REVIEWS: ‘Late Night With the Devil’ a top Aussie found footage horror romp; ‘Robot Dreams’ a beautiful, dialogue-free animated love story; ‘Back to Black’, a fine Amy Winehouse biopic; ‘Civil War’, searing drive across a shattered America; “Quiet on Set’ a disquieting docu-series about abuses in kids TV

Spirited away: David Dastmalchian in Late Night With the Devil

LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL ****1/2 (93 minutes) MA
One of the eternal irritations of modern cinema is when filmmakers attempt to replicate the look and feel of vintage media.

Invariably, they get it wrong, especially with faux-documentaries. Either the acting is off key, the camerawork is anachronistic, the video resolution too sharp, the film grain too clean.

None of that is an issue on Late Night with the Devil, a quality that goes a long way to selling this ingenious, innovative recreation of a 1970s American TV talk show as the real thing.

The only film that springs to mind in having recreated the look, feel and sound of period media so perfectly is Woody Allen’s Zelig. And that was 40 years ago.

Even fans of horror will be knocked sideways by Late Night With the Devil, easily the one of the most novel and convincing verite genre entries for decades.

There was the famous 1992 British telefilm Ghostwatch, in which Michael Parkinson presented a “live” investigation into a haunted house. So well done was the 90-minute show many viewers thought it was real.

Count in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, of course and the little-known 2008 Australian film Lake Mungo, a terrific fauxumentary almost nobody has seen.

Using the “found footage” format made famous by Blair Witch, Late Night With the Devil presents the master reel of the final episode of the flailing 1970s American TV talk show Night Owls with Jack Delroy.

It’s Halloween and Delroy (played superbly by David Dastmalchian) has some spooky guests lined up for his shrinking audience. There’s a psychic, an author and a strange-looking girl who might just do some weird stuff under hypnosis.

Things begin normally enough. There are cheesy jokes, knockabout banter with the band, crude shots of the audience having a good time.

Then the ambience gradually shifts from jovial to jittery as the succession of special guests spark a series of supernatural occurrences, which tend to reach a pitch before Delroy has to throw to some messages from sponsors.

During the commercial breaks we see behind-the-scenes black-and-white footage as the cast and crew valiantly carry on producing a show that is becoming increasingly chaotic and bizarre.

Having sat through horror films from all over the dial, Late Night With the Devil easily ranks as one of the most accomplished and stylish of the genre in decades.

So cleverly done it avoids ever being clever clever, this remarkable film is the work of Melbourne directors Cameron and Colin Cairnes (100 Bloody Acres).

They know the tropes of the genre, but here operate beyond convention, doing a flawless job recreating the splotchy imperfections of 1970s corporate television.

Most impressive is the performance of David Dastmalchian, who is so good it makes you wonder why there aren’t Oscars specifically meant for genre films. He inhabits the role of a desperate talk show host with total conviction.

The film streams on Shudder on 19 April. Catch it at the cinema if you can.

One of the metallic stars of ‘Robot Dreams’.

ROBOT DREAMS **** (102 minutes) PG
In this superb, subdued French/Spanish non-digital animated feature an apartment-dwelling dog living in an alternate version of 1984 New York where all the citizens are animals seeks to end his loneliness by ordering a robot companion, as advertised on TV.

Things go swimmingly until they go swimming at Coney Island, where a malfunction forces the dog to leave his beloved robot lying immobile on the sand.

Despite valiant attempts to retrieve it, the separation sets in over winter as the robot repeatedly dreams of being rescued from its paralysis.

This beautiful, lyrical film boasts a delicately honed story that manages to explore the tenderness of friendship, the pain of loss and the fortitude to move on without the need for dialogue.

Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, it must have lost out to The Boy and the Heron by a small handful of votes.

Suitable for all ages, Robot Dreams is such a soulful, uplifting film that also celebrates nostalgia for the 1980s, with all its fluro clothing, rollerblades and TV infomercials.

It’s a fair bet that the only people who would not enjoy the film are the chief creatives at Pixar who, in wondering why the quality of the studio’s output has gone south, are lamenting how Robot Dreams is the type of imaginative, innovative, heartfelt film Pixar used to make.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in ‘Back to Black’.

BACK TO BLACK *** (122 minutes) MA
The devastation alcohol can wreak on the life of an artist is thrown into sharp relief in Back to Black, an affecting biopic about the short, sad life of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, whose immense talent was hobbled by her love for the bottle and extremely poor taste in men.

Well directed, with a bent for the melodramatic, by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), the film has an unavoidably bleak tone as we witness how the troubled and tortured singer – brought to life by Marisa Abela’s excellent central performance – suffered from a self-destructive streak that repeatedly cut through her passion for music.

Bound to elicit tears from fans, the film mostly sidelines the industry side of things to focus on her romantic vulnerability and inability to recognize her own potential.

As her none-too-likeable boyfriend Blake, Jack O’Connell puts in strong support as a man undeserving of such adoration.

CIVIL WAR ***1/2 (109 minutes) MA
A rather compelling vision of the near future of what America would look like when its states are no longer united is offered here in Civil War, written and directed by Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later and made Ex Machina.

In what is essentially a dystopian road movie (a sub-genre that harks back to the atomic fears of the 1950s) we travel with a small group of journalists as they cross an urban landscape shattered by internal conflict.

Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast as Lee Smith, a worldly, if weary senior reporter who tries protecting her naive young apprentice Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from the unpredictable and unavoidable dangers as they trek to Washington DC, hoping to have a sit-down with the besieged president (Nick Offerman).

Garland deliberately keeps the nature of the war vague, so you never really get a handle on who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, with one memorable scene in which Jesse Plemons plays a devout soldier showing how hardit is for them to tell exactly what is going on.

There are some references that hint at topicality, though it’s hard to spot an overt agenda, with the fumbled finale arguably sending out an inflammatory message suggesting democracy and common law has no place in this awful New America. It’s certainly an argument starter.

The whole thing is set off to some great backdrops and top-notch set-pieces that highlight the confusion of an ever-changing battlefield and the horrors that can happen when small-town America goes troppo.

QUIET ON SET: THE DARK SIDE OF KIDS TV) ***1/2 (215 minutes; five episodes) M
This controversial docu-series explores in extensive, disturbing detail the abuses that took place – often infront of cameras – during the heyday of Nickelodeon, the one Hollywood studio to rival Disney’s dominance of childrens TV.

At the centre of many – though not all – of the misconduct uber-producer Dan Schneider, a talented writer and creator who nonetheless proved himself a hard boss and a creep. One of his chief joys was getting his innocent child stars to unknowingly perform X-rated visual jokes.

When the show aired in the US in March it caused a major stir, shocking many people – including Schneider. His response to many events appear as captions throughout the series.

Eager to set the record straight, Schneider now appears in a 17-minute YouTube interview with BooG!e, a former child actor he worked with on iCarly.

Clearly a friendly interview, he nonetheless confronts many of the allegations, issuing several denials and many mea culpas.

It’s a good idea to watch it before seeing Quiet on Set. He certainly has a lot to be sorry about.

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