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Jim Schembri: New Release Movie Reviews, MIFF Picks & West Sunshine Interview

Jim Schembri

NEW RELEASES

THE MEG ***1/2 (113 minutes) M

You know, when it comes to making a monster movie it doesn’t matter how much money a film has or how much new-fangled technology it deploys.

What matters is that it respects the all-important, age-old convention of putting people at peril as fast as it can, then raising the stakes with every clash until the drama comes down to a deadly game of Us vs It.

And it’s got to be fun – and hopefully a bit frightful. Think of Jaws on steroids and you’ve pretty much got in a nutshell what The Meg is like: it really is just an old-fashioned B-grade matinee monster movie with A-grade production values and a marvellously improbable beast at the centre of all the action.

With its tongue often jammed into its straight-faced cheek, The Meg easily draws on the traditions set by every great monster movie from King Kong (1933) to Jaws (1975) to Jurassic Park (1993) so as to deliver a good time for all as people splosh and kick about the ocean trying not to get eaten by monster fish that have escaped from the ocean floor.

Jason Statham is the reluctant hero forced to revisit the deep-sea horror he thought he’d left behind long ago after it gobbled up a number of his deep-sea diving friends.

The reason he’s shaken from his alcoholic stupor is because a research facility owned by an eccentric billionaire (Rainn Wilson from The Office; how’s that for a fun bit of casting?) has discovered that the floor of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, thought to be the deepest point on earth, actually hides a layer of warm ultra-deep ocean in which life could exist.

They go exploring in their beautifully designed submersibles and, of course, they find the kind of exotic lifeforms they were hoping for. Unfortunately, they also discover that down this deep predator sharks can grow to gigantic sizes thanks to the rest of the food chain being on their menu.

With the desperate rescue mission of a stricken craft opening up a jet of warm water from these new-found depths, everyone fears these giants – aka Megs – might have used it as a sort of vertical escalator that would ensure safe, toasty passage from the chill of the Stygian depths to the surface. Director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings; National Treasure) knows better than to keep us waiting too long to find out how founded those fears are.

There’s munching and viscious attacks aplenty as modern technology and 21st century weaponry seem hopeless against the brute force of giant mouths with teeth the size of sails. The feeding frenzy doesn’t stop on the high seas, either. Jaws taught us that nobody is safe – not even cute puppy dogs going for a swim at an over-populated beach.

While it’s loads of fun to watch, The Meg, as with Skyscraper, also reflects a major change taking place with big studio films – namely, the increasing presence of China both in content and in funding. The film features major Chinese characters, with Chinese superstar Li Bingbing and a major action scene where a beach full of gleeful Chinese swimmers in colourful inflatable donuts are targeted by The Meg for brunch.

As the Chinese film market continues growing apace, and with the Chinese love of Western films continuing to swell, get ready to see more of this sort of cross-cultural mashing.

And it’s a good thing, too. Because the closer the film cultures get, the more remote any prospect of conflict becomes. Rather the mayhem be up there on the big screen than in the real world.

 

SUBMERGENCE *** (112 minutes) M

For those who enjoy sinking into a richly textured, unhurried art film from an arthouse giant, Submergence offers a buffet of symbolism and metaphors all anchored by a deeply human central love story.

Danielle (Alicia Vikander) and James (James McAvoy) inhabit two different worlds: she is in the middle of the ocean on a deep sea diving expedition; he is the captive of Islamic Jihadists, fearing torture and execution at any minute.

Through extended flashbacks, veteran Wim Wenders – Paris, Texas; Until the End of the World; Wings of Desire; The End of Violence; Pina, etc shows us the origins of their unlikely coupling as they slowly become emotionally entwined while on holiday.

Unhurried in pace, Wenders draws cryptic parallels between the two as Danielle waits with undying patience for contact from her missing beau.

Patience is a quality you need to endure a lot of Wenders’ work, and sometimes the payoffs have been terrible (Million Dollar Hotel, for instance.) Here though, his romantic drama, based on the book by J.M Ledgard and screenplay by Erin Dignam, turns out to be one of his more inclusive and absorbing works that rewards the attention he demands.

It’s a pity the film’s reception, both critically and theatrically, have been less than stellar, but that diminishes neither the film’s enticing nature nor the committed performances by Vikander and McAvoy.

 

THE DARKEST MINDS *1/2 (104 minutes) M

Here’s yet another action-adventure lark involving a near-future dystopia where kids, especially teenagers, are oppressed by adults. And it’s a dud.

The premise involves an illness that thins out the world’s population of kids, leaving only a few who, presumably as a result of contact with the virus, acquire psychic abilities with varying degrees of destructability. So they’re all taken off to concentration camps where they can be monitored and kept from destroying property owned by grown ups.

Hiding her more lethal abilities, young Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) uses Jedi mind trick powers to manipulate those in authority and eventually escapes.

She, of course, hooks up with like-minded rebels who plan to fight the grown ups and free others in captivity. They face the dilemma of trying to tell good grown ups from bad ones, and friendly teens from turncoats.

Languidly directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda), this tripe is thinly plotted, moves at a snail’s pace and features action sequences that are singularly generic, with the crashing of helicopters now becoming as big an action cliche as the twirling of exploding cars.

As mind-numbing as the film is, it does manage to raise a chief question, which is: how many more of these dystopian teen action flicks are we supposed to sit through?

This distinctly 21st century genre has already produced successful franchises such as Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent, along with failed attempts such as The Giver, I Am Number Four, The Host and Ender’s Game.

Apart from trying to make a few easy billion dollars, the point of these epics is presumably to give voice to the generational rage young people born this century have towards those baby boomers who rode the inflation train and used the planet as if it was a rental, only to leave a damage bill for the young ones to pick up.

Fair enough, but if we need any more reminders, how’s about Hollywood finally getting its act together and remaking Logan’s Run? That’s the one where everybody lives in a domed paradise, but has their life extinguished at 21. Now that’s enough to get teenagers angry at the world adults made for them.

 

C’EST LA VIE *** (116 minutes; subtitled) M

A consistently funny French knockabout comedy in which middle-aged wedding planner Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) presides over a sprawling affair at a palatial estate where all the exacting arrangements have been infected by Murphy’s Law.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano allow a bit of Basil Fawlty to seep into Max’s outbursts, and the constant cascade of calamity does imbue the film with a certain predictability, at least until the nicely judged final reel.

Like most comedies today, there’s arguably 20 minutes that could be taken out, yet the shenanigans and the mishaps are consistently funny and executed in the best possible taste. It’s an enjoyable treat from the French, whose dedication to comedy remains one of their more admirable traits.

 

ON CHESIL BEACH *** (109 minutes) M

The legally sanctioned idea of patiently waiting to initiate a sexual relationship with your partner until after marriage might seem quaint, staid and silly now but back in the day social and religious mores demanded such punishing restraint from people, often at the cost of their relationship.

It’s no wonder, then, that with such societal pressure put on the successful performance of that first physical engagement that some men struggled to fulfill their marital duty.

At a popular, blustery seaside resort in 1962, attractive, freshly married couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) settle in for what they hope will be a pleasant and romantic honeymoon. Their love for each other is deeply felt but is so lacking in regular physical expression that merely kissing is awkward and the act of disrobing becomes a nerve-racking ordeal.

Based on the 2007 novel by Ian McEwan (who also wrote the screenplay) and sensitively directed by Dominic Cooke, a theatre director making a fine cinematic debut, we flash back to the genesis of their relationship, the difference in their classes and the difficulties each had with their families.

How big a factor these had in the intimacy issue that springs up soon after they check in at the hotel slowly becomes clear as they try moving closer to each other, trying to overcome long-held suppression.

The leads put in terrific, touching work in this downbeat, introspective period drama, the backdrop of Chesil Beach providing a picturesque yet overcast frame to their dilemma.

Whether or not it was intended, the film certainly puts you in mind of how much support such a couple would have today in working through their sexual problems.

For Florence and Edward, however, it’s a matter of grappling with the combination of ignorance, naivety and passion in the hopes of saving their marriage, a tension that is delicately evoked.

 

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME **1/2 (117 minutes) MA

Clearly inspired by Melissa McCarthy’s action comedy hit Spy, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon team up for an overlong outing that oddly tries blending blood-spattered bursts of ultra-violence worthy of The Equalizer into an otherwise daffy, perfectly workable comedy premise.

Kunis plays the dumped one in a failed relationship until her ex-boyfriend comes swinging through her apartment being chased by gun-toting killers. This sends her and McKinnon on a mission to Europe where delivery of a toy statuette will apparently save the world.

McKinnon, who has been something of a blur in films such as Ghostbusters and Rough Night (where she played an Australian) really comes up a treat here, bouncing off Kunis with a ditzy, infectious energy. With little interest in proprieties, she’s a hoot and a joy to watch.

As with most American comedies, however, this thing is too long by at least 20 minutes with the largely inconsequential plot going on and on.

And while there are some seriously good action scenes – including a ripper car chase and a Bourne-like camera shot that follows somebody jumping out of a building – the film, directed by Susanna Fogel, has a bizarre taste for moments of bloodshed. These totally jar with the nature of the film and often appear as though they are from another film.

It’s a bizarre mix that keeps the film from hitting the highs it could have scaled had the film spoofed its implausibilities rather than drenching them in blood.

 

SUPERFLY *** (116 minutes) MA

A full-bodied remake of the 1972 blaxploitation film, the journey of non-nonsense cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) might not be much of a morality tale but it is a very well-constructed crime drama, directed by Julien Christian Lutz (also known as Director X) who apparently has a great love for the vernacular of the streets.

The simple story involves Priest’s desire to get out of the cocaine-dealing business and lead a normal life with his two girlfriends. So he puts together one last, big deal that will set him up with a life that doesn’t involve heavying people for money or killing anybody for revenge.

This takes him south of the border – a very popular locale in film at the moment – where he needs to deal with a cartel run by a Mexican matriarch who does not respond well to incompetence.

Most crime films carry some kind of message, even if it’s the good old default one of how “crime doesn’t pay”, but the world these swishly dressed, gun-loving people inhabit has very little light in it, both figuratively and literally.

And with almost every character in Superfly being black and existing on the wrong side of the law, including a couple of dirty white cops, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in advancing any progressive agenda about how black people are portrayed on screen.

Still, that Priest wants to get out of the business at all serves as some small measure of redemption. He also draws the line as to how much corruption he will stand.

Shot on HD video and made on a very small budget of about $16 million – a fifth of the average studio film – the film looks good and has a roster of strong performances. It’s unlikely to last long in cinemas here but will no doubt re-emerge promptly on streaming.

 

MIFF PICKS

Say, what better way to spend the weekend than with some choice selections from the 67th Melbourne International Film Festival? Here are some highlights:

 

WITCHES AND FAGGOTS, DYKES AND POOFTERS *** (45 minutes)

Splendidly restored print of the seminal activist documentary that bravely chronicled the violence surrounding Australia’s first Mardi Gras and the fight within the gay community over how best to fight the authorities. Nearly 40 years on and the impassioned speeches by those at the heart of the movement still stir and resonate.

Screening: Friday 17 August, 6.30pm, Forum

 

UNDERTOW *** (96 minutes)

Joining the formidable lineup of impressive Australian feature films this year comes Miranda Nation’s unnerving drama about a woman (Laura Gordon) who acts on her suspicions that her husband might be having an affair. Her investigations soon force her to see things she didn’t expect or welcome. Evocative cinematography makes Geelong look like an especially forbidding place.

Screening: Saturday 18 August, 4pm, Kino

 

BEHIND THE CURVE *** (99 minutes)

Diehard devotees of the Flat Earth theory – the notion that our planet, unlike all the other planets, is a disk encased by a dome – get a far fairer hearing than they probably deserve in this very entertaining, often funny profile of its main advocates. With one brief segment clearly designed to unconditionally state what bunkum it is, the film nonetheless respects the passion these disturbingly normal people have and wisely highlights how proficient the internet is at providing sustenance for ideas that should have died out decades ago.

Screening: Sunday 19 August, 1.30pm, Hoyts

 

THE KING ***1/2 (108 minutes)

Both tribute and critique, this splendid documentary sees director Eugene Jarecki take Elvis Presley’s gleaming Rolls Royce on a cross-country odyssey designed to delve into the spirit of the man and of the 21st century nation he still holds in his thrall over 40 years after his death. Along for the ride are numerous musicians including Emmylou Harris and actors such as Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin and even Mike Myers, who is there to represent the Canadian view. The counter-Elvis view is also aired via Public Enemy as the film considers what kind of American Dream Elvis stood for, and where that dream is today. Fans will love it, though non-fans will also enjoy chewing all the dissing that reflects on his fat phase, his films and Colonel Tom Parker.

Screening: Friday 17 August, 1.30pm, Forum

 

STRANGE COLOURS ***1/2 (85 minutes)

A remarkable first feature from Australian  director Alena Lodkina drops a young woman (Kate Cheel) in the remote opal-mining community of Lightning Ridge where she tries reconnecting with her ailing father while trying to sort out which direction her life will head. Directed with a fine eye for stillness and subtlety, the emotional tensions build slowly as she tries figuring out how or if she fits into the very masculine, distinctly Aussie home she is being welcomed into. Terrific performances all around, especially from Cheel and Daniel P Jones (Rain) who plays her no-nonsense father.

Screening: Friday 17 August, 6.30pm, ACMI

 

THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES ***1/2 (115 minutes)

With his dulcet voiceover barely a notch above whisper, director Mark Cousins (The Story of Film) guides us on a lateral tour through the life and art of Orson Welles. The focus isn’t so much on his film work – though the importance of works such as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Third Man all get their due – but on his private folio of sketches, scribbles and notes, which Cousins cleverly relates back to the movies and the larger-than-life life Welles lead. There’s a decent batch of revelations here, including a visit with his daughter Beatrice. Of special note is a brilliant, largely unheralded quote from Welles, delivered spontaneously in 1981 during a Q&A following a screening of his underrated 1962 classic The Trial. Asked by a young audience member why he so radically changed Franz Kafka’s original ending, Welles states he had to because the book was written before the Holocaust, something he had to redress with the film. “I’m not Jewish. Since the Holocaust, we’re all Jewish.”

Screening: Sunday 19 August, 4pm, Hoyts

 

WEST OF SUNSHINE *** (78 minutes)

This realist urban drama by director Jason Raftopoulos follows a work day in the mostly miserable life of Jim (Damian Hill from Pawno), a lowly courier who is about to hit bottom. Stuck taking care of his son for the day, he is forced to use his own car, a classic Ford, to make deliveries while trying to figure out how he is going to settle a $15,000 debt by the end of the day.

Strong scenes abound, but there are some major stumbles in the film’s tonal shifts as well as inconsistencies in the story. Still, the film can’t be faulted for its ambition or its widescreen cinematography as the pair glide through Melbourne suburbia as they play on each other’s nerves.

Screenings: Friday 17 August, 9pm, Kino

 

Director Jason Raftopoulos and his crew managed – somehow – to shoot West of Sunshine across 18 days on a budget of less than a million dollars.

In this interview he discusses the themes he wanted to explore in the film, how they managed to capture the shift of light to reflect a single day and what success the film has already enjoyed prior to its Australian release.

Please enjoy:

Jim Schembri
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