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Entries in Independent (28)

Wednesday
Dec062017

D-LOVE

Stars: Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss and Christine Fazzino.
Writer: Dave Rogers
Director: Elena Beuca

Rating: 4/5

Elena Beuca (pictured, above) and her husband Dave Rogers were at the lowest ebb of their married life when Ditlev Darmakaya, a stranger they met at the airport, energised their world by imparting a rare understanding of spiritual connectivity. So potent was the sense of calm and acceptance of destiny provided by Ditlev, Rogers wrote a screenplay to tell the world of the experience. In the compassionate, steady hands of debutant director Beuca, D-love (the nickname Rogers gave their new friend/spirit guide) proves precisely the tonic these toxic times need.

Small in narrative scope but vast in its universal themes of grief and disconnection from one’s self, this account of the couple’s true story proves remarkable and deeply moving. Rogers had just lost both parents in a short period of time, sending him into an alcohol-numbed depression that kept him homebound and jobless; Beuca was grieving the recent death of her brother (their life glimpsed in beautifully shot flashback sequences), while trying to reconcile their inability to have children. In cinematic terms, such backstories can seem leaden with clichés, but the couple play the plot beats with the authenticity and dignity of those who have lived and left behind such hurdles.

Rounding out the extraordinary behind-the-scenes detail of the film is the casting of the ‘Danish vagabond’ himself in the role of D-love. Though his acting range will never see him be confused with Daniel Day Lewis, Darmakaya conveys precisely the sweetness and life-affirming warmth that won over first Rogers, then Beuca (both engaging playing versions of themselves). Though it seems entirely unlikely that one’s salvation from pain and leader to life fulfilment will emerge from the crazies found in most airport terminals, it proves entirely believable that the physically striking Darmakaya could have such an impact on the struggling couple (pictured, below; Rogers, left, and Darmakaya in D-love).

D-love recalls a brief period from the 1990s when a new-agey spiritualism entered mainstream American cinema. Films that had audiences staring inwards included Bruce Joel Rubin’s My Life (1993), starring Michael Keaton as the terminal patient seeking truth in his final moments, and Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble drama Grand Canyon (1991), in which middle-class suburbanites sought greater meaning in their existence. D-Love sits alongside such works, perhaps taking on greater importance given the current embrace of close-minded intolerance, as opposed to that pre-new millennium sense of hope and change for the better.   

Elena Beuca’s drama occasionally overplays its sweet-natured hand – Michael Monks’ heart-of-gold mechanic, whose soothing words comfort Elena after a fender-bender, is a bit too much; in one scene, Darmakaya (bound for Burning Man, no less) actually stops to smell the roses. Overall, however, these are minor digressions in an otherwise wonderful drama that benefits immeasurably if you beat down any inclination towards cynicism. D-Love is an irresistible addition to that under-serviced film genre that embraces a non-religious philosophy of love and acceptance; few films can boast timeliness so profound.

 

Sunday
Nov052017

THE MARSHES

Stars: Dafna Kronental, Sam Delich, Mathew Cooper, Zac Drayson, Amanda McGregor and Eddie Baroo
Writer/Director: Roger Scott.

Reviewed ahead of the Australian Premiere at the 2017 A Night of Horror Film Festival; December 1, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The jolly swagman of Australian folklore is not so jovial in Roger Scott’s swampy psycho-thriller, The Marshes. A nasty piece of work in which the spirit of the bushman traveller escalates his penchant for opportunistic crime from sheep stealing to stalking and stabbing, Scott’s twisty deconstruction of slasher pic tropes is as good a calling-card pic as we’ve seen from a young Aussie genre filmmaker since Damien Power’s similarly sinister Killing Ground in 2016.

The Marshes adheres to a well-trodden ‘big smoke-vs-hillbilly’ opening act, as in when eco-warrior academic Dr Pria Anan (Dafna Kronental) has some fightin’ words at a last-stop gas station with brawny pig-hunter Zac Drayson. With her offsiders Will (Sam Delich) and Ben (Matthew Cooper), she forges ahead with her research field-trip deep into remote marshlands, only to have her days filled with further pig-hunter angst and her nights disrupted by a nightmarish presence haunting her campsite.

Scott’s storytelling skills kick into high gear in Act 2, when the threat turns out to be more than a cranky shooter and the landscape of the marsh reveals otherworldly secrets dating back to wild colonial days. With the aid of some skilful lensing from DOP Giovanni Lorusso, who switches from lush, sun-dappled widescreen location work to tight, terrifying close-ups, Scott amps up the menace and revs up the gore at expertly timed intervals.

Audiences will be challenged at times to go with the film’s divergent path into the slightly surreal. Some narrative ‘dog legs’ recall the occasionally head-scratching developments in the TV hit Lost, yet the cut-and-slice thrills of classic Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type entertainment remain ever present throughout the pic’s second-half.   

Traditionalists who view the larrikin swaggie of ‘Waltzing Matilda’-fame as some kind of Aussie hero are going to be rattled by Scott’s version of the iconic figure, brought to hulking, horrifying life by big-man actor Eddie Baroo and kitted out in period-authentic swag-and-drizabone attire by costumer Maria Papandrea. As Pria, the terrific Kronental (channelling Sigourney Weaver, circa ’79, in both looks and intensity at key moments) offers a striking and powerful version of the ‘final girl’/horror heroine.

The Marshes is technically top tier, with Jessica Mustacio’s cutting of the intense handheld camerawork a standout, Nigel Christensen’s sound design crucial to The Swagman’s ominous presence and Tristan Coelho’s atmospheric score adding immeasurably to the tension. Despite the cultural origins central to the story and some broad colloquial language, the authentic locations (which look to have made for an arduous shoot) are not typically synonymous with the Down Under setting and should help sales agents spruik The Marshes as a deserved global marketplace player.

 

Friday
Oct272017

THE GATEWAY

Stars: Jacqueline McKenzie, Myles Pollard, Hayley McIlhinney, Shannon Berry, Troy Coward, Ben Mortley, Ryan Panizza and Shirley Toohey.
Writers: John V Soto and Michael White.
Director: John V Soto.

Opening Night selection of the 2017 SciFi Film Festival; reviewed at Event Cinemas George Street, October 11, 2017.

Rating 3.5/5

A compelling turn from a committed leading lady and a twisty premise skilfully executed will ensure The Gateway finds avid fans amongst sci-fi types seeking thoughtful, discussion-starting cinema. Having previously spun fan-friendly yarns in the fields of 80s-style erotic thriller (Crush, 2009), horror (Needle, 2009) and police procedural (The Reckoning, 2014), Perth-based auteur John V. Soto takes on the science-fiction realm with his typically slick visual style and strong adherence to that all-important ‘internal logic’.

Working with the learned mind of co-writer Michael White (co-author of non-fiction tomes profiling the likes of Hawking, Darwin, Asimov and Einstein), Soto explores the notion of parallel planes of existence via the science of particle and quantum physics. Providing the crucial emotional centre to a narrative that occasionally requires wordy exposition is the wonderful Jacqueline McKenzie, whose layered portrayal of a grieving woman willing to compromise time and space to reunite with her dearly departed is great genre acting.

McKenzie plays Dr. Jane Chandler, a particle physicist running a small-scale lab with offsider Regg (Ben Mortley), the pair on the verge of cracking the secrets of molecular deconstruction and teleportation. The experiments have led to the discovery of multi-dimensional realities; not only do teleported objects reappear, but they are tracked through alternate worlds, similar but distinctly different to our own.  

When Jane’s world is sent into a downward spiral following the sudden death of her partner Matt (Myles Pollard), she acts with her broken heart and not her level head (in scenes that recall those moments of Jeff Goldblum’s ill-fated melancholy in Cronenberg’s The Fly); the doctor teleports herself into a darker, more ominous other-world and re-acquaints herself with the ‘other-Matt’. Blinded by her sorrow to the trickle-down consequences of her actions, Jane puts herself and her shared worlds at risk, leading to desperate (and, frankly, slightly too convoluted to detail here) attempts to right her wrongs.

McKenzie is an actress confident within the sci-fi/horror milieu, primarily because she largely ignores the genre trappings and drills down on the emotional and psychological underpinnings of her characters. She wasn’t given that much to do in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999), yet remains fondly remembered for the role; as the lead in the series The 4400, she imbued the entire production with immense integrity. Such is her impact in The Gateway; the actress explores the film’s soulful consideration of grief, desperation and compromised principles with maturity, warmth and insight.

At time of writing, The Gateway has already impressed those in the know, with trophies at Austin’s Revelation Film Festival and nominations from several other genre juries. It bodes well for Soto’s ambitious vision, which punches above its budgeted weight thanks to strong contributions from Western Australia's acting community, pro lensing by DOP David Le May and the production design of Monique Wajon.

Smart, emotionally resonant science-fiction is a rare commodity; The Gateway will chart a course through international markets that reinforces the Australian industry does it as well as any sector.

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
Aug082017

TEXAS HEART

Stars: Erik Fellows, Daniela Bobadilla, Kam Dabrowski, Lin Shaye, Johnny Dowers, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Clark and John Savage.
Writers: Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith.
Director: Mark David.

Rating: 3.5/5

A genuinely warm affinity for red state Americana and a flair for strong characterisation generally counter the occasional detour into bumpy narrative terrain in Texas Heart, director Mark David’s solidly staged and well-acted neo-Western. One can easily envision the likes of Montgomery Clift, Robert Mitchum and Walter Brennan filling key roles in a dusty 1950s horse-opera version of this low-key but engaging small-town story.

As Peter, an LA lawyer who has no qualms about servicing the legal needs of disreputable types, Erik Fellows (pictured, above) balances square-jawed movie-star appeal with an empathetic quality that affords him viewer’s goodwill. When a witness stand meltdown derails his defence of the son of an underworld matriarch Mrs Smith (Lin Shaye, having fun playing to the back of the theatre), Peter is marked for murder and must flee his West Coast lifestyle, relocating incognito to the backwater burg of Juniper, Texas (played by Charleston, Mississippi).

Pitching himself as New York novelist ‘Frank Stevens’, Peter fends off the ‘city slicker’ jibes and soon acquaints himself with the lives of the locals. Key amongst them is Tiger (a fine Kam Dabrowski), a young man of challenged mental capacity, and Alison (the captivating Daniela Bobadilla; pictured, below), the homecoming queen burdened with a troubled home life. When Alison goes missing and a case is made by Sheriff Dobbs (Johnny Dowers) against Tiger, Peter drops his façade and takes on the case for the defence.

Nick Field and Daniel Blake Smith’s script teeters on the brink of stereotype at times, but they imbue their characters with an integrity that overcomes the familiarity. The accomplished cast, including Jared Abrahamson (as ill-tempered jock boyfriend Roy) and John Savage (as Alison’s damaged, drunken father Carl) are given enough quality dialogue and conflict to spark the narrative at opportune moments.

Although the title conjures a sprawling landscape, Texas Heart is a film that works best in tight, two-character scenes, such as when Peter connects with Tiger at a football game, or Alison and Peter share their dreams on a late night drive. One particularly impactful sequence, in which Dobbs bullys and coerces Tiger into a confession, inevitably recalls the plight of Brendan Dassey, the 16 year-old youth convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of Teresa Halbech in 2005, whose manipulation by law enforcement officers was uncovered in the landmark documentary series, Making a Murderer.

The genre machinations of the plot are less involving and, at times, not entirely convincing. There is little tension generated by the presence of Mrs Smith’s two burly hitman, who only manage to track Peter down after the lawyer blows his cover in an ill-advised television interview. The director wraps up the criminal element story strands rather perfunctorily, suggesting his heart was far more invested in his characters than the structure that binds them.

Which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. A finer, more compelling and ultimately satisfying drama than it’s initial premise might suggest, Texas Heart is destined to find acceptance and appreciation from those seeking quality alternatives via their home-viewing platforms.

 

Monday
May012017

EVENT ZERO

Stars: Ash Ricardo, Zoe Carides, Paul Ayre, Andy Rodoreda, Anna Houston, Raelee Hill, Harry Pavlidis, Yure Covich, Alan Lovell and Nicholas Hope.
Writers: Greta Harrison and Matthew C. Vaughan

Director: Enzo Tedeschi

WORLD PREMIERE. Reviewed April 30 at the The Arts Centre Gold Coast, as the Closing Night film of the 2017 Gold Coast Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

The crisp, crackling action pulse of Enzo Tedeschi’s hugely enjoyable directorial debut Event Zero is destined to satisfy genre fans, who will inevitably gravitate towards its slick production values and relentless pace on streaming platforms globally. Unexpectedly but no less deservedly will be the following it engenders amongst arthouse audiences, primarily those attuned to the acid-tongued skewering of the Harbour City’s shallower end of society and the darker, more disturbing shades of modern political immorality.

Tedeschi and his scripters Greta Harrison and Matthew C Vaughan (tellingly, both Melbournians) open with a blast of purely kinetic cinema, staging a train wreck within Sydney’s subterranean transport grid that unleashes a deadly viral strain. The director is clearly at home in the electrified dark of the underground; he produced Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 found-footage shocker The Tunnel. Tedeschi and his co-writer on the hit film, Julian Harvey, formed the ‘Event Zero’ timeline in the narrative’s previous incarnation as an award-winning 2012 web-series.

Tedeschi utilises multi-tiered character arcs to paint a picture of how the modern Australian metropolis reacts under threat. Spearheading the local government response is Deputy Premier Pamela Laird (Zoe Carides), an idealistic presence faced with the big business influence of altogether untrustworthy powerbroker Langston Charlesworth (Nicholas Hope). Swept up in the tragedy is middle-class dad Jack Winston (Andy Rodoreda), who is left a widower by the outbreak, and whose grief is co-opted by self-serving anti-Muslim agitator Dave Colton (Yure Covich, charmingly despicable in the pic’s best performance).

The heroine that binds the sweeping, occasionally manic story threads is fiery, tough-talking AFP officer Leyla Nassar (a terrific Ash Ricardo), who finds herself entwined in the high-stakes drama when her Muslim leader father Yusuf (Harry Pavlidis) is mistakenly labelled the ‘terrorist’ responsible for the attack. The narrative maintains a compelling momentum, establishing dramatic tensions that suit both the effective use of genre tropes and the deeper thematic questions it poses. Tedeschi plays loose and fast with logic at times and some plotting requires that leap-of-faith moment reliant upon audience goodwill, but so relentless is the action one can’t begrudge the production a few cut corners.  

The inordinately smart subtext at play in Event Zero is most clearly personified in the form of Nick Maricic’s douchey hipster influencer, Pax. The characterisation is broadly comical, that kind of ‘plot device’ voice that can steal scenes when played to the hilt (Brad Pitt in True Romance; Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights), and Maricic gives it his all. But Pax is more than just ‘comic relief’; he is an easily identifiable Sydney archetype. As is Covich’s racist mouthpiece; or, Raelee Hill’s brazenly ambitious political PA; or, Alan Lovell’s greasy palm cop boss; or, Anna Houston’s fear-mongering TV hostess, Elizabeth Haines (a sly dig at 60 Minutes’ matriarch, Liz Hayes?). Although pieces of an action movie puzzle, the characters in fact serve to potently mirror the moral emptiness of modern Sydney’s social and political fabric.

Most profoundly, Event Zero has taken on a perspective that the director and his team could not have envisioned. Tedeschi stages chilling moments of racially motivated violence, of social deconstruction brought upon by nationalistic fervour; the script conjures a world of heartless men performing heinous deeds to further privilege and entitlement. As recently as only a few years ago, this imagined world could only believably exist within the construct of a breathlessly staged genre movie scenario; in 2017, that scenario has become inconceivably real in light of the Trump/Brexit/Alt Right new world order. The film never fully forgoes its primary aim of being rattling good popular entertainment, but timeliness has afforded Event Zero a pertinence that it embraces with a loud, coherent voice.

 

Saturday
Mar182017

BLOODLANDS

Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.

Rating: 4/5

‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.

Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).

Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.

The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).

A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.

Thursday
Feb092017

ROUGH STUFF

Stars: Gareth Rickards, Vincent Andriano, Sam Glissan, Hayley Sullivan, Katie Garfield, Jamie Kristian, Adam Horner, Bobby Babin and Ernie Dingo.
Writer/Director: Jonathan Adams

Rating: 3.5/5

A raucous, rambling off-road romp that plays unashamedly broad and loud, director Jonathan Adams makes up for a complete disregard for subtlety by delivering a ballsy, sweary celebration of all things alpha-Aussie in his debut effort, the appropriately titled Rough Stuff. Both soft-hearted and tough-as-nails, the ladish adventure so adores its depiction of the ‘Australian Male’, it may stir patriotic yearnings for the rugged bushman of local cinematic lore and emerge as a box office bloke-buster.

From the film’s first images – a kookaburra, a thorny lizard, a vast dusty expanse about to be ravaged by a wild 4WD ‘bush bash’ – Adams and his DOP Jack Crombie make no bones about the sort of tale they are going to tell. Nor do they flinch in referencing influences from our century-old silver screen history. Intentional or otherwise, nods can be found to everything from Crocodile Dundee and Wolf Creek to The Chain Reaction and Ground Zero in Adams’ patchwork plotting, suggesting Rough Stuff is as much a homage to our film heritage as it is a love letter to the land.

Towering over the film in a performance as big as Australia itself is leading man Gareth Rickards, a barrel-chested and naturally gifted screen presence who recalls the square-jawed appeal of past Antipodean 'real men' like Andrew Clarke and Errol Flynn. Rickards plays ‘Buzz’, a contemporary incarnation of colonial bush-lifers known as ‘Rovers’, a man who has dedicated his life to searching for a mythical deposit called Stray’s Gold, his best mate Abe (Vincent Adriano) by his side. When an eco-activist documentary crew entice Buzz and Abe (alongside Sam Glissan’s trusty mechanic Scraps) to guide them through treacherous bushland with a map to the legendary mother lode, the duo reluctantly sign on.

Villains in blue-collar adventures such as Rough Stuff can be spotted a bush mile away. Pony-tailed, clean-shaven vegan Eric (Jamie Kristian) and snooty offsider Tom (Adam Horner) have ulterior motives which have little to do with a gold strike; they have coerced an out-of-her-depth Tori (a particularly fine Hayley Sullivan) to tag along and teach her mining magnate father Daniel Madsen (Bob Babin) a lesson in green terrorism. Not in on the ruse, spunky documentarian Skye (Katie Garfield) finds herself caught up in the increasingly dangerous events.

Adams’ deftly sets up a strong set of principal characters, exhibiting natural skills as a storyteller, before a cumbersome third act stalls the momentum. Throw in a mysterious, menacing vigilante figure called ‘The Ranger’ who appears intermittently and it becomes increasingly evident that not all story strands and character arcs are going to gel. International territories beckon, given the flavoursome Aussie imagery and Rickards’ broad-shouldered He-man hero, though sales agents are likely to demand some judicious trimming of the 119 minute running time.

Shortcomings aside, Rough Stuff proves an always engaging, rousing tale that celebrates the spirit of our bush folk without a hint of irony. It is not a film for the ‘cultural cringe’ crowd, that elitist niche who resent any depiction of our population as descendants of rough’n’tumble rural folk. But nor is it meant for them. In one of the most impressive calling card pics in recent memory, Jonathan Adams has rediscovered and contemporised the charms of a terrific bush yarn.

Tuesday
Nov082016

OCCUPANTS

Stars: Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo.
Writer: Julia Camara
Director: Russell Emanuel

Rating: 4/5

Two engaging central performances and a director determined to maximise the potential of his premise ensures Occupants emerges as one of the most effective and satisfying low-budget genre works of 2016.

A low-key alt-universe/time-portal two-hander, director Russell Emmanuel’s crowd-pleaser exhibits all the character-driven drama and high-concept smarts of the best Twilight Zone episodes. He’s probably scratching his head at the protagonist’s home-tech set-up, but somewhere Rod Serling is also smiling warmly that his legacy is embraced with such skill and affection.

Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a LA-based documentary maker who makes herself and good-guy husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) the focus of her latest project, in which she subjects the household to a diet cleansing regime and captures its impact upon their dynamic. Scripter Julia Camara’s narrative kicker is not especially sturdy (what exactly does Annie expect to capture via her multi-camera set-up apart from inevitable mood swings and weight loss?), but there is some sly social satire in the notion that only Californian millennials would assume there is an audience interested in watching them turn vegan.

Showing a sure touch with a series of slow-burn reveals, Emmanuel (a journeyman talent credited with solid home-vid titles like P.J., with John Heard, and Chasing the Green, with William Devane) amps up the tension when Annie’s footage reveals a window into a parallel plane of existence in which two far less happy versions of her and Neil struggle with a miserable life. Presented with undeniable evidence this extraordinary event is in fact real, Annie and Neil take on the roles of voyeurs, peering intently at and slowly identifying with their darker selves living another life.

Annie can’t help but get involved with the ethereal doppelgangers when her cameras reveal hot-button topics like pregnancy and potential homicide; what neither Annie or Neil count on are the consequences when their other selves take a vengeful ‘Mind your own business!’ stance. Events become worrisome, then menacing, the stresses of a life without beer and pizza amplified by nocturnal visitations from beyond this world.

Kudos to Emmanuel and his casting team for pairing White and Pugliese, who have a endearing, convincing chemistry, whether as the buoyant, sweet-natured ‘Annie and Neil’ or as the sad, increasingly tormented ‘Others’. In a bit part played directly to camera, veteran character actor Robert Picardo (The Howling; Star Trek Voyager; Inner Space) plays Annie’s mentor Dr Alan Peterson, a role that adds much-needed weight to some of the plot’s loopier developments.

A ‘found footage’ film by defintion, DOP/editor Emile Harris eschews the familiar shaky-cam, instead applying split-screen technique and believable graphics to convincing affect. The usual illogical elements continue to undermine the genre; why would Annie’s hours of footage be edited into this thriller-like construct? why not go public with such sensational evidence of supernatural phenomenon? But Occupants so convincingly plays to its strengths, such griping seems petty; Emmanuel and his leads provide a giddy sense of thrilling discovery and palpable tension that proves entirely winning.

 

Sunday
Sep182016

57 LAWSON

Featuring: Sara Armanfar, Carolyn Athan, Lou Athan, Mary Athan, Melissa Athan, Hussein Atik, Anthea Hewitt, Marta Klimenko, Gary Lonesborough and Olga Markovic.
Director: Ben Ferris.

Reviewed at the World Premiere at The Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday September 16; screened in Cinema 4 at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

Rating: 4/5

An unwavering focus records seemingly random but deeply honest, inherently captivating moments in time in Ben Ferris’ 57 Lawson, a study in humanity set against the backdrop of an ageing unit precinct in Sydney’s inner city. From the very first frame, which captures the low-rise towers as their day fades into night, the director’s docu-drama masterfully draws upon the objective observational cinema of Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker and Frederick Wiseman in examining the inevitability of change while archiving the latest redefinition of the role of ‘people’ in the city landscape.   

The multi-level apartment complex of the title was borne of an era when inner city population growth was high on the State government agenda. In 1941, the New South Wales Housing Commission was formed to encourage settlement in the area and provide homes for a burgeoning population; in 1965, the three apartment blocks named Kendall, Gilmore and Lawson, aka ‘Poets Corner’, that are featured in the film were opened. By 2016, the occupants are at the mercy of a new local government agenda, one that is handing these prime pockets of city real estate over to billionaire developers with no consideration for heritage or, more importantly, the residents.

Revealed in long, unbroken takes, the lives of the apartment dwellers are both unremarkable and beautiful in their apparent anonymity. Among them are a matriarch and her family, downplaying a traumatic hospital stint; a woman, dipping in and out of her native tongue while reading a cake recipe; and, an Iranian student, living a modern life while remaining respectful of her ancestry. Some of the extended takes are frustratingly abstract; a cruise ship passing the Opera House is a particularly bewildering insert. Yet the engagement between Ferris’ lens, the footpaths and corridors of the complex and those that call it home remains endlessly captivating.

The mosaic of everyday life begins to unravel when Department of Family and Community Services officials arrive at 57 Lawson to begin the relocation process of the longterm tenants. These scenes are staged, but they are realised with no less of an impact than the observational factual footage; particularly heartbreaking is the ageing Turkish man and the moment of realisation that the two women in his home are preparing to move him after 40 years of living at Poet’s Corner.  

Despite flagging a point-of-view with a pre-title quote from Mahatma Gandhi (“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”), Ferris’ methodolgy does not dictate a socio-political message. Instead, his camera is an observer of the existential complexity behind the case numbers and bureaucracy. The influence of Akerman’s ‘slow-cinema’ is obvious, notably her masterwork All One Night (1982); like the late director’s finest films, 57 Lawson is an exercise in minimalism to the point of near abstract detachment. Yet while the very presence of Ferris’ camera seems oblivious to his subjects, it achieves a gripping intensity of personal focus and tangible sense of time and place.