***/**** starring Ella Scott Lynch, Benedict Samuel, Heather Mitchell, Lewis Fitzgerald screenplay by David Barker and Lou Mentor directed by David Barker
by Walter Chaw David Barker's hyphenate debut Pimped reminds of Danny Boyle's feature debut Shallow Grave in that both are twisty, twisted chamber pieces revolving around bad behaviour that spins, mortally, out of control. It's sexy and sleek, shot every bit like an Adrian Lyne film obsessed with the mating rituals of the rich and beautiful. Opening in a lurid party scored to Peaches' "Fuck the Pain Away," it intimates that what's to follow will be a bacchanal, unbridled in its indulgence in earthly delights. And it very nearly delivers on that. Worth noting that Pimped is just one of several of this year's films that seems invested in the conversation about women's empowerment and men's proclivities towards violence, sexual or otherwise. What's interesting about this conversation in horror is that it's a fairly common one. Of all the things it's on the vanguard of, horror has always been aware of the imbalance of sexual politics. With the topic now in the mainstream, small wonder that this genre, so often derided by even its more opportunistic creators (Danny Boyle among them, as it happens), has gained some measure of popular esteem. The more ignorant cultural critics have even been emboldened to opine that horror is not horror. Those who know, know that horror was always more likely to have these difficult midnight chats.
****/**** starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie written and directed by Leigh Whannell
by Walter Chaw I can't imagine I'll ever see a better Venom movie than Leigh Whannell's Upgrade, the story of a mild-mannered Luddite mechanic named Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who one day, after delivering a tricked-out antique ride to cyber-genius Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), is paralyzed in a terrible accident and forced to watch his girlfriend, tech-company functionary Asha (Melanie Vallejo), get assassinated by modded-out thugs led by psychopath Fisk (Benedict Hardie). In the film's near-future, there are limited Tetsuo: The Iron Man body modifications like guns embedded in gunsel's palms and enhanced limbs and vision alongside more common advances like self-driving cars and A.I. assistants. The tech, in other words, is entirely credible at first, as the film eases us into nanotechnology and an A.I., STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), implanted in Grey to not just "cure" his paralysis but also, when allowed to operate independently, turn Grey into a one-man vengeance puppet. The first scene of STEM's emancipation is a glorious invention of fight choreography and performance philosophy: Grey is literally possessed, doesn't really "invest" in what his body's doing to other bodies, and, at the end of the sequence, begs with the last not-dismembered bad guy to please not get up off the floor. It's a Buster Keaton gag, really--the stone-faced centre of a violent storm. Marshall-Green's performance reminded me of both Steve Martin's in All of Me and Jeff Fahey's in Body Parts. In a year that saw another instalment in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series, this here is the year's best action scene.
***/**** starring Simone Buchanan, John Jarratt, Melissa Tkautz, Bill Moseley written and directed by Chris Sun
by Walter Chaw Chris Sun doesn't appear to have any boundaries, at least when it comes to violence and gore in his movies; over the course of four films, he's proven himself to be a vital voice in splatter/exploitation. He dealt with cultures of masculine toxicity in Come and Get Me and pedophilia and vengeance in Daddy's Little Girl, before hewing closer to the genre line with a straight inexorable-killer slasher flick (the ferocious Charlie's Farm) and, now, eco-horror, with his really fun Boar. An odd, mostly inappropriate comparison can be made to the Coens' early career, in which it seemed like they were trying to cover every genre in turn: Here's this guy knocking off horror subgenres with films tied to each other only by their grisly extremes. Eco-horror was popular in the United States in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, because films like Grizzly and John Frankenheimer's Prophecy could be pitched simply as "Jaws in the..." The trend peaked with Australian Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, featuring almost impressionistic work from The Road Warrior DP Dean Semler. Mulcahy's film is unexpectedly artful, almost lyrical in parts, until the end when it pays out in nihilism. For my money, of the two mid-Eighties releases inspired by the death of Azaria Chamberlain, the infant who was carried off by dingoes, it's better than the one that sticks to the facts (A Cry in the Dark).
**½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C+ starring Scarlett Johansson, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche screenplay by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic "The Ghost in the Shell" by Shirow Masamune directed by Rupert Sanders
by Walter Chaw Emily Yoshida, in an article for THE VERGE addressing the outcry over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, has the last word on the topic as it pertains to anime in general and Mamoru Oshii's seminal original in particular (an adaptation of a popular manga to which most casual fans in the West won't have been exposed). She provides a stunning, succinct historical context for Japanese self-denial and the country's post-bellum relationship with technology, then writes a review of this film in which she systematically destroys it for its essential misunderstanding of the source material. I agree with every word. I learned a lot. And I still like the new film, anyway. I think Ghost in the Shell is probably fascinating in spite of itself and because the environment has made it dangerous for pretty much anyone to discuss what its critics (not Yoshida, per se) wish it did. I like it because its production design is beautiful and I like it even though it's basically a RoboCop port that takes the American attitude of being horrified by technology rather than the Japanese one of being largely defined by it. It's puritanical. It was interpreted, after all, by a country founded by Pilgrims. Ghost in the Shell often doesn't know what to do with the images it's appropriating, and when push comes to shove, the dialogue falls somewhere between noodling and empty exposition. Still, there's something worth excavating here.
**/**** Image A+ Sound A starring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett written and directed by Bruce Beresford
by Walter Chaw In 1976, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki composed his stunning orchestral and choral piece Symphony No.3 Op.36 "Symfonia pie¶ni ¿a³osnych" ("Symphony for Sorrowful Souls"), a collection of smaller movements comprising, much like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, varied texts both sacred and found. Among those sources used by Gorecki are a 15th-century lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery; a folk song from the Opole region; and, most specifically, a young prisoner's inscription on the wall of her cell in Zakopane's Gestapo prison.
**/**** starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Carvan, Sam Neill written and directed by The Spierig Brothers
by Ian Pugh The Spierig Brothers' Daybreakers is a juicy genre exercise waiting to happen, and maybe it would have happened if the film weren't tangled up in hamfisted allegory. What sets this vampire flick apart is not its high-pitched screed against capitalism (the system's fulla bloodsuckers, I tells ya!), but the fact that its staked vampires explode into a bloody mess. Its most beautiful sights are certainly not rooted in the dawning of a new day, but in Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe spontaneously bursting into flames for one reason or another. This is not what you'd call a dry film, yet I can't help thinking that a little more ichor would have been for the better. Funny how that works, actually: the Spierigs' last film, Undead, was a splatterfest in desperate need of a point; here, they finally have a point, and all you want to see is the next exploding vampire. (Where the two pictures are most alike is that they're both shot through a series of increasingly-obnoxious pastel filters.) It'll take another film to determine whether the Brothers have anything worthwhile to say, but the lingering suspicion is that they simply lack the creative instincts of their beloved Sam Raimi--that vital ability to discern the profound from the fatuous.
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+ starring Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford screenplay by Peter Smalley, from a story by Peter Carey directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith
by Bryant Frazer Australia's signature entry in the cinematic encyclopedia of dystopian hellscapes will always be the Mad Max series, and rightly so. But if you dig just a little deeper into the corpus of down-and-dirty genre movies from Down Under, you'll discover this B-grade entry from Aussie action impresario Brian Trenchard-Smith, which daydreams about confining rebellious youth culture to a dusty prison camp way out on the edge of town. Trenchard-Smith is best-known abroad for 1983's BMX Bandits, an early Nicole Kidman feature widely available for home viewing in the U.S., and his corpus comes with the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval. Dead-End Drive-In isn't great cinema, but it has some well-executed stuntwork that bolsters a speculative premise just goofy enough to catch the imagination.
*½/**** starring Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths, Robert Taylor, Joel Edgerton written and directed by Scott Rogers
by Walter Chaw You'd think that POME ("Prisoners of Mother England") would be better at making a crime drama, but Scott Roberts's hyphenate debut The Hard Word is a flaccid ripper of Kubrick's The Killing thick in avuncular vernacular and notably thin of any real meat. Between a few funny throwaways (a character refers to Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Dick's autobiographical survey of paranoia and drug psychosis, as a primer for modern marriage), and some decidedly David Lynch-ian violence, the picture feels a lot like a mish-mash of post-mod noir ideas (the butcher, the redeemed femme, cannibalism) arranged with little respect for rhyme and reason. Style over substance, the whole thing is delivered in accents so under-looped and thick that it occasionally falls out as a cast of Brad Pitt's Snatch pikeys performing Tarantino outtakes.
***/**** starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil screenplay by Christine Olsen, based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington directed by Phillip Noyce
by Walter Chaw A very small story set on a very large stage, Phillip Noyce's affecting Rabbit-Proof Fence is perhaps the most visually beautiful film of the director's career, proving between this and his other movie from this year, the Graham Greene adaptation The Quiet American, that not only is it possible to go home again (as in Noyce to Australia) but also that it's often wise. Shot on a minimal budget (in the six-million dollar range) with a cast of largely non-professional actors (Kenneth Branagh the main exception), the picture is a tremendous hit among the self-congratulatory film festival/arthouse crowd, who, after all, like to feel as though they're applauding the right things.
by Walter Chaw Joining Snowtown as Aussie films about sublimated desire, murder, perversion, and cults of personality, Grant Scicluna's feature debut Downriver is beautifully-lensed, patient, bleak. It reminds of another debut, Jacob Aaron Estes's 2004 Mean Creek, where, as in Downriver, the mute disinterest of Nature is used to highlight the struggle of individuals--especially children--to impose meaning on it. The title and central image of a river evoke Heraclitus's aphorism that it's impossible to ever enter the same river twice. Tied to the film's central conceit of James (Reef Ireland), a young man released from prison after taking the rap for the murder, as a boy, of a buddy whose body was never found, Downriver posits itself as a metaphor for the passage of time, for the unreliability of memory, and for the inability to recover the things of childhood once experience has sullied them. As a queer-interest film, to its credit, it portrays homosexual relationships as every bit the complex quagmire of their heterosexual counterparts. But as an attempt to reach towards some sort of archetypal eternity, Downriver is too self-consciously oblique, too hamfistedly mysterious. Kerry Fox is brilliant (Kerry Fox is always brilliant) as James's mother: another force of nature in a film obsessed with them, she is earthy, mercurial, bound by maternal duty, and transfixing in a centrepiece sequence in which her patience finally runs out. With a haunted final scene so burdened by symbol (in the water, in a well, on a beach--Harold Bloom would have a stroke trying to untangle this calcified knot) as to be rendered mostly inert, and a final shot of someone walking into frame that is fraught with meaning of some kind, Downriver is at the end a lovely frustration. While evoking Malick (and, closer to home, Andrew Dominik), it only clarifies Malick's simplicity. It suffers from First Film Syndrome: its framework can't support all that gravity. Programme: Discovery
by Walter Chaw The best parts of Mad Max: Fury Road (hereafter Fury Road) are, as it happens, those that are most like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The parts about civilization rising from the ruins of an atomic war; the parts about misplaced hope and how unlikely alliances can sometimes speak to the human tendency towards faith and the possibility of eternity. The series was always about the myth of the lone hero, striding into whatever situation and facilitating a return to a prelapsarian (pre-poc-y-clypse?) state before disappearing again. Shane, for instance, where a child's development--or in the case of Thunderdome, a great many children's development--has been mythologized as the intervention of a mysterious stranger who appears from nowhere and returns there. Max is a metaphor. For courage, heart, intelligence, the yearning for home; he touches in turn each of The Wizard of Oz's quartet of self-actualization while keeping the Wizard behind the curtain. If there's a specific modern mythology to which this series most obviously hews, it's the Arthur myth, and in Thunderdome, when asked if he's the return of the fabled Captain Walker, Max responds that he isn't. But we know that he is.
October 24, 2002|2002 is a banner year for director Phillip Noyce, who, after years toiling in the Hollywood dream factory, has returned home to his native Australia to helm a pair of spectacular and disparate films: The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Both played at the 25th Annual Denver International Film Festival, with Noyce also honoured as a tribute guest at a special screening of his marvellous "locked room" thriller Dead Calm (1989). I met Noyce at the historic Tivoli Brewery's hospitality suite on the coldest morning in Colorado since probably last March, resulting in the imposing Noyce (6'4", easy) bulking up even more in a down jacket.
June 15, 2003|A large man in a rumpled suit with a large clutch of papers and a VHS screener tucked underneath one arm, Bruce Beresford, the Australian director of some of the best films of the past thirty years (and some of the worst films of the last ten), is the model of expansive, self-deprecating charm. An experienced opera director and a member of the Aussie New Wave, which began filling the void in the late-'70s and into the '80s left by the American cinema succumbing to the call of corporate-fuelled decision-making, Mr. Beresford--whose made-for-cable epic And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is set to debut in the near future--sat down with me at the 12th Aspen Shortsfest to talk about everything from the topicality of his Breaker Morant to the inexplicability of his Double Jeopardy. I started with the underseen Beresford gem The Fringe Dwellers.
***½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Steve Bisley, Hugh Keays-Byrne written by James McCausland and George Miller directed by George Miller
by Walter Chaw George Miller's films are warnings against dehumanization, against valuing machineries over intuition and emotions. It's what drives the Holocaust parable at the heart of his masterpiece, Babe: Pig in the City; what made him the perfect match for Twilight Zone: The Movie's remake of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Though terms like "visionary" and "auteur" are as overused as they are misused, Miller is both. He's a rarity in the modern conversation: an aging director who shows no signs of a slackening energy or diminished focus. See also in Miller's work an unusual sensitivity to physical deformity set up against a righteous offense at spiritual blight. (He began his career as a trauma physician.) His films seek to do no harm, but sometimes you need to cut out some healthy tissue to get at the disease. All of it--the work as a doctor, the scrappiness, the impulsiveness that led to his strapping an airplane jet on a car and hoping no one would die (no one did)--is part of a creation mythology for Miller that's as fulsome as Herzog's. Testament to Miller's enduring influence and outsider status: he's a sainted figure, for good reason.