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Eli Roth: Taking it to the Limit  

With Eli Roth’s controversial Bruce Willis-starring remake of Death Wish blasting its way into cinemas this week, we take a look back at the career of this gleefully divisive filmmaker.
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England is Mine

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Sitting fittingly uncomfortably alongside other portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-rebellious-young-man biopics like Nowhere Boy, Backbeat, Life, and Control, the dour but wryly funny England Is Mine gently hurls the viewer into the furtive teenage mind and grimly dissatisfied life of the individual who would eventually become Morrissey, one of the most divisive and gifted pop singers of the eighties. As the foppish frontman of epochal pop outfit, The Smiths, this unlikely working class boy mouthed lyrics worthy of Oscar Wilde and challenged the masculine stereotypes of the day. Arrogant and self-possessed, the Morrissey of the eighties was a wordy, smart-mouthed game-changer who now rightly stands as a true British icon.

With neither Morrissey’s writings nor The Smiths’ songs in his possession, debut feature co-writer/director, Mark Gill, bravely presses forward with England Is Mine, gliding past two major obstacles that would have hobbled most. The film takes place before The Smiths were even a proverbial glint in Morrissey’s eye. Instead, the Steven Morrissey that we meet is a shaggy haired teenager (expertly played by Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden with the perfect mix of diffidence and surly defiance) pressured by his grumpy dad into getting a soul-deadening office job.

An arty soul with a bitter streak (he pens snooty, bilious reviews of local bands which he sends off as letters to various music magazines), Morrissey’s bohemian side is encouraged by his new friend, Linder (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay steals the show with a winningly sprightly and funny turn). Reluctantly teaming up with young guitarist (and future member of eighties rockers, The Cult), Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), Morrissey gets a fleeting taste of artistic success before a swooping setback lays him low. Luckily, there happens to be another guitarist by the name of Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) hovering around in the background…

While Morrissey’s pre-Smiths life might not have been as eventful as the prior-to-stardom worlds of John Lennon or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, it’s certainly a recognisable one, and Mark Gill does a skillful, imaginative job in creating a picture of what it’s like to be young and creatively ambitious while everybody around you is telling you to stop dreaming.

Though the sulky, snobbish Morrissey is not exactly the most loveable of characters, Gill allows the viewer to feel his pain, giving the film an emotional authenticity that overrides its unfortunate legal inability to get specific via Morrissey’s actual songs and writings. The drab, horribly uninspiring background of seventies and eighties Manchester, meanwhile, is richly evoked.

While Gill’s decision to make Smiths co-founder, Johnny Marr, a solely peripheral character will gall fans of the band, it does solidify England Is Mine as an inventively against-the-grain biopic. The film is not about the trappings of fame, nor even the trials and tribulations of starting a band, but rather the very birth of an artistic identity in one singular figure. It’s a fascinating premise, and England Is Mine makes for quietly compelling – if not exactly urgently paced – viewing.

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Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

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While exhaustive, every-point-covered documentaries have been compiled on contemporaries like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix, the life of Eric Clapton – one of the most essential and pioneering figures in the heady world of UK blues – has been largely left untouched. That critical omission is soundly and roundly put to right with the sprawling, creatively daring documentary, Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars, which gives the eponymous guitar hero his due, and then some. Helmed by (initially) surprise choice, Lili Fini Zanuck (a prolific producer whose last film as director was 1991’s drug-spiked undercover cop drama, Rush), the two-hours-plus film, however, doesn’t play out like the usual rock doco, instead burrowing deep into the recesses of Clapton’s childhood, and looking for the root causes of the torrid addictions that would eventually rule and nearly wreck his life.

Utilising an approach perhaps best described as “unseen talking heads” (also deployed by director, Brett Morgen, in his 2012 Stones doco, Crossfire Hurricane), Zanuck extensively interviews, but does not show on screen, a host of hooked-in players, including Clapton himself, along with a formidable list of former friends, lovers, and bandmates. Overlayed with trunk-loads of intimate archival footage, this provides a wonderfully swirling, impressionistic portrait of Clapton, but also robs the film of some of its emotion. Deprived of seeing the faces of the interviewees, the audience always remains at a distance from the film, not allowed to engage with the compelling story’s tellers via on-screen eye contact.

Still, what a story it is, as the awkward young Eric Clapton escapes a childhood of familial neglect via a passionate, almost inhuman love of the guitar, whose sounds he soon bends to form his own extraordinary musical vision. Profoundly influenced by blues godheads like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Eric Clapton’s deft, imaginative and soulful playing quickly gets him noticed in England and then around the world, as he moves through envelope-pushing bands like The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek And The Dominoes.

As well as an adoring fan base (the words, “Clapton is God”, were famously scrawled across British walls and tube stations in the late sixties and seventies), Clapton also picked up a number of crippling bad habits, first stringing himself out on heroin, and then tipping into years of embarrassing alcoholism, which clouded his on-stage performances and goaded him into making a number of infamously ill-advised political pronouncements between his increasingly compromised guitar solos. Through all of this, Clapton also staggered from relationship to relationship, most visibly with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow guitar hero, George Harrison.

Fascinatingly, this mix of smack, booze, and women is where Zanuck locates the nexus of the Clapton story, with the guitarist opening up in revealing and insightful ways about the addictions and subsequent bad decisions that continuously sent him careening off the rails. It’s a raw, powerful piece of self-assessment from Clapton, and it makes for occasionally bleak viewing, as Zanuck bravely minimises the usual injections of humour that come with tales of wild behaviour on the road and other rock doco staples. It’s a tough watch (which becomes heartbreaking when it reaches the tragic 1991 death of Clapton’s infant son, Conor), but thankfully ends on a happy note with a now sober Eric Clapton high on the joys of raising a young family, and still entranced by the seemingly endless possibilities of the blues.

Though Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars might disappoint fans looking for reams of musical performances and abundant meditations on the art of guitar playing from its central figurehead, it instead offers up something far more enriching: the candid, absorbing story of a deeply flawed and often unlikeable man who wrestles valiantly with his demons, and ultimately emerges from those internal battles as a far better human being.

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After years of terrifying international audiences via the Wolf Creek films and TV series (along with similarly horrific detours like Rogue, The Darkness, and The Belko Experiment), Australian director, Greg McLean, takes a hard-left out of genre filmmaking with Jungle, but crafts something just as unsettling as his previous cinematic bloodbaths. While there are no serial killers or supernatural entities, this internationally-flavoured local production boasts a truly dangerous “villain” in the form of the eponymous wilds of Bolivia, a place of unrivaled savagery that McLean can’t help but apply his horror filmmaker’s instincts to. The results are chilling, harrowing, and occasionally near puke-inducing.

Based on the true life book by Yossi Ghinsberg, this gut-churning tale of survival is worthy of placement next to the highly impressive likes of Into The Wild, Deliverance, Wild, 127 Hours, and Alive. In a richly physical and immensely sympathetic performance, Daniel Radcliffe (whose continuing quest for challenging roles doesn’t receive nearly as much praise as it should) is superb as Ghinsberg, a young man travelling the world in the early 1980s, against the better wishes of his strict parents.

In the insular backpacking community of Bolivia, he meets two new friends in robust American, Kevin Gale (an excellent Alex Russell) and sensitive Swiss teacher, Marcus Stamm (a fine turn from rising Aussie star, Joel Jackson). Thirsty for adventure and new experiences, they take up the unlikely offer of enigmatic adventurer, Karl Ruprechter (played with an imaginative streak of the unpredictable by Thomas Kretschmann), to head into the jungle in search of a lost tribe of Indians, and perhaps a little gold along the way. But once in the wild, the three travelers soon start to question the credentials of their guide, and then realise how enormous and truly horrifying the jungle that surrounds them truly is.

Just as nervous urban-bound horror filmmakers have found treachery and evil in the backwater towns of America and the dark unknown of Europe (and, of course, the Australian outback), Greg McLean locates terror in the jungles of the Amazon. Yes, we’ve seen this winding, tangled river used as the backdrop for the gruesome likes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, but the nightmare of Jungle is much more real and far less sensationalist. Never have bug infestations, starvation, dehydration, pounding rain, wild river rapids, fire ants, and blistered feet registered with such force and fury – McLean grinds the gore here with admirable aplomb, giving Jungle the kind of kick that a non-genre filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. But he’s in touch with his characters too, and as we endure the horrors of the jungle with them, the film soars in strange and unexpected ways. A survival film that marches to the delirious beat of its own hallucinogenic drum, Jungle bows inventively before the bad guy to end all bad guys: Mother Nature.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jungle.

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Family abuse, nude modelling, chainsaw art, twins, tattoos, murder, and more…when it comes to ticking outré buttons, Innuendo is edgy independent cinema personified. And indie this Australian-Finnish mash-up is, being crafted well outside the auspices of traditional local funding via crowdfunding and other modes of finance. The work of an impressive multitasker in the form of Finnish-born, Australian-based writer/director/producer star Saara Lamberg, Innuendo wears its influences (David Lynch, Yorgos Lanthimos, and, most clearly, Roman Polanski) proudly and with reckless abandon, but always functions as an engagingly original film in its own right.

Defying easy genre categorisation, Innuendo tracks the dour, disconnected Tuuli (Lamberg) from Finland to Australia, where she hurls herself into the world of nude art class modelling. Haunted by memories of a painful childhood defined by her complex relationship with her angelic twin sister and domineering parents, Tuuli appears to drift aimlessly before lolling into the staid orbit of sensitive uni student, Thomas (Andy Hazel). Unimpressed, Tuuli quickly moves onto the rough, charismatic chainsaw sculptor, Ben (Brendan Bacon), who leads a far more marginalised life. Mixing with his circle of friends, the singular Tuuli begins to act out in strange and confronting ways, eventually becoming a threatening and malignant anti-life force.

Though the low budget occasionally hurts, Innuendo is a stylish exercise into dark psychological territory, with a finely tuned pay-off electrifying the final act. The performances are strong, with Brendan Bacon a particular stand-out. Boasting the kind of idiosyncratic physicality and presence that would mark him for top-tier character actor gigs if he was American, he provides the film with much needed earthiness in the face of its often elliptical stylisation. Dreamy, strange, and daring in its willingness to challenge and distance the audience with its remote, icy anti-heroine, Innuendo is a brave effort from the keenly talented Saara Lamberg.

The kind of experimental trip rarely taken in this country, this true original manages to draw you in while keeping you at arm’s length at the same time, and that’s no mean feat.