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Entries in Independent (33)

Sunday
Jan172016

SKIN DEEP

Stars: Zara Zoe, Monica Zanetti, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jeanie Drynan, Billie Rose Prichard, Monica Trapaga and Robert Alexander.
Writer: Monica Zanetti
Director: Jon Leahy

Rating: 4/5

A dozen drunken dusk-to-dawn hours on the streets of Sydney’s boho mecca, Newtown, prove ample time for two strangers to find friendship and grapple with existential angst in director Jon Leahy’s impressive debut feature, Skin Deep.

The intoxicating free spirit and soft-hearted toughness synonymous with the arty inner-city enclave pulses through writer and co-lead Monica Zanetti’s simply structured but insightful script. The premise of stereotypes being deconstructed and souls being bared over the course of a night time odyssey is not new; no less than Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy is the genre standard bearer and has inspired many imitators. But Zanetti and Leahy find a freshness in their characters and a frank honesty in the drama that is entirely engaging.

The protagonists are prim Northern Beaches ‘straightie’ Leah (a very fine Zara Zoe), outwardly composed but bravely facing her own young mortality; and, Caitlin (Zanetti, a natural and compelling presence), an out-and-proud lesbian struggling with her own post-breakup inner turmoil. When they ‘meet-cute’ over a CD dump-bin just off King St (one of many nods to local flavour that inner-west audiences will warm to), circumstances lead to a few lip-loosening ales at the Bank Hotel and the new friend’s evening of personal discovery takes flight.

The film symbolically references the outer shell which binds humanity in more ways than just it’s ironic title. Caitlin sports bandages on her forearms, suggesting she ‘cuts’ as an outlet for her anxiety; despite her healthy appearance, Leah is riddled with fatal melanoma cells (the story was inspired by Zanetti’s own struggle to overcome skin cancer). Zoe’s defining on-screen moment is a heartbreaking emotional meltdown in a cemetery, the honesty of their time together finally breaking down her defences.

Caitlin’s sexuality remains a non-issue for much of the film, with fleeting references and precise observations imbued with the same integrity that drives the rest of the production. A very sweet passage of dialogue between Zanetti and Robert Alexander as her broad-minded father is indicative of the film’s positive attitude to Caitlin’s life direction. Fittingly, both mainstream and LGBTIQ festivals have received Leahy’s sensitive, low-key take on the lesbian lifestyle warmly.

At a crisp 72 minutes, there is very little room for padding in the narrative; key moments, including a hilarious detour to a tattoo parlour and an awkward encounter with Caitlin’s ex, Isabel (Elizabeth Blackmore), are kept lean and played with a refreshing bluntness. An encounter with some street toughs in a children’s park feels stagey, if only because so much of what has unfolded previously rings convincingly true.

All tech departments deliver big-budget expertise on the low-budget shoot, particularly DOP Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson’s skilful use of after-dark light sources and Adrian Powers’ artful editing, which provides often lengthy passages of dialogue with crucial pacing.

Skin Deep Theatrical Trailer from ScreenLaunch on Vimeo.

 

Thursday
Dec102015

THE LAUNCHPAD DIRECTORS: REVIEWS & INTERVIEWS FROM A NIGHT OF HORROR/FANTASTIC PLANET 2015

For the second consecutive year, Screen-Space was a proud contributor to the annual A Night of Horror/Fantastic Planet Film Festival, which closed out the 2015 edition last Sunday night. In addition to presiding over the Jury, we conducted the Launchpad Interviews – Q&As with film-makers world premiering their latest at ANOH/FP. 

Each director proved open and engaging, their films – a found-footage monster movie; a bleak take on child exploitation and violence; and, a genealogical-themed apocalyptic thriller – strong and unique visions. But were they any good…?

PIG PEN
Directed by JASON KOCH (Pictured, above right).
RATING: 4/5
From the first frame, this brutal odyssey into the nihilistic netherworld of disenfranchised suburbia is the stuff of nightmares. Koch has walked a similarly dark path in his two previous efforts (Lamplight; 7th Day), but many will be unprepared for the bloody dismemberments, psychological torment and teenage exploitation that feature so prominently in this truly shocking vision. Countering the ferocious presence of Vito Trigo as the sadistic psychopath/stepfather Wayne is Lucas Koch as Zack, aka ‘Pig Pen’. The actor (the director’s son) evokes a degree of empathy as the wayward, victimised tween-ager that is truly heartbreaking; few Best Actor trophies in the festival’s nine year history have been so richly deserved. As the mother helpless in the face of her own demons and witness to her son’s disintegrating childhood, Nicolette le Faye serves Koch Snr and Jnr superbly.
The Launchpad Interview: “I would have never been able to approach another parent of a child actor and say, ‘Trust me, it’ll be safe.’ Where I knew this would actually be the case, others may not have been easily convinced.” Read the full interview here.

GITASKOG
Directed by DRAZEN BARIC (Pictured, above centre).
RATING: 3/5
Debutant Drazen Baric’s calling-card effort is a solid entry in the found-footage/cabin-in-the-woods genre. It falls well short of its inspirations (Evil Dead; Cabin Fever; The Blair Witch Project), but does manage to recall (somewhat unexpectedly) John Boorman’s wilderness-set study in macho posturing, Deliverance. A group of brash, occasionally ‘dickish’ man-child archetypes disrespect the native people and their land while checking out a log home by a lake in the Canadian wilderness; said lake may also be home to a mythical beast, due its ritualistic feeding. See where this is going? The shrill yelling and goofy raunchiness of the group gets tiresome and the leaps in logic needed to establish the camera coverage is naff, but the money-shot in any found-footage monster pic – the reveal of the beast – is handled effectively by Baric. His film never quite soars above the clichés, but moments of convincing terror do emerge.
The Launchpad Interview: “It was an incredible risk to make this type of film in this type of genre because of today’s impatient sensibilities and lack of tolerance. We made this film on the basis that it would be something that ‘we’ would want to watch.” Read the full interview here.

NORMAL
Directed by MICHAEL TURNEY (Pictured, above left; with lead actress Nicola Fiore).
RATING: 3.5/5
…or ‘The Most Ironic Film Title of the Year’. Michael Turney has an eye for the brazenly shocking – his film opens wordlessly as his blindfolded, headphone-wearing protagonist, Pingo (Nicola Fiore), submits to a stranger’s animalistic thrusting. But, despite some confronting sex and violence, to 'shock' is not Turney’s modus operandi; the auteur’s first feature is both stinging social satire and oddly intimate account of a foretold fate. In searching for an emotional and spiritual self-knowledge, Pingo discovers a dark destiny that will impact all of mankind. Normal feels small-scale in its execution (and occasionally a bit too oblique for its own good), yet resonates as a horror/drama with lofty artistic and thematic ambitions. Clearly energised by the dark corners and edgy eccentricities of the NYC shoot, Turney amps up the end-of-days imagery in the final act and the lasting impact is both emotional and visceral.
The Launchpad Interview: “My main theme is always balance and I hope people realize that men and women need each other to maintain it regardless of how frustrated we may be with one another.” Read the full interview here.

Thursday
Nov192015

THE SECOND COMING VOLUME 1

Stars: Michael Tierney, Richard Wolstencroft, Gene Gregoritis, Kim Fowley, Kristen Condon, Boyd Rice, Shannon Goad, Larry Wessel, Tora Wessel, Giddle Partridge, Brianna Garcia and Pete Doherty.
Writer/director: Richard Wolstencroft.

Screening at Sydney’s A Night of Horror/Fantastic Planet Film Festival; visit the official website for details.

Rating: 3.5/5

The urge to apply a conventional critical eye to The Second Coming Volume 1 is damn near overwhelming; your critic (who has viewed it twice) regularly muttered to himself, “this needs tightening” and “should’ve cut that out” and “what the hell just happened?” But underground icon Richard Wolstencroft’s ‘vision’ compellingly demands that you accept it on its own terms, in its own voice and at its own pace. Whether you find it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess (as it occasionally seems) or an auteur’s bold, deeply personal interpretation of the classic art that inspires him (which it certainly is), there is no denying that Wolstencroft has crafted a vast, ambitious, truly independent piece of free-spirited cinema.

The Melbourne-based director’s muse is poet William Butler Yeats, whose post-World War 1 poem The Second Coming has been embraced as a mystical musing on mankind’s demise. Wolstencroft utilises the poem’s opening lines to chapter-title his own apocalyptic narrative and arrange his mosaic of key players. ‘Part I: Turning and turning in the widening gyre’ introduces Michael (Michael Tierney), who, having wandered his personal desert and  sought heavenly guidance, unwraps his Baphomet idol and re-engages with his favourite book, Aleister Crowley’s 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings, before heading for the red-light districts of Thailand; ‘Part II: The falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ is set largely in Los Angeles, where hot-tempered author Gene (Gene Gregoritis) is pitching a Charles Manson project, while becoming quietly consumed with the notion that the cult leader’s vision for global mass-murder is nigh; and, ‘Part III: The blood dimmed tide is loosed & everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned’, which relocates the production to London and invokes the unsettled spirit of Marc Bolan as it peaks inside the drug-fuelled existence of dark spiritualist, Jerome (Jerome Alexander; pictured, above). The director casts himself as Owen O’Hearn, a shadowy facilitator-of-sorts, bringing together all the disparate personalities in service of the end-of-days prophecy.

In addition to Yeats, Wolstencroft has cited American iconoclast Kenneth Anger as a key influence. The underground filmmaking legend’s predilection for frank depictions of sexuality in his landmark shorts is echoed in Wolstencroft’s casting of such adult industry figureheads as longtime collaborator Tierney (aka, retired X-rated woodsman ‘Joe Blow”) and William Margold, legendary 70’s performer and porn industry historian (he thematically binds the sex-and-violence inherent to the premise when he screens a clip from Teenage Cruisers, a 1977 x-rated pic featuring an alleged Manson disciple). Also echoing Anger’s oeuvre is Wolstencroft’s use of occult imagery, a recurring motif in many of Anger’s most revered works. The use of a vast bibliography of reference works in the end credits is a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who did the same in Salo.

Despite boasting of sequences shot on four continents, The Second Coming Volume 1 is a guerrilla effort that was clearly realised on a shoestring budget with a ‘one take’ guiding principle. One can assume from the footage taken in restaurants, airports, hotel lobbies and, quite unexpectedly, the UCLA campus and Manson’s infamous compound Spahn Ranch, were accessed sans permission; Wolstencroft takes a co-writing credit with ‘The Cast’, mostly non-actors forging ahead with improvised dialogue (Gregoritis gamely unravels ‘forgitton’ back into ‘forgiven’ and ‘forgotten’ in one memorable fluff); on more than one occasion, shots are sourced through a dirty lens. But the rough edges, unstructured plotting and no-holds-barred staging Wolstencroft captures bristles with a beat poet/jazz musician energy that services his aesthetic genuinely.  

There’s no denying the film does occasionally run off the rails in spectacular fashion, most notably when a confluence of eccentrics meet up in a flouro-tinged LA living room. Along with the increasingly unhinged Gregoritis, Wolstencroft unleashes such anti-establishment giants as the late Kim Fowley (ex-manager of girl punk group The Runaways and infamous LA debaucher) and bombshell Giddle Partridge, reimagining 80’s alt-scene great (and Gregoritis’ real-life ex), Lydia Lunch; as the improv restraints crumble, Fowley starts ranting straight to camera as his scene partners try to be heard off-screen. Similarly abstract (but, it must be said, very beguiling) are the free-style lyrics of Brit pop bad-boy Pete Doherty, who oddly materialises late in the third act.

Wisdom dictates that a Volume 2 shouldn’t be necessary. Even at 85 minutes, a great deal of footage could have been excised, especially a lot of scenes of people walking. One understands Wolstencroft’s desire to honour Yeats with an epic modern dissection of the Irish wordsmith’s great poem, but a single film clocking in at two hours (and providing the barely-glimpsed Kristen Condon time to expand on her role) may have sufficed.

What Wolstencroft and his dedicated team have produced is a flawed but fascinating low-budget genre work with high-brow ambitions; a deconstructed reworking of vital existential themes that a great artist explored a century ago and whose words can clearly still inspire today.

READ the 2014 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Richard Wolstencroft here.
READ the 2013 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Michael Tierney here.
READ the 2015 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Kristen Condon here.

Friday
Nov062015

ARROWHEAD

Stars: Dan Mor, Aleisha Rose, Christopher Kirby and Mark Redpath; featuring the voice of Shaun Micallef.
Writer/director: Jesse O’Brien.

WINNER: Best Feature Film at 2015 SciFi Film Festival (Sydney, Australia).

Rating: 4.5/5

Driven by the DNA of a dozen sci-fi classics while pulsating with its own original life force, Arrowhead is both a love-letter to the adventurous space visions of yore and one giant leap into the genre’s future.

Australian writer-director Jesse O’Brien has crafted a thematically complex, occasionally confounding but never less than riveting character study, centred by the terrific Dan Mor’s compelling, bracingly physical lead performance. Should anyone be concerned that Arrowhead comes in the wake of 2015’s other castaway-on-a-desert-planet film, they can rest assured that O’Brien’s debut feature is immeasurably more cerebral, exciting and satisfying.

The narrative’s central conflict (adapted and expanded from O’Brien’s 2012 short) is a large-scale ideological feud between warring factions, although the obligatory interstitials detailing the future setting prove a bit of a MacGuffin; the director quickly focuses his lean, central story on a prisoner named Kye Cortland. The opening action sequence, depicting a bloody prison break, suggests that this particular dystopian future may not be unlike the brutal killing grounds of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1982 cult shocker Turkey Shoot (or, perhaps more precisely, the locally-shot international productions Salute of The Jugger and Escape from Absolom).

Maimed and unconscious, Kye awakens in the presence of enigmatic rebel leader Tobias Hatch (Mark Redpath), who promises safe passage for Kye’s imprisoned father if our hero flies one last op for the cause as pilot of the Arrowhead space craft. Cue one beautifully rendered dissolve from the launchpad to deep space and Kye is on-mission, until forced to crash-land on a remote, rocky landscape. O’Brien blasts through this first act with precise beats, making every frame count in his commitment to slick storytelling, mounting tension and human drama.

Marooned, Kye engages with the downed ship’s advanced operating system, known as REEF (the distinctive tones of popular local actor/comedian Shaun Micallef providing the vocal interface) and begins to recce the alien landscape. O’Brien is now in his element, disorienting his audience with ambiguous visual and aural cues that indicate the planet is not the lifeless rock it initially seemed. Kye instantly adapts to the atmosphere; time and space defy scientific notions; the presence of a potentially dangerous alpha life form becomes apparent.

Kye is joined by fellow displaced astronaut Tarren, played by the wonderful Aleisha Rose who shares a rich on-screen chemistry with her leading man (and sports a superbly retro figure-hugging flight-suit, straight off the covers of a 50’s comic book). Also materialising in one of the plot’s more ‘out-there’ moments is the mysteriously resurrected Norman Oleander (Christopher Kirby). But Kye shares the closest affinity with the symbiotic essence of his new home; as time becomes increasingly fractured, so to does Kye’s grip on his human state-of-mind and tissue integrity.

It is this gripping psychological component, combined with some lavish ‘Jekyll-&-Hyde’ moments of transformative change, that ensures Arrowhead transcends its genre trappings and emerges as something particularly enthralling. Mor’s physical manifestation of his twisted psyche represents truly great body acting; both the technical prowess and emotional insight he plumbs in conveying O’Brien’s superbly written script is great to watch.

All tech contributors, from the lensing and VFX contributions of Samuel Baulch to Stephanie D’Alessi’s art direction and Ryan Stevens’ production design, reflect innovation and vision of an international standard. Detractors might gripe that the influences are too prominent; Duncan Jones’ Moon is an obvious touchstone, as are, to varying degrees, the likes of Silent Running, Pitch Black, Starship Troopers, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Total Recall. But, just as those genre standard bearers found there own voice, Arrowhead grasps the tropes and reworks, re-energises and redefines them with a bold ambition and crackling originality.

 

Tuesday
Oct272015

JACKRABBIT

Stars: Josh Caras, Ian Christopher Noel, Joslyn Jensen and Reed Birney.
Writers: Destin Douglas and Carleton Ranney.
Director: Carleton Ranney.

Rating: 3.5/5

Had Carleton Ranney’s cyber-noir thriller Jackrabbit been shepherded through the studio mill, it may have emerged as a kind of dystopic-worldview version of Sneakers, Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 crowdpleaser that the hacker community still bows before.

Instead, Ranney and co-writer Destin Douglas have honoured the non-conformist stance of their protagonists and delivered a dark, thoughtful take on small-scale insurgent destabilisation. The young Texan’s feature directing debut is more ‘headscratcher’ than ‘crowdpleaser’, but it will be the deliberately oblique narrative that the festival crowds should find most engaging. To his credit, he also keeps to a minimum those ‘typing’ and ‘staring at monitors’ moments that burden most tech-themed thrillers.

Ranney and his talented production design team envision the near future as City Sector VI, a metropolis overseen by the all-seeing VOPO Corporation. An event known only as ‘The Reset’ has made state-of-the-art computer tech redundant, the population reverting to 80’s era circuitry that offers a meagre upside while allowing VOPO to spy on the population via a CCTV network; drone networks and ‘men in black’ operatives enforce border checkpoints and night-time curfews.

From an opening sequence that recalls the sad death of real-world hacker-hero Aaron Schwartz, an angry-young-man tech-outlaw, Max (a compelling Ian Christopher Noel) and VOPO-bound, short-sleeves-&-tie type Simon (Josh Caras) are drawn together as mutual friends of the deceased. With Joslyn Jensen’s Grace providing some much needed feminine guile (and presence) in the second act, the mismatched pair uncover an encrypted hard drive left behind by their late friend that may have far reaching consequences for the very structure of the Orwellian society.

As the plot thickens, so to does Ranney’s tendency towards understated ambiguity and minimalism. There are moments in the unravelling of the mystery that seem arbitrary, yet the momentum never fully subsides. For some, 101 stealthy minutes may prove grating but there is no denying the filmmakers have adhered to a well-defined indie-film aesthetic that ultimately rewards. One of the key thematic strands is the value of information as currency; Ranney, too, utilises and honours the details in minutiae.

One of the great pleasures of Ranney’s world is the disorienting retro-vibe the setting exudes. In addition to the box monitors and dinner-plate circuit boards, the fashions tend towards skinny ties and sleeveless vests, harkening back to the decade in which computers and the nefarious networks they foot-soldier for was born (check out the pic’s fun website for further 80s influence). Also superbly of the period is the pulsating synth-score from MGMT’s Will Berman, borrowing freely from the musical stylings of genre giant John Carpenter.

Jackrabbit screens as part of the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney on October 31. Session and ticketing information can be found at the events website.

Tuesday
Oct202015

GIRL ASLEEP

Stars: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Imogen Archer, Eamon Farren, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Maiah Stewardson.
Writer: Matthew Whittet.
Director: Rosemary Myers.

Rating: 4.5/5

From Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year My Voice Broke to Muriel’s Wedding and Somersault, Australian cinema has a prestigious tradition of vividly conveying that achingly beautiful, emotionally baffling divide between a young lady’s childhood and the mysteries of the adult world that lay before her. That legacy is strengthened further with director Rosemary Myers’ vibrant, fearless debut feature, Girl Asleep.

In fact, much about Myers’ adaptation of writer (and scene-stealing support player) Matthew Whittet’s play also shares its DNA with the best teen movie classics from beyond our shores. In addition to such influential charmers as John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, Girl Asleep could be cut from the same party-dress material as Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart’s 2012 non-pro no-budgeter What I Love About Concrete. Both share a giddy, free-for-all sensibility and delightfully idiosyncratic protagonists, who cope with the insanities of teen life by embracing the power of memory and imagination (similarities are purely coincidental, as both projects were long in development and the creative teams separated by half a planet).

The heart and soul of the just-quirky-enough narrative is nearly-15 year-old Greta, played with a meek but disarmingly charming innocence by the terrific Bethany Whitmore (Summer Coda, 2010; Mental, 2012). As she sits alone on a schoolyard bench, circa late 1970s, hilarious caricatures of high-school life swirl around her in a predominantly static long-take that announces Myers as a skilled craftsperson. Greta is befriended by fellow outsider Elliott, with boisterous ginge Harrison Feldman nailing that most crucial component of teen movie lore – the kooky bestie with a crush on our unknowing star.

Colouring Greta’s world various shades of awkward and embarrassed are saucy mum Janet (Amber McMahon), goofy dad Conrad (Whittet), big sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer) and her sexed-up boyfriend Adam (Eamon Farren). School is a nightmare, with queen-bee Jade (Maiah Stewardson) and her posse (twins Grace and Fiona Dawson) making Greta’s world hell. When Janet and Colin decide to make a big deal of Greta’s 15th and throw an all-or-nothing party (featuring a crowd-pleasing splash of music and dance that indicates a larger canvas would suit Myers’ eye for staging), the teetering narrative strands collide and threaten to implode Greta’s fragile emotional state. Such beats sound Teen Pic 101, which is also the point, as bracing originality enlivens the tropes with compelling pacing and comically precise scenarios.

The pic finds its raison d’etre when the production takes a fantastical third-act detour into Greta’s dark and dangerous subconscious. Featuring an imposing Tilda Cobham-Hervey (52 Tuesdays, 2013) as a woodland warrior/guardian angel type, these sequences are purely dreamlike and serve to guide Greta towards a core strength that will serve her as her adult self begins to form. They are inspiring flights of fantasy, employed with a lightness of touch yet convey the weight of a young woman’s maturation. These sequences alone will ensure Greta and her existential adventures should become not only a hot film festival item in the months ahead but also (and, perhaps, more importantly) a slumber-party staple for years to come.

As the Artistic Director of Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre Company, Rosemary Myers oversaw the initial stage production of Girl Asleep and her affinity towards and profound understanding of the material is evident. Wildly funny and deeply moving in equal measure, it is a work rich in larrikin character but universal in its themes and appeal. As Greta embraces her blossoming self, so to does Australian cinema welcome another memorable movie heroine.

Monday
Aug102015

7 CHINESE BROTHERS

Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Tunde Adebimpe, Eleanore Pienta, Olympia Dukakis, Jimmy Gonzales, Stephen Root, Alex Karpovsky, Jonathan Togo and Alex Ross Perry.
Writer/Director: Bob Byington

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 4/5

Exactly the kind of outsider odyssey that Jason Schwartzman seemed destined to headline, Bob Byington’s ambiguously titled 7 Chinese Brothers is a sweet, slyly incisive tale of an unambitious man-child facing up to reality on his own terms. As Larry, the Austin, Texas outsider whose foppish hair, uneven stubble and left-field charm underpin his social-outcast status, Schwartzman once again proves an immensely likable screen presence.

Only revealing the truth of his lonely existence when laying on his old couch with his beloved dog, Arrow (the actor’s real-life pet and scene-stealing co-lead), Larry protects himself from the responsibilities of the world by keeping humanity, in all its forms, at arm’s length. Whether coping with the resentment of being sacked for stealing booze, sensing romantic longing for his new boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) or facing the mortality of his only living relative, his grandma (Olympia Dukakis), Larry’s brazen goofishness and quick wit helps him through most of what life has to offer.

As the cards dealt by destiny force Larry to reassess his outlook, Byington’s screenplay forgoes the potential for life-lesson mawkishness and instead allows Schwartzman to minutely adjust Larry’s behaviour. The result is a film that honours the integrity of its lead character and the skill of its lead actor; the narrative, which stays just the right side of quirky, keeps sentimentality in check and provides a denouement that honours the legacy of the 90’s era slacker genre, from which it draws much of its personality.

In almost every scene, Schwartzman can bring the droll and the acerbic like few actors working today. Larry is clearly a deeply intelligent construct, riffing on small-scale philosophical dilemmas and human interaction when it strikes him. Yet his absurd indulgences, a boisterous mechanism by which he diffuses adult situations, are frequently hilarious; his ‘fat kid getting out of a pool’ bit is comedy gold.

It is interesting to ponder the notion that Larry is, in fact, the adult version of Max Fischer, Schwartzman’s iconic character from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Had society never fully accepted Max’s vision and drive, Larry may be all that is left; self-assured but socially awkward, he is a man at a crossroad, one which leads to a life as either an interesting if misanthropic shut-in or fully-engaged, healthily cynical man determining his own unique path.

Wednesday
Jul222015

LILET NEVER HAPPENED

Stars: Sandy Talag, Johanna ter Steege, John Arcilla, Angeli Bayani, Dorothea Marabut-Yrastorza and Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan.
Writers: Jacco Groen, Roy Iglesias.
Director: Jacco Groen.

Screening as the Closing Night Film at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Finding bittersweet humour and heartbreaking humanity amongst the horror of the child prostitution industry of Manila is key to the impact that Dutch filmmaker Jacco Groen achieves with his debut feature, Lilet Never Happened. As one of Europe’s most respected documentarians, he has developed a distinctly empathic eye which, along with a measured degree of craftsmanship, keeps the narrative buzzing with real-world intensity, with the occasional indulgence in wish fulfilment movie moments.

Crucial to the film’s emotional heights is Sandy Talag as Lilet, the hardened 12 year-old who has fled an abusive, exploitative domestic life to live amongst the runaways and orphans in the shadowy alleyways and abandoned lots of the Filipino capital. Talag is a soaring onscreen presence; a naturally gifted performer who can play tough and tender in the same frame, she is called upon to navigate scenes that would test actresses twice her age and experience.

Having dodged the lascivious advances of a corrupt official (Hilario Nayra) while incarcerated, a sceptical Lilet is befriended by social worker Claire (Johanna ter Steege). Despite the offer of education and shelter in Claire’s school for disadvantaged kids, Lilet seeks out her elder sister Tessie (Dorothea Marabut), a ‘club dancer’ who services high-paying customers under the watchful eye of ruthless house mama Madame Curing (Grace Constantino, delivering the film’s other deeply resonant performance). Despite her protestations, Lilet becomes embroiled in the skin trade, her youth and beauty fetching top dollar amongst the establishment’s high-paying predators.

Lilet occasionally glimpses a life that more appropriately suits her tender years. She shares a sweet bond with fellow street-kid Nonoy (Tim Mabalot) and exhibits an affectionate bond with her younger brother Dino (Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan), whose unflinching hope that his sister will provide the new life that both desperately need gives the film a vital warmth. But the indelible sequences are those in which Talag portrays Lilet’s spiralling acceptance of life as a sex worker; in one memorable sequence, the actress achingly conveys an existential crossroad, striding through the red-lit hallways of the club’s ‘back rooms’ contemplating the consequences of a life under Madame Curing’s soulless exploitation.

Adopting an innocent’s point-of-view of a harsh, often inhumane society puts Groen’s film in the company of such lauded films as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988); it most strongly recalls Jeffery Brown’s Sold (2014), which examines the trafficking of a Nepalese girl to sex trade in India, and Keren Yedaya’s haunting 2004 Israeli drama, Or (My Treasure).

Lilet Never Happened falls just short of the classics of the genre; some rote characterisations and treacly sentiment occasionally derail the compelling, hard-edged realism at which Groen excels. Yet it remains a bracing, bold insight into the child sex criminal underworld, conveying a human spirit crushed into submission yet surging with the strength it takes to survive such abuse and injustice.

Lilet Never Happened will have its Australian Premiere at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema. Ticket and venue information available at the event’s official website here.

Tuesday
Jun092015

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL, VOLUME 2.

For Volume 2 of The Critic’s Capsule, SCREEN-SPACE ventures to every corner of the Sydney Film Festival program, presenting our take on a much-loved actress’ latest US indie, a Swedish drama about body issues, a South African documentary on an immortalized text, an insider’s look at Italy’s most famous horse race and a post-apocalyptic vision with BMX bikes…

PALIO (Dir: Cosima Spender / UK, Italy, 92 mins / pictured, above)
In his unbridled account of the Palio - the bareback, city-square horse-riding event that enthralls the population of Italy twice a year - acclaimed documentarian Cosima Spender (Dolce vita africano, 2008; Without Gorky, 2011) captures not only the brutal spectacle of the race but also the essential purity of Italian machismo. Ego, honour, ruthlessness, social stature and courage are both celebrated and brought down a peg or two in this wonderfully entertaining account of the legends who have flown the flags of the competing regions to magnificent highs and crashing lows. As pulse-pounding as the thunderous derby appears on screen, it is the rife corruption and crooked traditions that often prove the most entertaining aspect of Spender’s feature-length debut (a Tribeca best documentary nominee).
You’ll be talking about…
: The smug charm of alpha-male Gigi Bruschelli, firm in his belief that a record 14th Palio win is his heaven-sent destiny.
RATING: 4/5

THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD (Dir: Francois Verster / South Africa, Egypt, Jordan, France, The Netherlands, 107 mins / pictured, right)
One of the defining social texts of world literature, The 1001 Nights (aka Arabian Nights) relates the story of the great storyteller Princess Scheherazade, who defied the blade of her lover and king by crafting an endless narrative that would ultimately see her life spared and the monarch humbled. South African director Francois Verster frames a study of swift, often violent socio-political change in the Middle East within a celebration of music, art, performance and the redemptive power of positive creativity. Shot over two years and incorporating such outwardly disparate elements as the Turkish National Youth Orchestra’s staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and graphic images from the Arab Spring uprising, Verster considers the legacy of The 1001 Nights while crafting a challenging, vast yet intimate tapestry of personal and cultural significance.
You’ll be talking about…
: An Alexandrian actor and a troupe of Cairo-based performers stage readings of testimonies for the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution, written by the mothers of the deceased.
RATING: 4/5
 

GRANDMA (Dir: Paul Weitz / USA, 78 mins)
Lily Tomlin sets her sights on Oscar glory as Elle Reid in writer/director Paul Weitz’s razor-sharp character-driven comedy/drama, Grandma. Cutting a tart-mouthed swathe through the upscale gay and intellectual enclaves of LA in her search for the $630 needed to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Warner, finally finding a worthy vehicle for her talents), Tomlins’ lesbian-poet-misanthrope reps a tour-de-force role. Having been cast aside by the LA suits after back-to-back duds Being Flynn and Admission, Weitz reconnects with the smart, sweet, caustic voice that highlighted his best work (About a Boy; In Good Company).
You’ll be talking about…:
Tomlin, of course, but also the marquee-worthy support cast – Marcia Gay Harden, John Cho, Judy Greer, Don McManus, Nat Wolff, a terrific Sam Elliott and the late Elizabeth Pena.
RATING: 4/5

MY SKINNY SISTER (Dir: Sanna Lenken / Sweden, Germany, 95 mins / pictured, right)
Few films have tackled the early-teen sororal dynamic with the insight and empathy of first-time writer-director Sanna Lenken’s My Skinny Sister. Taken for granted by tuned-out parents (Annika Hallin, Henrik Norlen), youngest daughter Stella (the remarkable Rebecka Josephson) idolises her figure-skater big sis Katja (Amy Deasismont, an dead-ringer for Hailee Steinfeld); the family begins to implode when Stella, herself struggling with early body-issue concerns and the first flushes of romantic desire, discovers Katja is in the throes of bulimia. No surprise that Lenken was once a sufferer and has previously explored the impact of the disease in the short Eating Lunch; there is barely a false note in her slow-burn drama. Despite some unnecessary third act melodrama, My Skinny Sister is, in every other respect, a warm-hearted, quietly powerful work.
You’ll be talking about…
: The bathroom scene, where Stella is filled with concern when she discovers Katja is purging, only to have Katja hold the crush Stella has for the ice-skating coach over her little sister in exchange for secrecy. Josephson and Deasismont (aka, Swedish pop starlet Amy Diamond) are both extraordinary in their bigscreen debuts.
RATING: 3.5/5  

TURBO KID (Dirs: Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell / New Zealand, Canada, 95 mins / pictured, right)
Turbo Kid has been touted as a loving nod to those dusty VHS rentals that faded on the outer rims of rental shelves with names like 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Exterminators of The Year 3000. An outland BMX-er named ‘The Kid’ (an ok Munro Chambers) takes on the guise of his comicbook hero, Turbo Kid, to thwart the henchmen of bloodthirsty post-apocalyptic dictator, Zeus (Michael Ironside, enjoying himself). It should be a blast, but this Kiwi/Canuck hybrid oozes an icky hipster-cool smugness that impresses itself by ridiculing the genre’s shortcomings rather than celebrating the unshakeable integrity of the no-budget action epic. The gags feel like cheap shots, rarely earning a laugh. DOP Jean-Philippe Bernier’s widescreen frame and crisp imaging actually work against the comedic premise, as does the CGI-amped splatter-effects. EP Jason Eisener nailed the 80s send-up/homage with far greater skill as director of Hobo With a Shotgun (2011).
You’ll be talking about…
: The wonderful Laurence Leboeuf as comic-relief robo-babe Apple. If the film finds its audience (that under 25, ‘the 80s were so daggy and funny’ crowd), expect Apple cosplayers to populate the Cons.
RATING: 2.5/5

Visit the Sydney Film Festival website for all ticketing and venue information.

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.