Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Toronto 2013: Australia enjoys rousing reception

STANDING OVATIONS, tears and cheers of joy – and those all-important sales – have greeted Australian filmmakers and stars at the most vital film festival for the Australian industry.
Toronto – the gateway to the lucrative US market, and widely viewed as the most reliable barometer of upcoming Oscar nominees – showcases Australian talent more than any other festival, with this year proving no exception.
Last night, Joel Edgerton’s self-penned new feature Felony, directed by Matthew Saville, premiered to a rousing reception. The Hollywood star’s latest foray into writing and producing (his past off-screen credits include as writer and executive producer on the feature The Square) tells of a policeman (Edgerton) faced with a stark moral dilemma.

First-look reviews have been glowing. That and healthy presales in the US and Europe will ensure the taut cop drama (above), co-starring Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Melissa George, enjoys a wide release in the new year.
Screen Australia's Kathleen Drumm has been on ground for the duration of this year’s festival. She says Australian talent has proved "a consistent talking point" at a time when films are increasingly hard to finance, and even harder to get up on screen.
"It's an incredibly competitive marketplace," she says. "Of the 300 films selected, it's estimated that only around 20 will achieve a theatrical release in North America. [John Curran’s] Tracks secured a US deal with The Weinstein Company, and has continued to spark strong interest, which means the film will be widely seen around the world. [Jonathan Teplitzky’s] The Railway Man is currently fielding a range of offers from the US, with the rest of the world sold out."

Six Australian features have screened at Toronto – including four world premieres – and Jane Schoettle, the festival’s programmer, says they collectively resonate for one very good reason.
"The selection this year showcases the breadth and diversity of Australian film," Schoettle says. "From a small, independent film like Aaron Wilson’s Canopy to large movies like The Railway Man, Felony and Tracks, they’re all so profoundly different, in terms of subject matter and filmmaking style. It really is quite remarkable."
Two indigenous-themed films have also screened to great acclaim: Sarah Spillane’s dramatic debut, Around the Block (above), set in Sydney’s Redfern, and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, set in the harsh outback, which opens across Australia next month. Both have resonated strongly with audiences in Toronto, following a series of events focusing on Canada’s own indigenous issues.
Schoettle, who views up to 50 Australian features prior to the festival’s final selection (from a total of 5000 submissions worldwide), is quick to emphasise that Toronto, whilst being very competitive, remains readily accessible for both established and up-and-coming filmmakers.
"Canopy is the perfect example," she says. "The filmmakers chose different forms of funding, rather than going down the traditional agency routes. It’s a wonderful independent film, really different: a beautiful return to pure cinema."

Aaron Wilson’s micro-budget feature debut (above), an independent Australian-Singaporean co-production, successfully raised more than $23,000 via the Pozible crowdfunding site prior to going into production last year. 
A largely silent thriller set during World War II, it follows an Australian fighter pilot as he navigates his way on foot during the Japanese taking of Singapore. Critics have been unanimous in their praise, with industry bible Screen International highlighting its "authentic suspense" and "powerful conclusion".
The Railway Man, rapturously received by audiences (if not by critics), similarly deals with the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War, and the toll it took on the men who returned home. The film, which stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, is due for release in Australia on Boxing Day.
Australia’s Chris Hemsworth and Hugh Jackman are among the other A-Listers who’ve been turning heads at this year’s festival, while veteran director Fred Schepisi premiered his latest, US-funded feature, the comedy romance Words and Pictures, with stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche earlier in the week.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia). 

Venice 2013: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron talk GRAVITY

IN VENICE to launch their sci-fi adventure, Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney discuss their landmark film and what it offers audiences today.

Gravity is due out in Australia from October 3. The Venice Film Festival runs until September 7.


First published by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia).

Venice 2013: Robyn Davidson talks TRACKS

WHILE covering this year's Venice Film Festival, I had the pleasure of speaking with Robyn Davidson, the inspiration behind the new Australian feature, Tracks.

The film, directed by John Curran, is based on the memoirs of Davidson – aka the Camel Lady – who, in 1977, trekked 1700 miles across the Australian desert, from Alice Springs to the west coast.

Part of our interview can be heard via the radio package I filed for the ABC from Venice.

You can listen to it HERE

Tracks is due for release in Australia in March 2014.


First broadcast on ABC Radio National (Australia).

Venice 2013: Rolf Harris song sparks Wolf Creek horrors (exclusive)

Rolf Harris' unlikely inclusion in Wolf Creek 2 will remain in the film, director Greg Mclean has told Fairfax Media.

The filmmaker, speaking ahead of his long-awaited sequel's premiere at the Venice Film Festival, was adamant that his unconventional use of the Harris classic Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport would remain in the new film.
''The song was chosen because it's a piece of iconic Australian pop culture,'' he said. ''There's a creepiness when you listen to the lyrics of the song. That's why it's in there. It's like a macabre fairytale.''
Mclean's star, John Jarratt, who reprises his role as outback serial killer Mick Taylor, was equally quick to dismiss any notion the song was now inappropriate.
''There's nothing appropriate about Mick [Taylor], he's the most inappropriate character you've ever seen,'' Jarratt retorted.
Wolf Creek 2, which had its world premiere on Sunday night, features a key scene in which Taylor has a singalong with his young male hostage (Ryan Corr). They duet on the Rolf Harris classic, penned by the TV star more than 50 years ago.
Despite their comments, Wolf Creek 2's producers have quietly admitted there was concern over the use of Harris' song, following his original questioning by police on November 29 last year over allegations of sex offences.
He was arrested in March and again this month after further allegations. Last week, the British Crown Prosecution Service said they had authorised police to lay 13 charges against Harris after reviewing evidence gathered by Operation Yewtree. The charges include nine counts of indecent assault and four counts of making indecent images of a child. He is due to face Westminster Magistrates Court on September 23.
A line spoken by Jarratt's co-star, Ryan Corr, in an earlier edit of the film (''We used to love playing Rolf Harris when we were kids'') was cut prior to its screening in Venice.
Mclean and his team are no strangers to controversy. Wolf Creek was banned in the Northern Territory in 2005, during the trial of real-life outback drifter Bradley Murdoch, who was later convicted of murdering British tourist Peter Falconio. Mclean was also accused of being misogynistic, with his treatment of women in the film.

Wolf Creek 2 is due for release in Australia in 2014. The Venice Film Festival runs until September 7.


First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia).

Saturday, October 26, 2013


PARAMILITARIES suddenly take over the White House - and only one troubled man can stop them. Who are you going to call?

Just months after Antoine Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen crashed into cinemas – Aaron Eckhart was the President, Gerard Butler his gung-ho saviour and Morgan Freeman the House speaker – in steps disaster-movie-maker-extraordinaire Roland Emmerich to try to up the ante.
This time it's not North Korea invading the Oval Office but disgruntled US mercenaries, whose leader is played by rising Aussie star Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless, Swerve et al).
They've blown up Capitol Hill – remember, Emmerich (Independence Day) loves torching stuff – so the White House goes into lockdown.
Here, to bring matters up to date, the President (played by Jamie Foxx) is black, and is – wait for it – negotiating a demilitarisation of the Middle East. Hollywood may be short of ideas, but it knows a timely hook when it sees ones.
While White House Down's premise is preposterous, it just about pips Fuqua's equally silly White House invasion film to the post, thanks to its leads. Tatum, now a bona fide leading man after some solid roles (and impressive turns), can handle his character's Washington DC policing troubles with ease.
Foxx was also, surely, a shoo-in as the President. The two riff off one another nicely, offering a buddy relationship lacking from Olympus Has Fallen's Eckhart and Butler.
And Gyllenhaal is always a welcome sight, adding typical sassy savviness to proceedings.
But, ultimately, this is a Roland Emmerich picture, and we're not allowed to forget it.
Cue explosions galore, a convoluted subplot (which aims to pitch Richard Jenkins' Speaker as a Republican-esque power player with his own agenda), and a narrative ripped straight out of the Die Hard school of action filmmaking. There is more bang for your buck when Emmerich is in town.
While it's easy to dismiss this stuff, there is a cultural curiosity behind these films. After all, why is Hollywood appearing to be obsessing with America's once great seat of power? Could it be to offer a distraction from the nation's woes, its slow economic recovery, its loss of muscle on the world stage?
With shifts in power bases around the world, seeing the US as the lone superpower on screen, writ large, seems almost quaint, as if from a bygone era. But it can only go so far in soothing the nation's battered spirit.

Critical Rating: 6/10.


First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age (Australia).

Before They Were Famous

HAVING previewed the Beatles exhibition in Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, which marks the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Fab Four's historic tour of Australia in 1964, I was again invited to reflect on what I'd seen, joining colleagues for more discussion at the ABC 702 studios. This time, it was about famous musical acts before they became well-known to the world. 

Amongst the material in the exhibition itself, I noted that 80,000 rabid fans had petitioned for the tour to visit Adelaide – which it did – and that an estimated 300,000 turned out to see the Mop Tops when they landed in the South Australian capital (the biggest reception of their career). Below is part one of our radio discussion (the second part will be filed separately).

The Beatles in Australia exhibition is on at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum until 16 February, 2014 (it then heads to Melbourne's Arts Centre, running 8 March, 2014 until 1 July, 2014.)


First broadcast on ABC 702 (Australia).

PARANOIA – review

TAKING a break from his Hunger Games duties, fresh-faced Liam Hemsworth (the youngest of the Aussie male brood) steps inside this relatively timely slice of surveillance melodrama, under the watchful guidance of the man who brought us Legally Blonde and 21 (and, conversely, Kil-lers, Monster-in-Law and The Ugly Truth). Add another high-profile Aussie expat, Fantastic Four's Julian McMahon, into the fray, gnashing his pearly whites as a dastardly heavy, and there's no shortage of antipodean muscle, it seems, to match whatever's thrown at them.

Alas, Paranoia is that increasingly common beast: a big-budget popcorn affair that somehow seemed right on paper, but proves horribly wrong in practice. Whether it's director Robert Luketic's apparent habit of sucking any discernible depth from the material, or his inability to confidently handle an imposing cast, this boardroom blackmail romp feels as contrived and silly as anything he has helmed in recent years.
As far as the convoluted plot is concerned, there's a young, impetuous ideas lad named Adam Cassidy (Hemsworth), foolishly caught boozing up the company credit card, who's then sucked into a deadly game of cross and double-cross. In essence, Paranoia plays out as a would-be battle of wills between a tech tycoon named Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford, sporting buzz cut, presumably for dramatic effect) and a former protege, Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman, affecting a laughably over-the-top cockney "barrel of bleeding monkeys" dialect, again presumably for dramatic effect). Poor Cassidy is soon lamb to the slaughter.
The boy may be dreadfully green – he's easily played by the two men and their requisite hired hands – but not entirely daft. He has, after all, an emphysema-riddled dad, Frank (Richard Dreyfuss) to worry about. Hospital treatment costs a fortune these days. As does preventing a perma-tanned brute like Miles Meechum (McMahon) from harming one's loved ones. Sacrifices clearly have to be made.
The women featured have little to compete with, dramatically speaking. Amber Heard visually registers as Cassidy's requisite love interest, Emma Jennings. Nice, too, to see Embeth Davidtz still smouldering just shy of 50, as a seductive 'n' sleek therapist-for-hire type named Dr Judith Bolton. Yet, typically, neither is given much to work with beyond serving as brief narrative distractions from their corporate men behaving badly. Davidtz, especially, does well with very little, but is understandably left wanting.
Upon its recent release in the US, the $US35million-plus Paranoia took a paltry $US3.5 million over its opening weekend, immediately consigning it to the growing list of bombs Hollywood has endured over the northern-hemisphere summer (The Lone Ranger, After Earth and Pacific Rim being the other notable turkeys).
Paranoia was supposed to be something of a crowning moment for Hemsworth, prior to the return of the Hun-ger Games franchise later this year. One imagines he must be quietly praying that the highly anticipated sequel restores his fortunes. (Ford and Oldman have no doubt banked their cheques and moved on, along with their female co-stars.)
For Luketic, Paran-oia's dreadfully hammy demeanour – Hemsworth's voice-over is toe-curlingly awful – points to a director hopelessly out of step with current trends. Given he was supposedly chosen by the film's producers for his ability to tap into a younger, tech-savvy market, this would seem all the more damning.
With its grand, swooping shots and in-your-face, yet utterly forgettable dance-oriented pop, Paranoia begins in unsophisticated fashion, trying too hard for its own good to quickly find its groove. Hemsworth, especially, clearly needs direction. It appears to have been lacking from his fellow countryman.
The film is an adaptation of the best-selling 2004 novel by Joseph Finder that was said to have attracted considerable attention in the US at the time. This treatment, however, has not. At a time when studio pictures are increasingly failing to connect with audiences and appear bereft of any fresh ideas, it is immensely frustrating to witness worthwhile features being denied a theatrical release so films such as this can be encouraged to thrive in the marketplace. Paranoia's box-office failure is unlikely to change this scenario, but it should serve as a further warning.
Perhaps audiences are resigned to witnessing Ford and Oldman all but phone in a performance these days. Less expected is the floundering of the younger Hemsworth, and Luketic's apparent lack of guidance. Hemsworth has a formidable growing legacy to follow (older brother Chris is in another league altogether, particularly post-Thor), but surely he can do better than this?

Critical Rating: 4/10.


First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age (Australia).

YOU'RE NEXT – review

Is Sharni Vinson the new face of Aussie horror? Following her turn in last year's shark-fest Bait, with the coming remake of cult classic Patrick and now this, a creepy-as-hell slasher flick with a twist, the former soap star is proving she can kick serious butt on the big screen.

Better still, in his most mainstream effort to date, horror aficionado Adam Wingard blends tension with wickedly dark humour, some scarcely believable plot twists and one angry house guest to blistering effect.
Short, sharp and with enough requisite laughs, You're Next (the grim message the masked serial killers paint on the walls, windows and so on after each slaying) provides an eminently more watchable frightfest than the more-standard fare we've grown accustomed to (that is, found footage, as in Paranormal Activity, or gross-out, as in Saw).
Here, Vinson plays the partner of somewhat underachieving Crispian (A.J. Bowen), whose family gathers at the country pile for their parents' 35th wedding anniversary. Cue all four Davison siblings converging, with their partners, for an uncomfortable get-together. It doesn't take long for the bickering to start. Crispian is clearly the weakest link in a hot-headed group of competitive boys (and girls), whose lives have taken markedly different turns.
Upsetting the dinner is a crossbow, fired at a guest through a window. Before long, the murderous gang (which has a fondness for sheep masks) is taking out the house occupants as fast as it can. No wonder this is an economical 95 minutes.
Wingard's film doesn't provide anything original. In fact, it all but wears its influences proudly on its sleeve (with nods to Scream and Straw Dogs, among others). But it knows how and when to shock and awe. Throw in an Aussie girl with nothing to lose - and a rather nifty backstory - and it's a very strong proposition. For Vinson, this feels like the hit she has been working towards. Similarly for Wingard, the stars have finally aligned.

Critical Rating: 8/10.


First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age (Australia).