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Entries in Documentary (25)

Wednesday
Oct182017

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE

Featuring: Brian Hooker, Doreen Granpeesheh, Mark Blaxill, Polly Tommey, Bill Posey, Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Written by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Directed by Andrew Wakefield.

Rating: 3/5

When it was bumped from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival amidst claims ranging from bogus science and conspiracy theorising to conflicts-of-interest and political grandstanding, the anti-MMR inoculation tirade Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe earned far more headlines than it ever would have received as a documentary of any note. Such notoriety proves a double-edged sword; the dissenters helped promote the film and its cause, but it also muddied serious consideration of a competently presented piece of investigative filmmaking, albeit one buoyed by the typical heavy-handedness of a heart-over-head polemic.

First time Brit director and deregistered gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield (pictured, below) flaunts long-held beliefs and his own softly-spoken public-school charisma in his often compelling postulating of how Big Pharma and The Centre for Disease Control colluded to silence findings that linked the combined measles-mumps-rubella injection with the onset of autism. Unlike the thundering chorus of disapproval that greeted his film, Wakefield works hard to pinpoint and present his ‘facts’; that being, a significant sample of toddlers around twelve months of age vaccinated with the MMR drug began exhibiting symptoms associated with developmental abnormalities (the statistics when applied to the African American community are even more worrying).

The claims do not suggest the individual vaccines are dangerous, but that the combined dosage at a certain point in a child’s growth has caused damage to a large enough percentage of children to warrant investigation. Wakefield crafts a timeline, employs the impassioned vocal theatrics of journo (and co-writer) Del Bigtree and tugs at the heart with video footage of young sufferers in staking his position. Scientific data and media grabs are utilised in much the same way as in most ‘agenda docs’; just as Al Gore, Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza (director of the pilloried 2016 hard-right rant, Hillary’s America) did before him, Wakefield employs cable newshounds and whitecoaters in a manner that best serves his message. To decry his film’s credibility based upon bias is to tar every modern doc with a fatal imbalance.

He none-to-subtly employs rhetoric and conjecture to draw lines between a self-serving medical profession, the billion-dollar insurance sector and the legal fraternity, all of whom may or may not be in cahoots to protect shared interests. Wakefield proves less adept at drawing together these elements, which proves frustrating. It is entirely plausible that, given the immorality and avarice being revealed every day under the current administration of ‘Big Business’ puppets the industrial practices of the sector are reprehensible, but it is hard to draw that conclusion based on Wakefield’s version of events.

Wakefield’s own discrediting did not help his cause; having published widely read findings on the alleged dangers of MMR vaccination in Britain’s esteemed medical journal Lancet, the scientific integrity of the report and ultimately the reputation of the man himself were called into question once too often. As its title suggests, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe indulges in hyperbolic fear mongering at the expense of hard science more often than it should. 

Which, Mr De Niro, was no excuse to deny the film screens; such a reaction from the Tribeca head was clearly preposterous. Films like Vaxxed should be seen so as to kick start discussion, if only for contrary, more informed voices to prove their claims false.

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE screens at The Melbourne Underground Film Festival on October 29 as part of 'The Golden Age of Censorship' strand with Cassie Jaye's men's rights advocacy documentary, The Red Pill. For ticket and session details visit the event's official website.

 

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
Aug292017

COALESCE: A CITY COMPOSED

Featuring: Megan Jonas and Jordan Ignacio.
Director: Joshua J. Provost.

WORLD PREMIERE: Fer Film International Film Festival, September 2-6, Ferizaj, Republic of Kosovo.
AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: flEXIff Experimental Film Festival, September 23-24, Sydney, Australia.

Rating: 4.5/5

The connectivity of creation that artists share is examined with profound beauty and sensitivity in Coalesce: A City Composed, the inspiring debut feature from Phoenix-based filmmaker, Joshua J. Provost. An intimate account of the formation of a uniquely envisioned art installation in the Arizona capital, the film can rank amongst its many fine accomplishments the re-imagining of the director’s rather unremarkable hometown as, in the eyes of these beholders, a place actually quite beautiful.

Imbuing Provost’s work with a spiritual centre are his subjects, artist Megan Jonas (pictured, top; on location in Phoenix) and composer Jordan Ignacio. Born-and-bred Arizonian Jonas creates unique and beautiful landscapes of Phoenix’s most mundane features; telephone wires, traffic intersections, footpaths, fuse boxes and alleyway weeds are all featured in her paintings, which Provost’s tight but non-intrusive camera captures from blank canvas to stunning life. East Coast muso Ignacio (pictured, below), aka The Languid Current, is a self-taught instrumentalist and master of the atmospheric aural soundscape.

Coalesce: A City Composed features four works by Jonas that capture her city as it transitions daily between light and dark. The artist forwards stages of her paintings to Ignacio, now embedded in his own Phoenix digs, who uses her work to inspire music that would eventually accompany the paintings during a season at Phoenix’s Grand ArtHaus Gallery, from December 2016. In hushed, intimate tones, Provost’s on-screen collaborators speak of that which inspires, influences and ultimately determines the essence of their art, all while it finds form before our eyes.

Provost is clearly in the same creative headspace as his subjects; from capturing their inspiration with a precise insight to giving over his film to their commentary unhindered by clunky voice-over, Provost affords Jonas and Ignacio the space and respect needed for true freedom of expression. Rarely has a film been so in tune with the ‘artistic process’, or conveyed with such clarity the workings of the artist’s mind.

Coalesce: A City Composed ends with a flourish of bravura film-making that is a breathtaking coming-together of all three art forms. Each painting takes shape before your eyes, via daring post-production wizardry, to the compelling strains of the richly-realized soundtrack; three distinct disciplines creating one beautiful piece of art. A final nod to the locations that inspired the paintings/music/film is a heartfelt touch by Provost, who has crafted a deeply engaging film of intelligence, integrity and sincerity.

Saturday
Jul082017

FIVE FAVOURITES FROM MELBOURNE'S FESTIVAL OF FACTUAL FILM

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Festival Director Lyndon Stone and his programming team have collated a catalogue of factual films that have wowed audiences at the planet’s most prestigious 2017 documentary showcases. SCREEN-SPACE got a peek at this year’s line-up and offers our opinion of five films that deserve attention, discussion and sold-out auditoriums. Each is a unique vision, certain to engage, infuriate, inspire and enlighten, as all good documentaries should…

MISS KIET’S CHILDREN (Dirs. Peter Lataster, Petra Lataster-Czish; The Netherlands, 115 mins; pictured, above)
A Dutch school marm exhibits a warrior’s spirit, a saint’s heart and...well, a great teacher's patience in this understated yet soaring study of what the term ‘assimilation’ means to a classroom in Holland. Refugee children, each displaying resilience and depth of character beyond their years, are captured with an extraordinary intimacy by the lens of husband/wife filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czish. The politics of age and gender are glimpsed in the kids’ behaviour; most profoundly, the impact of the conflict they have fled is slowly expos ed by the filmmaker’s sublime technique. When awkward pre-teen Jorg reveals why he might be less studious than is expected of him, have the tissues ready.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 13 @ 6.30pm.

PLAY YOUR GENDER (Dir: Stephanie Clattenburg; U.S.A.; 80 mins.)
While the gender divide within the American film industry has made headlines of late, little mention has been made of the fact that only 5% of the producers working the panels in the music industry are women, or that only 20% of published songs are by women lyricists. Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr and first-time director Stephanie Clattenberg pair up to pile revelation upon revelation in this blood-boiling expose of the music sector’s traditional gender bias and ‘glass ceiling’ mindset. That such a film needs to exist in this day and age is outrage enough; that it runs rich with passionate, talented, intelligent woman who have seen their careers hindered by sexism and misogyny demands action. Features such groundbreaking artists as ‘Hole’ bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and drummer Patty Schemel; Sara Quin of ‘Tegan and Sara’; and, ‘The Stolen Minks’ frontwoman Stephanie Johns.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 1.45pm.

THE ROAD MOVIE (Dir: Dmitrii Kalishnikov; Belarus; 67mins)
The dashcam phenomena has swept Russia and its territories; insurance scams, police misbehaviour and road rage incidents has led to almost every car being fitted with a windscreen lens. So director Dmitrii Kalishnikov had a lot of footage to work with when he conceptualised a vision of modern Russian life as captured by the population itself. Of course, he indulges in the extraordinary – truck crashes, speedsters on snowy roads, cows being hit (they walk away, incredibly) and the ‘comet footage’ that went viral. But The Road Movie is at its most compelling when it focuses on the voices of the unseen within the vehicle. Waves of emotion emerge in an instant; moments of terror, exhilaration, hilarity, even first love unite in a flowing cinematic essay. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Russia’s favourite dashboard gadget has delivered a forceful social experience.
Rating: 4.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 9.30pm.

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (Dir: Leslie Iwerks; U.S.A.; 96 mins.)
She is La grande dame of the American restaurant landscape, the matriarch of a New Orleans culinary clan that has shaped the nation’s cuisine for a century. Ella Brennan makes for a mighty cinematic figure, her iron-willed charisma ideally suited for Leslie Iwerks’ boisterous celebration of spirit, showmanship and determination. Occasionally it teeters on hagiography; viewers aren’t left wondering what a wonderful time is to be had at Brennan’s legendary Big Easy establishment, Commander’s Palace. It’s a minor complaint; one can’t begrudge the party atmosphere Commanding The Table captures and the extraordinary legacy Ella and her clan have forged.
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 12 @ 6.00pm.  

DOGS OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Mary Zournazi; Australia/Greece; 58 mins.)
They have become the spiritual symbol of modern Athens, guardians of the streets who exist with dignity intact and the acceptance of the population. First-time director Mary Zournazi captures the stray dogs of the Greek capital with a deeply respectful and compassionate lens, acknowledging the hope they represent to a people who themselves are often portrayed as the ‘stray dogs of the EU’. Most affectionately, Zournazi relates the legend of Loukanikos, a magnificent beast who would fearlessly lead those protesting the government’s austerity measures against riot squad heavy-handedness.  
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 16 @ 9.30am.

(SCREEN-SPACE Managing Editor Simon Foster is a judge at the 2017 MDFF and will be a guest of the festival)  

The 2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL screens from July 9-16. Session, venue and ticketing information can be found at the events official website.

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.

Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

Screens at Sydney Film Festival on June 7th and 9th, then in national wide release from June 15.

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Thursday
May182017

LOVE AND SAUCERS

Featuring: David Huggins.
Director: Brad Abrahams.

Rating: 4/5

Director Brad Abrahams makes a lot of smart storytelling decisions from the very first frame of his documentary Love and Saucers, an account of one man’s ongoing and intimate experiences with beings of unidentifiable origins and of the struggle to reconcile a ‘normal’ life with the intrusion of denizens from beyond our realm.   

From his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, 72 year-old artist David Huggins makes the fantastic claim directly to camera that, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial.” A natural camera presence that imparts his abduction memories with a compelling earnestness, Huggins timelines key moments from his childhood during which groups of ‘greys’, mantis-like insectoids and hairy beasts with glowing eyes would visit him on the grounds of his family home in rural Georgia. The purpose of the visitations is finally revealed when, alone in a wooded clearing, a pale-skinned seductress named Crescent engages the teenage Huggins and the coming-together of human and alien species takes place. 

Abrahams is entirely aware that such claims are usually met by the wider population with derision and only serve to conjure notions of B-movie/pop-culture silliness. His camera floating towards the front door of Huggins’ home just as the visitors might, the director’s opening salvo of imagery and audio cues embraces this cynicism, interspersing recollections of the encounters with zooms and jump-cuts that play like comic-book panels.

He reveals that Huggins is a sci-fi nerd, with a collection of over 2000 films (on beautiful VHS, no less), many of which deal directly with themes of alien visitation (Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, 1951), interspecies genealogy (Bernard Kowalski’s Sssssss, 1974) and otherworldly home intrusion (Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, 1944). The filmmaker almost seems to be setting his subject up for a takedown, positioning Huggins’ as a man living a sheltered life, perhaps unable to disengage from some form of childhood trauma (a boozy, womanising father who tended towards intolerance and violence is recalled).

But the Canadian-born director, who brought a level-headed decency to his 2015 swamp-monster doco short Swan Song of The Skunk Ape, has loftier ambitions than scorn and cheap thrills. As hinted at by the title, Love and Saucers is a heartfelt profile of an entirely ordinary man, albeit one whose life has been shaped by extraordinary events. Abrahams curbs the stylistic flourishes of his first act and embraces the softer, genuine emotions and real-world sensations that Huggins lives as his relationship with Crescent extends into adulthood. Although claims of hybrid children and visitation phenomena in the heart of New York City are no less astonishing, the human bond that Huggins shares with his decidedly non-human circle of friends dissolves any remaining fissure of viewer disbelief or ridicule.

Love and Saucers also speaks directly to the curative relationship between the artist and his art. Huggins recalls his relationship with the visitors via canvas, his simple yet striking surrealist oils capturing the detail behind the encounters and freeing him of deeply embedded memories. These include some graphic renditions of the intricate physical relationship he shared with Crescent; the X-rated Files, as it were.

Abrahams doesn’t ignore the abduction phenomena, acknowledging that much of the imagery and emotions that Huggins imparts is common amongst abductees. The production references the works of the late author and experiencer expert Budd Hopkins and the observations of Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Texas’ Rice University to give credence to the details in Huggins’ recollections and to counter any concern that his beliefs are the result of emotional or psychological stresses.

Ultimately, these sequences merely enhance the purely humanistic perspective that Abrahams seems most determined to impart. As intrinsically fascinating as first person accounts of extra-terrestrial interaction prove to be, it is how one man has dealt with such moments that most enthuse the filmmaker. In a film with an act of intergalactic seduction at its core, it may be the image of an elderly man sitting contentedly in a car after his first gallery showing that resonates most profoundly.

Love and Saucers: Trailer from Brad Abrahams on Vimeo.

 

Saturday
Apr012017

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Featuring: Mark Henderson, Sibylle Günter, Eric Lerner and Michael Lebarge.
Writer/director: Mila Aung-Thwin.

Rating: 4/5

Harnessing the power of the very star that ensures our planet’s survival provides a captivating premise for Mila Aung-Thwin’s documentary, Let There Be Light. Following driven, visionary scientists as they work towards the long-term goal of a global energy grid powered by hydrogen fusion technology, the Canadian-based filmmaker has crafted an elegant, insightful and entertaining work of understated urgency.

That urgency is conveyed in Aung-Thwin’s opening salvo of images. The sun is seen as a perfectly spherical mass, fizzing with energy. The clearly defined edge of our galaxy’s largest object is a stylistic representation that recalls the smallest - the atom, the building block of life. The director then morphs a series of earthbound images that mirror the same round shape, drone-shot from high above in an effective application of the ‘God’s Eye View’ camera perspective.

The message is clear; as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, the implementation of new, clean energies is an issue of biblical importance. Look no further than the film’s title for further evidence of that.

 
The primary focus is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (I.T.E.R.), a massive undertaking that has drawn together great thinkers from 37 countries. The international body must solve the mammoth logistical and scientific task of constructing ‘Tokamak’, an ‘artificial sun’ that creates magnetically-charged hydrogen gas via the smashing together of immense heat and chilled water. The passion to find a fusion-based solution to our energy concerns is captured not only in the dedicated ITER team but also in their interaction with the fusion scientists working on the W7-X Stellerator, under the brilliant German physicist Sibylle Günter, and smaller-scale operations whose often eccentric but brilliant overseers are just as obsessed with the end goal.       

Tech talk is kept concise and focussed, the production more concerned with the scale of the undertaking and the personalities involved than providing tuition in thermonuclear physics. Aung-Thwin and his DOP/co-director Van Royko find beauty in the most unexpected places; amidst the steel and concrete vastness of the ITER construction site, chief scientist Mark Henderson connects with the workers who don’t fully understand what it is they are building but find pride knowing it is for future generations the world over. Man’s long struggle to conquer fusion practicalities dates back decades, a history captured in beautifully animated interstitials. 

Most rewardingly, Let There Be Light deals with the intellect of our finest minds in a warmly humanistic manner, with special regard for the hope they afford future generations. As one learned participant states with resonance, “We have to prove we have the intelligence to prevent our own extinction.” The stakes are high; not just for the ITER team, who deal daily with the pressures of commanding one of mankind’s most expensive scientific experiments but also for the population of Earth, whose survival depends upon the understanding, acceptance and implementation of a clean, renewable fuel source.

 

Monday
Mar272017

78/52

Featuring: Walter Murch, Elijah Wood, Osgood Perkins, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell, Mick Garris, Danny Elfman, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Stephen Rebello and Marli Renfro.
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe.

Rating: 4.5/5

The images and emotions instantly conjured when one hears the words ‘the shower scene’ are reason enough for the existence of Alexandre O. Phillipe’s absorbing documentary, 78/52.  From Robert Bloch’s source novel, Saul Bass’ pre-production storyboarding and the precision of its staging, to the impact it had on audiences and the legacy it has forged, no scene in world cinema history has impacted the medium like Alfred Hitchcock’s butchering of Marion Crane by the blade of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Having dug deep into film pop-culture with previous works The People vs. George Lucas (2010) and Doc of The Dead (2014), the director turns his insightful fan-boy gaze up a notch in this forensic-like examination of the minutiae of the Bates Motel murder. Not all of the content will be revelatory to hard-core film buffs (Hitch’s use of Hershey chocolate sauce; the censorship-pushing flashes of the bare skin of Janet Leigh’s stand-in, Playboy bunny Marli Renfro), but no film has stared so deeply into the long shadow cast by onscreen violence as Phillipe’s often-mesmerising study (fittingly lensed in beautiful monochrome).

Deriving its title from the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits that ‘Hitch’ employed to change the course of film storytelling, the documentary, like Anthony Perkin’s iconic protagonist, exhibits two distinct personalities. It is first and foremost the great ‘Making of…’ dissection, an infinitely intricate journey into the minds and methodologies that created the sequence. Phillipe has assembled a battalion of industry giants to breakdown its staging, including editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now; The Conversation); horror heavyweights Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris and Neil Marshall; composer Danny Elfman; author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho); and such esteemed minds as journalist Stephen Rebello and critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (whose recollections of attending the 10am screening in Times Square on the first day of release are priceless).

78/52 is also an examination of the power of Hitchcock’s film to enthral and terrify every generation since its release, remaining hypnotically watchable to this day.. As has been repeatedly stated, the initial release of Psycho rocked American cinemagoers to the core; Phillipe goes a step further, implying that it played a significant role in ushering out the dangerous naivety of a nation basking in post-WWII glory and forging a path for the social upheaval of the 1960s. Mirroring the means by which later generations first encountered its horror, the director has several of his contributors sit before a TV screen, in a dreamlike recreation of a late-1950s living room, and take in the film for the umpteenth time. Hipster icons Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah, founders of the cutting edge production outfit Spectrevision (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; The Greasy Strangler) share a couch and riff on the vice-like grip Hitchcock’s masterwork holds to this day.

This stylistic flourish ensures the doco avoids becoming a stuffy exercise in academia, along with some well-placed humour. Watching Marion do some basic maths in her notebook ledger, Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood (director of the well-received 2016 thriller, February) wryly comments, “this is a really old film,”; playfully recalling days of being all but nude in front of the notoriously lascivious director, the delightful Renfro is a joy.

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is a giddy, engaging study in filmmaking bravado and of the passionate response such ambitious talent and dark psychology is able to evoke. It works ingeniously because it is simultaneously the voyeur and the subject of the voyeur’s eye; we are watching Norman with the same pulsating thrill as he feels watching Marion through that hole in the wall. 78/52 peels back and peers deeply into half-a-century of cinephile adoration for Hitchcock’s groundbreaking take on Oedipal psychosis.

Saturday
Feb182017

GIVEN

Featuring: Aamion, Daize, Given and True Goodwin.
Writers: Jess Bianchi, Malia Mau and Yvonne Puig.
Director: Jess Bianchi.

Rating: 4/5

The ambitious scale and humanistic themes of Jess Bianchi’s Given come through with dazzling clarity from the opening frames of his beautiful familial odyssey. The debutant director’s chronicle of discovery and humanity is a wake-up call – an early close-up of a rooster in full morning voice attests to that. This is followed by images of a father, enigmatic surfing great Aamion Goodwin, and his 6 year-old son, Given, soaking themselves in the muddy goodness of the earth, while heavily pregnant wife and mum Daize swims deeply and naturally in the pristine ocean, the birthplace of our species.

The sequence sets in motion a grandly mounted, profound celebration of the family unit and the importance of the people and planet with which they share life’s path.

As the title suggests, the focal point of the narrative is Given, for whom the journey – 15 countries over 14 months – is tethered to his father’s own naturalistic upbringing and a mystical quest for ‘The Big Fish’, a symbol of fulfilment and goal attainment for the family. While the occasional use of  ‘movie magic’ undoubtedly helped create the angelic wonder with which he and his newborn sister True embrace the patience-testing nature of global travel, Given proves an engaging screen presence, for whom the wonders of the world hold infinite awe. His wise observations, often dreamlike in their interpretation of his journey’s arc, are mature beyond his years; the measured tone and philosophical musings feel very much of the filmmaker’s doing, but prove tonally appropriate and in line with the heightened reality of Devin Whetstone’s exquisite camerawork.

Bianchi embraces the tried-and-tested surf doco formula of utilising minimal on-screen dialogue, instead letting the boy’s narration and the stunning images do the talking. Most affecting are direct-to-camera portraits of people from countries as far afield as Iceland, Israel, Thailand, Senegal and Peru, to name just a few of the destinations for the cast and crew. The eyes of the world staring into Bianchi’s lens reinforce that regardless of cultural trappings and vast distances, a soulful singularity exists between us all.

The breathtakingly immersive, free-flowing lensing and the central parent/child dynamic recall Terence Malick’s infinitely darker drama The Tree of Life, which also examined the legacy of patriarchal influence. While that work focussed on the transference of demons between generations, Given portrays a more enlightened, wondrously unified bond between father, son and Mother Earth. Bianchi’s capturing of a family’s reconnection with nature, both their own and on a planetary scale, provides a bracing refresher course on the goodness of humanity.

Given will have its Australian premiere as the Opening Night feature at the Byron Bay Surf Festival. Full details can be found at the events official website.