled by Abraham Lincoln, but one that will play well with the drug-savvy ex-hippie/baby-boomer target audience.

Chase embraces all of his 75 years to convince as Al Hart, a legendary agent/manager who once boasted a client list featuring all the best stand-up funnymen on the circuit, circa early ‘60s. After another fall, he is convinced by his concerned granddaughter Jeannie (Kate Micucci) to explore retirement village living. It is during that first depressing round of visits to prospective establishments that Al is surprised by his oldest client, Buddy Green (Dreyfuss, a chipper 72 himself). Despite having quit the stand-up scene 50 years ago, Buddy’s re-energised friendship with Al leads to a plan to resurrect the former comedian’s career, with no less than a guest spot on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show the ultimate goal after honing some 'fresh' material on the road.

Of course, the whole narrative is pure blue-rinse wish-fulfillment fantasy. The humour is often obvious and simple; no Viagra gag is left on the writer’s table and ‘old people giving the finger’ is called upon, of course. But delivery and timing is everything and with comedy talent like Chase (his most understated and likable in years) and Dreyfuss (going all-in on every scene, recalling his Oscar-winning turn in The Goodbye Girl) working every inch of the frame, the result is more sweet sentiment and hearty guffaws than the material often deserves.

Such was the case with the output of the late Paul Mazursky, whose films could alternately soar (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice; An Unmarried Woman; Down and Out in Beverly Hills) and struggle (Moon Over Parador; Scenes From a Mall). The Last Laugh is dedicated to his memory; he was mentor and friend to Pritikin, who originally wrote the script for Mazursky and Mel Brooks. The young director nails more often than not the rhythmic banter of two elderly sparring partners/comrades, just as Mazursky might have.          

Netflix have shown considerable respect for the 50+ demo, with the series Grace and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and more recently, the Golden Globe-winning The Kominsky Method with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin reflecting mature themes and sophisticated comedy in equal measure. While The Last Laugh is not in the same league (it never presumes to be, to Pritikin’s credit), it is a warmly enjoyable romp for those in the armchair army who have mastered the modern remote control. (Photo credit - Patti Perret/Netflix)

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
May052018

IDEAL HOME

Stars: Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Jack Gore, Alison Pill, Kate Walsh and Jake McDorman.
Writer/director: Andrew Fleming.

Rating: 4/5

Sweet, smart and sassy in equal measure, Andrew Fleming’s Ideal Home catches the writer/director in full command of what he does best – spinning genuine humour and strong characters out of a bouyant film reality. As the ageing self-consumed gay partners forced into adulthood by the sudden arrival of an emotionally challenging pre-teen grandson, Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are brash, funny and honest, traits that sum up the best moments from the 52 year-old director’s handful of films.

Citing his directorial debut, the 1988 cult horror pic Bad Dreams, as the exception that proves the rule, Fleming’s scripts mostly embrace complex character dynamics in a manner both insightful and engaging. Threesome (1994) outsmarted the Columbia Tri-Star brass, who backed but bailed on selling the hetero/homo college dorm love triangle; that year, Gen-X audiences preferred the cool, straight vanilla cast chemistry of Reality Bites.

The openly gay auteur found his truest voice (and biggest hit) with The Craft (1996), the high-school witchcraft horror-fantasy that quickly became the coming-out allegory for closeted ‘90s teens. A string of comedies followed, all of which combine vividly etched lead characters in expertly-paced dilemmas – Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in the Watergate-set comedy, Dick (1999); Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks in the under-valued The In-Laws (2003); the slumber-party favourite, Nancy Drew (2007); and, the quirky, if little-seen romantic drama, Barefoot, with Evan Rachel Wood (2014; from Stephen Zotnowski’s script).

In Ideal Home, Fleming provides himself with two leads that give full voice to his fluid, florid dialogue and nuanced characters. Reteaming with the director after their 2008 comedy Hamlet 2, Coogan is Brit expat Erasmus Brumble, the host/star of the basic cable lifestyle show ‘Ideal Home’; Rudd is his showrunner and longtime partner Paul, loving yet growing increasingly tiresome of both the dead-end nature of his work and the less lovable aspects of Erasmus’ personality.

Their life as Santa Fe’s adorable bon vivants is rattled when Erasmus’ grandson, Angel (Jack Gore, mature beyond his years) lands at their home, apparently the last resort for Erasmus’ estranged ne’er-do-well son, Beau (Jake McDorman) . The gay partners are forced to reconcile their hedonistic, self-centred, responsibility-free existence with life recasting them as caretakers and role models. Both actors are terrific, delivering comedic and dramatic beats with aplomb. Their on-screen pairing is a perfectly natural fit; Coggan gets some capital-L laughs, especially in those moments that reveal his shallow egotism, while Rudd’s razor-sharp takedowns define the understated intellect at work in Fleming’s script.

Ideal Home represents the kind of quick-witted, meaningful writing that was once sought after by the big studios. Andrew Fleming’s dialogue crackles and zings in the mouths of an appreciative cast, his scene structure and pacing skilful and refined. Thirty years ago, James L Brooks, hot off Broadcast News, might have made this movie; fifteen years back, Cameron Crowe. The dramedy plays a little broader (even at his peak, Crowe would not have carried off the bawdy, brilliant Kevin Costner/Dances with Wolves gag with such sublime timing), but Andrew Fleming is certainly of that class.

Thursday
Mar152018

THAT'S NOT MY DOG

Stars: Shane Jacobson, Paul Hogan, Jimeoin, Steve Vizard, Michala Banas, Fiona O’Loughlin, Tim Ferguson, Lehmo, Ed Kavalee, Paul Fenech, Marty Fields, Rob Carlton, Christie Whelan Browne, Stephen Hall, Dave Eastgate, Genevieve Morris, Bev Killick, Emily Taheny, Khaled Khalafalla, Hung Le, Ron Jacobson, Bec Asha, Ross Daniels, Lulu McClatchy, Spud Murphy, John Foreman, Stewart Faichney and Nathaniel Lloyd.
Director: Dean Murphy

Rating 3/5

Director Dean Murphy manages to wring a surprising amount of cinematic flair out of That’s Not My Dog, a film that consists almost entirely of comedians telling each other jokes at a night time BBQ in regional Victoria. Cutting with precision, giving the punchlines room to breath and interspersing the bursts of laughter with well-shot live music, Murphy and star/producer Shane Jacobson largely capture the ambience of such an intrinsically Australian event.

Jacobson concocted the night as a tribute to his ageing dad Ron, who has mentored his son in the art of joke-telling his entire life. The film eases up on the comedy just long enough for a sentimental Jacobson to tell his dad that the night is to allow the elderly crack-up a break from providing the giggles; all these chucklemeisters are attending in his honour.

And that’s what happens; from a naff opening that suggests all the comedians carpooled to the Jacobson’s rural plot, That’s Not My Dog settles into 88 minutes of material that veers from blokishly blue (the one about the frog that gives oral sex; the one about four nuns at the pearly gates) to performance piece (Michala Banas’ very funny ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’s One Night Stand’ routine) to traditional pub yarntelling (Paul Hogan’s evergreen ‘Harbourview Hotel Millionaire’ gag).

That’s Not My Dog (the title taken from a payoff to an old gag made famous in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, but oddly not featured here) wavers in hilarity, as you’d expect; some jokes are familiar, some just not funny, some winningly so. Some natural talents shine (Rob Carlton; Stephen Hall; Fiona O’Loughlin; Jacobson’s Snr and Jnr, of course), while others are mirthful passengers (Paul Fenech; Ed Kavalee; Steve Vizard). Musical contributions by such greats as The Black Sorrows, Russell Morris and Adam Brand give the laugh muscles much needed rest at crucial intervals.

Stand-up comics are notorious for not always laughing at other comic’s jokes (by their very nature, they always want to have the last laugh), but Jacobson’s mates genuinely seem to be having a good time with each other. Murphy convincingly captures the celebratory high spirits of the night and the sweet intentions of his leading man.

Sunday
Feb182018

THE BBQ

Stars: Shane Jacobson, Magda Szubanski, Manu Feildel, Julia Zemiro, Frederic Simpson, Lara Robinson, John Stanton and Nicholas Hammond.
Writers: Stephen Amis, Serge De Nardo, Tim Ferguson, David Richardson and Angelo Salamanca.
Director: Stephen Amis

Rating: 3/5

Determined to bulk-up the DNA of their home grown comedy with as much Ocker iconography as possible, star Shane Jacobson and a team of five (!) writers tie the legacy of Captain James Cook to modern day suburbia by way of the titular outdoor oven in The BBQ.  Director Stephen Amis’ broad farce lands a few gentle barbs at modern Australian society but this likably silly romp, a sort of celebration of ‘Dad Joke’ humour, feels most at ease when it’s just having a bit of a laugh.

At times recalling both the good-guy sweetness and naïve befuddlement of the great John Candy, Jacobson plays suburban every-man Darren ‘Dazza’ Cook, a husband-and-dad who puts great stock in a lineage that he believes dates back to the first Englishman to land on these shores. From the deck of a backyard HMS Endeavour built to honour his ancestor, Dazza holds sway at a weekly neighbourhood BBQ, a tradition that goes horribly wrong when dodgy prawns lay waste to his guests, none more so than father-in-law bully Herb (John Stanton).

In real world terms, such an incident would be a minor moment in a suburb’s unremarkable history, yet in Amis’ brightly-hued version of reality it ups the stakes of the redemptive narrative when Dazza is humiliated on national television. With his reputation in tatters, the weight of his bloodline proving burdensome and tension in his marriage to the very tolerant Diane (a terrific Julia Zemiro; pictured below, with Jacobson, left, and co-stars Frederik Simpson and Lara Robinson), Dazza employs the mentorship of fiery Scottish maestro-of-the-meat ‘The Butcher’ (Magda Szubanski; pictured top, with Jacobson) to win an internationally flavoured BBQ showdown and regain his status, self-dignity and patriarchal perch.

Stephen Amis’ last film, the 2012 wartime fantasy The 25th Reich, gave no indication of the naturally buoyant comedic touch he exhibits in steering a plot that takes some unashamedly daft turns. The BBQ never reaches the heights of suburban comedy slickness set by standard-bearer The Castle, but nor does it have that film’s slightly too acerbic take on our working class. The family at the centre of The Castle, The Kerrigans, were often the target of the script’s humour; Amis and Jacobson don’t judge their character’s middle-class idiosyncracies (a degree of respect also employed by the actor in his biggest hit, 2006’s Kenny), giving the film a tender warmth and sentimentality that helps smooth over some eye-rolling plot developments.  

The BBQ will play a bit too fast and loose with old-school racial caricatures for some, including but not limited to the cartoonishly arrogant French chef Andre Mont Blanc (TV celebrity cook Manu Fieldel), eccentric Indian neighbour Mr Chatterjee (Bashir Ally), Mr Miyagi-like Oriental shaman Mr Yoshimura (Kuni Hashimoto) and pompous Brit butler/butcher’s aide, Carver (Nicholas Hammond, channelling John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning performance as Hobson from 1981’s Arthur). But each rise to their own moment of triumph in a manner that respects them as individuals and not (or not just) broad stereotypes.

Others may rankle at the steady stream of real-world product placement deals done by the producers (the prominence of outdoor cooking retailer Barbeques Galore and Jacobson's and Fieldel's small-screen employer The Seven Network must have surely come close to paying for principal photography on the modest production), but one can't begrudge the sector finding funding wherever it can in this current climate.

If there is not a single surprising frame of film in The BBQ, it does not make the journey to its feel-good finale any less enjoyable. Our great backyard chefs can turn a charred chop into a culinary feast; with The BBQ, Amis and Jacobson turn a similarly unpromising premise into something just as warmly familiar and satisfying.

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.

 

Saturday
Nov182017

TARNATION

Stars: Daisy Masterman, Emma-Louise Wilson, Danae Swinburne, Blake Waldron, Jasy Holt, Joshua Diaz, Sean McIntyre, Sarah Howett and Mitchell Brotz.
Writer/Director: Daniel Armstrong.

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Friday November 24 at 9.30pm at Melbourne's Lido Cinema. 

Rating: 3.5/5

It is easy to imagine Sam Raimi giggling with gleeful pride should he ever stumble across Daniel Armstrong’s Tarnation. Stretching a meagre budget and pushing a game cast are two of Armstrong’s great strengths as a director; another is clearly a love for the works of Michigan’s favourite filmmaking son, whose Evil Dead epics are paid the type of knowing homage only a true fan could conjure.

The unselfconsciously preposterous plot centres on wannabe singer-songwriter Oscar, played by the endearing Daisy Masterman with the same spirited abandon that Bruce Campbell displayed 36 years ago. We meet Oscar as she gets marched from her singing gig by her band’s manager (Sean McIntyre), a creepy golf-enthusiast who recommends she get some R&R at his log cabin just outside of the township of Tarnation. With BFF Rain (Danae Swinburne) and two ill-fated beau-hunks along for the ride, they are barely through the door when the spirits that possesses the property start playing up.

With its veranda awning and Tardis-like interiors, the cabin is a masterfully recreated version of Raimi’s Evil Dead cottage, and Armstrong uses every corner of the set to offer shout-outs to his favourite genre works. Like-minded fans will have a blast spotting references to such cult pics as Friday the 13th, Night of The Creeps and Basket Case. The prolific young filmmaker is not above trumpeting his own contributions to DIY-horror, with posters for his past films From Parts Unknown (2015), Murder Drome (2013) and Sheborg Massacre (2016) pinned to the wall.

While it is clear that Armstrong has little regard (or budget) for elements such as logic or continuity, the on-screen energy that he skilfully crafts puts him in the same league as contemporaries Kiah Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood: Road of The Dead, 2014) and Christopher Sun (Charlie’s Farm, 2014; Boar, 2017) and Ozploitation greats like Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot, 1982; Dead End Drive-In, 1986). His nighttime sequences achieve more with one source light and a fog machine than most would with twice the resources, while his old-school practical effects (including a possessed and rotting kangaroo whose design recalls the goat-monster from…that’s right, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) are top tier.

As with any independent filmmaker worth their weight, Armstrong calls in favours to realise his project. Oscar’s band is played by soundtrack contributors The Mercy Kills, who have utilised Armstrong’s vision in the past for their film clips; Tarnation reunites the director with the star of Sheborg Massacre and From Parts Unknown, actress/stuntwoman Emma-Louise Wilson, who brings some well-timed and tasteless laughs as the wheelchair-bound ‘Wheels’.