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Entries in Independent (42)

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.’

Sunday
Apr282019

TATER TOT & PATTON

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Bates Wilder, Forrest Weber and Kathy Askew.
Writer/Director: Andrew Kightlinger

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

A film so steeped in such deeply human conditions as grief, addiction and loneliness ought not also be such a sweetly engaging joy, but that is one of the many charms of Andrew Kightlinger’s rural heart-tugger, Tater Tot & Patton. Pairing two damaged humans on an isolated ranch sets in motion a narrative that affords stars Jessica Rothe and Bates Wilder some deep, dark but also delightful moments together.

Further affirmation that she is the most interesting ‘Young Hollywood’-type working today, Happy Death Day starlet Jessica Rothe plays brattish LA twenty-something Andie, who has chosen a sabbatical on her Aunt Tilly’s dustbowl farm over another stint in rehab. Upon arrival, Tilly is absent and Andie finds herself in the charge of her uncle, hulking boozehound Erwin (Bates Wilder); he has little time for the problems of a spoiled princess he hasn’t known since she was a 4 year-old that the family called ‘Tater Tot’.

Two disparate, desperate substance abuse survivors isolated with their inner demons proceeds for much of Act 1 as truth dictates; Tater Tot, forced to learn the ways of country life, and Erwin, ill-prepared for the intrusion a wilful millennial can represent, turn on each other with increasing venom. As their scarred psyches are revealed and the familial bond is repaired, the mismatched characters find themselves on a shared journey of recovery and understanding.

Rothe and Wilder, heartbreaking in what deserves to be a breakthrough lead role, bring a rich dynamic to the close-quarters life that Tater and Erwin are forced into. The intimacy they achieve is a credit to the actors, as well as testament to the inherent honesty of Kightlinger’s scripting (no aspect more so than the grip of alcoholism and the dangers of self-medicating). The director occasionally falls back on some ethereal indie visuals and wispy music to convey the grip of sad memories, but there is so much emotion imbued in the character’s plight such indulgences are not only forgivable, but mostly effective.

The lensing of Peter ‘Per’ Wigand captures the vast brown-tinged grasslands of the South Dakota setting with an artistry that re-asserts the isolation, both physical and psychological, of the protagonists. Top-tier craftsmanship by production designer Chris Canfield and art director Scott Schulte add further authenticity to the ranch interiors, which reflect the waning life force consuming Erwin. Buffs will respond warmly to Erwin’s recollection of his family’s ties to one of the great films made in the region, Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winner Dances with Wolves (1990).

Tuesday
Apr232019

BLUE MOON

Stars: Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Olivia Hadlow and Doug Brooks.
Writer/Director: Stefen Harris.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Forty years of anger, resentment and bitter memories boil to the surface one fateful evening in a South Island gas station in the nerve-shredding two-hand crime thriller, Blue Moon. A gripping slice of Kiwi-noir that ticks all the boxes that rank truly great independent cinema, the second feature from real-life cop-turned-part-time filmmaker Stefen Harris is a supremely slick, psychologically taut and surprisingly engaging study of two desperate men and the ties that bind them.

Manning the midnight-to-dawn shift at the BP Motueka is Horace (Mark Hadlow), a middle-aged father of six teetering on the brink of financial ruin with long-in-development investment plans straining to stay together. His otherwise quiet night begins to unravel with the arrival of a blue Chevy Impala, carrying bad guy Reuben (Doug Brooks) and close to $500,000 in ill-gotten cash. Reuben’s fate plays into Horace’s plans for monetary redemption, albeit via compromising his own moral code, until leather-clad, shotgun-brandishing Darren (Jed Brophy) comes searching for the loot.

Harris works the first-half of his film with the assured hand of a genre pro, recalling the ‘small-town nobody’ character beats of a James M. Cain pulp-novel and neon-and-shadow classics like The Coen Bros.’ Blood Simple (1981) and Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1993). His blocking of scenes and building of tension in the predominantly single setting of the 24-hour convenience store is terrific.

His narrative invention doubles down on his technical prowess in Act 2, when it is revealed just how ‘small-town’ Motueka is; Horace and Darren have some shared baggage from a past dating back to their high-school days together. The half-million dollar criminal stakes suddenly have a slow-burn emotional intensity, fuelled by a boyhood definition of masculinity that sadly still drives these grown men.

Harris did some of his most instinctive work prior to his cameras rolling with the casting of his two leads and crewing reach. As Horace, aka ‘Toad’, Hadlow brings real-world emotional heft to his genre-thriller everyman; as Darren, aka ‘Ratty’, Brophy is towering tough-guy figure. Behind the scenes on what was reportedly a 6-day/NZ$12,000.00 shoot were the likes of sound engineer Ben Dunker (Inglorious Basterds, 2009), editor Judd Resnick (YellowBrickRoad, 2010), effects techie Dan Hennah (Lord of The Rings trilogy), composer Tane Upjohn-Beatson (collaborator on Harris’ 2009 debut feature, No Petrol No Diesel!) and hometown DOP Ryan O’Rourke. The result is a visually polished finished product, primed for the world market.

Monday
Apr082019

MAYBE TOMORROW

Stars: Tegan Crowley, Vateresio Tuikaba, Chloe Martin, Ryan A. Murphy, Fabiana Weiner, Christapor Yaacoubian, Eva Seymour, Felise Morales, Alexandra Hines and Lucy Moir.
Writers/directors: Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones.

WORLD PREMIERE: Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5, 2019 at Home of the Arts (HOTA), Gold Coast, Queensland.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Two wide-eyed new parents decide to double-down on the stress of raising one newborn by creating another, in the form of a no-budget indie film, in Maybe Tomorrow. A bittersweet tug-of-war two-hander showcasing shifting gender roles, the drive to be creative and the hidden responsibilities of adulthood, the latest from the writing/directing team of Caitlin Farrugia and Michael Jones plays free-spirited and loose for much of the first act before the realities of the ‘work-and-family-balance’ myth kick in.

Farrugia, Jones and their acting troupe have eked out a niche following with their slice-of-young-inner-city-life films Lazybones (2017) and So Long (2017) and Maybe Tomorrow represents a natural progression for the auteurs, both narratively and artistically. They provide warm insight into the pressure placed upon grounded but idealistic Erin (Tegan Crowley) and her partner, the responsibility-averse, man-child Pat (Vateresio Tuikaba) as they determinedly prepare to shoot what emerges as an uncomfortably raw version of their pre-parenthood life together.

Crowley is an engaging presence as Erin, a young woman for whom childbirth has led to an acceptance of personal duty; she works a part-time café job, prepares shooting schedules and affords Pat a stay-at-home lifestyle in which he fully indulges. When her psychological edges start to fray, it feels particularly real. As Pat, Tuikaba is very likable in that cool, late-20s one-time party-guy way, so the struggles he begins to face in the early stages of manhood will strike a nerve with those at a similar existential crossroads.

Michael Jones has stated that the title refers to the late night response that spouses often give each other when one feels ready for love and the other doesn’t. That explanation speaks to the inevitable lessening of physical intimacy that new parents like Erin and Pat experience, although it is a phenomenon not really explored in the film. Their degree of intimacy has extended beyond the sexual into that relationship realm where you discuss heavy periods and bad farts with graceless familiarity.

However, the term ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ also represents a generational malaise synonymous with millennial culture; an October 2018 study of US citizens aged 18-34 found they are prone to procrastination above any other demographic, a theme explored with resonance and insight by the leads (in scenes of largely improvised dialogue). Erin is striving to stay above and move beyond the more mundane aspects of her world, while Pat is only just realizing that life may seem idyllic but is in fact moving past him.

While Farrugia and Jones empathise with their protagonists, they are not above some skewering of millennial pretension; Pat’s theory of keeping apple quarters in mason jars so he can yell moods into them is hilarious. With the film-within-a-film stuttering through production, Pat uses some downtime to blend homemade kombucha, to which boom operator Eva (Eva Seymour) enquires, “What do you do on this set?” Not every scene nails its intent; that hoary old comedy bit, the ‘awkward family Christmas meal’, feels like padding, while a rehearsal montage of bad actors trying for parts in Pat and Erin’s film is overplayed.

Where Maybe Tomorrow works, and works beautifully, is in its study of the strain placed on love and commitment that dreams and desires can bring. The final frames inspire a longing for the young couple’s happiness, but play out ambiguously; we hope for their mutual fulfillment, but are left wondering whether they can make that happen for each other.

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.

Thursday
Jan172019

SALT BRIDGE

Stars: Rajeev Khandelwal, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Usha Jadhav, Kaushik Das, Shoorjo Dasgupta, Adam Grant and Mayur Kamble.
Writers: Abhijit Deonath and Shvetal Vyas Pare.
Director: Abhijit Deonath.

Rating: ★★★½

Examining the Indian immigrant experience from a fresh and personal perspective, director Abhijit Deonath melds traditional male role-model expectations with contemporary relationship melodrama to largely winning affect in his debut feature, Salt Bridge. Shot entirely in Australia, with Sydney and Canberra locales doubling as the fictional township of the title, the long-in-production independent project will play well with diaspora populations, who all-too-rarely get to see their transplanted lives in a thoughtful big-screen narrative.

Most recently, of course, Garth Davies’ hit Lion (2016) cast an eye over the Indian expat existence; central to Deonath’s plot are the shared themes of memory and reconciliation with the past (though far less overtly stated here). The director introduces his protagonist, thirty-something medical researcher Basant (Rajeev Khandelwal) staring longingly from a train window, his mind revisiting a moment long ago that still consumes him. Khandelwal is terrific, exuding the soulful sensitivity of a man burdened with a dark past, yet every inch the classic Indian leading-man type (his brooding pout recalling Hollywood actor Jason Patric in his prime).

With his equally-photogenic wife Lipi (Usha Jadhav) and listless teen son Riju (Shoorjo Dasgupta) counting on him to fulfill his potential and provide for their new Australian suburban life, Basant decides to take driving lessons with instructor Madhurima (Chelsie Preston Crayford). Also immersed in the migrant life (she’s a New Zealander, married to an Indian), the pair soon bond in the most charming and innocent of ways. One of N.Z.’s most accomplished young actresses, Crayford (What We Do In The Shadows, 2014; Eagle vs Shark, 2007) and her leading man share a lovely chemistry, ensuring their developing platonic friendship is entirely believable.

Soon, their friends and then the wider Indian society take an interest in the new besties, assuming the most salacious, and Basant finds himself outcast from his community, his family and, regrettably, Madhurima. Having posed the question ‘Can a man and woman just be friends?’, Deonath dissects the issue within the broader context of the modern male’s role in Indian culture. His script (penned with the assistance of Shvetal Vyas Pare) succinctly embraces the hot-button topic of toxic masculinity and India’s patriarchal traditions, but does so through the filter of western cultural influence. If the story structure and momentum occasionally stumbles (most notably, a confusing sequence in the wake of a near-tragedy at the film’s midway point), Deonath’s skill with character and dialogue more than compensates.

Deonath drives home his gender subtext by focussing Basant’s research work on mitochondria, the power generator of any complex living cell, the existence of which is maternally inherited. The nods to modern science extend all the way to the film’s title – a ‘salt bridge’ occurs in proteins, creating a bond between oppositely charged residues that are sufficiently close to each other to experience electrostatic attraction; it is a deft, if slightly highbrow way, of defining the relationship between Basant and Madhurima.

Salt Bridge is a commercially savvy undertaking as well, including an explosively colourful Holi celebration and some neat dance moves, although it is far too influenced by its western setting to go ‘full Bollywood’. Australian viewers will be bemused by the people-free (and very green) parklands, empty highways, pristine cityscapes and autumnal suburban streets that provide the backdrop for the drama; it is a perception of life on these shores that plays well overseas, but is a bit of a stretch to those of us caught in the metropolitan crush of everyday life.

All tech aspects exceed any budgetary constraints, with the film looking lived-in and real while still seeming professionally polished in every respect. Especially noteworthy is Miguel Gallagher’s camerawork, whose eye for finding beauty is even on-song when framing the not-always inspirationally picturesque national capital.

Tuesday
Jan152019

A BOY CALLED SAILBOAT

Stars: Julian Atocani Sanchez, Noel Gugliemi, Elizabeth De Razzo, Jake Busey, Keanu Wilson, Rusalia Benavidez, Zeyah Pearson, Lew Temple, Patricia Kalis and J.K. Simmons.
Writer/Director: Cameron Nugent

Rating: ★★★★

Like his eponymous ukulele-wielding protagonist, writer-director Cameron Nugent strikes the perfect chord with his feature-length debut, A Boy Called Sailboat. An understated, utterly beguiling dose of doe-eyed magic-realism, the Australian’s fanciful but sure-footed foray into one Hispanic family’s life in the U.S. south-west could not be more timely; in telling one small story, A Boy Called Sailboat also celebrates the common humanity that binds diverse communities.

Few depictions of life’s base pleasures – food, music, family and love – play out with such sweet-natured resonance as in Nugent’s narrative. The premise, like the lives led by the humans at its core, is simple; a pre-teen boy (the wonderful Julian Atocani Sanchez), blessed with both a vivid imagination and strongly-defined sense of family, stumbles on a small, discarded guitar and decides to teach himself to play, so that one day he may sing a self-penned song to his ailing ‘abuela’ (Rusalia Benavidez).

However, the lives of all around him – father José (Noel Gugliemi), mother Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo), best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), school crush Mandy (Zeyah Pearson), teacher Bing (Jake Busey), a local DJ (Lew Temple) and ultimately the entire population of his New Mexico suburb – are given greater profundity when they hear Sailboat play his uke and sing his song, a composition that renders anyone who hears it emotionally reborn. In a bold and effective device, every time the boy sings Nugent’s screen goes silent but for a single chord, thereby forcing his audience to bring their own definition of what most deeply stirs their soul.

A Boy Called Sailboat has many idiosyncratic beats and skewed nuances, the kind that need a strongly-defined real-world emotional connection to work. Ten minutes in, Nugent has filled his film with so many small, strange tics (a yacht being towed in the desert; a leaning home held upright by a single beam; a meatballs-only nightly meal; a soccer-obsessed kid who holsters an eye dropper) there is the very real threat that his vision will die the death of a thousand quirks.

Thankfully, Nugent proves himself to be a master of meaningful whimsy, in much the same way as Wes Anderson (a clear inspiration, especially his 2012 triumph, Moonrise Kingdom) or early Tim Burton (circa 1990s Edward Scissorhands). All his actors are attuned to his nuanced vision, especially a cameoing J.K. Simmons (pictured, above) as used-car salesman/life-coach Ernest; in one wonderful sequence, Nugent skillfully edits a series of reveals as the Oscar-winning actor monologues some life advice to young Sailboat, while the kid stares transfixed at…a sailboat.

Talent extends behind the camera, too, not only in the form of DOP John Garrett’s skill with sparse, hot location work. The production’s collaboration with classical guitarists Leonard and Slava Grigoryan has provided a soundtrack of wistful, lovely melodies, many traditional sea-faring tunes (‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’; ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’) in line with Sailboat’s oceanic obsession. All contributors reinforce the filmmaker’s remarkably assured stewardship, resulting in surely the most impressive calling-card film in recent memory.

      

Wednesday
Dec122018

UNDER THE COVER OF CLOUD

Stars: Ted Wilson, Colleen Wilson, Louis Modeste-Leroy, Jessie Wilson and David Boon.
Writer/Director: Ted Wilson.

Screening at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 10-25.

Rating: ★★★½

A bighearted ode to the often-satirised middle-class white suburban upbringing, multi-hyphenate Ted Wilson has crafted a warm, winning low-key gem of a movie in Under the Cover of Cloud. A largely-improvised drama about a writer’s struggle to find inspiration, starring the director’s family and shot verite-style in the suburbs of Tasmania, this meandering yet meaningful take on the ties that bind will reward those seeking a different sort of cinema experience.   

Physically recalling the Matt Day/John Polson type of understated leading man, Wilson plays a journo suddenly without a steady paycheck, facing what he senses is a turning point in his professional development. When that proves all too much for him to deal with (by mid-opening credits), he heads south deciding to write a book about his home state’s best Test cricket batsmen (perhaps a sly joke for cricket lovers, as there haven’t been too many top order players from The Apple Isle).

In a manner that recalls the free-form storytelling styles of Henry Jaglom and John Cassavettes, Wilson re-engages with his mum, siblings and their spouses, niece and nephew toddlers, in scene after scene that seem to be largely about family matters, good memories and happy times. Frankly, a couple of crying 4 year-olds aside, every one seems to be pretty happy in Under the Cover of Cloud (although the title, which certainly corresponds with Tassie’s chilly grey pallor, might also symbolise Wilson’s depressed mood).

Neither Wilson nor his narrative seem to be particularly interested in the book project; he asks every one he knows if they can connect him with Tassie cricketing icon David Boon, which sums up the plot. At one point, the dishevelled author-to-be (who seems to have only bought the clothes he travelled in) sits down to start work, until distracted by chickens. Wilson’s film is not about writer's block or the struggle to create, but about shared moments with loved ones that coalesce as a portrait of a man's formative years. He picks lemons with his mother, plays board games with his sister, digs in the sand with his nephews; these are the daily events that refocus a soul chewed up and spat back from the mainland.

Detractors will say the film resembles an essay on entitlement; Wilson constantly seeks reassurance and aid from his family, who also offer free board (despite his complaints about a cold room) and plenty of meals, while gracing everyone around him with observations on their lives. That he emerges as an empathic and relatable leading character (and man) is arguably one of the film’s more remarkable achievements.

The end justifies the means in Under the Cover of Cloud. There is too much sincerity, charm and insight in Wilson’s family dynamic for cynicism to derail his film. A final frame dedication, which crystallizes the writer/director’s motivation, is a heart-tugger; it provides an added dimension of bittersweet melancholy that reveals what an extraordinary collection of ordinary people The Wilson clan truly are.

Thursday
Nov292018

FIRST LIGHT

Stars: Stefanie Scott, Théodore Pellerin, Saïd Taghmaoui, Percy Hynes White, Jahmil French, James Wotherspoon and Kate Burton.
Writer/director: Jason Stone.

Reviewed at Monster Fest 2018 at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova on November 23.

WINNER: Best International Film, Monster Fest 2018

Rating: ★★★★

Millennial types that stare blank-faced and shrug when you mention the great films of 1970s Hollywood make a grab at one the decade’s best with First Light. In Jason Stone’s low-key, highly charged UFO drama, an alien encounter imbues an everyday suburbanite with an inexplicable connection to lights in the sky. Whether you know it or not, kids, you’ve now got your own generation’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic featured a thirty-something Richard Dreyfuss as a contactee strangely obsessed with visions of a distant mountain. ‘Thirty-something’ protagonists are way too old for the modern movie audience (unless they are comic-book hero alter-egos), so a savvy Stone has recast his lead as high-schooler Alex (Stefanie Scott). Also, ‘strange obsessions’ are hard to conjure, even for the modern effects wiz; having survived a near drowning via the visitation of glowing orb entities, Alex doubles-down on that distant yearning with telekinetic powers (good, especially when called upon flip ex-boyfriend’s cars) and high-radiation levels (bad, especially for…well, everybody).

Along for the ride is Sean (Théodore Pellerin), the audience conduit whose doe-eyed, unshakeable commitment to Alex provides the emotional core of Stone’s narrative. Scenes of the young man’s home life establish him as a teen of integrity and character; parent-less, he hangs with his smart-mouth, street-wise younger brother Oscar (a scene-stealing Percy Hynes White) and cares for his near-catatonic grandmother, whose arc is small but provides one of the year’s great movie moments.

Sean yearns for the closeness he shared with Alex once before, a wish that is granted after her near-death encounter, the bubbly teen queen now a sullen, silent introvert, clearly not herself. The pair are drawn into a chase drama enabled by rogue UFO chaser Cal (Said Taghmaoui) and driven by Federal agency head Kate (Kate Burton), their open road odyssey affording the actors space to build a warm, sincere chemistry. It also allows a further ironic nod to old-school Hollywood - Sean compares their plight to Bonnie and Clyde, to which Alex replies, “I don’t know who that is.” 

Stone opens on some thrill-inducing images of the orbs illuminating the early evening sky, before settling into a long passage of character definition and tension building - another common trait it shares with CE3K. If Stones skimps on the grand effects sequences that made Spielberg’s work so memorable, Stone doesn’t let us forget that his characters are always being watched. His expert use of drone footage to capture the ‘God’s eye’ perspective, or more precisely that of the inhabitants of the orbs, represents some of the most effective creative use of the technology yet.

In working through Spielberg’s familiar story beats, First Light plays like an American-indie-meets-X-Files spin on Romeo & Juliet; there are also some unmissable nods to John Carpenter’s Starman and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (two more ‘oldies’ the target audience won’t know), as well the inevitable and not unfounded YA comparisons that pitch it as, though remarkably better than, the Twilight series.

Also like Spielberg’s film, momentum drags a little in its third act when the G-men and their tech take over the film. It’s a minor period of disconnect in a film that mostly feels gritty, human and real, despite its otherworldly premise. First Light builds to a soaring denouement (pumped by some demographic-appropriate musical accompaniment from M83’s ‘Outro’) that reassures the audience that, in this world or beyond, we are not alone.

Thursday
Aug232018

CHASING COMETS

Stars: Dan Ewing, John Batchelor, Isabel Lucas, Stan Walker, Rhys Muldoon, Justin Melvey, George Houvardas, Gary Eck, Peter Phelps and Beau Ryan.
Writer: Jason Stevens
Director: Jason Perini

Rating: 3/5

‘The engaging true story of a rugby league player’s faith-based search for enlightened soulfulness’ is not the opening salvo a critic expects to ever write, especially given the pre-release marketing for Chasing Comets was all boozy blokes and locker room skylarking. Yet writer Jason Stevens, whose life transformation from laddish layabout to celebrity celibate provides the basis for director Jason Perini’s likably roughhewn sports/faith dramedy, exhibits a keen eye for gentle melancholy and good-natured integrity with his debut script.

Leading man Dan Ewing progresses from playing a country footballer fighting aliens in Occupation (2018) to playing a country footballer fighting temptation in Wagga Wagga. The Home & Away heartthrob stars as the improbably named Chase Daylight, glamour boy of local bush leaguers The Comets and well on the path to first grade NRL glory. Yet ill-discipline and a tendency to be easily distracted by his hedonistic mate Rhys (Stan Walker) threatens to undo all the good faith placed in him by his single mum Mary (Deborah Galanos), manager/mentor Harry (Peter Phelps) and very patient girlfriend Brooke (Isabel Lucas).

When one indiscretion too many proves the final straw for Brooke, Chase descends into a funk that sees him benched by Coach Munsey (Peter Batchelor) and his potential begin to stagnate. At precisely the moment that Chase has a (symbolic) breakdown, up steps ‘The Rev’ (George Houvardas) who, with his daughter Dee (the lovely Kat Hoyos; pictured, below), begins to school Chase in the character building properties of Christian principles, in particular an adherence to abstinence; Chase becomes a born-again virgin. This revelation proves a giggly delight to his teammates, led by player ‘personality’ Beau Ryan (one of several real-life league cameos, including South Sydney general manager Shane Richardson and commentator Daryl ‘The Big Marn’ Brohmann, as well as Sydney socialite-types DJ Havana Brown and gossip journo Jo Casamento).

In the early ‘00s, Stevens garnered sports-page coverage and copped some infantile ridicule when his life of celibacy became public fodder. At the height of his NRL fame, the representative-level tough guy did not skirt around what it meant to be devout, but he largely refrained from religious grandstanding (despite having the sporting stature and media profile to successfully do so). His script for Chasing Comets not-so-subtly redresses that balance; there are preachy passages that will fall heavily on the ears of non-believers and those that have turned up for that blokey yarn about country league shenanigans the trailer promised.

Of course, this tendency towards message-moviemaking does not diminish its legitimacy as a solid slice of local sector filmmaking. Notably, it sits alongside J.D. Scott's Spirit of the Game (2016) as an early Australian entrant in the burgeoning ‘faith-based’ genre coming out of the U.S; Stevens and Perini’s narrative is every frame as committed to the cause as such sports-themed Christian films as the Oscar-winning The Blind Side (2009), Soul Surfer (2011), When The Game Stands Tall (2014) and Woodlawn (2015).

Steven’s screenwriting inexperience cannot be totally ignored – his women characters are largely one-note, either pitched as redemptive angels or sly temptresses; Lucas is neither, but struggles to find much to work with as the hard-done-by Brooke. Also, the production drops the ball at a couple of key moments; for some reason, Chase’s re-emergence as the town’s sporting hero is staged offscreen, the thrill of the game-winning try (surely the very moment for which these sort of films exist) left to veteran Peter Phelps to convey – while alone, listening to a radio in a Chinese restaurant.

Taking into consideration the moments when it stumbles, the most satisfying aspect of Chasing Comets is that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts; it shouldn’t work so well as a contemporary mix of small-town charm, hard man mateship and heavenly intervention, but Steven’s story certainly does.