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Reaching Distance

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

An innovative filmmaker doesn’t necessarily need a lot of money to realise an ambitious, large-scale idea, as the likes of Primer, Safety Not Guaranteed, Monsters, Cube and a host of others have amply proven. You can now add to that list the Australian flick, Reaching Distance, which joins a growing collection of savvy local genre efforts (Infini, Terminus) that have successfully put vision above budget. The debut feature from writer/director, David Fairhurst (going the distance after a handful of shorts), it showcases a potential player-to-watch who grinds every ounce of value out of what he has at hand: a single location, a fascinating concept, and a small cast of enthusiastic, engaging actors.

When the mentally unbalanced Logan (the charismatic Wade Briggs) – who also has a photographic memory – finds himself on a graffiti-splattered late night bus, he very quickly realises that things are far from right. As well as the business-suited man (Matt Day, generously lending his industry cache to the project, while also delivering a fine performance) who may have caused the road death of his sister, there are other people from Logan’s past on the bus: a nurse (rising star, Morgan Griffin, from San Andreas and Spin Out) who claims that she knows him; her angry boyfriend (Meyne Wyatt); two teens (Sophia Forrest, Anna Bauert) that Logan confronted in a cinema; a reserved bus driver (Frederick Hama); and an unhinged homeless man (Eddie Baroo) who slowly starts speaking a strange kind of sense.

Right from the off, Reaching Distance boasts a heady, trippy ambience that keeps you guessing at every turn. At first it feels loose and freewheeling, its hectic editing and whirring camera work giving the false impression of a film about to tip out of control at any second. Fairhurst’s assured storytelling, however, rapidly kicks into gear, and it becomes obvious that he’s been intentionally unsettling the viewer, lining them up for a series of narrative punches that drive home what is ultimately a finely composed tale of redemption and hope. Punchy and compelling, Reaching Distance is a smart, inventive slice of local genre filmmaking.

Reaching Distance is screening in a series of one-off events. For venue details and booking info, click here.

 
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A Star is Born

Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In the words of Sam Elliott’s Bobby: “Music is essentially twelve notes. All any artist can offer to the world is how they see those twelve notes”. For a film that serves as the fourth remake of a story dating back to the golden years of 3-strip Technicolor, these are words that could have sabotaged this entire venture.

First directing gig for star Bradley Cooper, first acting gig for co-star Lady Gaga that doesn’t involve music videos, witches or Robert Rodriguez, and both put towards a story that has been uttered through the lips of the likes of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. If this film was simply adequate, that would already be a serious feat, but it seems that Cooper isn’t one to settle for just being “adequate”.

His ability with directing actors needs to be brought up, as he manages to wring out impressive work out of pretty much everyone in attendance. His own performance as the sloshed country rocker Jackson, whose skin, jacket and lungs are all tanned leather from the look and sound of it, is very strong; same with Gaga as Ally opposite him, but it’s with the supporting cast that the bigger surprises lay in store. Everyone fits perfectly in place, and in the case of Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, he manages to bring out the best work of his entire career. Or, in the case of Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chappelle later on in the film, one of their rare cinematic gems. Add to this the dazzling lights captured by Matthew Libatique (Straight Outta Compton, Black Swan) and you have visual gold.

But for a movie musical, visuals are only half of the puzzle; the music needs to connect just as hard, if not harder. Well, this might be one of the single strongest musical efforts that have made it to cinemas in years, possibly decades. Aside from Cooper having an impressive set of pipes on him, giving the numerous live performances grizzled soul, and Lady Gaga finally nailing that country-western/pop fusion she attempted with her most recent solo album Joanne, the sound mixing is so clear that it feels like an actual live concert with all the ear-shredding distortion that comes with it. But one with all the heart-breaking and sobering behind-the-scenes drama kept in, giving the story a serious emotional push over the top.

A Star Is Born shows an incredibly strong first effort for actor and now director Bradley Cooper, leaving his own fingerprint on what has become a legacy remake in a way that does justice to the material, pays due tribute to the original, and shows why this story still resonates in a world populated by RuPaul’s Drag Race and Gaga’s brand of pop revivalism. It’s a timely feature that highlights the true timelessness of the original work; it’s the juggling act that all remakes strive for, but few manage to capture. Encore!

 
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In Like Flynn

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Errol Flynn – one of Australia’s first ever international movie superstars – was a prolific myth-maker, stoking the fires of his own heady off-screen legend through racy interviews and a series of controversial autobiographical works. The most famous, of course, is 1959’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Autobiography Of Errol Flynn, but the famous rake also penned two others: the 1946 romantic adventure novel, Showdown, and 1937’s Beam Ends, which tracked Flynn’s early seafaring adventures.

The veracity of Flynn’s writings has always been questioned, and seemingly with this in mind, In Like Flynn – the film adaptation of Beam Ends – plays more like a Boy’s Own-style romp than your usual movie star biopic. The results are certainly entertaining, but director, Russell Mulcahy (Razorback, Swimming Upstream), at times appears to be having a little too much fun, dipping into cartoonish goofiness when a tighter hold on the reins was needed.

Set way before Tasmanian-born Errol Flynn (played with the right amount of cocky assurance and swagger by Thomas Cocquerel) even dreamed of big screen stardom, In Like Flynn follows the errant adventurer’s journey up the East Coast of Australia towards Papua New Guinea, where he went to find his fortune. Aboard the dodgily procured yacht, The Sirocco, Flynn and his travelling partners – Canadian street brawler, Rex (Corey Large, who also co-writes and co-produces); prim Englishman, Dook (William Moseley); and harshly seasoned sea-dog, Charlie (Vikings star, Clive Standen, whose full-bodied performance occasionally hits pantomime levels) – encounter drug runners, criminals, crooks, and a very suspect Townsville political player (the hilariously over the top David Wenham) along the way.

Though dotted with sub-par performances (Isabel Lucas is all at sea as a femme fatale), and shaken violently from pillar to post by a wildly divergent tone, In Like Flynn boasts an undeniable charm. The closing scenes of The Sirocco’s more serious, life-threatening trials and tribulations bring a much needed sense of gravity, and while the film doesn’t come close to unravelling Flynn’s complicated psyche, it swings, swashes, and buckles in a way that the man himself would probably have loved.

 
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Backtrack Boys

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Bernie Shakeshaft is a jackaroo, and this documentary is essentially about the residential youth programme he runs on the outskirts of Armidale in NSW. Kids (predominantly boys) who are troubled – and in trouble – go there to continue their education, as a last chance before “juvie”. A key part of the process is the way they work and bond with Shakeshaft’s dogs, preparing them for dog-jumping competitions.

So far so straightforward, and indeed after five or ten minutes it seems that the point – admirable though it may be – has been made, and that the feature length of Backtrack Boys is superfluous. Happily, this is not the case at all, though, because the film grows in depth and as we get to know more about some of the boys – and the personalities of them and their wonderfully big-hearted mentor – it becomes very moving and suspenseful.  (The dogs themselves are rather engaging too, incidentally.)

The focus is principally on two lads, a 12-year-old called Rusty and a very likeable older (aboriginal) guy called Zach. They’ve both had pretty tumultuous pasts, and they’re both facing the ghastly prospect of imminent incarceration. Shakeshaft calls a spade a spade – at one point he tells someone not to “carry on like a fuckwit” – but can also be almost poetic in the way he describes the crushing emotional effect of the inevitable disappointments. (“There’s only so many times you can suck the soul out of something before it turns pear-shaped”.)

This is very affecting viewing, by turns harrowing and inspiring.

 
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Venom

comic book, Marvel, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Created in the mid ‘80s and becoming inexplicably popular in the ‘90s, the Venom comic book character looks like an over designed toothy scribble without much personality beyond “really big mouth” and “likes breaking/eating things”. So, in a weird way having a terrible film based on a terrible character is somewhat fitting? Sadly, that doesn’t make schlepping your way through 112 long, tedious minutes any more enjoyable.

Venom tells the tale of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist/vlogger/sexy mumbling man who manages to blow up his life with Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) after executing a bone-headed plan to publicly expose the shonky shenanigans of Elon Musk-like evil genius, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This leads, in a slow, roundabout way (that we won’t spoil, but it’s very stupid indeed) to Eddie becoming a host to an alien parasite that chats a lot, possesses super powers and has a penchant for biting off human heads. That last sentence probably makes Venom sound like dumb fun. Don’t be fooled, a couple of moderately entertaining moments aside the flick is a dud, making bafflingly poor decisions at almost every turn.

For a start the three main actors – Hardy, Williams, Ahmed – all deliver the worst performances of their respective careers. None of them will be ruined by this turkey, thankfully, but holy crap what a difference a decent script and a canny director make! Ahmed in particular appears to be drowning in a sea of godawful dialogue and staggeringly inept character work. The visual effects are okay but they’re in service of a character, Venom himself, who seems to change motivation and mood for no reason at all, leading to a climax with an almost identical foe that you might be able to make out if you squint really hard. Of course, by the time this flick reaches its third act you’ll just be glad it’s over, as all but the most masochistic audience members will have checked out over an hour before.

Venom is a bad film, poorly plotted, shockingly acted with nary but a couple of visually interesting moments to lift you from the oily black swamp of boredom. It’s not hard to see what director Ruben Fleischer was going for here, and once or twice snatches of the film that could have been shine through, but ultimately this is a jaw-dropping misfire and feels like a product of a time when comic book adaptations were notoriously bad like Spawn (1997). And hell, at least Spawn had an awesome soundtrack, the only appropriate musical accompaniment to Venom is the scornful, mocking laughter of an irritated audience.

 
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Book Week

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

The crumpled, under-achieving, slightly lecherous but still somehow charming literary professor/teacher type is a familiar trope when it comes to American films, but is far less prevalent here in Australia. Book Week – the new film from writer/producer/director, Heath Davis, who announced himself as a major talent to watch with his striking 2016 debut, Broke – shoots to redress the balance, and in the figure of misanthropic author turned high school teacher, Nick Cutler (superbly played by regular film and TV supporting player, Alan Dukes), we get a wonderfully lived-in character to rival Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys or Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man. Cutler is irresponsible, immature, self-centred, mean-spirited and pretentious…in short, he’s not the kind of guy that you’d like to actually hang out with, but he makes for an utterly compelling screen creation.

Vaguely famous for a book that he wrote eight years ago (and equally infamous for the mess of boozy bad behaviour that accompanied its publication), Cutler is now toiling away unhappily at Little Fields High School, dealing with disinterested students and a world that feels like it’s passing him by. But when a hip publishing company (hilariously embodied by Toby Schmitz and Khan Chittenden) looks set to pick up his latest novel, Cutler’s life starts to look up. Self-sabotage, however, is his business, and a pair of ill-judged romantic entanglements (with Susan Prior and Airlie Dodds, both excellent), along with his own bad attitude, soon threatens Nick Cutler’s imminent success.

Wittily scripted, sharply characterised, and smartly performed (Rose Riley, Pippa Grandison, Steve Le Marquand, Rhys Muldoon, Tiriel Mora, Maya Stange, Nicholas Hope and Jolene Anderson all do great work in small roles), Book Week is a little gem of a film. It not only celebrates the joy of reading (and learning), but also the ability of people to change for the better. You always get the feeling that there’s a better man beneath Nick Cutler’s sour exterior, and Alan Dukes ingeniously reveals his character’s true self slowly and authentically as the film unspools. It’s a lovely portrait piece, and Book Week is nothing short of a cinematic page-turner.

 
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First Man

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Outer space on film has always had a sense of collective ambition to it. Rarely as simple as just being about one person or even a group reaching for the stars, it’s a narrative that usually aims to show humanity at its most collaborative, with everyone pulling together to do extraordinary things among the celestial orbs. While Star Trek may lay claim to that in the more fantastical parts of our culture, this mindset largely traces back to those famous words from Neil Armstrong; the giant leap for mankind that he and the Apollo 11 crew took over fifty years ago.

First Man’s visuals and the writing, rather than sticking to loftier ideas of what this leap could mean for the human race, aim for raw, almost uncomfortable intimacy. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Battle Of The Sexes) keeps a very tight and claustrophobic proximity to the actors, letting every whimpered tear and dreading glance plaster itself onto the screen.

Of course, that’s what you get when things are deceptively placid; during the space-oriented moments, the combination of handheld camera work and pristine use of lighting gives a Stargate-sequence-from-2001-into-its-own movie vibe that Chazelle and Sandgren were aiming for. While this method brings the occasional headache, it ends up fitting the chaotic nature of the scenes.

As for the writing, it takes an unshakeably personal look at the story from Neil’s perspective, sometimes literally as aided by the point-of-view camera angles. The depiction we get of the legendary astronaut is a man who has seen death’s handy work far too often, who knows the risks that he and his colleagues are taking. A man who understands how much is weighing on this mission all too well. It is through that lens that we see this story, informed by the American/Russian space race but more intently fascinated by the personal drive at the heart of that race. Not only does this give the film solid emotional grounding throughout, it also delves into the ultimate why of this entire venture. With all the dangers involved, all the public scrutiny as to how practical this all is, and all the worry that these men will not make it back to Earth, why would someone put so much at stake? Because any giant leap involves taking risks, ones that not everyone is willing to take.

First Man shows Damien Chazelle doing what should be impossible: turning a well-worn piece of history into a down-to-earth and frequently nail-biting piece of cinema. Creating tension in a story where most people already know the ending is an impressive feat, and it does justice to the legacy of a true pioneer.

 
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Harmony

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Devised as Part 1 of ‘The Five Frequencies Saga’, Harmony will forever be remembered as the first and final lead role for actress Jessica Falkholt, who passed away in January this year after a car accident that also killed both of her parents and younger sister. Even without this prior knowledge, Harmony is eerie and cathartic.

Falkholt is the title character, a young woman who lurks in the shadows, coming to the rescue of those in need. Into Harmony’s orbit steps a psychologist played by Jacqueline McKenzie, her son Mason (Jerome Myer) and bad seed Jimmy (Eamon Farren), spiralling the story towards a high stakes climax.

The all Australian cast employs American accents, which could be construed as distracting, but this type of fantastical, spiritual material is only ever pulled off convincingly by the US, so it makes sense, despite wavering interpretations. There are large leaps of logic, too, with certain narrative questions left unanswered – perhaps that was planned for Part 2?

If you go with it, Harmony rewards you with an emotionally complex, fulfilling ride. It’s so refreshing to watch something truly original for a change, human made, with all the foibles that entails, at a time when CGI and dumbing down is de rigueur. The three young leads – Falkholt is all The Craft type smoulder, Myer is a humourless, angst-ridden Buster Keaton while Farren channels OTT Willem Dafoe in Streets of Fire. All are exceptional in their commitment to challenging roles that skate such a thin line between gritty reality and caricature.

This is the second film that Writer/Director Corey Pearson has had released this year, with Message Man a brutal action flick that deserved to find an audience, and now he takes on the well-worn YA genre with this highly ambitious emo fable that if released a decade ago would have been picked up by a Hollywood studio a la Gabriel. Its high production qualities, moody score by Tai Rotem and committed performances would be embraced by the streaming generation, and perhaps down the track that is exactly what will happen. But to release in cinemas these days, you really need strong IP to get any sort of traction, and it is going to be another tough slog for Corey Pearson to find an audience in the first instance, even though it is clear that he is a filmmaker well aware of who he is making this film for.

Let Harmony wash over you; it will touch and reward you.

 
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A Prayer Before Dawn

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Based on the real-life accounts of boxer Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn delivers a powerful message on the dangers of drugs – and more importantly… getting caught with them in the wrong place.

The place in question is Thailand, where Moore – portrayed with vigour and sensitivity by Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) – has been working as a bodyguard in between boxing matches. He also spends time partaking in the smoking of local drug yaba, a crushing addiction that leads to him being busted and thrown behind bars.

Billy’s confusion in the prison is well brought out. The Thai spoken by guards and inmates is not subtitled, meaning the audience is in much the same position as Billy, relying on context and body language to discover what is being said. Luckily for us though, we don’t experience first hand the slaps and kicks.

The young Englishman’s rage at being imprisoned needs to have an outlet, and he begs to be allowed to train with the kickboxing team. His prowess is quickly recognised and a chance at survival and even release from prison hell is offered when he is allowed to compete in the inter-prison Muay Thai boxing tournament.

Billy is then packed off to another prison, where they swap subtitled stories of the grim deeds they did to end up there. Some of these conversations are delivered by real life ex-cons, so there is a provocative and alarming documentary quality about these scenes.

The fights themselves have a demonic circus atmosphere about them, with intensely maddening pipe music played over the speaker systems to accompany the blood and sweat. The close ups of whirling heads and flying fists (and feet) launch the spectator right into the heart of battle. It’s anything but a pretty sight.

The fights in the ring are gruelling enough, but the real challenge for the viewer is when the film details the violence in the prison itself. Painful and at points almost unwatchable, the film illustrates the suffering experienced by the prey of predators within a deeply flawed system.

Calling to mind something of the torment of ‘70s prison drama Midnight Express, but with the added confusion of blistering kickboxing bouts, A Prayer Before Dawn is a resolutely tough watch. But it’s also one that rewards, with the hope of redemption and rebirth.