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Entries in Comedy (15)

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’.

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.

Thursday
Aug172017

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE

Stars: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Emily Robinson, Jessica Gomes, Kaleti Williams and Adam Goldberg.
Writers: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen.
Director: Mark Cullen.

Rating: 3/5

As the afternoon orange bathes California’s Venice Beach neighbourhood, imagine Hudson Hawk barrelling along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, collecting John Wick as he enters from Brooks Avenue, before both are rammed by the Inherent Vice bus on Main. The resulting tangled mass in the middle of the intersection would be Mark and Robb Cullen’s Once Upon a Time in Venice.

Conjured as a free-spirited vehicle for the charms of their leading man in his wisecracking heyday, the brothers Cullen reteam with Bruce Willis to try to right the wrong that was 2010’s Cop Out, the Kevin Smith-directed travesty that put a handbrake on Tracy Morgan’s film momentum. Mark’s directing debut is equal parts crime thriller, family drama and Cal-noir detective story, complete with some tone-deaf stereotyping and cute dog moments. The goofy, off-kilter riff on LA sleaze fits within a genre highlighted by better films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pinchon adaptation, The Coen’s The Big Lebowski or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Renny Harlin’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, too, but whether that was superior is a maybe).

Like the traditional fairy tales from which the film takes its title, Once Upon a Time in Venice has a storyteller, in the form of John (Thomas Middleditch), a nerdy intern/protégé for ex-LAPD cop Steve Ford (Willis), a not-very-successful private-eye sliding further into the underworld morass he mostly frequents. The film opens with a patently ridiculous sequence in which Ford, having bedded his client’s daughter Nola (Australian supermodel Jessica Gomes), escapes her family thugs by fleeing naked into the night on a skateboard. The entire gag takes a long while to play out (the money shot - close-up on a set of buttocks most definitely not those of the 62 year-old Willis), though it is infused with the kind of nutty energy that Willis last exhibited in his 1991 megaflop, Hudson Hawk (a film that has since acquired an army of ‘guilty pleasure’ defenders, including yours truly).

Things get personal for our hero after heavies working for local drug kingpin Spyder (a very funny Jason Momoa), rough up the family home of Ford’s sister, Katey (Famke Janssen, deserving of better) and niece, Taylor (Emily Robinson). When they dog-nap the beloved pet, Buddy, the PI undertakes a series of schemes and capers that land him deeper in the mess he has created. All the while, a frantic Ford is working a case involving land developer ‘Lew the Jew’ (Adam Goldberg), whose deal is being scuppered by a mysterious graffiti artist painting X-rated murals of the real estate tycoon (a subplot as puerile as it sounds, though undeniably funny in parts).    

Filling out the ‘old chum’ role here that Danny Aiello played in …Hawk is John Goodman, bringing some welcome comedic skill as Dave, an ageing holdover from 70’s Venice hippy/surfie culture on the verge of losing everything (including his mind) in a messy divorce. He is one of several known names who front up for bit parts, probably because they all live within blocks of the production’s West coast locations; among them are Elisabeth Rohm, Kal Penn, Adrian Martinez, Christopher McDonald and, for a few utterly bizarre seconds, David Arquette.

Only occasionally exhibiting the advance of time, Bruce Willis clearly enjoys an all-too-rare opportunity to flex his brand of on-screen comedic skill. One can see the smooth charm of Moonlighting’s ‘David Addison’, the slapstick energy of Blind Date’s Walter Davis and the scummy antihero of Bonfire of The Vanities ‘Peter Fallow’ in Ford. You may find yourself muttering, “He’s still got it,” if only because, not for the first time in his career, he elevates what could have been misguided chaos into something entirely watchable, even likable.

Thursday
Jan192017

GHOST TEAM

Stars: Jon Heder, Melonie Diaz, Justin Long, David Krumholtz, Paul W. Downs and Amy Sedaris.
Writer: Peter Warren; story by Peter Warren and Oliver Irving.
Director: Oliver Irving.

Rating: 3/5

As Paul Feig’s femme refashioning of Ghostbusters filled 4000 multiplex screens amidst wave after wave of e-coverage, Oliver Irving’s slacker spin Ghost Team crept through 10 theatres before a low-key US Netflix debut in December. Comfy-couch home viewing is the best way to enjoy this amiable, goofy supernatural laffer; 20-something basement-dwellers and die-hard fans of stars Jon Heder and Justin Long will find enough chemistry between the committed cast and the occasionally spooky moment to make the investment of a whopping 84 minutes worthwhile.

The proprietor of a strip mall printing shop, Louis (Heder, comfortably in his ‘lovable loser’ schtick) is stuck in a life rut; work, booze, pizza and bolstering his depressed and slovenly friend, Stan (David Krumholtz), who is convinced aliens annulled his engagement when they abducted his fiancée. The one bright moment of their day is the TV show Ghost Getters, a paranormal investigation lark not dissimilar to the SyFy Channel’s hit Ghost Hunters (look for cute cameos by small-screen stars Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves).

When the opportunity to do some paranormal sleuthing of their own presents itself, Louis and Stan set about gathering the tools and the talent; along for the ride are smart-mouth millennial d.b. Zak (Paul W. Downs), sweet and sensible Ellie (Melonie Diaz, always reliable), local cable psychic Victoria (a woefully underused Amy Sedaris) and wanna-be Rambo mall cop Ross (Long, stealing all his scenes). Branding themselves ‘Ghost Team’ (having disagreed on the far superior ‘Polter Guys’), they set about capturing evidence of the eerie goings-on at a decrepit barn, deep in the local backwoods.

On the way to a chaotic and not-very-supernatural third act that feels a tad ‘Scooby Doo’-ish, writer Peter Warren and Irving (who last directed the 2008 Robert Pattinson oddity, How To Be) conjure some genuinely creepy moments; Downs convincingly sells the terror of an encounter with a grey apparition that mutters that ol' horror movie chestnut, “You’re all going to die.” More fittingly, the timeless premise allows for some low brow antics and guilty giggles, all achieved on a budget that would not have paid for a day’s catering on Sony’s spectral adventure.

Credit to leading man Heder, whose comedic energy and sweet charm centres the narrative when it borders on becoming more aimless than amiable; he will always be Napoleon Dynamite, but he has worked hard and succeeded at establishing an engaging screen persona of his own since the sleeper hit of 2004. Given the production foregoes any expensively scary effects work, one can assume a big chunk of the budget went on acquiring the rights to Gary Wright’s 1975 yacht-rock anthem, Dream Weaver, its refrain both bonding the mismatched quintet while evoking that all-important feel-good audience vibe. DVD extras should be a hoot; if ever a film warranted a closing-credit goof reel (and very few do), it's Ghost Team.

Tuesday
Jul122016

GHOSTBUSTERS

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Karan Soni, Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong and Charles Dance.
Writers: Paul Feig and Katie Dippold.
Director: Paul Feig

Rating: 3/5

The army of haters (nostalgists? misogynists? the undead?) that shrieked like banshees prior to seeing Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters will be haunted by the spectre of the director’s goofy, funny reboot. While it falls short of nailing the anarchic spirit and character chemistry of Ivan Reitman’s beloved 1984 blockbuster, Feig and his cast of game comediennes deliver enough thrills and giggles to both justify the long-in-development franchise-starter and smother the internet’s white noise of negativity.

Built upon a framework that will feel familiar to the legion of fans, the script by Feig and collaborator Kate Dippold (The Heat, 2013) reworks the famous ‘haunted library’ opening before honing in on fidgety academic Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig). Just as a career goal looms, her ex-BFF Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) derails Erin’s life plans and throwing the pair back together, reigniting their passion for the study of the paranormal. Fortuitously, New York City is about to experience an apocalyptic upsurge in supernatural activity, thanks to the evildoings of whiny ginger Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Poised to make it big as The Big Apple’s leading paranormal extermination and elimination team, the reunited gal pals team with Abby’s unshakeably cool lab partner Jillian (Kate McKinnon) and street smart NYC girl Patty (Leslie Jones) to face off against the ghouls of centuries past, who are conjuring to life at will and running rampant in downtown Manhattan. Also working against the Ghostbusters are a disbelieving mayoral office (Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong) and some ineffectual feds (Matt Walsh, Michael Kenneth Williams).

As expected, the big laughs fall to Wiig and McCarthy, a key point of difference between the reboot and the original. Reitman’s expertly managed ensemble of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were vividly larger-than-life characters with strong comedic perspectives; it was a pure delight just to be hanging out with them. But very few actual ‘gags’ fell to the trio, and those that did grew organically from their personalities and the nimble plotting.

Feig is a master of onscreen ‘fem-istry’, but his Ghostbusters leads are not as finely etched as the ensemble in his biggest hit Bridesmaids, nor are they as deliriously funny as the key characters in his best film, Spy. Kristen Wiig is corseted as the tightly-wound Erin, the few moments when her trademark ‘zany’ peeks out proving hilariously memorable; McCarthy’s physical comedy shtick and motor mouth skill is well utilised, but a bit familiar; McKinnon is not the breakout star of the film, as was clearly intended, though she gets some big laughs.

Notably lacking in Feig’s reboot is a centralised romance similar to that between Murray’s Peter Venkman and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett, which served to provide both a human warmth and personal stake. Instead, we have a glimmer of unrequited attraction between Erin and Chris Hemsworth’s dim-witted beau-hunk, Kevin, the ‘Ghostbusters’ receptionist, in an overplayed subplot that only amounts to minor giggles. A lot falls on the Australian actor’s broad shoulders, perhaps more than was wise in a cast of top-tier comedic talents, but he handles the part with…enthusiasm.

It is unclear if Hemsworth’s role was meant to fill the shoes of Annie Potts’ front-office firebrand Janine or Rick Moranis’ classic nerd Lewis, whose presence played such a crucial role in the original’s dynamic; it does neither. Also leaving a void is the conflict that was provided by William Atherton’s slimy EPA agent Walter Peck, aka ‘Dickless’; Feig’s film suffers in much the same way that the ill-conceived Ghostbusters 2 did, with no convincing villain to provide character tension and dramatic momentum. Technology denies the production the rich, evocative shadows and ‘real New York’ ambience captured by Reitman’s legendary DOP Laszlo Kovacs; instead, Robert Yeoman serviceably supplies the flavourless digital sheen of the modern film palette.

The ace in Feig’s deck is his obvious fondness for the property’s mythology and affinity with the fan base. The director skilfully mimics visual and audio cues that will (did) bring knowing nods and broad smiles from an audience that holds the original in warm regard. If the reimagining never establishes its own defining personality, it is only because it adheres so affectionately and respectfully to the legacy of its source material.

The ties that bind do not always serve the film well; shoehorned cameos are tonally disruptive and not worthy (one key reappearance reduced to a end-credit outtake slot). Nevertheless, as the latest brand to hop aboard Hollywood’s reboot train, Ghostbusters is better than most repackaged 80s nostalgia and provide no ammunition for those that were priming their keyboards for a misfire of biblical proportions.