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Entries in Sci Fi (3)

Monday
Nov102014

54 DAYS

Stars: Michela Carattini, Glenn Millanta, Greg Wilken, Michael Drysdale, John Michael Burdon, Matt James, Byron Sakha and Dianna La Grassa.
Writer/director: Tim Lea.

54 Days will have its Australian Premiere at the SciFi Film Festival on November 16. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Thoroughly deserving of a place in the canon of Australia’s ‘nuclear threat’ cinematic sub-genre, survivalist drama 54 Days spins its Twilight Zone-type scenario into an all-too-real study of desperation and despair. A slick exercise in close-quarters tension, it represents a solid calling-card effort for debutant helmer, Tim Lea, who exhibits an assured directorial hand.

The Oz sector has offered some idiosyncratic visions of a nuclear world order; notably, of course, the Hollywood-funded adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and George Millers’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy, but also such fine works as Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction (1980), Dennis O’Rourke’s 1985 documentary Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age and Michael Pattinson’s thriller, Ground Zero (1987). With its enclosed dynamics and young person’s perspective, 54 Days most closely resembles John Duigan’s 1984 drama One Night Stand, which focussed on four teens locked inside the Sydney Opera House and contemplating their mortality as an inevitable atomic blast inches closer.

For Lea’s protagonists (first introduced in his short-film precursor to this feature), war descends upon them as a rooftop party is in full swing. The late 20-somethings, typically consumed with such minor woes as boyfriend troubles and getting richer, flee as a mushroom cloud (convincingly rendered by the effects team) envelops the horizon. Five make it to the building’s fully-outfitted bunker – Michelle (Michela Carattini), a party-girl in the thrall of a secret affair with strapping hero-type, Nick (Michael Drysdale); Michelle’s on-the-outer bf, Anthony (John Michael Burdon), already history in the eyes of Michelle’s bff, Liz (the striking Dianna La Grassa); and jittery Yank, Dirk (Greg Wilken).

As the realisation dawns that their resources will soon expire and that survival means the sacrifice of one of the group, tensions understandably run high. Each reacts in a way that reveals their true selves; some with grace and gravitas, others with a ruthless need to survive that proves shocking. A little harder to comprehend is one character’s descent into a madness that results in a friendship with a cockroach; the bug’s skilful conveying of emotion should surely earn a support billing mention. Casting aside certain elements that come with low-budget, first-time efforts and forgiving occasional asides that derail the tension, the narrative that emerges is a compelling one, the denouement particularly disturbing.

Special mention should be made of production designer Skye McLennan for the detail-rich bunker interior and DOP Nathaniel Jackson for superb use of shadow and spot lighting. One point sure to raise eyebrows is the production’s decision to identify the aggressors as ‘The Chinese’, a risky proposition given that very little back-story is provided into the international state-of-affairs that would prompt such an attack; detractors may point to this as an anachronistic nod to racial stereotyping in much the same way as the threat of a nuclear strike between advanced countries seems far less likely in 2014 than it did in 1985. 

Wednesday
Oct152014

LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

Featuring: Richard Stanley, Marco Hofscneider, Fairuza Balk, Robert Shaye, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker, Rob Morrow and Edward R Pressman.
Director: David Gregory.

Screening at the 2014 A Night of Horror / Fantastic Planet Film Festival. Session details to be annouced soon. 

Rating: 4.5/5

A riveting, rollicking study of counter-culture creativity clashing with the early days of Hollywood’s corporatization, David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau transcends the standard ‘making-of’ format and emerges more an ‘undoing-of’ study in psychological torment and film sector hubris.

Gregory’s filmography cites over 100 DVD-extra snapshots of the directorial mind at work, as well as the highly-acclaimed features, Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre (2011) and What’s in the Basket (2012), a retrospective study of Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case trilogy. This vast experience has clearly proven to be the perfect training ground, as his latest ranks alongside Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1999) and Lost in La Mancha (2002) as an acutely penetrative account of film artistry in turmoil.

Documentaries that chart the hurdles faced by ambitious film projects have been plentiful of late. Like Frank Pavich’s excellent Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul… is afforded the good grace and fortune of having a truly eccentric visionary at its core – underground artist/philosopher/academic/author and film director Richard Stanley, a brilliant, enigmatic presence whose plummy accent and intelligent gaze emerge from beneath the broad brim of his trademark Stetson.

Stanley found favour with some of the more adventurous LA executives after his 1990 sci-fi metal-noir oddity Hardware and trippy serial-killer western Dust Devil. He boldly pitched a fresh version of his lifelong obsession– H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, the nightmarish tale of man’s inner beast becoming externalized. Given a surprising degree of free rein for a newcomer to Hollywood, Stanley’s small, dark vision was soon spiralling out of control, the self-serving influence of boardroom bullies to the harsh physical realities of shooting in the Queensland rainforest proving to be just two of the elements that led to Stanley’s descent into his own heart of darkness.

Present is the undeniably dark pleasure one derives from watching a slow-motion train wreck take shape. Cast (Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider, one-time lead Rob Morrow and several Australian support players) and crew (from LA maven Robert Shaye to legendary Aussie production designer Graham ‘Grace’ Walker) flesh out the reality of events that have long since formed into legend. Thoroughly entertaining are the accounts of Marlon Brando’s grand eccentricity, replacement director John Frankenheimer’s methodical boorishness and Val Kilmer’s utter dick-ishness.

But it is the broader insight that Gregory explores in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau that proves most satisfying. Stanley’s planned film was perhaps the last of its kind – a wild, unsafe gamble on a director’s mad, complex, thematically rich studio tent-pole. It shares a pedigree with the likes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Jeunet’s & Caro’s The City of Lost Children - expensive visions left bloodied by horrible births that clawed their way to cult status. To Hollywood’s great shame, Richard Stanley’s vision of Wells’ hellish utopia never materialized, but its legacy makes for an appropriately insane real-life narrative every bit as brilliantly mad and maddening as the fiction promised to be.

Friday
Jul252014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Haddock; featuring the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Director: James Gunn. 

Rating: 4/5 

It never soars to the wildly subversive comic-book craziness that he conjured in 2010’s cult gem Super, but director James Gunn’s vividly idiosyncratic spin on Marvel’s renegade misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly represents a bracingly fizzy cinematic blast to the increasingly formulaic 'summer superhero' format.

Given the entire budgets of his past efforts amount to a week of craft services on a tentpole franchise starter of this scale, Gunn doesn’t forego his trademark eccentricity and engagingly off-kilter grasp of character to over-indulge his expanded canvas. Instead, he backs his established strengths while also revealing an artist's eye for colour and scale, ensuring his first mega-budgeted work is a beautiful looking film. The space-scapes and interplanetary worlds he creates and the menagerie of alien types that people them are truly wondrous at times.

In sublime creative synch with fellow scripter Nicole Perlman, Gunn bravely kicks off his blockbuster debut with a surprisingly downbeat prologue, introducing our hero, Peter Quill, as a boy experiencing the death of his cancer-riddled mother in the early 1980s. As he runs crying into the foggy night, an alien spacecraft nabs him, setting in motion a life spent drifting amongst the stars, forging a meagre living as a collector of tradable junk.

This adult Quill, aka self-proclaimed ‘Starlord’, is played with raffish charm by Chris Pratt, perfectly embodying the archetypal ‘reluctant hero’. Caring for very little except the mix-tape of classic rock tunes his mother made for him (in what is surely the best use of ‘classic rock’ oldies since The Big Chill), Quill is suddenly thrust into importance when he finds an elaborate orb that contains an ‘Infinity Stone’, an all-powerful energy source that can lay waste entire planets and that every villainous dictator in the galaxy wants.

Gunn’s first act deftly establishes the galactic landscape and the character conflict, although there were some mutterings at the screening attended by Screen-Space that this early section was too convoluted, the political evil-doings that define the conflict dragged down the first half. Not so for this reviewer, as the detail pays off in character empathy and tangible tension as the film progresses.

The Guardians coalesce organically, their individual agendas and dark personalities entirely believable. It is to script’s credit that such empathy is found in this ragtag bunch of losers, given they include an entirely CGI-crafted giant tree/biped hybrid called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); a fiery-tempered Raccoon-like experiment gone wrong named Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in a great voice-over performance); Drax, a mountain of man-muscle out for vengeance (MMA legend Dave Bautista); and, the green-skinned warrior-woman Gamora (the supremely physical and superbly photogenic Zoe Saldana). Their nemesis are just as richly observed, key amongst them Michael Rooker’s Yondu (one of the original Guardians in the early print editions, though no such reference is made here), Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser and Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose lithe figure and striking blue skin tone is set to dominate the cosplay universe in the years ahead.  

Lumbering this jaunty, funny, irreverent work with the Marvel label should ensure a solid opening weekend, but truth be told the film’s weakest elements are those that bind it to the template the comic giant demands of its adaptations. Gunn works wonders with a thrilling effects-heavy finale, but the carnage too closely resembles the final frames of The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier and some parts of the Thor movies; it is one of the few moments in Gunn’s otherwise wonderfully original vision when audiences may utter, “Yeah, seen that before.” The studio’s demands that franchise starters have sequel-ready plot devices also dictate that characters are established here (amongst them, Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector and Josh Brolin’s barely glimpsed Thanos) to clearly serve and only fully develop in later instalments.

The counter to such claims is that those concessions are a small price to pay to allow James Gunn and his creative team access to Guardians of the Galaxy lore. It seems an ideal melding of filmmaker and material, with low-budget genre graduate Gunn (watch for a cameo by mentor and Troma Studios founder, Lloyd Kaufman) bringing all his cool-kid confidence, pop-culture savvy and fan-boy enthusiasm to his debut in the big league.