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Entries in thriller (5)

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.

 

Wednesday
Mar152017

A CURE FOR WELLNESS

Stars: Dane DeHann, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna and Magnus Krepper.
Writer: Justin Haythe.
Director: Gore Verbinski.

WARNING: CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Rating: 1.5/5

Reteaming with screenwriter Justin Haythe, the scribe who spewed out the notorious flop The Lone Ranger, lies somewhere in the middle of the list of bewilderingly bad decisions Gore Verbinski makes in his latest career-killer, A Cure for Wellness.

A groaningly pedestrian, chill-free, faux-Gothic head-scratcher that manages to be both convolutely labyrinthine and entirely pointless, the latest from The Pirates of the Caribbean director blathers on loudly and incoherently for two achingly uninteresting hours. The final 30 minutes (yes, it clocks in at an unforgivable 2½ hours) might have provided some unintentionally hilarious OTT entertainment value had it not revealed the darkly misogynistic heart that drives the pretentious ‘fountain-of-youth’ nonsense.

Once-hot Dane DeHaan carves a red line through his career trajectory as Wall Street douchebag Lockhart, an upwardly mobile young financial exec who agrees to head to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and recover the firm’s CEO, who has holed up in the centuries-old facility. Following a spectacularly staged car accident (a high-point, despite yet another awkwardly CGI-rendered reindeer), Lockhart soon finds himself confined within the walls of the hospital, an exuberantly over-designed facility whose cinematic qualities almost justify the entire films existence.     

So begins a seemingly endless session of our protagonist hobbling through corridors and opening doors, having ambiguously meaningless conversations with elderly patients and getting into ponderous passages of ceaselessly dull dialogue with the administrator, Dr Volmer. This pointy-featured creep is provided a full repertoire of villainous tics and lip purses by Jason Isaacs, a career ham delivering a performance that may have proved a lot more fun had it served an equally self-deprecating master.

But A Cure for Wellness provides no such levity; Verbinski takes all the haughty melodrama, grand staging and occasionally gruesome flourishes as seriously as Shakespeare. Scenes extend beyond their natural flow with frustratingly inconsequential payoffs. Exploring a steam bath facility that begins to resemble a tiled version of the hedge maze in The Shining, Lockhart turns one corner…then another…then another; an off-limit section of the facility is similarly explored in boring detail, at a point in the narrative when tension should be building to a crescendo. The crux of the mystery that drives the film’s meagre momentum is so utterly lacking, it reveals all that has gone before to be little more than one red herring after another. Themes or subtext hinted at –memories of guilt, sins of the father, the curse of aging, and so on – are so underdeveloped as to not warrant consideration.

The reason the film deserves no break at all is the lecherous path charted for the sole female lead, Hannah. Played as a wispy early-teen innocent by 24 year-old Mia Goth, the character recalls Sissy Spacek’s virginal Carrie in her wide-eyed confusion about the onset of early womanhood. But unlike Carrie, who gets her own back via vengeful telekinesis, Hannah’s first cycle (horribly over-staged in a wading pool filled with Verbinski’s and Haythe’s ridiculously overused metaphor of choice, the eel) leads to violent disrobing and incestual rape, her small, naked breast centre-of-frame as she struggles to escape. There is no redemption for Hannah, unless one considers the role she plays in making her film’s hero look more heroic a sufficient character arc. It is an abhorrent gender representation that caps off one of the most distasteful and obnoxious studio offerings in recent memory.

 

Wednesday
Nov162016

MORGAN

Stars: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Vinette Robinson, Chris Sullivan, Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti.
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Director: Luke Scott

Rating: 4/5

Picture raising an id-fuelled, temperamental five-year old, wrapped in the skin and attitude of a wilful teenager, with every associated mood swing potentially resulting in carnage only an adult psychopath can deliver.  Herein lies the essence of Morgan, debutant director Luke Scott’s slick, slow-burn sci-fi thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular synthetic humanoid struggling to reconcile her robotic roots with some very human existential angst.

The by-product of a corporate R&D program run rampant, Morgan is holed up in a wildly over production-designed country estate that looks like the Addams Family mansion from the outside but which hides an intricate network of underground scientific research chambers. These serve to both study and contain Morgan, her skin exhibiting a vaguely metallic pallor (likely the result of having spent her formative years sans sunlight) and her only form of clothing, a grey hoody, hiding a fierce musculature well beyond her years.

The breakout star of Robert Eggers’ 2015 shocker The Witch, the diminutive Taylor-Joy summons the kind of onscreen physicality and ominous presence that makes the anxiety felt by her captors entirely believable. Following an ‘incident’ that leaves Jennifer Jason Leigh’s researcher in a terrible state (another descent into brutal victimisation for the actress, though far less well formulated than her Hateful 8 turn), company ‘fixer’ Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to reassess and potentially terminate the Morgan model. The droid’s fate seems sealed when an encounter with Paul Giamatti’s psych evaluator goes bad; the rat-a-tat dialogue and punchy editing of the encounter makes for the film’s most riveting scene.

Despite their charge’s unpredictable cyber-nature, none of the scientists want to see the increasingly human Morgan shut down, their objectivity clouded by eight years spent formulating, constructing and caring for ‘it’. Behaviourist Rose Leslie, chief scientist Toby Jones, administrator Michael Yare, overseer Michelle Yeoh and hunky cook Boyd Holbrook have all developed strong ties to both the project goals and Morgan her/itself, putting them at odds with the chilly, objective-driven risk manager. Mara is a tightly coiled spring as Weathers, her striking angular features and tiny frame concealing its own innate strength and potential for killer force; imagine Audrey Hepburn in Luc Besson’s Le Femme Nikita.

Fast-tracked into the role of feature director, Scott does a fine job manoeuvring his actors around some familiar territory. Alex Garland’s 2015 cult hit Ex Machina, with Alicia Vikander as the robo-girl, trod similar ground; it proved more intellectually ambitious, though Morgan is a dash more fun. Structurally, a group of stranded archetypes facing off against a relentless non-human foe feels a lot like Alien; said non-human protagonist leaving a bloody trail its wake in a quest to define its own mortality sounds quite a bit like Blade Runner. No surprise to learn that Luke Scott is Ridley’s son and that Morgan is produced by Dad’s production outfit, Scott Free.

If the echoes of too many other films negate his own distinctive voice, the slick visuals and strong characterisations suggest Luke Scott has much to offer beyond the shadow of his father. Morgan isn’t the smartest sci-fi thriller you’re likely to see (the ‘twist ending’ was picked very early on by your critic), but it is a terrific piece of A-list B-movie entertainment nonetheless.

Saturday
Aug272016

BURNS POINT

Stars: Andrew Lowe, Ron Kelly, Francesca Bianchi, Aleisha Rose, John McNeill, Joel Spreadborough and Brad McMurray.
Writer: Chris Blackburn
Director: Tim Blackburn

World Premiere at CinefestOz 2016; screened at Margaret River Cultural Centre, Saturday August 27.

Rating: 3.5/5

A slow-burn crime melodrama that recalls such significant Australian works as Ray Lawrence’s Lantana and Anna Reeves’ The Oyster Farmer, the coastal-set thriller Burns Point proves a compelling calling-card effort for debutant director Tim Blackburn and his scriptwriter dad, Chris.

Utilising the picturesque surrounds of the New South Wales’ township of Ballina, the young filmmaker confidently weaves an ambiguously murky morality narrative steeped in revenge, family ties and dark anti-heroism. The thematic heritage, protagonist’s vengeful motivations and vast, photogenic backdrop (captured in all its widescreen beauty by rising DOP talent, Kent Marcus) posits Blackburn’s film as a ‘revenge western’ update darkened with shades of film noir.

Despite his boyish presence as the frontman of an otherwise muscular work, Andrew Lowe is capable as Jeremy Wilman, returning to his childhood hometown as the grieving brother of a murdered girl (Lyndal Moody, fleetingly). The killer has walked free thanks to the influence of crooked cop father Ken Stafford (a seething Ron Kelly), but Jeremy cannot let his sister’s murderer escape justice; he draws upon local connections in the form of Joel Spreadborough's memorable tough guy to inflict some eye-for-an-eye retribution (the revenge is swift and brutal, in one of the otherwise understated film’s nastier moments.)

As word spreads of his involvement, Wilman finds solitude and shelter in a canefield clearing, the expanse filled with the shells of former homes that are now only weathered reminders of past lives (the historic Empire Vale providing the evocative backdrop). Here, he reconnects with a sense of family, befriending the gruff landowner Bryan (John McNeill) and his wildchild daughter-in-law, Myriam (Francesca Bianchi, the film’s biggest asset), both solid support characters afforded strong dramatics moments by Blackburn Snr, a TV production veteran (Big Brother; My Kitchen Rules; The Gruen Transfer). The final reel ‘showdown’ that the film’s western heritage demands is inevitable but delivers.

The elder Blackburn’s script doesn’t push genre boundaries, favouring strong characterisations and dark atmospherics over new directions. But the father-son creative team prove that blood ties and north coast waters are a good mix; Burns Point is low-key, moody and psychologically complex contemporary storytelling, the likes of which are attempted far too infrequently by Australian filmmakers, and deserves to be noticed.

Thursday
Mar102016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr and Suzanne Cryer.
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg.

Rating: 4.5/5

Twisting a tightly wound, detail-rich narrative into a superbly crafted, white-knuckle chamber piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane defies all genre expectations, including the generalisation that long overdue 'sequels' are inherently inferior to their source material.

Invoking both Hitchcock’s grasp of psychological drama and Spielberg’s genre storytelling precision, producer JJ Abrams and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg don’t so much forge a followup to but rather adopt as a reference point the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. But by whatever measure, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves an entirely different and vastly superior vision; if Cloverfield was a product of its time, employing first person shaky-cam when it still felt fresh, Trachtenberg’s taut, slow-burn thriller is a glorious throwback to the days of 'serious' genre cinema.

The first of many decisions that Abrams’ production outfit Bad Robot gets right is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman fleeing a failing engagement (the fiancé, revealed only via phone messages, is voiced by Bradley Cooper). Following an expertly-staged car crash, Michelle awakens in a bare concrete room, manacled and disoriented; Winstead conveys both the terror of this development while also exhibiting the survival instinct cunning that serves her so well as the plot progresses. After false starts in troubled productions (The Thing; Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter; A Good Day to Die Hard) and great work in little-seen pics (Death Proof; Smashed; Alex of Venice), the wait is over for patient fans that have known her A-list status was inevitable.

The room is part of an extensive bunker constructed by doomsday enthusiast Howard, a troubling, complex personality who purports to have rescued Michelle, both from her wrecked vehicle and some kind of extinction-level event that has made life above-ground impossible. As Howard, the great John Goodman creates one of the most chilling screen personalities in recent memory; having spent the last decade energising support parts in Argo, The Artist, Flight and Inside Llewellyn Davis, the actor gets to dominate a film with subtle, multi-tiered character work. Rounding out the claustrophobic dynamic is the terrific John Gallagher Jr as decent good ol’ boy Emmet, his fully fleshed-out performance elevating what could have been a mere ‘plot device’.

The confines of the underground world are slightly more elaborate than the four-wall environs in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-winner Room, yet the challenge to give the space a dramatic vastness is conquered with a similar mastery of craft. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery work wonders with space, maximising the dramatic and artistic potential of every bare wall, dark corner or glimpse of sunlight. Equally evocative is the film’s rich soundscape, including the pitch-perfect score by Bear McReary. By the time Trachtenberg’s remarkably assured direction draws a clear line between the sequel and its predecessor, all contributors have ensured audience involvement is peaking.

Many purists have refused to bestow the ‘new Spielberg’ tag onto J.J. Abrams, no matter how determined the multi-hyphenate is to wear the moniker. The mini-mogul cites ‘classic Spielberg’ - Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, ET The Extra-terrestrial – as the defining creative influence on his career. But for too many, Abrams has mirrored the style yet failed to grasped the essence of Spielberg’s oeuvre; it is the reason a lot of people liked Super 8, his 2011 ode to Spielberg-ian wonder, but no one really loves it.

With 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams finally graduates from Spielberg wannabe to Spielberg protégé; it is an evocative reworking of B-movie beats that could have emerged from the darker-hued period that included A.I., War of The Worlds and Minority Report. Abrams and his team have delivered a thrilling tale of human endurance within the science-fiction milieu that would not be out of place amongst the legendary director’s filmography.