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Dark Waters

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Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer (Rob Bilott) here, in other words the precise opposite of the sort of person who would normally go in to bat for the little guy’ against a huge environmentally vandalistic company. Yet that is precisely what happens in this true story.

The tale of horrifying conduct, rampant dishonesty and the long struggle to expose them begins in Parkersburg West Virginia – Bilott’s home town – in 1975, and the rather labyrinthine ‘plot’ unfolds over a subsequent period of decades. Basically, it’s all about the scandalous behaviour of the Dupont chemical company, involving massive-scale dumping of landfill containing sky-high levels of the man-made chemicals used to make Teflon. And the nastiness doesn’t stop there.

Bilott is first alerted that something is amiss by some understandably furious and distressed Parkersburg residents who eventually contact him at his workplace in Cincinnati. Their animals are getting sick and dying prematurely, and we soon discover that this is the thin end of a wedge leading to some truly ghastly consequences, both human and ecological. Bilott is initially reluctant to get involved but, of course, he does… It should all be gripping but somehow isn’t particularly so for quite a while, though the level of tension does eventually ratchet up.  Ruffalo’s performance is fine, and Tim Robbins is very good as his boss, Tom Terp.

Dark Waters is likeable not only for what it includes but for what it excludes: excessive swelling strings, histrionic speeches and ‘redemptive’ messages. This leaves it a bit workmanlike and plodding, and feeling somewhat overlong. But those are all lesser evils.

 
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Aiyai: Wrathful Soul

Australian, Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Crematoriums are inherently creepy. It doesn’t get much more morbid than a joint that literally exists to burn corpses down to ash, and yet there are relatively few genre films that have capitalised on this. Aiyai: Wrathful Soul, the debut feature from director Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam, seeks to address this omission to mixed results.

Aiyai tells the tale of Kiran (Kabir Singh), an Indian student living in Australia. After losing his previous job in a kitchen in the opening minutes, Kiran takes a gig at a creepy crematorium, staffed solely, it seems, by weirdos. However, it soon becomes clear that there’s more than just eerie Aussies to be concerned about and Kiran begins to experience shenanigans of a supernatural nature, including, but not limited to, seemingly possessed ash, weird visitations, furniture that moves by itself and eventual spiritual takeover. It’s a lot, and one certainly can’t fault the look and ambition of the film, which boasts surprisingly slick visuals and impressive production values.

On the downside, the script is a bit of a mess, playing fast and loose with horror cliches and never quite settling into a groove. It’s fitfully entertaining, and a couple of sequences really look the business, but the rules and character motivations are frequently frustratingly opaque. Performances, too, are a bit rough around the edges, with Kabir Singh coming off a little too stiff to be an effective leading man. Tahlia Jade Holt fares a little better as girlfriend Sara, although her continued resistance to seeking help for her red-eyed, gurning, blood covered bae becomes a tad inexplicable as the film wears on.

Aiyai: Wrathful Soul is a gorgeous-looking film in search of a better script. It certainly has some effective moments, and some very silly ones, but doesn’t quite hang together. Still, fans of low budget Aussie horror will probably find something to love in this awkward, occasionally endearing, tale of ashy revenge from beyond the grave.

 
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The Invisible Man

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

How do you make the Invisible Man scary in 2020? It’s a tough proposition, as is the case with most of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, the idea of a bloke sneaking around unseen probably scared the pantaloons off audiences in 1933, but it’s a bit more of an ask in an era of identity theft, rising fascism and the planet being on fire. If you’re talented Aussie writer/director, Leigh Whannell, you take the story in a different direction and change its point of view, making it more personal and much, much scarier.

The Invisible Man (2020) is really all about Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who in the film’s tense opening finally escapes from her abusive, domineering boyfriend, and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Cecilia tries to piece together the shattered fragments of her life with sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge) helping as best they can. Then the news comes that Adrian is dead, he’s killed himself, and though she can barely believe it, Cece starts to hope for some peace at last. And then shit starts getting weird.

The Invisible Man is essentially the story of an abusive relationship with a science-gone-amok twist and it works beautifully, making the film feel thematically relevant. However, even if you ignore the subtext, it’s an absolute pearler of a thriller in its own right. Whannell has eschewed the fun, trashy vibe of his previous flick – the woefully underrated Upgrade (2018) – and adopted a style more in line with the likes of DePalma or Hitchcock. Expect long, lingering takes that play with negative space, genuinely edge-of-your-seat sequences that skillfully ratchet up the tension and a score that channels the orchestral ghost of Bernard Herrmann.

Moss is superb as the PTSD-suffering Cecilia, showcasing an impressive range of emotion, and is backed up by a capable support cast, including Michael Dorman as Adrian’s slimy lawyer brother, Tom. Ironically the only cast member who fails to make an impact is Adrian himself, who never quite convinces when he’s on the visual spectrum. When he’s invisible, however? Whole other story.

Ultimately, The Invisible Man is a triumph. Rising from the ashes of Universal’s failed Dark Universe experiment, it offers a clever, engrossing and frequently genuinely scary genre flick made on a limited budget with a stellar cast and thematic resonance. Whether taken as an allegory for spousal abuse, or viewed simply as a deft cat and mouse thriller, The Invisible Man is a superb genre effort that absolutely deserves to be seen.

 
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Undertow

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Anyone who has ever taken the time to glimpse at the more feminist side of art criticism, film in particular, will have likely come across the term ‘male gaze’. In essence, it is the specific mode in which men (whether behind the camera, as part of the captured image or even as part of the audience) observe women. This is most commonly understood as a framework in which, to quote critic John Berger, “men act and women appear”.

But even beyond the sexual connotations of such things, there is also the more general example of how, when you get down to brass tacks, there is a marked difference between men telling the stories of women and women telling their own. It’s the reason why sexual objectification on film prevails in its bleedingly obvious fashion, and it’s why this film, in particular, needs to exist as counterargument.

In Undertow, it’s almost bizarre just how refreshing the visuals are, as captured by writer/director Miranda Nation and DOP Bonnie Elliott. While there’s a definite sensuality to be found here, the blocking and framing of the female bodies on-screen feel more in-line with the works of Catherine Breillat than anything in the modern mainstream.

As the camera glides across the many bumps on Laura Gordon’s skin in Undertow, it presents the body as this almost divine living landscape, as bristling and chaotic as the waves that give the film, and its title, its main symbolic reference point.

But the emphasis on female agency is stitched throughout the film’s textual side as well, presenting Gordon’s Claire as a mother who lost her child in the womb and, after a chance encounter, develops an obsessive fascination with the teenaged Angie (Olivia DeJonge, whom audiences might feel a tinge of whiplash in seeing here, if their only other exposure to her work is with the similarly image-fixated The Visit by M. Night Shyamalan).

The way Nation details Claire’s trauma, grief and sexual frustrations reflect a certain Jennifer Kent-esque boldness in how uncompromising it is, from the more explicitly psychological moments to the poetic, like the images of the dead refracted through a haze of blood, wine and lipstick. And in the contrast between Claire and Angie, the film ends up depicting aspects of the male gaze in a remarkably subtle fashion, managing to get across the double standards placed on women by men, society and even other women without making it a noisy spectacle.

This is the kind of film that is in unfortunately rare supply, as an inherently feminine story told through primarily feminine hands, and the end result only highlights how much of a genuine shame that is. As erotically-tinged psycho-thriller, heartbreaking character study, and proud feminist confession, Undertow makes for resonant cinema, and one only hopes that Miranda Nation and company keep up with this level of quality in the future.

 
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Honeyland

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This is a sublime and deeply moving documentary about the sad, hard and lonely life of a beekeeper and her 85-year-old mother. (And with a broader ecological message.) Beautifully made over three years, and pared down from 400 hours of footage, its events unfold against the stark yet highly photogenic backdrop of the Macedonian countryside. That’s when they’re not transpiring in the dark and claustrophobic confines of the very primitive cottage the two women – who are actually ethnically Turkish – call home. Or when the younger one goes into town (with its attendant culture clash) to sell her honey.

Life is really tough here, for both the people and their animals, but though the doco’s atmosphere is abidingly downbeat there is some pleasure to be had in the revelations about the nuts and bolts of wild beekeeping. Hatidze Muratova’s (the daughter) uphill struggle gets even harder when a large and unaccommodating family (and its cattle) moves in next door. Their approach to apiary has serious repercussions. And then there is the ongoing plight of Hatidze’s virtually bed-ridden mother, Nazife. “You can’t take me out”, says Nazife, matter-of-factly and without self-pity. “I’ve become like a tree.”

Cinema – even of the fictional variety – tends inherently to be a window on another world, but it’s especially true of a microcosmic life-in-the-raw study like this one. Honeyland was well shot and very deftly edited, and it stays with you after viewing and actually becomes even more affecting.

Don’t miss it.

 
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Bayonetta & Vanquish 10th Anniversary Bundle

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Bayonetta and Vanquish graced consoles with their presence, and frankly it’s more than a little alarming. However, after checking various calendars and doing some light arithmetic, it turns out to be true. If you too are experiencing an existential shudder at the ever-increasing proximity of the grave, the good news is that the Bayonetta & Vanquish bundle should provide an engaging distraction from the reaper’s icy grasp!

Platinum Games excel at fast-paced, frenetic action titles. This is epitomised nowhere better than Bayonetta, a game where you play a bad-arse angel-hunting lady who looks like a sexy librarian dominatrix and has guns inexplicably attached to her (very) high heels. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s so crammed with enormous monsters, epic-scale battles and absurd bullshit (not to mention one of the most iconic protagonists in video games), that it’s almost impossible not to be charmed. The graphics have had an upgrade, and the animation is smooth and slick, and while perhaps the uninitiated may be immune to its charms, it’s a delightful return visit for the rest of us.

Vanquish is a less iconic proposition and a bit of an underappreciated classic. Less aesthetically interesting (and fan servicey) it provides a fast-paced cover shooter where the lead character spends most of his time sliding along the ground on his arse. The sense of freedom and movement is as engaging now as it was a decade ago, and while the shooting itself can’t compete with modern counterparts, it’s a solid game with thrilling movement.

Remasters like this are always a tricky proposition. There’s the chance old fans will be disappointed because the games don’t match their highly subjective, rose-tinted memories and new players may be baffled by the adoration heaped on the old fashioned titles. However, in the case of Bayonetta & Vanquish, there’s enough to like for both camps, although returning players will definitely have the better experience. Nostalgia can so often be a crutch, but in this case, it’s actually worth the trip back in time.

 
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Escape And Evasion

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Aussie actor Josh McConville has been quietly plying his trade for years now, delivering rock solid turns in unfortunately little seen local indies. His work in films like the ingenious sci-fi charmer The Infinite Man and the viciously brilliant bikie film 1% was nothing short of exceptional, while his brief comedic appearances in Down Under, Top End Wedding and The Merger have highlighted an actor of great range.

With his latest effort, Escape And Evasion, McConville gets his best showcase yet, and the actor absolutely blows it out of the water, hitting every point on the emotional map with gritty aplomb, and creating a rich, complex, difficult but highly sympathetic character in the process. While inventive writer/director Storm Ashwood (The School) doesn’t hold back on the flash and the pizazz, he also sensibly uses McConville’s performance to anchor the action, which gives Escape And Evasion its rich sense of humanity.

McConville is Seth, an ex-soldier debilitated by a burning case of PTSD. His relationship with his ex-wife and daughter is shattered, and he can barely come to terms with what his time in the military has done to him. When a determined journalist (Bonnie Sveen) comes knocking, we slowly learn – through flashbacks – what has pushed Seth to the edge. An operation in Burma to reign in an officer (the perfectly cast Steve Le Marquand, who brings requisite menace and mania to the role) gone rogue in the jungle is quickly delineated as a mess, with Seth and his men (strong work from Firass Dirani and Hugh Sheridan) instantly slapped in the middle of a physical and moral firestorm.

Thanks to Storm Ashwood’s ambitious choppers-and-gunplay direction (and fairly ample budget, by the look of things) and daring range of influences (Apocalypse Now looms large), Escape And Evasion easily busts free of its Aussie indie underpinnings and looks and feels like something far bigger. The film also has something to say, with Ashwood’s righteous anger about the mistreatment of ex-soldiers and the prevalence of PTSD an obvious driving force behind Escape And Evasion. Superbly performed, exciting, moving and meaningful to boot, Escape And Evasion is a cinematic tour of duty worth taking.

 
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Beats

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A film about young people in a burgeoning music scene comes with the promise of a well-traversed thrill ride. The expected tropes and visual measures are relatively fixed: a coming-of-age tale, drug-induced psychedelic imagery, railing against authority, a craved brush with passion and sex. Beats executes these blaring notes with clarity and verve, and offers notable additions and insights.

For one, Brian Welsh’s Scottish film pivots on a specific law imposed by Westminster in 1994. The law forbids public gatherings across Britain “at which amplified music is played…wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” A policy so tragically comic as if belched from the very gut of British prudery.

Within this precise social moment, Welsh follows two Scottish teenage boys as they make a tortuous journey to an illegal rave in the woodlands. On the one hand is Johnno (Christian Ortega), a timid boy whose mum and stepdad aspire to middle class life, hoping to escape their dreary flat for a pristine estate. His best friend, Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), is the playful one desperate to alleviate his suffering at home in pursuit of an unforgettable night out.

It is remarkable how the two young actors carry the emotional weight of the film. One of Welsh’s many achievements is the intimacy of their friendship, that brief adolescent haze before the modulation of masculine adulthood. By the same token, this is no romanticised coming-of-age story. For Spanner, his home life is savagely marred by his abusive brother, and any closeness he feels is gleaned from his friendship with Johnno.

The film’s other major claim to individuality is its black and white format. Its effect was originally baffling, if only unexpected, but as each shot unfolds, there’s something so enticing as the sombre glaze of light and dark visualises the boys’ hedonism. On cinematography alone, Beats excels. Backed by Steven Soderbergh as executive producer, Welsh goes beyond the social realism so prevalent in British film, to capture the immediacy and euphoria of 1990s rave culture. Yet another reason for nineties nostalgia.

 
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Guns Akimbo

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

We’ve all been there. A heavy night on the turps, some ill-advised internet commentary, maybe your hands were writing cheques your arse just couldn’t cash. Next morning you wake up with a hangover that feels like a family of Shetland ponies have been having a ketamine party inside your bonce. And when you look down, you realise you’ve had guns bolted to your hands! Such is the goofy, agreeable premise of Guns Akimbo, the latest flick from New Zealand director, Jason Lei Howden of Deathgasm (2015) fame, and it’s about what you’d expect.

Guns Akimbo is the kind of cult film that’s almost too aware of its desire to find a loyal niche audience. Adopting the noisy, frenetic pace and iconography of video games and social media, it tells the tale of Miles (Daniel Radcliffe), a gormless nerd who works for an unscrupulous software company and is a social justice keyboard warrior in his spare time. Before much screen time passes, Miles must deal with the handguns on his, erm, hands and work out how to put on trousers or take a piss. The whole caper is part of an illegal reality snuff show called Skizm, and Miles must also battle the cocaine-sniffing uber psycho, Nix (Samara Weaving), who has been selected as his opponent. Naturally, there’s a little more to the story, with subplots involving Miles’ rainbow-haired ex, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and evil mastermind, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), but Guns Akimbo is here for a good time, not a long time (95 minutes to be precise).

And in terms of a good time, Guns Akimbo mostly delivers. The action is fast-paced and frequent and while it never matches the kinetic precision of something like Kick-Ass or Kingsmen: The Secret Service, it does crackle with energetic sadism. Radcliffe continues to embrace weird shit and seems to want to distance himself from Harry Potter as much as possible, delivering an effective performance as Miles. Weaving is, once again, one of the best things about the film she’s in, really showcasing her homicidal character’s madness, but it’s Ned Dennehy who steals many a scene with his malevolent, over-the-top shenanigans proving a highlight.

Guns Akimbo is not a smart film, but it’s a wryly amusing one that will likely please a late night audience of like-minded friends who perhaps have drunk or smoked a little something beforehand. If the concept of “Harry Potter with gun hands” sounds at all appealing, you’re likely going to dig this flick.

 
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Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Crypt of Tears opens with Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in colonial British Palestine freeing a young Bedouin woman (Izabella Yena) unjustly captive in a Jerusalem prison. A journey of exotic intrigue follows, slipping out sexy little pocket pistols in opportune moments (and there’s many) as she zigzags her way across Jerusalem, London, Melbourne and the deserts of Negev, uncovering a ten-year war mystery complete with a missing emerald, ancient curses, double murder and the suspicious disappearance of a Bedouin family tribe.

Essie Davis not so much reprises the role of Phryne Fisher but embodies it, and half the thrill of watching our stylish jazz age sleuth is her character’s natural inclinations to take death-defying risks. On the silver screen, it’s magnified ten-fold to the delight of audience members.

Nathan Page, from the original series, is Detective Inspector Robinson and now Phryne’s estranged love interest who reluctantly bands with her to solve the case and suspend the romantic tension throughout. Recurring cast members, Miriam Margolyes and Ashley Cummings return with Daniel Lapaine, Jacqueline McKenzie and Rupert Penry-Jones joining the cast as toffy-nosed British aristocrats entangling themselves in the thrill-a-minute crime caper. John Waters also makes an appearance as a cheeky professor.

As a classic whodunit with exotic locations, exquisite sets, comical camels and actors in lavish costumes working to an occasional slapstick script, Crypt of Tears is the perfect follow-up to a fun and much-loved series.