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Entries in True Story (3)

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.

 

Thursday
Sep102015

EVEREST

Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Martin Henderson, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright, Elizabeth Debecki and Sam Worthington.
Writers: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.

Rating: 4/5


Talent both above- and below-the-line nary put a foot wrong scaling Everest, a thunderous, gruelling account of the fatal 1996 commercial climb of the world’s most unforgiving summit.

Director Baltasar Kormákur’s vast, encompassing vision thematically broaches the existential drive that consumes extreme climbers, questioning both the brusque heroism and innate fatalism of those that attempt to conquer such harsh climes.

But the humanistic drama peaks in its pure representation of that age-old, man-vs-nature battle; flawlessly crafted scenes of storm surges and ice shifts, set against the epic real-world scale of the Himalayan landscape, instantly miniaturise the protagonists and put into perspective, both physically and metaphorically, the insurmountable task of surviving should Mother Nature dictate otherwise.

The central figure is Rob Hall (a very fine Jason Clarke), a New Zealander whose company, Adventure Consultants, is on the verge of booming as tourism interest in Everest’s peak soars. His competition is American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a kind of mountaineering surfer-dude, though they share a respectful, friendly bond as two souls in the thrall of the region and its majesty. Hall’s team includes climbers Harold (Martin Henderson, making an all-too-rare big-screen appearance) and Guy (Sam Worthington) and base-camp staffers Helen (Emily Watson, mastering a very broad Kiwi accent) and Dr McKenzie (Elizabeth Debicki).

On the lengthy journey into the Nepalese range that begins in Kathmandu and takes in the remote outposts of Lukla, Namche Bazaar and the Thangboche Monastery, the international cast of ‘who’ll make it out?’ characters are deftly sketched; brash Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), regular guy Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), Japanese adventuress Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose bestselling first-person account ‘Into Thin Air’ was one of several written by the survivors (though none are credited as source material by the production). Each have a moment or two of screen time to reveal their weaknesses and motivations, providing just enough insight into who they are and why they are there for the audience to feel engaged when the high-altitude horrors begin. (No such dimension is afforded the local population, who are fleetingly represented and get a mere handful of lines; for their side of a similar story, check out Jennifer Peedom’s terrific doco Sherpa, currently touring the festival circuit).

The set-up structure is Disaster Movie 101, barely diverting from the Irwin Allen template of the mid 1970s and employed right up until this years’ San Andreas. However, the based-in-fact origins and naturalness with which the Oscar-pedigree writing team and skilled Icelandic auteur Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, 2000; 2 Guns, 2013) work the tropes keep it real enough. The story finds its heart in the long-distance phone call relationship between Hall and his pregnant wife Jan (a weepy Keira Knightley); not so succinctly realised are some kitschy ‘back home’ scenes involving Robin Wright as Beck’s estranged spouse and her efforts to procure a helicopter for her husband’s medical care (“I want the number for the American embassy in Nepal. That’s right, NEPAL!”)

The films strongest suit is its unflinching depiction of the rigour and grandeur of the setting. Whether on location in Nepal (or it’s more attainable stand-in, Italy) or on the soundstages at Cinecitta or Pinewood, cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Any Given Sunday, 1999; The Da Vinci Code, 2006) and the production’s design and effects units have compellingly recreated the terrifying reality of life-and-death on a mountainside, 30,000 feet high. Melded with the emotional and physical struggle depicted by a committed cast under the assured guidance of a fine filmmaker, Everest emerges as both a touching tribute to lost lives and an old fashion slice of white-knuckle adventure.

Tuesday
Oct282014

DECODING ANNIE PARKER

Cast: Samantha Morton, Aaron Paul, Helen Hunt, Corey Stoll, rashida Jones, Alice Eve, Maggie Grace, Ben McKenzie, Richard Schiff, Marley Shelton and Ben McKenzie.
Writers: Steven Bernstein, Adam Bernstein and Michael Moss.
Director: Steven Bernstein.

Rating: 4/5

Although some detractors will single out it’s bare-bones storytelling style as a flaw, there is something ingratiatingly refreshing about the narrative frankness of Decoding Annie Parker. Debutant director Steven Bernstein’s two-tiered heartfelt drama defies its Movie-of-the-Week premise with an integrity all too rare in modern cinema.

Reflecting the decades in which the story unfolds, the assured narrative beats captured by Bernstein recall the thoughtful, expertly rendered, small-scale dramas (such as Resurrection with Ellen Burstyn or Testament with Jane Alexander) that were once produced by studios and shown by major theatrical chains. A journeyman cinematographer who has lensed Alfonso Cuaron’s Like Water for Chocolate, Charlize Theron’s Oscar turn in Monster and Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy, amongst many others, Bernstein refuses to overstate his visuals, instead settling on a matter-of-fact but deeply engaging real-world aesthetic.

Annie Parker (a wonderful Samantha Morton) comes from a family whose women have suffered the horrors of breast cancer for many generations. In gruelling scenes, she fights her own battles against the disease; between bouts, she seeks out reasons why the affliction impacts her bloodline while tending to her free-spirited, man-child husband (Aaron Paul) and the life they have created.

Concurrently, Bernstien tracks the medical team led by Dr Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt), who is determined to find a link of any kind that will shed light on the moribund, bureaucratic state of cancer study. The film seamlessly shifts between Annie’s struggles and the medico detective work of the research team, coalescing decades of real-life developments into a smooth, compelling retelling of events.  

The director coaxes wonderful support turns out of a cast that goes on forever - Alice Eve, Ben McKenzie, Rashida Jones, Marley Shelton, Maggie Grace, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Bob Gunton, the great Corey Stoll – all of whom must have worked below-scale to help get what is clearly a labour of love to the screen. There’s a passion to tell this story with an understated urgency and profound empathy that can be felt in every frame of this terrific film.

For further information on all aspects of breast cancer, follow these links:
Australia: National Breast Cancer Foundation
United States of America: Breast Cancer Research Foundation
United Kingdom: Cancer Research UK
France: International Agency for Research on Cancer