Film Review: The Mule

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th November 2014.

This Australian black comedy will go down in film history as the first local feature to bypass traditional distribution methods when it makes its debut via digital download this coming Friday, before hitting shelves in physical formats in early December.

Unfortunately, The Mule is an unfunny bore that will make you want to pry your eyeballs out with a rusty spoon, despite its pedigree and cast.

in 1983, Dopey local footballer Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is recruited by teammate Gavin (Leigh Whannell) to traffic drugs back into Melbourne from the end of season trip to Bangkok. With the payload safely swallowed, Ray is detained by Customs officials. Refusing an internal examination or x-ray, Australian Federal Police officers Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Paris (Ewen Leslie) are tasked with holding Ray in a hotel room for up to seven days until he opens his bowels, twice.

The most remarkable thing about The Mule is that it features the most stomach churning scene of the year, and I am a horror film aficionado. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say that I won’t be eating chocolate anytime soon.

Almost as remarkable is the fact that this comedic whimper is the brainchild of screenwriters Sampson, Whannell (Saw, Insidious) and Jaime Browne, and somehow attracted its talented cast including Noni Hazlehurst and John Noble (TV’s Fringe and Sleepy Hollow).

I will admit to enjoying the archival footage of Australia II winning the America’s Cup and revisiting the one and only time in Aussie history that anyone cared about yachting. But there’s YouTube for that.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: The Babadook & If I Stay

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2 September 2014.

Film Review: The Babadook

Australian screenwriter and director Jennifer Kent has a critical hit on her hands with The Babadook, her feature debut. An atmospheric horror thriller, it is an intense cinema experience which will stay with you all the way home (in the dark in my case) and beyond. I’m definitely going to check the basement for ghoulies before I go to bed, and I don’t even have a basement.

The ever reliable Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as Amelia, a single mum still reeling emotionally from the death of her husband seven years ago in a car crash on her way to the hospital to give birth to their son, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Barely coping with Robbie’s behavioural issues and irrational (but normal) fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet, their lives fall apart when Amelia comes across a mysteriously creepy pop-up book about The Babadook.

Using a modest budget, with some dollars generated by a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign, Kent makes the most of a creepy old Adelaide house, a little CGI, a super scary sound design and plenty of darkness.

Unlike most conventional films of this genre, there’s a real emotional heart to this film, and I found myself genuinely caring for the characters. The performances of Davis and Henshall are superb. See The Babadook (even through your fingers  or under a blanket if necessary) before he finds you.

Film Review: If I Stay

After sitting through this disaster, I figured that the title referred to the question of whether I would stay for all 106 slow minutes of this cheese-fest. I did, but only in the name of film criticism and to save others from wasting their time. Letters of thanks may be sent to the CWD.

If I Stay is actually based on a popular young adult novel of the same name. Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a brilliant cello playing teenager experiencing her first love with the most clean cut baby faced lead singer of a rock band ever, Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley). When inclement weather results in a school “snow day”, her hipster parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) stupidly decide that a road trip with her brother (Jakob Davies) is a good idea.

One inevitable car accident and three deaths later, Mia has an out of body experience running barefoot around the local hospital, watching her family and friends keeping vigil over her comatose body unconvincingly lying in the ICU (hint: don’t watch this film with hospital staff…actually just don’t watch this film).

Will Mia return to the land of the living? Will she go to “the light” (I was cheering for this one)? Why does Mia have to wait for doors to be opened for her, if she is a ghost? What sort of idiot boyfriend would break up with a girl for successfully auditioning for the Juilliard School? Who cares?

Miss Grace Moretz is a talented actress but she is way too good for this material. The rest of the cast, including screen legend Stacy Keach, do their best with a turgid script, which never rises above an episode of The O.C.

I admit that I am not the key demographic for this type of film, but there’s no reason that cinema for teens and tweeners should not be intelligent and thought provoking. If I Stay is neither.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:31  Leave a Comment  
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Dubious Celebrity Endorsements

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 8th May 2012.

If you’ve been anywhere in the proximity of a television or newspaper lately, you’ll be aware that Coles have relaunched their flybuys program. With just a swipe of a loyalty card, millions of customers can swap their valuable spending habit information for points. These points can be exchanged for flights and other rewards, apparently. I’ve been a member since the program was launched and I’m yet to fly anywhere. I must need to buy more before I can fly.

The face of the relaunched loyalty program is Dawn French of The Vicar of Dibley and French and Saunders fame. That’s right, British actress, writer and comedienne Dawn French. When you think about it, she’s a great choice. She’s funny, personable and a self-declared chocoholic. The only problem is that she’s British actress, writer and comedienne Dawn French.

At the time of writing this column, there’s 22,897,609 people living in Australia and according to Coles, none of them are suitable to advertise an Australian supermarket chain. Has Dawn French even set foot in a Coles store?  Why should she care that I can pick five discounted products? By the way, I chose fish heads, iSnack 2.0, Bindeez Beads, Pikachu and One Direction CDs. Perhaps Nelson Mandela was not available to front the campaign?

Speaking of ridiculous celebrity endorsements, way back in the early nineties, Channel Nine was “still the one.” Every January, the network would launch its new season with an extended promo featuring the contracted stars of the channel making fools of themselves. The 1990 season launch was no different and features Ray Martin tap dancing, Daryl and Ossie and the gang from Hey Hey It’s Saturday in prison, Peter Graves and the Mission Impossible team singing and Don Burke mowing words into a lawn. Inexplicably there’s also some dodgy dancing by a couple dressed in fluoro lycra bike pants.

The whole shebang is set to the Johnny O’Keefe song Shout, performed on a sailing boat by its captain, Jermaine Jackson. You read it, Jermaine Jackson, member of The Jackson 5, brother of The King of Pop, Michael Jackson and well known Australian television viewer.  What is her doing on a boat singing the virtues of watching an Australian television station? Only his accountant knows.

The Beach Boys are back. To celebrate fifty years as a band, well, actually make that thirty years as a band and twenty years of legal disputes, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks have reunited for a new album and worldwide tour. I can’t wait for them to hit our shores. Finger crossed for an Aussie tour.

Sometime in the early nineties, the Beach Boys, in their Love / Jardine / Johnston incarnation, were convinced to participate in a TV commercial for Manly Wharf. They re-recorded their iconic song Do It Again, with the altered lyrics “Let’s get back to the wharf and do it again.” How many times do you think the Beach Boys have been to Manly Wharf? My guess is just the once, to film the commercial. Obviously little deuce coupes are expensive and the royalties from Kokomo had run out.

I had planned to cite Tina Turner’s rugby league promos as the most ridiculous Aussie celebrity endorsement but it turns out that she actually is a big fan, supports Parramatta and can be found on the hill at every home game eating hot dogs.

“Jim from Neighbours” – The Busiest Actor in the World (perhaps)

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd January 2012.

A long time ago, in an Erinsborough far, far away, the beloved Neighbours character Jim Robinson suffered a major heart attack and passed away on screen, right before a commercial break. This was way back in 1993, when people actually watched Neighbours and on-screen deaths were rare. Most departing characters simply moved to Brisbane to live with Scott and Charlene.

After eight long years of service to Grundy Television, Kiwi actor Alan Dale was departing the soapie, and a regular income, with his dignity intact and no embarrassing attempts at singing to speak of. Well, there was the dreadful 1989 Christmas With Your Neighbours album but being a Christmas album, it was meant to be dreadful (I hope).

Typecast as “Jim from Neighbours”, Dale found it difficult to get work in Australia. With nothing to lose, he relocated his family to the USA where there was potentially a need for fresh faces in the mature actor niche.

The rest, as they say, is pretty interesting. “Jim from Neighbours” managed to overcome the spectre of Australian typecasting and went on to appear in almost every US television show going as the “serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide.”

He was Caleb Nichol, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide in the hit series that introduced the world to talent vacuum Mischa Barton, The O.C. After his character was killed off with a heart attack, he went on to star in Ugly Betty as Bradford Meade, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide. After his character was again killed off with a heart attack, Dale went on to feature in the brain bending Lost as Charles Widmore, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide but no known cardiac history.

There really was no stopping “Jim from Neighbours.”

Whenever you switched on a television, there he was in a guest role. His credits are pretty much the contents of my DVD shelf. E.R., The X-Files and its spinoff The Lone Gunmen, Torchwood, Entourage, NCIS, The West Wing, JAG, Californication and The Practice have all been graced by the authoritarian and secretive presence of Alan Dale.

He was even the Vice President of the USA in seven “hours” of the rather silly but fun 24. As Jim (not from Neighbours) Prescott, an authoritarian VP with something to hide, he mistakenly placed President Palmer under house arrest, based on false evidence. Playing the third most powerful man in the world (behind the American President and Batman) may seem  an honour until you realise that two years later on the same show, Vice President Mitchell Hayworth was portrayed by Aussie ex-pat and “actor” Cameron Daddo.

Not limited to the idiot box, Dale’s career has also expanded to the silver screen. Last week, I popped the sci-fi vampire action thingy Priest into my VCR to find “Jim from Neighbours” playing his usual character, but in a silly robe, in eye popping 3D.

Most impressive to geeks everywhere, Dale was also cast in two iconic film franchises. He pops up as General Ross in the mediocre Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and plays the Romulan Praetor Hiren in the so-so Star Trek Nemesis. OK, so they weren’t the best films in the series but how many Star Trek and Indiana Jones movies have you been in?

He even has his own trading cards. That’s right, on ebay there is brisk trade in Alan Dale signature cards from his Lost, Star Trek and Indiana Jones and the Blah Blah Blah appearances.

Later this month, Dale will appear on Aussie cinema screens as Detective Isaksson in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This year, all Australians (and New Zealanders) should celebrate the amazing career of “Jim from Neighbours” and his remarkable body of work, playing the authoritarian figure with something to hide, since shaking off the stigma of typecasting way back in 1993 when Jim Robinson of Ramsey St met his maker.

Film Review: Jucy

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th November 2011.

At first glance of the poster, it would be very easy to dismiss Jucy as just another zany low brow Aussie comedy, along the lines of the atrocious You and Your Stupid Mate (2005), however, this new womance (the opposite of bromance) has a strong heart beating behind the humour and may well be the undiscovered (for now) gem of the year.

Directed by Brisbanite Louise Alston (All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane) and scripted by her husband, Stephen Vagg, Jucy is very loosely based on the lives of its stars Francesca Gasteen and Cindy Nelson.

Lucy (Gasteen) and Jackie (Nelson) are two twentysomething outsiders drifting through life. Working together at a Brisbane video store, the best friends are known collectively as “Jucy”. Shunned by their friends in the local amateur theatre group, both set goals to improve their lives and become more acceptable to the mainstream. That is, Lucy aims to get herself a decent job and Jackie wants a boyfriend.

Of course, their paths become complicated by both being cast in a local production of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and soon the girls’ friendship is at risk of being torn apart.

Best friends on and off the screen, Gasteen and Nelson have a fabulous chemistry. Both providing input into the script, their banter is incredibly natural and honest, with hilarious results. Any initial expectations of two dimensional sketch comedy caricatures are swept away by believable depictions of funny but flawed characters.

Also impressive is rising actor Ryan Johnson in a supporting comedic role as a self-important wannabe thespian who fakes addictions for attention. It has recently been announced that Johnson has joined the cast of US legal drama Fairly Legal.

Jucy is not just played for laughs. Adding a little bitter to the sweetness is the depiction of Jackie’s mental illness. Coming off her medication mid-plot, her situation spirals even further out of control. Inspired by actress Nelson’s real life struggle, the resolution to this plot strand is ambiguous and one of the few elements of the film that misfires.

A low budget affair, Jucy was shot in just fourteen days. Real locations in Brisbane such as Trash Video and The Arts Theatre were used, as well as the house that Gasteen and Nelson share in real life. Shot in digital with a Panasonic P2 camera, the suburbs have never looked better.

Australian cinematic offerings of late have centred on big, sweeping, historical stories. It is refreshing to be equally as drawn into a smaller story involving average folk.

Jucy has recently been licenced to a US distributor to be available through Amazon.com and Walmart. One has to wonder what your average American will make of this little Aussie film.

Jucy will mostly appeal to female audiences but there are certainly plenty of laughs for the guys too. Stephen Vagg has seemingly managed to capture how women talk when men are not around. Well at least I think he has.

Louise Alston’s apt direction wisely puts the characters before the jokes ensuring that the audience laughs along with the protagonists more often than at them.

Stars Gasteen and Nelson make an appealing comic duo and have the potential to be breakout stars. Let’s hope they continue to work together.

Jucy is currently screening in Orange and is highly recommended for anyone seeking a little home grown respite from fighting robots and toy commercial cinema.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 07:15  Leave a Comment  
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Jucy: Alternate means of distributing and promoting independent films

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 8th November 2011.

Fans and supporters of Australian cinema were given a treat on Friday night as Orange hosted a gala screening of the new film, Jucy. Although promotional tours are common in the film industry, Orange is rarely on the itinerary.  Brisbane based director Louise Alston, writer Stephen Vagg and stars Francesca Gasteen and Cindy Nelson are on a road trip to promote their low budget independent feature. With successful screenings in Canberra and Wagga Wagga under their belts so far, they were keen to interact with audience members during a Q & A session following the screening.

I was particularly intrigued by this grassroots approach to film distribution and promotion that is so far removed from the marketing of your typical robots fighting robots mainstream blockbuster, and had the pleasure of chatting to the filmmakers and actors before the screening.

Director Louise Alston says she was buoyed by the success of Bob Connolly’s independent film, Mrs Carey’s Concert, which utilised a similar marketing plan, and as a filmmaker, these screenings really brought her in touch with her potential audience. “We have more love (for Jucy) than somebody selling a whole lot of films. This is our baby so we put a lot of effort in.”

Writer Stephen Vagg explained that this was the second stage in the film’s promotional life and that Jucy had already been well received on the international film festival circuit, with successful screenings at festivals in Toronto, Seattle, London, Seoul and Tel Aviv. “For non-Hollywood films, festivals are very important and they have been for us, but now we’re doing a domestic release and we really want to push it as much as we can by doing personal appearances. We don’t want it (Jucy) to sit on the shelf. We want as many people to see it as possible.”

Vagg also revealed that Wagga Wagga was chosen for a screening because it is director Alston’s home town, and that some of her aunts and uncles hail from Orange.

Described as a “womantic” comedy (think “womance” instead of “bromance”), Jucy is loosely based on the lives of stars Gasteen and Nelson, best friends in real life and both stalwarts of the Brisbane theatre scene. Jackie (Nelson) and Lucy (Gasteen) are best friends, collectively known as Jucy, who do everything together, including amateur theatre. As outsiders, their attempts to fit into the cool crowd by becoming more mainstream create unforeseen pressures which may tear their friendship apart.

The cinematic success of Red Dog this year proves that there is a market for Australian fare that doesn’t involve horror, crime or depressing drug stories. It was great to see posters for a low budget home grown flick like Jucy sitting alongside promotional standees for box office behemoths such as Real Steel and The Smurfs.

The nature of cinema in general does not really allow for a personal connection between the filmmakers and the audience. I am sure that the audience on Friday enjoyed meeting the stars and creative team behind Jucy. Let’s hope this marketing approach is successful and more independent films (and filmmakers) can come to Orange.

New Aussie Drama: Cops LAC SUX

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 9th September 2010.

In the same week that it was announced that perennial Australian soap, Neighbours, will be shafted across to new digital station, Eleven, next year, a plethora of new home grown drama has premiered on the idiot box. Cops L.A.C. (Local Area Command) is the latest in a long line of local police dramas, the first of which was Homicide which premiered in 1964, almost ten years after the introduction of television in Australia.

A starring vehicle for Kate Ritchie, most recently coming off a stint in radio with Merrick and Rosso, and prior to that, a short run on soapie Home and Away, the new series debuted last week to over 1 million viewers. Supported by the who’s who of Aussie acting veterans, such as Gary Sweet, Roy Billing and Denise Roberts, and a few new faces, Kate is miscast as Detective Senior Constable Samantha Cooper. Sorry Kate, I just can’t buy you as a hard-nosed cop. You’re just too nice, or wooden, or both. If she approached me with a gun and handcuffs, I think I’d give her a hug rather than running away.

The rest of the cast get an assortment of stereotypes to play. Gary Sweet plays the abrasive and cocky superintendent with a heart of gold. Denise Roberts portrays the hard working, no-nonsense inspector. A female head of detectives no less. Roy Billing gets the veteran old school cop, just three months from retirement. I bet his character dies sacrificing himself heroically just minutes before the end of his last shift. All we need is Colonel Mustard in the library with the candle stick and we’ll have the full set of standard police show characters.

The premiere episode centred on the first day on the job for rookie cops Priscilla and Daniel, whilst team Milko investigates a car accident that may be (yawn) a murder! Within minutes of starting in the morning, Daniel gets a milkshake thrown over him and at the end of the episode, which takes place that evening, he is still wearing his soiled uniform. I know the L.A.C. is under-funded but surely they have spare uniforms? 

The killer ends up being the first and least likely suspect, who in TV storytelling terms is actually the most likely suspect. Oh, and smug Detective Llewellyn, played by Martin Dingle Wall, hangs rookie Priscilla’s cap from the roof to teach her a lesson for forgetting it. What tension and drama! If I want to watch a show called Cops, it better be the one with the reggae theme tune and foul mouthed Americans getting arrested with blurry faces.

My verdict: Cops S.U.X.

Spirited debuted two weeks ago on pay TV station “W”. An eight part dramedy from the producers of Love My Way, Spirited stars Claudia Karvan as Suzy Darling, a dentist who leaves her arrogant husband (Rodger Corser from Channel Ten cop drama Rush) to move into a city apartment with her kids. In the apartment she encounters Henry Mallet (Matt King) who may just be the ghost of a pommy rock star. Only appearing to her, Henry and Suzy develop a friendship that might just lead to romance, but can love develop between our world and the spirit realm? Thousand of Michael Jackson fans say yes.

With a set of appealing lead actors, Spirited has a light feel to it that is a refreshing change from the standard teen soap or overacted police drama. Eight episodes is probably enough to sustain viewer interest with its high concept storyline which could go stale over more episodes. It may be a little too reminiscent of The Ghost and Mrs Muir but Spirited is worth a look.

My verdict: Spirited is ghostly good fun.

Offspring also premiered in Channel Ten last month. I’m yet to watch an episode but it looks like a quirky comedy drama about relationships and family. Hmm, that sounds original. Packed to the Rafters in Melbourne, anyone?