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Unsung Auteurs: Steve Binder

FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: music screen director Steve Binder, who helmed Elvis' '68 Comeback Special.
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Kriv Stenders: Crafting Boy From The Bush

Prolific director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Slim & I) takes a refreshingly unusual approach with his Lee Kernaghan concert biography film Boy From The Bush, which will premiere at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival.
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Elvis

Australian, Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Australian director Baz Luhrmann has one of the most distinct maximalist aesthetics in cinema. In conjunction with his partner Catherine Martin, Luhrmann has made some of the most over the top entries into Australia’s cinematic canon. From his free-wheeling adaptations of Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet) to his excessive telling of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann hasn’t met a story he couldn’t push to visual chaos. It is for precisely this reason that he turns out to be the perfect director to tell the story of a performer who also shone in excess, Elvis Presley. Luhrmann’s directorial bag of tricks, which are seen on full display in the pseudo biopic, match the frenetic and ultimately tragic life of ‘The King of Rock and Roll.’

Elvis’ story is narrated by Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as he lays dying in 1997. Parker, a venal yet canny manager relates his days as a carny and how he learned to give the people a show they’d believe regardless of the reality behind it. Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy in their production design create a Nightmare Alley aesthetic for the early Parker scenes, with the implication being that Parker essentially used Elvis (Austin Butler) as a geek; happy to fill his need for whatever he wanted to ensure his absolute loyalty.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo Mississippi to Gladys (Helen Thomson) and Vernon Presley (Richard Roxburgh). Elvis’ young life was marked by two things: poverty and immersion into the Black community of the South. Luhrmann juxtaposes the ecstatic reaction that young Elvis has to blues and gospel music with his outsider status. Although visually spectacular (as can be said for the whole film), there is a misguided attempt to position Elvis as a white black man. Indeed, one could argue that Elvis’ early success is predicated on the fact that he was a white man recording black music. When Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee) plays one of Elvis’ early Sun Records recordings in the company of Parker, the point is unsubtly made that the voice delivering the ‘black sound’ comes from a white boy.

Luhrmann takes us from Elvis’ early days touring with Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his inevitable partnership with Parker. Parker, with his bizarre Dutch-Southern accent narrates how he turned a “skinny boy into a superhero.” With his Beale Street suits and irrepressible energy, Elvis soon becomes the headliner for the tour and signs a deal with Parker – a deal that turns into a monkey’s paw nightmare for the performer.

Elvis is less concerned with being a biopic as it is with being a musical. Luhrmann’s decision to place most of the action on stage (whether it be performances by Elvis, Little Richard (Alton Mason), or B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is what keeps the momentum of the film. Luhrmann is less interested in Elvis’ internal life, as evidenced by the complete underuse of Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley. The film also circles hagiography territory with what it chooses to leave out. Elvis is seen crying at the loss of Martin Luther King Jr and Ted Kennedy, yet it never shows his admiration for Nixon and his push to remove “degenerate music” like The Beatles. Elvis is about the show and it’s down to Austin Butler to sell it – and sell it he does.

Butler as Elvis is one of the most effective pieces of casting in a musical biopic in recent memory. Instead of doing an “impression” of Elvis, Butler uncannily transforms into the man. Butler sings a significant part of the soundtrack, and it takes a careful ear to discern which parts are his voice and which parts belong to Elvis. As Luhrmann splices real footage of Elvis into the film, it also becomes difficult to see anyone but Butler. In an age where a passable impression of a performer is enough to gain accolades (see Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman, or Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy) Butler’s performance outstrips them all. Considering Butler’s biggest part thus far has been as Tex in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, it’s a career defining role and one that will likely attract the attention of The Academy.

Less successful is Hanks as Parker. Buried deep in prosthetics, his performance is almost a caricature. Parker exists as a focal point to elucidate how much Elvis was let down by those who professed to care for him. Richard Roxburgh’s Vernon Presley is more effective as a character who wilfully put his son in danger to reap the rewards of his talents.

It’s almost impossible to tell the full story of Elvis Presley, and it seems that Luhrmann isn’t really interested in doing that. We don’t really see his physical decline; his whole film career is relegated to a montage. What we do get is a top tier musical which blends the work of Elvis with contemporary artists to reinforce just how important Elvis’ legacy is. Elvis works best when it embraces his artistry as a performer and falls flat when it seeks to interrogate him as a man. Butler gives his all to portray Elvis as a man that runs the gamut from naïf, to rebel, to a man locked in his own hubris, but the script written by Luhrmann and frequent collaborator Craig Pearce and others doesn’t quite give him a lot to work with.

Scripting has never been Luhrmann’s strength. It’s his visual acuity that draws people to his films and working in conjunction with cinematographer Mandy Walker, he has created a sequined glory. Although filmed entirely in Australia, Luhrmann manages to make Elvis feel like a distinctly American creation, in effect echoing The King himself.

Although the film does have its issues, Elvis is a phenomenal audio-visual feast that uses Austin Butler’s superb performance to create a substantial musical. Less is not more when it comes to The King, and it’s difficult to think of a better director than Luhrmann to put on a magnificent show.

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Trailer: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

Tim Minchin's take on the Roald Dahl classic gets the screen treatment, with Alisha Weir in the title role, Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Mr and Mrs. Wormwood, and Sindhu Vee as Mrs. Phelps. Directed by Matthew Warchus, who also helmed the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical for the stage.
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Cyrano

Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In Joe Wright’s musical-historical-drama Cyrano, poems elicit as much heartbreak as they do expressions of admiration.

It feels rather fitting for the Atonement filmmaker, no stranger to adapting rhapsodic period pieces, to take on an endeavour such as adapting a stage musical based on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac.

The film follows a fictionalised version of real-life Frenchman, Cyrano de Bergerac (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage); a poet and soldier who due to his appearance (this film focusing on Dinklage’s short stature as opposed to other adaptations centring on Cyrano’s protruding nose (1987’s Roxanne, anyone?)) is marginalised by 17th-century society.

As adept in mind as he is in combat, we learn from early on that it isn’t wise to mock Cyrano’s appearance; those choosing to underestimate him due to his size are on the receiving end of not only hefty verbal shutdowns but knuckle sandwiches. It is through Cyrano’s affection for the angelic Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he faces his biggest struggle: unrequited love.

An aesthete, Roxanne is charmed by the sweet caress of Cyrano’s poetry. To her detriment, she becomes partnered with the possessive De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), with her world further rocked – and Cyrano further challenged – upon the soul-shaking arrival of Christian (an affable Kelvin Harrison Jr.); a jaw-droppingly handsome recruit in Cyrano’s regiment.

Unable to see a future between himself and Roxanne, her beauty being a perceived barrier for the outsider Bard, Cyrano takes Christian under his wing; involving himself in a love that isn’t his own by penning romantic words for Christian so he may court Roxanne. This sets up a series of follies, displays of heartache and will-they-won’t-they-isms becoming of romantic films.

The serenading effect of Cyrano’s words is amplified through song. Unfortunately, so is the schmaltz, which, pending your tolerance for Disney renaissance musicals, will ultimately shape your opinion on Cyrano.

Joe Wright casts an array of actors with varied musicality. It becomes apparent from early on that Wright’s Cyrano is less focused on singing ability than it is about evoking themes of desire and love through performance. It is through Dinklage and Mendelsohn where this is most present, with both actors singing songs expressing their inner turmoil with the spoken word and gravelly bravado of Nick Cave.

Wright’s gamble to have actors of varied skill mostly pays off, with Dinklage in particular – and by no means is he unable to hold a tune – singing in a way that further highlights Cyrano’s feelings of inadequacy. At their harshest, songs are excessive and equally over-sung to the point of cloying.

This film’s Cyrano is a role made for Dinklage (the script penned by Erica Schmidt, Dinklage’s better half in real life). The Station Agent actor shines as the lovestruck soldier whose day-to-day life is made exponentially difficult thanks to the narrow-minded views of high society (a feat that is probably not too dissimilar to the actor’s actual experiences).

Some of the light-hearted qualities of the play don’t transfer as smoothly to the screen, with the playful dialogue in the early parts of the film creating unevenness in tone. With this being a Wright film, there are expectations with regards to the quality of camerawork, cinematography (Seamus McGarvey) and production design (Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer), with the gorgeously pastel production, in many ways, captured impeccably and up there with his Pride and Prejudice in terms of visual excellence.

There is a sentimental excess to Cyrano that may generate an air of lethargy for those uneasy with musicals. However, in Wright and team, there is enough colour packed into the film to make for an engaging tale of troubled romance.

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Marry Me

Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Last year, Owen Wilson appeared opposite Salma Hayek in Mike Cahill’s Bliss. Apparently unsatisfied with just how mismatched that romantic pairing was, he’s not only found an even bigger mismatch in Jennifer Lopez, but indeed an entire production built on emphasising said mismatch.

Of course, that line of thinking is part-and-parcel with the ‘point’ of the film itself, contrasting Wilson’s Charlie and his humdrum life as a single father and math teacher, with Lopez’ Kat Valda and her social-media-drenched existence as a pop star. This kind of off-kilter romantic dynamic is a common fixture of the rom-com (even got some shine a couple of years ago with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen in the excellent Long Shot), and to their credit, they at least have enough awareness to make their respective glamour and adorkability fit together.

But chemistry can only go so far, especially when the script they’re working with suffers from Will Gluck Syndrome. Basically, it tries to comment on the heavy artificiality of media stardom, social media in particular, with Charlie dropping quite a few Boomerisms about the kind of validation that environment creates. However, it fails to reconcile the fact that the film itself, in all aspects, is just as artificial, if not more so. The contrived romance, the strict adherence to rom-com cliches (right down to a finale involving running through an airport), the frustratingly milquetoast perspective on social media and its effects on people; it’s more than a little hypocritical, and without anywhere near enough charm to make it palatable.

It doesn’t help that what little it does end up saying (most of which gets summed up over the course of a non-sequitur-heavy press conference early on) fades into the background very quickly. As sanded-off as its commentary is, it at least gestured towards interesting ideas regarding celebrity and finding contentment in more than just having (x) amount of followers. But then the writers, whose collective credits range from Orange Is The New Black to Halle Berry’s Catwoman, throw all their chips into the romance, which fails to really go anywhere.

Outside of the mismatch and the fast-fading chemistry, there’s not a whole lot to this relationship that makes it worth sticking with for this length of screen-time. And no, the immensely repetitive reggaeton soundtrack doesn’t make up for it either.

Marry Me starts out on a decent footing and then proceeds to trip arse over teakettle in full view, from the meandering and occasionally pretentious dialogue, to the ‘slam the hook into the audience’s head’ soundtrack, to its increasingly annoying lack of self-awareness.

Every sin it tries to poke at regarding media fascination with celebrities is only echoed by its ‘average guy ends up with hot chick’ conceit, and while the main stars are certainly trying to make this work, there’s not enough support behind them to do so. In comparison to a source material that is funnier, more to-the-point, and available for free online, that’s just not good enough. When it all ends with the song ‘Nobody’s Watching (Marry Me)’, it’s less a denouement than it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Boulevard! A Hollywood Story

Festival, Film Festival, Musical, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With its pitch-black comedy and almost salacious peeks behind the Hollywood curtain, Sunset Boulevard is the very definition of a cinematic classic. Directed by Billy Wilder, this tale of murder, sex and monkey funerals has a whip smart script filled with delicious dialogue and an iconic central performance by Gloria Swanson. As Norma Desmond, a silent film star wishing to make her big return in the talkies, Swanson dominates every scene she’s in.

Swanson was offered numerous roles after her Oscar nominated performance, but she turned most of them down saying they were simply Desmond knockoffs. Ironic then that a few years later, Swanson would come up with her next big project: Boulevard!, a musical based on Sunset Boulevard and starring Swanson as, ahem, Norma Desmond. Take that, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who tackled another icon of Hollywood in Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, Boulevard! literally digs through archive footage, letters, and interviews to reconstruct the pre-production that went into the musical that never happened. Perhaps the biggest find in Schwarz’ film is an interview with actor Richard Wyler, AKA Richard Stapler, recorded long before his death. Wyler/Stapler talks about his life with then-boyfriend, Dickson Hughes, and how the two were hired by Swanson to write the music and lyrics for Boulevard!

Was Swanson right to pin all her hopes on these two rosy cheeked men who had never written a Broadway musical before? The jury is still out on that. Like Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, you’re never truly going to get a full picture of what the artists intended, with Swanson singing her heart out to a tape recorder, while Hughes diligently tickles the ivories. However, turning Desmond’s diatribe about the superfluous nature of talkies into a jaunty, knee slapper called Talk! Talk! Talk! is certainly a headscratcher.

Schwarz offers up obvious parallels between Sunset Boulevard and Swanson’s relationship with Stapler and Hughes. Swanson is said to have fallen for the chiselled charms of Stapler and like her alter-ego, was keen to get to know her muse a little more intimately. Elsewhere, a baby chick killed by Swanson, stepping on it with a stiletto, is given the same emotional send off by the threesome as Desmond’s chimpanzee. Things get even more meta when, in the ‘90s, Dickson Hughes decides to write a play about writing the musical, where, as a man in his 60s, he ended up playing his younger self!

Writing like this suggests that Boulevard! is merely a knockabout documentary with a big focus on the tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic. However, Schwarz also stays focused on his three subjects long after the musical is mothballed. In particular, he explores Stapler’s life after he leaves Hughes. Picking up some success in a few spaghetti westerns, Stapler rebrands himself as a tough, ornery actor who eats gravel for breakfast and is a danger to the ladies. However, it’s never clear how successful he was at hiding his truth from himself. Even Stapler’s second (!) wife admits that their marriage was more a friendship than anything else.

At only 80 minutes, Boulevard! is not a deep dive into queer Hollywood, but what is on show is engaging enough. Schwarz never belittles or derides his subjects. It’s clear that he has no interest in spoofing Swanson’s desire for one more bite of the cherry. Instead, he dusts their legends off and puts them on a pedestal, allowing them to stay in the consciousness of all those wonderful people out there in the dark.

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Jennifer Lopez: Art Imitates Life

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Jennifer Lopez’ latest romcom, Marry Me – a sweet confection that plays like a fun pop video, portraying a superstar whose fiancée cheats on her, her humiliation heightened by social media’s stark spotlight. Sound familiar?