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Entries in drama (3)

Thursday
Oct132016

SPIRIT OF THE GAME

Stars: Aaron Jakubenko, Wade Briggs, Grant Piro, Mark Mitchell, Anna McGahan, Denise Roberts and Kevin Sorbo.
Writer/director: J.D. Scott

Rating: 3/5

So thoroughly imbued with good will to all men that one immediately feels enveloped in its wide-eyed positivity, Spirit of The Game is a bighearted mash-up of those two intrinsically middle-American movie genres – the faith-based family drama and the rousing underdog sports story.

Even by the heart tugging, tear duct welling standards these earnest narratives set for themselves, you won’t find 97 minutes of more cynicism-free cinema this year. That is an attribute likely to endear Spirit of The Game to the flyover-state core demographic, though it will ensure it remains largely confined to the mall multiplexes and small town single-screens of the heartland’s ‘Bible Belt’, before a long home entertainment after-life.

The ‘Game’ of the title is basketball, while the ‘Spirit’ is that preached by the Church of Latter Day Saints, circa early 1950s. Struggling with self worth after having his heart broken by the gal of his dreams, sensitive Utah hunk Delyle Condie (a buoyant Aaron Jakubenko) turns his back on college ball to go ‘on mission’, spreading the LDS message door-to-door in the foreign world of the Melbourne suburban wilderness. Down under, he finds most Aussies aren’t too fond of door knockers spruiking salvation (still true today), and is denied the occasional court time by rigid Church elder, President Bingham (Oz comedy icon Mark Mitchell, playing against type), who demands all waking hours be spent in the service of The Lord.

As if sent from ‘movie coincidence’ heaven, Condie’s daily rounds lead him to the front door of Australian basketball official Ken Watson (Grant Piro, especially fine), who is having his own existential struggle; namely, how to get the national team in any sort of shape for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The team of Aussies who can’t play are soon being coached by the Yank missionaries who can, ensuring both sporting and spiritual enhancement for the local lads. Some plot twists feel a bit on the nose, but the facts behind the story are undeniable (in one incredible moment, Condie pep talks a teenage Lindsay Gaze, a name that would become legend in the annals of Australian basketball).  

When word leaks that the Americans are priming the Aussies, the French team (or “winesippers”, as one character calls them, their thin moustaches and haughty attitude a tad too racially cartoonish) demand some game time with Condie’s ‘Mormon Yankees’. Giving that the climactic confrontation is a ‘friendly’, the stakes are essentially French arrogance against American spirituality, with the pic’s final frozen image leaving no doubt (as if any existed) as to the victor.

Director Darran Scott (adopting the initials ‘J.D.’ for his second feature) displays a sure hand expanding and enhancing the same soulful connection between basketball and faith he explored in his 2015 film, The Playbook. The Melbourne-bred, Wyoming-based filmmaker was born into the role of God’s messenger, having lived his youth in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands the son of a missionary father. Appropriately, Spirit of The Game has the gentle touch of a experienced preacher who knows that the best way to convey a message of salvation is to allow the congregation to feel it dawn upon them. Spirit of The Game not only espouses faith, it exhibits enough of its own – in its actors, its craftspeople and its own storytelling prowess – to engender a warm, admiring response.

Though clearly mounted on a tight budget, tech credits are generally fine, with Australian locales doubling ably for 50’s Utah in early scenes. Only name player of note in the cast is Kevin Sorbo, playing our hero's wisdom spouting, warmhearted father. His Hercules days long gone, Sorbo’s presence will pave the way for the film in key territories, given the actor’s second-wind career change as the go-to guy for faith-based drama (Soul Surfer, 2011; God’s Not Dead, 2014; Joseph and Mary, 2016). 

Saturday
Apr022016

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Stars: Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Kylie Rogers, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Bruce Greenwood, Jane Fonda, Quvenzhane Wallis, Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer.
Writer: Brad Desch.
Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screening at the 2016 Young at Heart Film Festival.

Rating: 3/5

Despite a title that implies a broad ‘everyman’ perspective, Fathers and Daughters offers little resembling the ‘real world’. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author prone to public seizures to the social worker sex addict reconnecting to the world through the mute orphan, Gabrielle Muccino’s overripe melodrama positively overflows with a giddy commitment to its own ‘only in the movies’ excess. Audiences who well-up at the first sound of a single violin note will find enough to moisten a hankie or two in this lushly packaged, star-heavy soap opera; cynics, stop reading now.

Thematically tackling in sweeping brushstrokes the connect between childhood trauma and adult dysfunction, Muccino ultimately relies very heavily on editor Alex Rodriguez (Y Tu Mamá También, 2001; Children of Men, 2006), whose skill is tested to the limit in his handling of first time scribe Brad Desch’s back-and-forth narrative timeline. In 1989, a car crash leaves upwardly mobile writer Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) a widow and his cutie-pie daughter Katie (Kylie Rogers) without a mom; when mental health issues dictate Jake needs time in a sanitarium, Katie is put in the care of Aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger, gnawing on the set mercilessly) and Uncle William (Bruce Greenwood). When Jake’s latest book bombs despite the best efforts of lit-agent friend Teddy (Jane Fonda), Bill and Liz make their move on the tyke, seeking full time custody.

As all this high drama unfolds in the distant past, we become entangled in the present-day life of adult Katie (Amanda Seyfried), now a caseworker at an inner-city clinic. One minute, a hollow commitment-phobe who partakes in binge-boozing and public bathroom sex to feel any kind of connection, the next an empathetic human connection for recently orphaned Lucy (Quvenzhane Wallis), Seyfried’s doe-eyed performance runs the gamut from passion-free blankness to public histrionics. By her side in her exploration of daddy issues is writer Cameron (Aaron Paul), who brings his own obsession with Jake’s writing.

Gabrielle Muccino’s embrace of shamelessly saccharine sentimentality has found favour with international audiences previously. After scoring big beyond his homeland with the arthouse hit Remember Me, My Love (2003), Hollywood beckoned; he obliged, delivering the Will Smith double The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Seven Pounds (2008). Returning to grand family drama after the dire rom-com Playing For Keeps (2012), the Italian stages Jake and Katie’s journey with an unyielding commitment to gorgeousness; in line with the florid dramatics on show are DOP Shane Hurlbut’s rich visuals, production designer Daniel Clancy’s lavish sets and composer Paolo Buonvino orchestral score. When the time-hopping plot starts to strain, there is always something cinematically compelling in Fathers and Daughters.

However, Muccino’s greatest assets prove to be more personal, in the form of leading man Russell Crowe and co-star, Kylie Rogers (a seasoned pro despite her tender years after roles in Space Station 76 and the current release, Miracles From Heaven). The pair’s genuine warmth and chemistry is energising, even when the film is running off the rails in every other regard. In addition to conveying the horrible physical stresses of a grand-mal seizure on several occasions, Crowe gives a performance that invests Jake with a grounded dignity; the effortless nature of his scenes with a quivery-lipped Rogers recall the father/child dynamic between Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer (yet, in all fairness, comparisons with that or any Best Picture winner must end there).

Wednesday
Mar042015

BEREAVE

Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Jane Seymour, Keith Carradine, Mike Starr, Vinessa Shaw, Ethan Embrey and Mike Doyle.
Writers/directors: Evangelos and George Giovanis.

Rating: 4/5


The small but fervent festival following that George and Evangelos Giovanis have developed will grow in enthusiastic numbers with their latest, Bereave. Those who backed the expertly executed crowd-funding drive to the tune of US$100,000 can be rest assured that every cent is well spent by the Greek sibling auteurs; everyone involved in this moving, acutely realised drama maximises the worthy material and is at the top of their game.

Only their fourth film in a decade and six years since their last work, the highly-honoured Run It, The Giovanis’ lyrical script opens with a gripping sequence in which waning patriarch Garvey (Malcolm McDowell) contemplates another day of directionless existence. Denied a messy self-inflicted end by the call of his wife Evelyn (Jane Seymour), Garvey is revealed as both a brash crank (“Today, you almost look beautiful,” he tells the still-stunning Seymour) and struggling with an increasingly fractured memory.

As the day unfolds, Evelyn’s patience with her boorish, troubled husband begins to unravel inexorably until her own attempts at a final booze-and-pill cocktail send her into the unfriendly Los Angeles night. Struggling to cope with their parents strained marriage and shrinking mortality are daughter Penelope (Vinessa Shaw), a single mother fearful that she is losing grip of her own pre-teen daughter, Cleo (Rachel Eggleston); and, son Steve (Mike Doyle), a decent man whose West Coast charms ensnare the lithesome Natalie (Hannah Cowley) but barely register with his distracted, flighty mother.

Some third act melodrama involving petty thugs and the occasional over-indulgence in florid dialogue (“I only speak violin”) can’t derail the strength of character-driven central narrative established masterfully in the films first half. Powerful scenes of potent drama set largely in the protagonist’s slick, sleek chrome-and-glass apartment allow McDowell and, in particular, Seymour some of their best on-screen moments in many years. The British acting pair find a deep, dark complexity to the marital dynamic, the filmmakers affording their stars the time and space to delve deep into the damaged psyches of Garvey and Evelyn.

A terrific Keith Carradine rounds out the acting honours as Garvey’s longtime confidant, the alpha-male Victor, his presence crucial to a subplot that thematically reinforces the emotional pain of receding memory. An extended sequence early in the film, in which Garvey reveals for Victor the desperation of his existence, provides McDowell and Carradine the kind of dramatic beats only the finest of thespians could pull off; both are mesmerising in the scene.

Recalling Michael Haneke’s Amour in its exploration of fading memory, mature-age love and dwindling life force but played against the broader backdrop of the noir-ish LA sprawl, Bereave is an achingly insightful, darkly humorous, richly rewarding work by two important creative forces. It must certainly be the last time the Brothers Giovanis have to rely on passionate fans and their own sales skill to secure feature film funding. The coffers of those that oversee the top tier of international film production should be open to these mature, masterful, unique storytellers immediately.

Screening at the Byron Bay International Film Festival. Session details and tickets available here.