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Geraldine Hakewill: The Real Deal

Things are getting real for the actress currently appearing as Peregrine Fisher in Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, and who also stars in The Pretend One, a feature film that she made in rural Queensland not long ago, and which is getting a cinema release this week.
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Armie Hammer: Hotel of Horror

The star of The Social Network, The Lone Ranger, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Call Me By Your Name travelled to Australia to shoot the true story of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hotel Mumbai.
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Ella Scott Lynch: Dual-Ing Feminine Hero Journeys

Acting since she was a child, and most recently popping up regularly on the small screen (The Code, Love Child), Pimped marks Ella’s arrival as a lead actress, with her brave and uncompromising turn in dual roles in this stylised thriller for our times.
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Christopher Atkins: The Grey Lagoon

He sprung into everyone’s consciousness back in 1980 in the surprise hit The Blue Lagoon, and next you will be seeing Christopher Atkins strip (and act) in 2019 in the stage show, Ladies Night.
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Dick Miller Top Ten

Dick Miller was one of the most beloved character actors in the second half of the Twentieth Century, particularly for aficionados of the work of Roger Corman and Joe Dante. Stephen Vagg runs his eye over his top ten Miller performances.
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Dragon Ball Super: Broly

animation, Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The latest feature-length instalment of one of the most ubiquitous, beloved and memeable anime franchises out there, Broly is basically a best-of-both-worlds situation. It takes the endearingly goofy tone of Battle of Gods and the large-scale action chops of Resurrection ‘F’ and combines them in a way that retains all of the positives and burns away most of the negatives.

The sense of humour on display here is so on-point, it’s staggering. Not since the legendary DBZ Abridged series has this material been able to generate this many belly laughs, largely thanks to Sean Schemmel as the ever-loving goofball Goku and Jason Douglas as Beerus, the destroyer god who just wants to nap without being interrupted. It’s all character-derived stuff, leaning less on the BoG slapstick, and through that, it turns out effective as well as melding well with the more action-oriented moments.

When it comes time for Goku and the eponymous Broly to start throwing down (the bulk of the film is that fight), it results in glorious displays of widespread destruction. The intensity and high-flash line work in the animation is on the same tier as Asura’s Wrath, right down to the amount of terrain-scorching that goes on; looking like the result of two gods brawling with each other. It can get quite hectic in places and admittedly a little difficult to entirely make out, but between the raw strength at work and the adaptability of the fighters involved, it makes for well-earned chaos.

It even features solid dramatic touches connected to Broly’s character. Shown through an impressively-nimble flashback sequence, which gives plentiful background history for the characters and story at large, he is depicted as a rather tragic antagonist. Born with immeasurable power, exiled out of jealousy and raised to exact revenge, Broly’s first official entry into the franchise sets him up as the yang to Goku’s yin.

Both are exceptionally powerful, both were sent away from their home planet, and both have a natural tendency for friendship rather than aggression. But because of their different upbringing, what we get is a rather point-blank depiction of the classic ‘nature vs. nurture’ dilemma, showing how Broly being raised as a weapon of vendetta turned him into a psychologically-scarred and damaged soul. It adds an unexpected touch of unease to the action scenes, knowing that Broly was pushed into them by intents other than his own. It’s kind of sad in its own way.

Considering this and the previous films exist out of a potential need for creator Akira Toriyama to redeem his own franchise after the baffling Westernisation of Dragon Ball: Evolution, this represents the absolute accomplishment of that goal. A very funny, very thrilling and even occasionally moving effort that gives the long-time fans more of what they love, and a sufficient entry point for newcomers to get in on the fun.

Photo credit: ©BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA ©2018 DRAGON BALL SUPER THE MOVIE PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

 
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The Man Who Feels No Pain

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This frenzied mish-mash of Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner and comic book origin tale is told with an eye towards western cinematic sensibilities and an affectionate reverence of filmic pop culture.

It follows the travails of Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, son of Indian screen star Bhagyashree), a young man with a rare disorder that also proves very handy: he has a congenital insensitivity to pain. His ailments also include a requirement for constant hydration, which necessitates wearing a backpack that stores a ready supply of water, though it tends to run dry at inopportune moments, meaning Surya has to come up with creative ways to imbibe H2O.

Throughout his formative years, Surya exists on a diet of Kung Fu and action movies and he teaches himself martial arts moves so that he can dispense vengeance on the gang that robbed his mother when he was a young baby, killing her in the process. Surya is always at the side of his best friend and childhood crush Supri (Radhika Madan), whose father is a violent drunk, forcing Surya to teach him some knuckle-sandwich infused home truths, ultimately putting Supri’s father in the hospital.

As a young man, Surya yearns to meet his idol, a one-legged martial arts guru named Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), and after meeting him, Surya soon encounters his scenery-chewing evil twin, Jimmy (also played by Gulshan Devaiah). Soon, the adult Surya and Supri must fight the fight of their lives, defending themselves against henchman and street scum alike as Surya struggles to realise his childhood dream of being an unstoppable, karate-chopping, leg-sweeping, force for justice on the streets of Mumbai.

At times it’s so tight you’d think Edgar Wright was sneaking into the edit room, at other times the sequences are languid and baggy. That said, the overwhelming sense of joy and fun that Vasan Bala is having here – name-checking his Hollywood influences and designing inventive and crazy fight sequences – is contagious (though the amount of scenes depicting children being beaten is positively Dickensian). Street locations are brightly decorated and colourfully lensed and the soundtrack is tacky and sweet, making this slice of Bollywood geekdom a ton of fun. The running time, as you would expect, is over two hours but the reward is in the journey and there’s lots of fun to be had in this alternately goofy, melodramatic and surreal chop-sock-rom-com.

 
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Melodrama / Random / Melbourne!

Asian Cinema, Australian, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

An unusual pink hue is one of the shades that Melbourne is seen through in Melodrama / Random / Melbourne!, the film by VCA alum and emerging Australian-Fillipino director Mathew Victor Pastor.

Melodrama / Random / Melbourne! is the second part in the up-and-coming practitioner’s Filipino-Australian trilogy following I am JUPITER I am the BIGGEST PLANET (15 mins) – a thriller about a mother in the red light district of the Philippines.

Co-written and starring Celina Yuen, MRM! screened at the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival, and follows various disparate characters around the metropolitan Melbourne melting pot.

In this vast milieu, we are introduced to an assortment of personalities: amongst them a Filipino-Australian feminist documentarian, a pickup artist, and a virgin – all of whom are disparate characters removed from each other; all trying to go about their lives and all crossing paths.

It is a lens we nary see through, especially in Australian films. The perspective of those living on the margins and fringes, who never would have met each other.

The narrative is told by filmmaker Aries Santos (Bridget O’Brien), who is struggling to complete her new film.

In this mix, sheaths of pink, red and various others are just a few of the colours employed in Pastor’s movie.

As various individuals tussle and interlace – the internet, toxic masculinity, racism and xenophobia are but a few of the topics that the 80 minute feature touches on.

This is a tale that wavers between experimental and narrative, and takes on several characters and storylines.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are a few issues with the piece. Some characters, such as the virgin come across at times as not fully sketched, not entirely multi-dimensional.

Several stories feel unsatisfactorily closed, occasionally pre-emptively or arbitrarily introduced or finished.

This may be due to a larger question of the film taking on too many strands and disparate beats, in the end confusing viewers.

What does it all add up to? What Pastor is trying to say, or not say, in this jungle, ultimately becomes clouded amidst the range of styles, POV, place, character.

Effort, vivacious colours and zaniness are there, albeit inconsistently – though one gets the sense that this relentless image-maker will refine this.

MELODRAMA / RANDOM / MELBOURNE! (Trailer 2) from Matthew Victor Pastor on Vimeo.

 
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Kosai Sekine: Trouble in Tokyo

One of Japan’s most exciting new directors was in Melbourne recently to promote his latest film, Love At Least, which deals with mental illness with an Asian touch.
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Shoplifters

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Having won this year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters is looking to take a running jump at our collective feelings.

In its opening scene, we meet Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) setting out to do a morning’s grocery shopping. A fist bump and several sneaky manoeuvres later, and it’s quickly evident that Osamu and Shota are fans of the five fingered discount. They don’t rob the shop blind, however, merely getting enough noodles and accompaniments to feed their family back at home, each of whom have their own way of wheeling and dealing.

Mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) steals from work, eldest daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a peep show, and Grandma (Kirin Kiki) hits her dead ex-husband’s family up for cash on a regular basis. Into this morally dubious tribe comes the cute as a button infant, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). Having been found on a doorstep, apparently locked out by her abusive parents, Osamu offers the fragile child a place to stay and offer up some missing love along the way.

Shoplifters utterly disarms you with its charm from frame one. Whilst it’s fairly light in plot, particularly when stacked up against its two-hour running time, Kore-Eda lovingly runs off with the old adage of ‘you can’t choose your family’, repackaging it into a heart-warming exploration of this little tribe tucked away in Japan. They rarely fight and never seem to want anyone to get hurt out of their actions. Justifying their shoplifting tendencies, Nobuyo admits that they don’t want their victims to go bankrupt and she seems to mean it.

And then trouble hits and Kore-Eda unpacks everyone’s backstory, offering the pieces up for re-evaluation in light of new information. In hindsight, he does leave his audience crumbs to follow before then, but the final effect is never less than a gut punch.

Little Yuri isn’t the catalyst, but her arrival does coincide with Osamu’s family questioning their positions within the home. Aki sees a new life, Osamu and Nobuyo reignite their sexual attraction for each other, and Grandma contemplates the lives she’ll leave behind should she one day pass away.

There’s no point trying to single out one performance that mirrors the whole. Each actor brings their best to the table, whilst the film takes a breather from the overall ensemble to focus on the plot thread of one or two of its members. Kore-Eda’s direction is rarely flashy, choosing to sit us alongside the family, whilst they wolf down their regular evening meals of noodles and gluten cake, as if we were always meant to be there. His love for his characters is evident and a warmth runs throughout. It’s rather telling that he keeps any tragedy that’s thrown at his protagonists throughout the film firmly off screen.

Humorous, poignant and often bittersweet, Shoplifters is a family drama with a heavy emphasis on family.

 
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Anthony Maras: Why the World Needs Hotel Mumbai

The horrific Christchurch terrorist attacks may put off audiences from seeing the Australian film’s intense depiction of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but it’s the humanity at its heart and the mirror that it holds up to our society that makes it essential viewing.
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Geraldine Hakewill: The Real Deal

Things are getting real for the actress currently appearing as Peregrine Fisher in Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, and who also stars in The Pretend One, a feature film that she made in rural Queensland not long ago, and which is getting a cinema release this week.
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Armie Hammer: Hotel of Horror

The star of The Social Network, The Lone Ranger, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Call Me By Your Name travelled to Australia to shoot the true story of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hotel Mumbai.
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Steve Jaggi: Digging for Pearls

Best known for his work as a producer (Rip Tide, Zelos, upcoming Back of the Net), the filmmaker broke all of his own rules when he embarked on his directorial feature debut, Chocolate Oyster.
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Ella Scott Lynch: Dual-Ing Feminine Hero Journeys

Acting since she was a child, and most recently popping up regularly on the small screen (The Code, Love Child), Pimped marks Ella’s arrival as a lead actress, with her brave and uncompromising turn in dual roles in this stylised thriller for our times.
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Steve Jaggi: Digging for Pearls

Best known for his work as a producer (Rip Tide, Zelos, upcoming Back of the Net), the filmmaker broke all of his own rules when he embarked on his directorial feature debut, Chocolate Oyster.
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Reflections in the Dust

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This is an ugly movie. Some sub-genus of humanity may put that squarely on the main cast for this, but this goes beyond what some still consider to be visually grotesque. Instead, this is ugly in a very cerebral sense, meant to confront the audience with ideas that they’d likely prefer to keep unspoken or unthought. It’s the kind of experience where it is far from obvious what is going on, but it still manages to leave an indelible impression on the mind’s eye.

A story about a woman and her interactions with her clown father, played by Sarah Houbolt and Robin Royce Queree, writer/director Luke Sullivan shows a lot of French influence in his framing. The contrasting use of colour and monochrome that has followed him from his last feature You’re Not Thinking Straight, dialogue that feels designed to undermine the very concept of language, even down to the vaguely post-apocalyptic backdrop a la Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear; it all serves as a European sheen over what amounts to a lot of bizarre, hateful and intense imagery. To add to the disorientation, there’s the fractured electronics bleeping away in the background score, very jittery editing from Shaun Smith, and Jamie Appleby’s approach to sound editing that utilises hard clanging of glass to punctuate the cuts; and you have a rather challenging film to get through.

Of course, as is the case with most cinematic challenges, the proof is in the success of braving said challenge; what does this all amount to? Well, going purely by the parameters of the work itself, we get bits and pieces that only just jut out of the dreamlike haze of the story.

Acts of aggression, misery, desolation, all set against prominently flooded scenery, that shows Houbolt at the recurring mercy of The Clown. It echoes Dean Francis’ Drown in its almost-psychedelic depiction of masculinity, with all the toxicity unfortunately intact. And yet, psychedelia and dreamscapes don’t seem to be at the forefront of the filmmaker’s mind, as the film starts and regularly intercuts with interview footage of Houbolt and Queree being asked a series of questions. Some of these questions step into the realm of navel-gazing (“Do you believe blood is thicker than water?”), while others add more uncomfortable layers to this wedding cake of grime (“Do you believe in love?”).

Reflections In The Dust lacks the immediate and quite visceral impact of Luke Sullivan’s previous work, but it still shows him taking a tremendous risk in how he bends the rules of storytelling to fit his vision. In a year where it seems like Aussie cinema as a whole is in a serious rut (The Flip Side, Chasing Comets, Breath), this wholly confounding work shows that there are still some who are willing to push what the medium and its audience are capable of. It may be a little too abstract to really get across the ideas it wishes to present, but that same presentation deserves respect.

 
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The Nothing Men: Something Special

Now available on OzFlix, we take a look back at the difficult path taken to the screen by the uncompromising Australian drama, The Nothing Men, starring Colin Friels, David Field and Martin Dingle-Wall.
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The Renaissance of DaVinci Resolve

It has been a decade since Melbourne based company Blackmagic Design acquired the high-end colour correction software DaVinci Resolve, which continues to be used by the biggest productions, and is now accessible to emerging filmmakers.
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Ben C. Lucas: Fighting Fit

Two of six episodes of the gripping local series Fighting Season are directed by Ben C. Lucas, in his first foray into television. We spoke with the OtherLife filmmaker about tailing Kate Woods and what he brought to the short order drama.
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Box Office Report: July 5 – 11, 2018

Ant-Man opens strongly and will grow through the public holidays; and just for some perspective check out the chasm between the Solo and Incredibles figures. Maybe we'll have a decade in between the sequels now? Or maybe not.
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Broken Dreams: Pixar’s Newt

With Finding Dory swimming its way into cinemas this week, we look at Newt, one of the few nearly-made projects from animation giant, Pixar, that never got off the ground.
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Truman Capote On Screen

With a special series of screenings of Breakfast At Tiffany’s coming up, we take a look at the big screen presence of that much loved classic’s author, Truman Capote.
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Manji (aka Swastika)

Asian Cinema, Classic, Festival, Film Festival, Review Leave a Comment

Japanese films have this particular relation to the Western tradition and there is a mutual fascination and mirroring going on that has lasted for decades. Just think of The Magnificent Seven, one of the most iconic cowboy films in the canon, which was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. In pulp cinema too, there are parallels. This melodrama made in 1964 is a kind of harbinger of the sexual revolution but with a very Japanese twist. Its slightly lurid palette and emotional musical score recalls 1960s films from Hollywood. Partly now, some of this seems kitsch but there is something both endearing and attractive about its approach.

The heroine of the picture is a young married woman called Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), who tells her complicated tale of lust and betrayal in flashback mode. She was determined to be a dutiful wife in the terms of the day but at her art class she comes across an alluring model called Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The model’s irresistible beauty brings out a latent lesbian desire in Sonoko and the two embark on a secret affair. Sonoko’s husband is appropriately shocked and tries to coral her back into the marriage by reminding her of the weight of society’s disapproval. Sonoko becomes mildly hysterical at this point and declares that her lust for Mitsuko outweighs all rational and conventional moral considerations. Later, the two lesbian lovers engineer various schemes to draw both the husband and Mitsuko’s boyfriend into a game of plot and counter plot. This being Japan, there also has to be an element of a suicide pact that will seal the fate of the lovers.

Far from being a simple case of the transgressors getting what they deserve, and the conventional order being preserved, Yazuo Masumura’s film recognises the lover’s logic of desire and leaves the question of, which is the true morality, open. Even so, the film does take a very soft focus approach to the mechanics of their love (In the Realm of the Senses, it ain’t) but, in its chaste and histrionic way, it comes out as a plea for tolerance and a comment on the wastefulness of repressed lives.

 
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Movie of the Month: CAPHARNAÜM

capharnaüm (noun) ca·phar·na·üm | \kəˈfärnēəm\ plural -s Definition of capharnaüm : a confused jumble: a place marked by a disorderly accumulation of objects
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Venom

comic book, Marvel, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Created in the mid ‘80s and becoming inexplicably popular in the ‘90s, the Venom comic book character looks like an over designed toothy scribble without much personality beyond “really big mouth” and “likes breaking/eating things”. So, in a weird way having a terrible film based on a terrible character is somewhat fitting? Sadly, that doesn’t make schlepping your way through 112 long, tedious minutes any more enjoyable.

Venom tells the tale of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist/vlogger/sexy mumbling man who manages to blow up his life with Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) after executing a bone-headed plan to publicly expose the shonky shenanigans of Elon Musk-like evil genius, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This leads, in a slow, roundabout way (that we won’t spoil, but it’s very stupid indeed) to Eddie becoming a host to an alien parasite that chats a lot, possesses super powers and has a penchant for biting off human heads. That last sentence probably makes Venom sound like dumb fun. Don’t be fooled, a couple of moderately entertaining moments aside the flick is a dud, making bafflingly poor decisions at almost every turn.

For a start the three main actors – Hardy, Williams, Ahmed – all deliver the worst performances of their respective careers. None of them will be ruined by this turkey, thankfully, but holy crap what a difference a decent script and a canny director make! Ahmed in particular appears to be drowning in a sea of godawful dialogue and staggeringly inept character work. The visual effects are okay but they’re in service of a character, Venom himself, who seems to change motivation and mood for no reason at all, leading to a climax with an almost identical foe that you might be able to make out if you squint really hard. Of course, by the time this flick reaches its third act you’ll just be glad it’s over, as all but the most masochistic audience members will have checked out over an hour before.

Venom is a bad film, poorly plotted, shockingly acted with nary but a couple of visually interesting moments to lift you from the oily black swamp of boredom. It’s not hard to see what director Ruben Fleischer was going for here, and once or twice snatches of the film that could have been shine through, but ultimately this is a jaw-dropping misfire and feels like a product of a time when comic book adaptations were notoriously bad like Spawn (1997). And hell, at least Spawn had an awesome soundtrack, the only appropriate musical accompaniment to Venom is the scornful, mocking laughter of an irritated audience.

 
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Dick Miller Top Ten

Dick Miller was one of the most beloved character actors in the second half of the Twentieth Century, particularly for aficionados of the work of Roger Corman and Joe Dante. Stephen Vagg runs his eye over his top ten Miller performances.
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Viggo Mortensen Wants to Play Nice

The revered actor plays against type as a tough guy Italian accompanying a black man through the American South in the ‘60s in the highly acclaimed Oscars frontrunner Green Book.
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Wim Wenders: Renaissance Man

With the release of Wim Wenders’ new film, Submergence, we look back at the rich and diverse career of one of the world’s most important and revered filmmakers.    
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Eli Roth: Taking it to the Limit  

With Eli Roth’s controversial Bruce Willis-starring remake of Death Wish blasting its way into cinemas this week, we take a look back at the career of this gleefully divisive filmmaker.
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Anthony Maras: Why the World Needs Hotel Mumbai

The horrific Christchurch terrorist attacks may put off audiences from seeing the Australian film’s intense depiction of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but it’s the humanity at its heart and the mirror that it holds up to our society that makes it essential viewing.
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Steve Jaggi: Digging for Pearls

Best known for his work as a producer (Rip Tide, Zelos, upcoming Back of the Net), the filmmaker broke all of his own rules when he embarked on his directorial feature debut, Chocolate Oyster.
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Travis Beard: A Rockabul Story

Seven years in the making, and travelling to film festivals around the world, documentary Rockabul – following the turbulent journey of 'the only fucking metal band in Afghanistan', District Unknown – will finally screen in its filmmaker’s home town as part of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).
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Pluck (A Film Not Really About Chicken)

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Ad pitch: Mugabe sits in his empty palatial dining room reminiscing about the friends he’s lost. Friends such as Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. As the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days reaches its crescendo, we’re reminded that no one should have to eat alone. The product? Nando’s 6 pack meal deal, obviously.

This is one of the many near knuckle marketing campaigns headed by the chicken restaurant that’s seen them become one of the most well-known brands in South Africa. The documentary Pluck compiles a selection of their best and worst campaigns in order to paint an alternative political history of the country, whilst those behind the brand talk about the real-world events that shape their creativity.

Let’s be honest, any documentary that focuses solely on a company’s legacy – particularly one which they’ve given their blessing to – is in danger of being indulgent from the beginning. Thankfully, Pluck manages to fall on the right side of back-slapping. Created in 1987, the Johannesburg franchise dropped into a political landscape that was – and still is – deeply complicated. Poking fun at the establishment wasn’t just a way to get noticed. For many at Nando’s it was about defusing tension. And if they sell a bit of peri peri sauce, then so much the better. In fact, one creative remembers that he got so involved in holding a mirror up to the society that they realised three ads into their campaign that they hadn’t actually mentioned any of the products they were selling.

Amidst the lampooning and caricatures, Pluck reminds the viewer of what could be at stake. Whilst Nando’s copped its fair share of viewer complaints, with ads involving blind people and, at one point, a certain Uruguayan rugby team trying to stay alive, they could also incur the wrath of the politicians that they mocked. The aforementioned Mugabe ad resulted in threats of violence and death being aimed at staff in Zimbabwe, whilst the then leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema took great offence to being portrayed as a literal political puppet, going so far as to demand a face to face apology.

Naturally, everything is a product of its time and some adverts will likely raise a quizzical eyebrow with their attitudes towards gender. In particular, it’s hard to fully rally for the ad exec who claims the stereotypically camp gay couple used in his campaign was championed by his LGBT friends who were just thankful for the representation. Thankfully, other talking heads are more candid when it comes to their company’s more problematic moments.

While its message of laughter is the best medicine and everyone is equal in the eyes of comedy is nothing ground-breaking, as an independent documentary, Pluck indeed wins for its approach to one of history’s more splintered political arenas.

 
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Tamra Simmons: Surviving R. Kelly

The game-changing six-part documentary was driven by Exec Producer Tamra Simmons, who Cassandra Nevin spoke with in Melbourne at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC)
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Island of the Hungry Ghosts

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

Director Gabrielle Brady has made a moving little documentary about refugee detention centres, in this case Christmas Island. Island of the Hungry Ghosts has a number of strands that reverberate with each other metaphorically. Firstly, Christmas Island is famous for its red crab migration, where literally thousands of the little crustaceans teem annually to the sea. We follow the park rangers as they smooth a path to the ocean. They even erect temporary road signs to warn cars that the crabs have priority (not that there is much traffic).

If only we spent as much care with the human inhabitants of the island. Brady also films the trauma therapist Poh-Lin Lee, who patiently listens to refugee accounts. Using ‘sand box therapy’ she gets the refugees to recount their perilous voyages in the hope of exorcising some of their trauma.

Lastly, there is issue of Malay-Chinese who visit the island to allay the suffering of the titular ‘hungry ghosts’ – ancestors of the early migrant labourers who worked on the island and did not receive a proper ritual/burial.

All three strands concern the need for justice and care. Like the crabs, the refugees cannot go forward, only sideways. Their future is blocked. They have little hope of being accepted. At times, their stories (even when Brady is tactful enough to let some details remain unfilmed) are almost too hard to bear. One wonders how Poh-Lin Lee feels listening to these accounts, day after day, and indeed she does seem to despair at not being able to change their outcomes. Her programme is itself under threat.

The true cruelty and human cost of the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ – the internment in camps of desperate people who have struggled to come and get a new life in Australia – is constantly in and out of the news. However, Brady could not have predicted that her film would be so suddenly and unfortunately contemporary. At great financial cost, the government says it is going to re-open Christmas Island as a detention centre following the debacle over getting sick refugees off Nauru.

As indicated, Brady’s low budget film is all the more powerful for being so quiet and unhistrionic. It has been doing the festival circuit but is now getting a small theatrical release. Hopefully it will continue to move people and raise awareness.

 
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Travis Beard: A Rockabul Story

Seven years in the making, and travelling to film festivals around the world, documentary Rockabul – following the turbulent journey of 'the only fucking metal band in Afghanistan', District Unknown – will finally screen in its filmmaker’s home town as part of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).
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RocKabul

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving…

There’s a surreal moment in the opening moments of Australian Photojournalist Travis Beard’s new documentary RocKabul, where a masked Taliban judge named Hagmal is interviewed on camera. Beard asks him if he has ‘heard anything about Rock music?’ Hagmal replies: ‘If you listen to this ridiculous music, flames will come out of your ears on Judgement Day. It is permitted to kill people who choose this path’. Such insanity is par for the course for the average Afghan, living with this medieval lunacy on a daily basis though it bears much more significance for the documentary’s subjects, the four members of Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band: District Unknown.

Forming in 2009, the band rehearsed in any number of dark, graffiti covered-spaces in Kabul, honing their (then non-existent) guitar and drum skills. The band members: brothers Pedram and Qasem and cousins Lemar and Qais, ooze unbridled passion for heavy metal music and due in part to his own experiences of being in a band, Travis Beard begins to mentor the group and offers his modest home as a practice space; though they’re soon forced to find somewhere else to jam, as irate neighbours begin to complain about their rehearsal racket.

The band members struggle against their own families (guitarist Qais buys a guitar with the fees allotted for his computer-classes, having to hide it from his music-hating father) as well as struggling against themselves (when Travis organises a gig at a party for ex-patriots in Kabul’s District 3 in 2010,  Qais and Qasem both spend a majority of their set playing their instruments while facing the wall, overwhelmed by the attention.

Beard himself plays in a band with US soldiers and utilises connections with US military and an array of charities, to organise gigs and grow the band’s opportunities.

It’s not long after that, Lemar travels to Turkey to start a new life with his new wife. He’s done with the hard scrabble life in Afghanistan, at one point stating: ‘This is not my country any more. It’s a battlefield for drugs, for mafia, and for money.’

After Lemar’s departure, new lead singer Yousef fronts the band at ‘Sound Central’, a music festival that Beard organises in cahoots with US government liaisons. It’s Afghanistan’s first music festival in 35 years. Security concerns mean the festival is heavily patrolled by local police yet Beard still worries about rogue Taliban attacks.

Despite all the dangers, the day goes off without a hitch. Undaunted, Beard and the band push onwards, though whether you’d term it ‘fearless’ or ‘crazy’ depends on your point-of-view.

They decide to take the band on the road and play a gig in Northern Afghanistan, in Mazar-e-Sharif. This results in a rather uncomfortable confrontation with local authorities, a band member being detained, and the remaining members being forced to leave him there, all despite having gotten permission from local government.

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving, it renders Travis Beard’s mighty ode to the power of human expression something of a testament to the cathartic rage of heavy metal and demands that you defiantly raise your devil horns to the heavens in a salute to the sheer balls it took – to risk everything just to accomplish something that we take for granted, every single day.

 
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Blue Velvet Revisited

Documentary, experimental, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Back in 1985, a young German filmmaker named Peter Braatz corresponded with director David Lynch (fresh off the ill-fated Dune) during pre-production on his upcoming film Blue Velvet and pitched the legendary artist/filmmaker the idea of documenting his new film’s production on Super 8mm. Lynch was up for it and afforded Braatz total access. What Braatz captured is the minutiae of the day to day filming, short interviews with actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch-regular Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (“I wouldn’t play this type of role for any other director”), Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. Production crew are less forthcoming, though Braatz captures audio of almost everyone discussing aspects of the production; cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps mostly to himself, even so there’s a considerable amount of Super 8mm and stills from the set documenting (largely in chronological order) the shooting of all the key scenes.

If Blue Velvet was a film that held sway over your brain when you first experienced it and lingers still, then this film is a stream of consciousness resurgence of all the free-form dream logic that Lynch unleashed on us to mess with our brains those thirty odd years ago. Seeing the mundanity of the production that helped create it, is something of a joy to watch. The editing style is fragmented and drifts pleasantly along, audio interviews form a large part of the narration, peppered with short Super 8mm interviews that were captured by Braatz with Lynch, who gives his impressions of how the production is going.

This will absolutely appeal to fans of Lynch and Blue Velvet though the style is not the most accessible. The footage, as it stands, is phenomenally crisp and clear and the feeling of time and place is startling’ that said, it would’ve been great to hear the surviving cast members recall their experiences on the film retrospectively. This is a must see for Lynch fans and for those in the thrall of the ‘mysteries of love’.

 
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The Kid Who Would be King

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With a nod to Rudyard Kipling, his own Attack the Block and the nostalgia of ‘80s Amblin movies (which infiltrates every other family film these days – made by filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Back to the Future and Goonies), writer/director Joe Cornish rewrites Arthurian legend in a kids’ film that offers plenty of delights but doesn’t quite package them together in a way that is wholly satisfying; hello 2 hours running time!

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – there are flashes where you think that Andy Serkis is doing more of his acclaimed mocap work due to characteristics inherited from dad) is a nerdy high school kid, living with his single mum, loving science experiments and hanging out with his bullied mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). When he is visited by a young Merlin (Imrie stealing every scene he is in; with Patrick Stewart playing the older, seemingly drunker version of the character) and realises that he is the only one that can raise Excalibur, it comes to pass that Alex has 5 days to save the world from Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) by secretly traveling cross country, rallying the troops and winning the day!

The Kid Who Would be King actually starts with a hardly subtle rallying cry that the world is being taken over by dictators; you know, like BlacKkKlansman ended, but for kids…. However, this tangent doesn’t really go anywhere apart from setting up our hero’s journey. Maybe in the sequel Alex will take on Kim Jong-un, Putin and Trump; however, here it is an origin story of a boy in suburban London who discovers that he is heir to the Arthurian legend and literally rewrites the books in the process.

As per his previous film, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish locates the fantastic among the ordinary; in this case suburbia and public schooling with the supernatural/mythological. He casts widely, with all ethnicities and genders covered when it comes to diversity on screen. This results in humour, but unfortunately little wonderment.

Aesthetically, the introduction of magic – both light and dark – into the ordinary world is impressive, but dramatically, Cornish cannot make us care enough in our hero’s journey. For such a simple story, it is narratively too expansive, and at two hours length, it is always 30 minutes behind the audience’s natural pacing for such a tale. The villains are never genuinely threatening either, and there’s a key decapitation scene that plays out falsely, and hardly appropriate for the film’s target audience.

All of that being said, there will be kids in the audience who will find this original material new and exciting, they will relate to our young protagonists, and it will encourage them to read up about Arthurian legends. They may even end up making films in 20 years’ time inspired by seeing The Kid Who Would be King in their youth.

 
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Once Upon A Deadpool

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Aaaah, what this could have been. Deadpool 2 trimmed, repackaged, and reheated as, um, a family film? The foulmouthed Merc With A Mouth forced to keep it clean? A tourniquet applied to the film’s eye-popping levels of bloodletting? That’s one bizarre experiment we’d like to see! If only that’s what Once Upon A Deadpool was! Sadly, this is even less of a “new film” than fans may have been led to expect…it’s literally Deadpool 2 with the F-bombs deactivated and the moments of supremely nasty violence excised, and then wrapped in a new – and admittedly brilliant – framing device.

In the film’s mega meta conceit, Ryan Reynolds’ fast-talking, pop culture quoting super-anti-hero, Deadpool, kidnaps the now adult Fred Savage, tapes him to a bed, and forces him to re-enact his famous framing device scenes from Rob Reiner’s much-loved 1987 cult classic, The Princess Bride. But this time, it’s Deadpool reading the story of Deadpool 2 rather than Peter Falk trotting out that family favourite’s far more genteel fairy tale. The scenes between Reynolds and Savage – which are cut throughout the film – are snappy and hilarious, delivering sneaking gut-punches not only to the Deadpool films themselves, but to the superhero genre in totem. We won’t spoil any of the gags here because, well, they’re the only things that can really be spoilt in Once Upon A Deadpool.

If you’ve already seen Deadpool 2, then you’ve seen Once Upon A Deadpool too…it’s basically an old-style “in-flight entertainment” bowdlerisation of the film, and what’s the appeal in that? If the makers had actually gone all the way and literally turned Deadpool into a family film (by, say, incorporating footage and outtakes from both Deadpool movies, and then messing with the dialogue to Frankenstein it into something “new” altogether), that would have been a true metafictional feat. As it is, this rehash sits in a tedious no-man’s-land: the retained gags about child molesting, rape whistles, and prison sex mean that you can’t safely take the kids, while the cleaned up action is far less enthralling than the balls-out slug-fests of the original. A Christmas bauble for only the most hardcore of fans, Once Upon A Deadpool is a massive disappointment, and a major pop cultural misstep for one of the savviest franchises around.

 
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Bumblebee

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For a little over a decade, Michael Bay built a billion-dollar empire on treating his audience like children. In his eyes, all the people want to see are boobs, explosions, and jokes about boobs and explosions. He has become, for many, a symbol for just how little Hollywood actually thinks of its customers, capable only of money-grubbing cynicism.

Enter Travis Knight, president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, director of the phenomenal Kubo And The Two Strings, and the human that this series has been needing for a very long time now. If there’s one thing Knight knows, it’s how to make inanimate objects feel like they are just as full of life as any flesh-and-blood human. And through Bumblebee and his interactions with the perpetually-on-the-edge-of-seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, we get a very tender and emotional display of that in action. Through sheer body language and sampled speech, Bumblebee becomes something worth caring about, worth crying with, and worth sharing victories with.

He’s also someone worth seeing in a fire fight, and this is another result of Knight’s involvement. Stop-motion animation is a gruelling and time-consuming process, one that requires a metric tonne of patience to see through. The kind of patience that, unlike Bay, allows Knight to give the audience time to breathe between action scenes so it doesn’t just blur together into a sprawling behemoth of incoherency. It maintains the CGI fidelity of the other films, one of the few consistent high points for the series, and applies it to fight scenes that may lack a certain bombastic punch but balances that out with plenty of emotional hutzpah. They work because we care about who’s involved.

But more than anything else, what Knight and writer Christina Hodson do that warrants the most praise is that they actually have an idea of who their audience is. The film is soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, showing a lot of reverence for the era that gave birth to Transformers and so many other toy-licensed cartoons, referencing everything from ALF to The Breakfast Club to make for cheesy but undeniably fun moments. These work nicely to counteract how sombre this film can get, with the relationship between Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s Charlie a surrogate for grief and adolescent woes and all those other things that most would wish to forget.

Much like with Kubo, Knight trusts that his audience, young and old, can accept the darker aspects of life and death, up to and including how it is perfectly fine to not feel fine. Then again, even without that context, being handed a book titled ‘Smile For A Change’ will never not be patronising, as happens to Charlie early on.

For the first time in over 10 years, we have a Transformers movie worth watching; a fun, well-acted, exciting and even emotional piece of popcorn action.

 
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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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There have been six Spider-Man movies since 2002, seven if you include Venom – not to mention Spidey’s various smaller roles in the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – so it’s safe to say that the web-slinger has been well represented on the cinema screen. Taking that notion one step further, it’s perhaps fair to say your friendly neighbourhood arachnid chap is perilously close to becoming over-exposed. It’s something of a miracle, then, that the animated Sony film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like not only a decent addition to the spider-library, but one of the best flicks in the canon.

The plot focuses on young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who, through a plot contrivance that would be a little mean to spoil, finds himself saddled with a 40-something slacker Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.

Dealing with his very new powers, a plot by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) that may result in the destruction of reality and yet more alternate dimension spider-folk including, among others, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and motherflipping Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) – not to mention his awkward relationship with overbearing father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) – it would be fair to say poor old Miles has a lot to deal with.

In lesser hands this embarrassment of plot riches would swiftly become confusing noise, but happily screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman keep the tone light and breezy, with enough self-awareness to have you chuckling through some of the more absurd sections and enough heart to make you genuinely care about the massive cast of endearing misfits.

And all of the above is before we even talk about the animation! Put simply, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is quite possibly the best looking animated superhero film of all time. The juxtaposition of animation styles, comic book iconography and kaleidoscopic collages of vivid colour imbues every damn frame with a jaw-dropping level of detail and artistry that is impossible to look away from. This is the kind of creativity and effort a good animated movie should have and will hopefully raise the bar for some of the lesser entries out there (we’re looking pointedly at you, DC).

Ultimately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a two hour-long explosion of joy and colour, brimming with laughter and heart, and the kind of film even the most superhero agnostic will adore.

 
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Kenneth Branagh: Fowl Business

Shakespeare, Marvel, Christie, now the actor/producer/director turns to Eoin Colfer’s best-selling books and a potential franchise starter for Disney. We caught up with Branagh on the set of Artemis Fowl.
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The Predator

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Do you measure The Predator against cinema as a whole, or do you measure it by the modest achievements of the franchise so far? It’s an interesting philosophical question, given that of the previous five films to feature the man-hunting, mandible-sporting aliens, only John McTiernan’s 1987 original could be called great, while every other iteration of the series runs the gamut from fun-but-flawed (Predator 2, Predators), to holy-god-what-were-you-thinking (Alien Vs Predator:Requiem). Which is the key to enjoying The Predator, Shane Black’s sequel and hopeful franchise re-starter: it’s not a great movie per se, but it’s a pretty enjoyable Predator flick.

And that’s because it’s a B movie, and it knows it. Black (and yes, he was Hawkins in the original, lest we forget) and his co-writer, Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, House) have sharply defined B movie sensibilities, having both come up at a time when the drive-in fodder of the ’70s was turning into the tentpole blockbusters of the ’80s (see Black’s own screenwriting breakthrough, Lethal Weapon). That trend has continued and these days pulp-as-mainstream is the default, but even in these heady times where superhero films are taken seriously and people actually argue about the potential merits of a Masters of the Universe movie “where they get it right”, The Predator may take it a step too far for most audiences.

Which is a damn shame, because if you’re open to the film’s throw-everything-against-the-wall charms, it’s a hoot. This is a film that pits a brain-damaged Dirty Half-Dozen against alien killing machines, after all, with everyone (well, chiefly Keegan-Michael Key) rattling off Black’s trademark filthy testosto-zingers in between the gunfire, explosions and viscera.

To get there takes a few ungainly plot machinations and tonal shifts, though. After special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook of Logan) has a run-in with a Predator and his whole squad is minced, he’s packed off to the funny farm, but not before he manages to mail off some Predator technology that, for reasons that don’t need going into at this juncture, wind up in the hands of his young, autistic son (Jacob Tremblay). When an even bigger, badder Predator drops out of the sky to recover the missing gadgets, Quinn has a busload of fellow damaged military veterans, including the aforementioned Keegan, former Punisher Thomas Jane, Game of Thrones dickputee Alfie Allen, and Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes, to call upon in the fight to save his kid and estranged wife (Aussie actress Yvonne Strahovski, a long way from Gilead here).

There’s a bit more to it, including Sterling K. Brown showing up to complicate matters as a shady government agent ala Gary Busey in Predator 2 (Jake “son of Gary” Busey has a brief cameo), but that’s basically your lot: The A-Team’s stunt doubles vs ferocious extra-terrestrial big game hunters in Spielbergian suburbia.

Which sounds great, but when you’re operating at this particular pitch of drive-in insanity, you pretty much have to include some bad ideas, which in this case involve some nonsense about the Predators harvesting their prey species’ DNA, and a big ol’ sequel hook that will never, ever, be acted upon – The Predator is all but destined to be derided and ignored on first release, and adored a decade or two down the track. Why? Because Thomas Jane’s character has Tourette’s, someone’s legs get sliced off by a force field, and there are Predator hunting dogs, one of which becomes the movie’s cute pooch. Those aren’t bugs though – they’re features. Like the pickle on a good cheeseburger, they exist to add piquancy. Perfection is boring.

If it sounds messy and slipshod, it is. Whether that’s by design or through last minute panicked editing is hard to say, although word is that some serious retooling went down right up to the release date. If that’s the case, we would love to get a look at whatever insanity Black and Dekker originally intended – if this is The Predator with the weirder angles sanded down, the prototype must be mind-blowing.

Perhaps the irony is that, for a film designed to resurrect a 21 year old franchise, The Predator feels about 30 years out of date. If it actually were a relic of the late ’80s sci-fi actioner direct-to-video boom, it’d be regarded as an absolute cult classic – a trait it shares with the recent and rather wonderful Beyond Skyline. If you have an affection for that kind of thing, run to The Predator – it has the fix you need. If you don’t, a matinee of The Book Club is no doubt playing somewhere nearby.

 
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Mary Shelley

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Daughter to a renowned feminist icon, lover to at least one legendary poet and companion to more, world traveler, mother of modern science fiction and horror, and sometimes tragic heroine of her own epic life – there’s a lot to be said about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the new movie which bears her name tries to say it all. Unfortunately, not to much effect.

Directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour from a script by Australian writer Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley traces the writer’s life from young adulthood when the then Mary Godwin left her father, William Godwin’s (Stephen Dillane) home, to her first meeting with her paramour, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a self styled “radical poet” who here entertains notions of class equality while racking up massive debts supporting an extravagant lifestyle.

Decamping for Europe just ahead of his creditors, Percy, Mary and her sister, Claire Claremont (an underused Bel Powley) fetch up at the Geneva manse of Lord Byron (a playful Tom Sturridge, who looks like he should be playing bass for Kirin J. Callinan) where, one rainy day, a ghost story contest is proposed… and we all know what happens then (or you should. Read a bloody book).

The back half of the film deals with Mary’s struggles to get the book published under her own name, which holds some interest – the entrenched misogyny of the time meant that the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously with a foreword by Percy, with many believing him the actual author. But even so, the hurdles Mary faces here all seem relatively minor (even the death of her infant child, and it’s kind of amazing that such an event can feel so undramatic).

The whole thing feels rather bloodless, which is some kind of achievement in a film filled with ostensibly lusty Romantics and dealing with the creation of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. The more complex, prickly and potentially problematic aspects of the Shelleys and their contemporaries are largely sanded smooth. Byron still comes across as a douche, but the film can’t even really bring itself to blame Percy for his abandoned first wife’s suicide, really just clearing her out of the way to forward his fated romance with Mary.

The whole thing  feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a remarkably sexless film, which is incredible given that Mary (to be fair, apocryphally) shagged Percy on her mother’s headstone. Any suggestions of homosexuality are faint enough to be nigh-invisible – we just get Percy and Byron retiring to the drawing room, nudge nudge wink wink, from time to time. At least loony old Ken Russell’s Gothic fucks.

For all that, even a by the numbers biopic would not be without its charms, but al-Mansour makes some bafflingly bad staging choices that drastically undercut several key moments. The most unforgivable is a climactic intimate, passionate, private conversation between the Shelleys that is rendered quite absurd when you realise that just out of frame are a dozen or so stuffy, middle-aged literature fans waiting to discuss Frankenstein who are probably getting quite embarrassed by the couple’s overheated tête-à-tête.

Mary Shelley isn’t a disaster, but it is a disappointment. There’s a good movie to be made about the life of the literary giant, but we haven’t seen it yet.

 
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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its hands full dealing with the existential threat that is Thanos over in Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with crises of an appropriately smaller scale: Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (she is rarely if ever called by her nom de super) and her genius father, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) need a gizmo to finish the “quantum tunnel” they’re building in hopes of rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother to the former and wife to the latter, from the microscopic “Quantum Realm” where she was lost many years gone by. Black market technology broker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) has the widget, but he wants Pym’s own technology to sell to the highest bidder. The villainous – or is she? – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects, also wants the gadget for her own reasons. All reformed thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, wants to do is run out the clock on the two years of house arrest he was sentenced to after the events of Captain America: Civil War. No such luck…

After seeing half the universe wiped out in the last Marvel big screen outing, the modest stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp seem almost quaint. It’s not about saving the world, but about rescuing one person. We’re not up against the ultimate evil, but a shifty arms dealer and a rogue spy. The big prize is a few mended fences – Scott has been on the outs with Hope and Hank in the two years since we last checked in, and one of this film’s chief narrative arcs is him getting back in their good graces.

It’s actually refreshing, and for all that the Ant-Man films are goofy comedy capers, they’re among the more emotionally astute offerings from the Marvel stable. We might enjoy spectacle, but let’s face it – the idea of the end of the universe is pretty abstract. However, almost everyone can relate to wanting to amend for past mistakes, or be a good role model for your kid (Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Fortson are back as Lang’s family).

Which doesn’t mean we don’t get a healthy dose of effects and action, but it takes a while for Ant-Man and the Wasp to get there, only really kicking into gear with a rather great chase through a restaurant kitchen pretty late in the game. The Ant-Man schtick is a simple one – people and objects shrink or grow – but director Peyton Reed and his team certainly find it malleable enough to keep discovering new wrinkles – although perhaps the best is the office building/roller luggage bit seen in the trailers.

Still, the film’s real strength is its cast – it’s simply a lot of fun to hang out with Lang and his extended circle. Michael Pena’s Luis remains the comedic MVP, but only just; almost everyone gets a chance to crack wise, and the film is only a couple of degrees off being a straight-up comedy. Only John-Kamen’s angsty Ghost really gets to grips with the usual woe-is-me superhero self pity, and she’s got her reasons. John-Kamen’s turn here is pretty great, but as a character Ghost feels a little out of place in this sunnier suburb of the MCU. Similarly, Goggins’ villain hardly seems like a credible threat even when he’s having a sinister henchman dope people with truth serum. Ant-Man’s real nemesis is actually Randall Park’s ineffectual FBI agent, who’s assigned to keep tabs on him while he’s under house arrest – a guy so nice he moonlights as a youth pastor.

Happily, Ant-Man and the Wasp is so breezy and charming that what would be defects in a more self-serious film are assets here. Marvel movies sometimes have tonal issues resulting from trying to straddle the line between the comedic and the dramatic – the much-loved Thor: Ragnarok is notably guilty of this – but this latest effort solves that equation by all but jettisoning the dramatic. What we’re left with is a nimble, light and enjoyable jaunt that probably won’t make anyone’s Best Of lists, but is nonetheless hugely enjoyable in the moment.

 
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The Song Keepers

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

A years-in-the-making account of a unique example of cultural cross-pollination, Naina Sen’s The Song Keepers tells the story of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, culminating in the group’s successful tour of Germany.

What’s the connection? The choir has its roots in the work of German Lutheran missionaries who ministered to the local Indigenous people in the area, teaching them – among other things – Lutheran hymns. Those hymns, now reconfigured for the Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, are the basis for the modern choir’s songbook.

The result is a striking example of benign cross-cultural communication, and one that flies in the face of accepted narratives about colonialism. Not that Sen’s film shies away from the thornier elements of Imperialism; softly spoken and enthusiastic choir leader Morris Stuart, a black Guyanese, relates his own experiences with racism, while later in the proceedings stories told by the choir members themselves paint a picture of callous cruelty and prejudice against children of mixed descent.

Yet the nameless German missionaries, whose shadow looms large over the narrative, are depicted as all but saintly, rescuing abandoned children, protecting abused women, and even saving their charges from becoming part of the Stolen Generations. The film admirably but gently disabuses us of the usual simple binaries, condemning racism and colonialism, but illustrating that some degree of altruism can exist within those structures (to be fair, the problems we’re told the Lutherans dealt with are all a result of colonisation anyway, so…).

While Sen’s film doesn’t gloss over these issues, the focus remains firmly on the music and the German tour, and it is certainly something to hear a 4th century hymn sung in an Indigenous language. The tour itself is a wholly joyful affair, with the ladies of the choir almost overwhelmingly excited about leaving Australia for the first time. Even then, the institutional issues affecting Indigenous people occasionally comes to bear, as when the choir is confronted with the bureaucratic challenge of arranging passports for people who lack birth certificates. On the whole, though, The Song Keepers much prefers to accentuate the positive. This is a rousing, feel good film tempered with just enough grit and complexity to leave the viewer in a thoughtful mood afterwards.

 

 
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Red Sparrow

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After a career-ending injury, Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited by her uncle, intelligence officer Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking strikingly like Putin) into the Sparrows, a program designed to produce undercover agents who are experts at manipulating targets by any and all means, but with a specific focus on sexual seduction. However, when she’s tasked with seducing CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), Egorova has an opportunity to become something more than a tool of the state.

Anyone going into Red Sparrow thinking they’re going to get Marvel’s Black Widow with the serial numbers filed off is in for the shock of their lives – this is a film that does not do what it says on the tin. Far from another icy action-girl thriller on the La Femme Nikita – Atomic Blonde spectrum, Red Sparrow is an altogether more thoughtful, more challenging, more perverse affair. Working from the novel of the same name by veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews, director Francis Lawrence (75% of the Hunger Games series) and screenwriter Justin Haythes (Revolutionary Road, A Cure for Wellness) have crafted something that feels like it owes more to peak period Paul Verhoeven than to Alias.

“Sex is a weapon” is a cliché, but Red Sparrow’s chief strength is that it ruminates on what that actually means, and while there’s no escaping a certain amount of titillation here – if you want to see JLaw naked, here’s your shot – the clinical approach to the mechanics of sex and seduction, particularly in the regimented training installation Dominika attends after she is recruited, elide away the sex appeal for all but those possessed of the most specific tastes.

In the Bond series, 007’s regular romps with various beauties were framed as a perk of the job, or a result of the protagonist’s raging satyrism at worst – never is the idea that dedicating one’s life to Queen and Country might mean more than just killing and/or dying. In Red Sparrow, however, that’s the whole point. Dominika is reminded time and time again that she is both a product of and a possession of the state, to be used in any way the nation’s security apparatus sees fit, and her own desires – sexual, moral, personal, political – are absolutely moot. Under the tutelage of the Matron (Charlotte Rampling, and it’s no accident that the star of The Night Porter is here), Dominika is taught to subsume her own self in order to feign attraction to anyone – and to do anything. “The body can be tricked”, she is told, as fellow Sparrows attempt to copulate in front of their attentive, bored classmates.

With her entire perceptible being dedicated to the service of Mother Russia, Dominika is advised by her disabled mother (our heroine’s initial motivation is to keep her out of a hellish-sounding state hospital) advises her to keep one small part of herself in reserve; a tiny piece of a private self. What that piece is, though, we as the audience are never really sure – in this world of paranoia, hidden agendas, sedition and secrets, truth is the most valuable commodity of all. Portraying a character whose inner being is almost entirely obfuscated is a tricky task – defaulting to boring robotic stillness is an ever-present risk – but Lawrence carries it off with studied subtlety, allowing us to see minute signs of her inner conflict and hesitation as she navigates the unforgiving hidden world she has been thrust into.

It’s a different kind of feminine strength on display, and one we’re not used to seeing on screen lately. Red Sparrow is not a fantasy of smashing the footsoldiers of patriarchy or being tough enough or being brutal enough to compete pound for pound with male aggressors, as in Atomic Blonde or Fury Road – not that those narratives aren’t vital. Rather, this film is about using the available tools and, importantly, operating clandestinely within the existing power structures in order to survive. Wonder Woman might be able to storm across No Man’s Land in a glorious, fist-pumping display of heroism (heroinism?), but if Dominika tries to muscle through her problems, she gets a bullet to the back of the head. It’s going to be interesting to see how audiences react to this in the current cultural climate.

Director Francis Lawrence does career-best work here. It sounds like a back-handed compliment, but there’s nothing in his back catalogue that suggests a capability for the work at hand: icy, controlled, provocative, and at times deliberately problematic. There’s also an admirable lack of patriotism; Edgerton and his CIA colleagues are sneered at by their Russian counterparts, who mock their lack of stoic professionalism – an unusual stance in an American spy thriller, even though we are in the end more or less encouraged to preference American ideology over Russian. Lawrence’s approach to both sex and violence in the film is decidedly European, and you can all but picture him in the editing suite slicing single frame after single frame in order to satiate the American censor’s demand for coyness.

Speaking of violence, there is surprisingly little, but when it does erupt it’s with a horrifying starkness and suddenness that refuses to let us forget that these are horrible things happening to real (in the context of the film) human bodies. It hurts; garotting is slow murder, knives slice and pierce but do not kill with cinematic quickness, and a couple of torture scenes will linger in the memory – although it’s interesting to note that while the film is happy to have Edgerton tied to a chair for an extended session of punishment, the scene cuts away when it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s turn, although possibly not quickly enough for some.

A lot of people are going to be disappointed with Red Sparrow. It has been horribly mis-marketed and a lot of pundits are going to be scandalised – you can see the furious ill-conceived thinkpieces brewing on the horizon already like gathering thunderheads. It’s not a perfect film; the middle stretch gets a bit lost in its own obscure plot machinations, and the film’s refusal to lay out exactly what the main character’s end goal is will frustrate some. It is, however, astute, provocative, fearless, deliberately perverse and thematically complex. The audience it does find is going to love it – and, perfectly, the cold and controlled Red Sparrow will not love them back.

 
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Ash Vs Evil Dead Season 3

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Ash vs Evil Dead is, for fans, a kind of pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-you’re-not-dreaming experience. A continuation of the beloved cult classic Evil Dead trilogy originally directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell), and starring the mighty Bruce Campbell (My Name is Bruce, Bubba Ho-Tep) as the titular Ash Williams; the series overflows with goofy charm, graphic violence and absurdly cathartic humour.

AVED has now hit its third season and FilmInk managed to catch the first five episodes (of ten) and can happily report that watching Campbell and company shred deadites and chew scenery has lost none of its lustre. In fact if anything season 3 seems a little more focused than previous entries, possibly because the action remains mostly localised to Ash’s hometown of Elk Grove, Michigan (actually located in New Zealand – where fellow AVED superfan, Travis Johnson, recently visited).

Ash now runs his dad’s old hardware store – adding dildos to the shop’s inventory and shooting cheesy TV ads for publicity – and basks in the fame of being a small town hero instead of “Ashy Slashy” the murderous pariah. Of course shit goes bad quickly and Ash is forced to re-team with Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) to face down evil in the form of returning Dark One, Ruby (Lucy Lawless) and deal the additional burden of fatherhood, as he meets the daughter-he-didn’t-know-about, Brandy (Arielle Carver-O’Neil).

If that all sounds like kind of a lot – especially for a show whose episodes run under half an hour a piece – you’re not wrong. In fact the premiere episode, “Family”, groans under the weight of the heavy plot load and skews the comedy a little too close to weightless slapstick at times. Happily this appears to be the exception and not the rule, as second episode “Booth Three” features an emphasis on mood building before everything kicks off, and showcases an inspired semen gag that rivals season 2’s gross-out episode, “The Morgue”.

The following three episodes “Apparently Dead”, “Unfinished Business” and “Baby Proof” bring the series barrelling towards an epic confrontation that, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to watch yet – but if the first half of the season is anything to go by, it’s going to be a big one.

AVED season 3 gives you more of what you want, but also takes the time to ruminate, however briefly, on themes of parenthood and legacy. Bruce Campbell is, as always, majestic playing the role that made him famous but the supporting cast are also strong, now comfortable in their roles, with Ray Santiago in particular giving Pablo nuance, elevating him above mere sidekick status.

Ultimately Ash vs Evil Dead is a gleefully loopy fever dream, a hugely entertaining adventure and a love letter to the fans. That letter is bound in human flesh and inked in blood, naturally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

 
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Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

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Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is a fascinating documentary about a consummate performer with an idiosyncratic personality.

Statuesque, with a naturally superb physique and dramatic bone structure, the Jamaican-born musician, singer, model and performer Grace Jones is one-of-a-kind. She’s reigned as a disco/pop icon for decades.

Not quite 70 and still touring, Jones brings a stylised theatricality to her concerts. She even – seemingly effortlessly – executes a 20-minute hula hoop routine while singing and introducing her band members.

Director and editor Sophie Fiennes takes a “fly on the wall” approach, crafting a beautiful and intimate documentary experience. We are invited into Grace Jones’ world, privy to her daily life and career, even interacting with family members in her island homeland. We see all facets of Jones, from dramatic performer to savvy business person. We see her frustrations and joys as her self-financed, self-produced album takes shape. Maintaining a skipping pace, Fiennes deftly switches from personal conversations to scenes such as Jones laying down vocal tracks in the studio then jumping to magnificent song performances in the vividly filmed concert settings.

All interviews were shot on mini-dv tapes, with Sophie Fiennes recording sound as well. Film was used for the concerts to lend a more lush look and capture the stylistic grandeur of the pop star in action. The sound quality is excellent; Jones is always surrounded by incredibly talented musicians and back-up singers.

Fiennes takes an old-school approach to her subject, one that she has described as “being in the moment”, of observing rather than commenting or overtly shaping the narrative. Only occasionally does the subject appear to be responding to an off-camera (unheard) question, such as when Jones describes the disco era as resembling, for some, “going to church.”

We frequently see Jones’ commanding the situation and competently calling the shots, such as when she berates musician Robbie Shakespeare over the phone for “giving her the run around.” Ever the chameleon, Jones glides from thick Jamaican patois to fluent French at will. A revealing and magnificent sequence is when Jones walks onto the set of a French television show, fully prepared and in full costume, to rehearse a lip-synching number (the disco hit “La Vie en Rose”). Her dismay at being surrounded by sexy lingerie-clad female dancers is expressed to the producer after the camera rehearsal. “I wish you’d shown me a photo of the set-up,” she laments. “It’s like I am a lesbian madam in a brothel! That’s not who I am.” It’s not clear what happens next. Above all, it’s refreshing to see a decisive woman kicking arse and pushing back with necessary toughness when insisting that all those around her match her professional demeanour.

Swimming in a local waterhole we gain a rare glimpse of Jones with short dreadlocks – commonly covered with wigs, hats or scarves. She seems so comfortable in her skin that nudity is never an issue, both on stage and briefly in the doco.

We learn about her strict religious upbringing – beatings at the hands of her step-grandfather while being forced to recite bible verses. She acknowledges that she often channels “Mas P” – her violent step-grandfather – when exhibiting her powerful stage persona.

Approaching 70, Grace Jones is in fine mettle and not showing any signs of slowing down.

 
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Fifty Shades Freed

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Fifty Shades Freed, the third filmic adaptation of EL James’ briefly popular BDSM erotica series, is marginally better than its predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker, in much the same way that being shot through the head is better than being guillotined; at the very least, there’s not all that blinking and wondering where your body has gone.

Speaking of bodies, you may find yourself wondering where they’ve gone in the movie, Freed being the most sexless and anti-erotic installment thus far, in spite of “star” Dakota Johnson’s commitment to going topless (but never bottomless) at a moment’s notice. For a franchise rooted in the perverse and transgressive, the cinematic version of Fifty Shades is remarkably chaste: in the universe inhabited by billionaire fetishist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his coterie of largely indistinguishable family members and employees, the missionary position is still the preferred method of closing the deal, as long as it’s prefaced with the mildest of BDSM-flavoured foreplay. His fabled pleasure room might as well be used to store old furniture and Christmas decorations.

Which is apparently what he fears – the inevitable wedding is followed by the devoted Anastasia’s (Johnson) pregnancy, which represents a major threat to control freak Christian’s neatly demarcated world. Ana is, of course, still jealous of any woman who hoves into view, be it the cougariffic Kim Basinger or Arielle Kebbel’s busty architect (not objectifying here – “are they real” is a point of some debate in the film), and eventually Ani’s former boss (Eric Johnson) crops up in full psycho stalker mode to bring some unearned but welcome narrative momentum.

It’s all dreadful stuff, but it’s pretty funny if you’re in the right mood. You couldn’t go so far as to say director James Foley and company have embraced the inherent camp of the premise – 20 years from now we’re not going to be looking at this the way we look at Showgirls today – but the tongue may be said to be somewhere in the vicinity of the cheek (if nowhere else – damn, this thing is puritanical).

Indeed, the chief concern here isn’t porn porn, but lifestyle porn – we spend much longer marveling at exotic locales and sumptuously appointed homes than glistening bodies and outre erotic devices, and if the film is more concerned with the glamour of the Grey lifestyle than the darker impulses of his bedroom habits, what does that, by extension, say about heroine Ani’s motives here? The whole thing is a passionless exercise, and the film treats the sex scenes as a necessity to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, rather than something to luxuriate in. The most challenging pseudo-erotic image we’re presented with is a tearful Rita Ora gagged and tied to a chair, but since she’s actually been kidnapped by the villain at that point we’re encouraged not to view that through a sexual lens.

Given its predecessor’s impressive box office ($381M against a budget of $55M) there’s clearly an audience for Fifty Shades, which is pretty damning for us as a culture. Not because we’re flocking to see cinematic erotica, but because if this ill-conceived weak sauce is getting people’s motors running, it’s depressing to consider how ill-served they’ve been in their actual bedrooms. You’re reading this on the internet, for crying out loud – better, smarter, and more satisfying smut is a click away.

 
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Black Panther

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In the overstuffed but hugely enjoyable Captain America: Civil War we were introduced to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, who adopts his heroic mantle after the death of his father to wreak vengeance on the man responsible (thought at the time to be Cap’s ol’ mate Bucky, and thank god we cleared that up). The Panther cut a striking figure in his brief but instantly iconic turn, all sleek athleticism and stentorian pronouncements of honour and retribution, but that’s all surface razzle dazzle. Now, in his eponymous solo outing, we get to dig deeper into T’Challa, his world, and his meaning as symbol, and we are not left wanting – although we may be left somewhat exhausted.

He’s a difficult character to sum up, after all. What if Batman was an African king? What if James Bond was black? What if Tony Stark put his incredible technological prowess towards bettering the world instead of building armour? What if The Phantom wasn’t weighed down with a shedload of White Saviour nonsense? The Black Panther is vast; he contains multitudes. It’s perhaps a bit of overcompensation rooted in the character’s creation at the hands of comics giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966; in making one of the very first black superheroes, they made him the best at everything – he’s a high tech magical ultra-rich super genius who wields massive political power to boot. Thankfully, over the years a multitude of creators, mostly African American, have managed to synthesise T’Challa’s hodge-podge of super-attributes and, more importantly, humanise him, culminating in this take by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).

And so we have a man struggling with both his place in the world, and his country’s place in the world. The plot sees T’Challa returning to Wakanda to deal with the rites of succession following the murder of his father, T’Chaka (the great South African actor John Kani), and ascend to the throne – a task he feels no small trepidation for. T’Challa’s personal crisis, however, is well and truly overshadowed by our introduction to Wakanda – or should we say WAKANDA; the fictional country makes such an impact, it feels like it deserves all the capslock.

An absolute monarchy, Wakanda’s chief resource is the insanely valuable fictional metal Vibranium (Captain America’s shield is made out of it), not that anyone outside the nation’s borders would know about it. To the outside world, Wakanda is a third world country of little consequence on the global stage, but inside its borders? Flying cars! Towering skyscrapers! Holograms! Nanotech! The works. It’s an afrofuturist near-utopia, rendered in a stunningly vibrant sub-Saharan palate that’s like nothing else we’ve seen on screen before – a mix of traditional indigenous African cultures and the dizzying techno-mythic dreams of Jack Kirby.

Note the use of “near” to modify “utopia” though. Wakanda’s prosperity comes at a cost: absolute isolation and secrecy. There’s little diplomacy, no trade at all, no immigration, and the government is effectively a benevolent dictatorship, built on a deep foundation of tradition and inculcated loyalty. The chief concern of of the film is set up in a prologue flashback in which T’Chaka, in his role as the previous Black Panther, punishes a Wakandan operative gone rogue in America: what is Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world in general, and the African diaspora in particular? Is it just to prosper while you brothers and sisters suffer in American ghettos?

T’Challa’s military regent and right hand man, W’Kabi (Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya) counsels reforming the outside world by force, but traditionalist factions in Wakanda’s power structure prefer the status quo. The largely hypothetical debate gets forced to crisis when the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, a striking and, crucially, understandable antagonist) starts making his move. A special forces veteran and international terrorist, Killmonger knows more about Wakanda than any outsider should – enough to make his designs on the throne a reality by manipulating the culture’s rigid codes of honour and custom. With his kingdom taken from him, Black Panther must gather all his strength and… well, you know how it goes.

With its blend of mysticism and futurism and its concerns with dynastic power struggles, Black Panther resembles nothing so much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune, with T’Challa as the messianic changer of ways at the centre. That’s all macro, thematic stuff, though; Black Panther also sings in the more tangible details. It’s a film that feels alive, taking us into a culture and a situation that feels organic, lived-in and vital, stepping away from the now familiar Asian-by-way-of-Blade-Runner or boy-wasn’t-2001-a-heck-of-a-film visions of the futuristic that have dominated cinema for decades (and let’s not even go near Star Wars).

This includes the characters we meet, and the film does a bang-up job of introducing a packed ensemble, including Okoye (Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead), the fierce traditionalist leader of T’Challa’s personal guard; Shuri (Letitia Wright), his tech-genius teen sister, already a strong contender for breakout character; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) his ex- and no doubt future-girlfriend; political rival turned ally M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a fierce tribe who worship mountain gorillas; lorekeeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). And let us not forget the Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent caught up in all this malarkey, and Andy Serkis having an absolute ball as venal South African mercenary Ulysses Klaue.

They’re all deftly sketched and leave an impression regardless of their screen time, but the film is careful to keep its focus on the battle between Black Panther and Killmonger, and rightly so. Marvel has been justly criticised for defaulting to the “dark mirror” antagonist model too often, but it’s never been better handled than here. Killmonger is a monster, an unrepentant murderer, but his agenda makes sense in the context of his life: orphaned, raised in poverty on the street and then taken into the military like so many African American men before him, and then to be confronted with a black-run paradise he has been unequivocally denied access to, unless he takes it by force. He is, as T’Challa calls him at one point, a monster of their own making, and a remarkably sympathetic one, thanks in large to the charismatic performance from Jordan.

He’s perfectly countered by Boseman’s knowingly regal yet warm and thoughtful portrayal of T’Challa, a man raised in privilege and opulence who knows that the traditions that brought him to such a high position must change for the good of all – something Thor: Ragnarok tackled as well. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, the saying goes, and our hero is troubled by the notion that he must wear a crown at all – surely down the track we’ll be seeing a film dealing with the possibility of Wakandan free elections?

Which all sounds like Black Panther is a rather moribund treatise on globalism, colonialism, and privilege, but never fret, the action kicks well over the requisite amount of ass; indeed, the first act rather plods until we get to a top notch extended action setpiece when T’Challa and company head to South Korea on the trail of some stolen vibranium – a sequence that the 007 crew should be taking notes from, by the way. The whole shebang builds to an epic crescendo, effectively  Wakandan civil war – there are Battle Rhinos, team, and you’d have to be pretty jaded not to want to see that. The action never quite hits the level of visceral engagement that Coogler’s boxing matches in Creed did, but perhaps that wasn’t the target; still, there are a couple of moments where the action defaults to “CGI things hitting each other” that rather lets the side down.

There are a couple of tone deaf line readings where the script tries to make its subtext just plain text that feel a little insulting, too, as though the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to pick up what it’s putting down, and one undercuts the power of the emotional climax a little. Which is to say that Black Panther is not flawless – it’s just very, very good. It’s a vision, and a remarkable one; perhaps the most complete on-screen encapsulation of the wild flights of imagination comics are capable of, grounded in astute, modern political sensibilities. See it, see it a couple of times, and marvel (heh) at the idea that, this far into the age of the cinematic super hero, we’re still seeing films this bold, striking and fun.

 

 
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Molly’s Game

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For his first foray into feature directing, much-lauded playwright, screenwriter, and TV maven Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network) brings to the screen the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who found fortune and eventual infamy running high stakes covert poker games for the great and the not-so-good in Los Angeles and New York City before her downfall and subsequent book deal which led, inevitably, to the subject at hand.

We get a brief prologue, narrated by Chastain in Sorkin’s trademark rapid-patter dialogue, that outlines the young Bloom’s aspirations as an Olympic-hopeful skier before a career-ending injury and a fractious relationship with her philandering father (Kevin Costner, great) sends her fleeing the nest to Los Angeles. However, our real point of ingress comes years later when Bloom engages the services of lawyer Charlie Daffy (Idris Elba, bringing the gravitas) after a dawn raid by Federal agents presages prosecution for past misdeeds. As the case against Molly proceeds and Daffy tries to get the guarded Bloom to give up her secrets, we delve into her life and her fascinating career, following her journey from there to here.

It’s engrossing stuff. For one thing, there’s nothing so enticing as being allowed a glimpse into a hidden world of power and privilege, and Molly’s world is certainly that: organising secret poker games in five star hotel rooms for celebrities and multi-millionaires with all the luxury that entails, seeing hundreds of thousands won and lost on the turn of a card, watching massive egos crash against each other like tectonic plates in high risk tests of nerves and resources. Even the driest account would be endlessly entertaining, and this raw grist is honed to perfection by Sorkin’s nimble script, which heightens the drollness and drama with quickfire dialogue that also serves to reveal character and motivation with sly accuracy.

From a certain angle, the game of poker is all about controlling the flow of information – figuring out what your opponents are holding while concealing your own hand, and so too is Molly’s Game. Throughout the film there’s a tension between Daffy and Bloom; the former needs to know everything in order to do his best to keep Molly out of jail, while the latter keeps her secrets close, doling out information only when she has to, only to best effect and with her reputation for discretion always foremost in her mind. In Sorkin’s hands this becomes a powerful rhetorical tool, allowing him to lay out his narrative in a deft way that avoids the more obvious pitfalls of the biopic form.

Still, it would be to little effect if we didn’t have such an arresting (and arrested!) figure at the centre of it all. Chastain’s Molly Bloom is a complex figure: fiercely intelligent and ambitious, but driven to succeed in a manner that veers dangerously into self-destructive behaviour. She’s an enigmatic figure who keeps her own counsel – a trait that confounds Daffy, her real-life counsel – and so we’re forced to try and glean what we can about her motives and drives from what she reveals and what others in the course of the story uncover. Late in the game we get a fantastic two-hander scene where Costner’s character, a psychologist, lays out to Molly what he sees as the fundamentals of her psyche (it wouldn’t be a Sorkin joint without a middle-aged white male liberal telling us the way of the world) but such blunt tools only penetrate out heroine so far – she retains her selfhood, and her power, even in what appears to be defeat.

Gendered power is the other big throughline here: the appearance and performance of masculine power, as seen around the poker table and embodied by Michael Cera’s “Player X”, an amalgam of several celebrity players (but mostly Tobey Maguire) and the actual, by necessity more subtle, feminine power wielded by Molly and her all-woman team, who go out of their way to present as decorative waitresses and hostesses grateful for thousand dollar tips, but are in fact a shrewd and canny machine devoted to separating grandstanding men from their money. More obviously powerful and sinister forces come into play – the Mafia makes a play for a piece of Molly’s action in one harrowing sequence, and the Russian Mob make their presence known as well – but thematically speaking they’re very much in the background compared to the age-old gender struggle that informs every scene and interaction.

That makes Molly’s Game a much more timely biopic than usual, but it never overplays its hand in this regard – drama and character remain the focus. And yet it’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Sorkin’s zingers zing as always, and there’s a brick joke about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that absolutely slays when it finally lands. The film’s tonal control is impressive, pivoting from electrifying aspirational scene-setting to fraught drama to droll, world-weary dark comedy often within the same scene – a trick last week’s I, Tonya found harder than a triple axel. Ultimately, though, what lifts this film above the pack is that, like its subject, it knows what it’s about – even if it expects you to do some work figuring out exactly what that is.

 
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Anthony Maras: Why the World Needs Hotel Mumbai

The horrific Christchurch terrorist attacks may put off audiences from seeing the Australian film’s intense depiction of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but it’s the humanity at its heart and the mirror that it holds up to our society that makes it essential viewing.
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Truman Capote On Screen

With a special series of screenings of Breakfast At Tiffany’s coming up, we take a look at the big screen presence of that much loved classic’s author, Truman Capote.
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Bond: Past, Present and Future

It’s been almost sixty years since moviegoers got to witness the man in his characteristically sharp suit on the big screen for the first time. Now, a total of seven actors have portrayed Bond, from dashing Connery right the way through to hardcore Craig.
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The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others

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In 1963 South Africa, seven men were charged and put on trial for over 200 counts of sabotage with the intent to ‘ferment violent revolution’. Their names were: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and future president of the country Nelson Mandela. The trial was condemned by a branch of the United Nations and led to international sanctions.

The documentary The State Against Mandela and the Others is well aware that for many this trial is perhaps most famous for being the one that put Mandela in prison for nearly 30 years. Describing the rest of the group as ‘the others’ in its own title, the film is a tongue in cheek dig at this public knowledge, whilst also clearing a pathway to understanding who these other men were.

Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte sit down with those who were accused, and still alive, to talk about their lives before they fought apartheid and their thoughts and feelings during the court case itself. Those no longer present are represented by family members, such as Winnie Mandela, who cast light on how the men’s actions reverberated through their wives and children. Their conversations are frank and often charming, with the men still possessing the same sharpness they displayed in court.

Rather than simply being a series of talking heads, however, The State Against Mandela and the Others uses the 256 hours of court recordings to tell the men’s story through animation. Through surprisingly clear audio, we hear every word, cough and gavel slam as the men come under the scrutiny of chief prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar. Faced with the death penalty, the seven men used their time on trial to highlight their cause and it’s clearly frustrating for Yutar as they weave around the questions hurled at them.

Often surreal in its depictions of its ‘cast members’ – Yutar is portrayed as a giant Bela Lugosi type who glides into frame – the animation allows the men’s words to run loose into landscapes made up of shapes and patterns as well as more traditional means of depicting the story. It all becomes rather hypnotic and yet, manages to both bolster and distract from the words spoken.

A shortcoming of the film arrives in the condensing of the court audio. Whilst there’s perhaps no call to hear every single second of the trial, there is a thought at the back of the mind that Champeaux and Porte’s approach to the Rivonia trial could be best suited as a mini-series, allowing the story and its protagonists a chance to breathe. Instead of hurtling – understandably due to time constraints – to the end. This is a mild criticism perhaps that’s more a testament to what is happening on screen and the desire to know more.

With a heavy subject given a light touch via animation, The State Against Mandela and the Others is an interesting take on an important chapter in apartheid history.

 
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Through the Fire (Sauver ou périr)

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In Through the Fire, Frédéric Tellier expertly frames a story of personal sacrifice and professional courage. A powerfully moving examination of the kind of experiences those in the front-line of the emergency services have to contend with on a daily basis, the struggle of life as a firefighter is portrayed both realistically and humanely.

Franck (Pierre Niney) is a completely committed firefighter. His devotion towards his profession is matched by the love and duty of care he feels for his wife Cécile (Anaïs Demoustier) and their young children. Franck takes a stark view of the challenges involved in firefighting – his motto is ‘to save or perish’.

That belief in an absolute purpose is tested to the extreme when Frank suffers terrible burns to the face when called out with his team to a raging inferno. He somehow manages to survive, but the long and arduous road to recovery is one fraught with danger, both to himself, and to his familial relationships.

Both leads are excellent in this emotionally turbulent account of rebuilding after trauma. Franck appears with his face hidden by a mask of bandages and dressing for much of the film, yet Niney brilliantly portrays the internal pain and fear with subtlety and depth. Demoustier tells Cécile’s story beautifully, with the stress and worry forming cracks in a relationship that was once so grounded and stable.

The film sensitively looks at the big questions of life and meaning; our identities, our family, and perceptions of roles in life. It also shows how in extremis even the best of humanity can be put to the test. The biggest test of the audience, however, is how many will experience a teary eye or two…

 
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Dumped

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French filmmaker Eloise Lang (and collaborator Noémie Saglio) co-directed Harry Me! The Royal Bitch of Buckingham, a Borat-inspired hidden camera faux-doco that saw its boorish, aggressive and abusive star Camille Cottin carving her way through upper class English aristocracy in order to find and marry Prince Harry, or a similarly posh and wealthy man who could bridge the class divide for her and improve her station in life. Cottin and Lang have re-teamed on a more conventional, broader-aimed vehicle: a romantic comedy with a more US-oriented leaning (and also a remake of the Danish film All Inclusive).

It stars Cottin as a ne’er-do-well daughter and unrepentant party girl Rose who, along with her tightly-wound older sister Alice (Camille Chamoux) accompanies their mother Francoise (played by French star Miou-Miou, whose decades-long CV boasts collaborations with many of the French greats, from Louis Malle to Michel Gondry) on a tropical getaway to the idyllic Reunion island, in order to celebrate their mother’s birthday. There, the sisters decide to make the trip as positive an experience as possible for their newly divorced mother, whose ex-husband, we learn, has just announced to the sisters that he and his new paramour are expecting a child.

Deciding to keep this information on the down low, the sister’s set about trying to do their best to give their mother a holiday to remember. For Rose, it seems like a good idea to drunkenly ask fellow guest Thierry (Johan Heldenbergh), a man she’s just had a one-night fling with, to show her mother ‘a good time’ for an evening, by asking her to dance, buying her a drink and then making an excuse and leaving, presumably in an effort to boost her mother’s self-esteem. Things don’t go to plan and instead, a romance develops between Francoise and Thierry. Things get complicated quickly, as they often do in French romantic comedies and soon both sisters are trying to find a way to avoid their mother discovering that her new lover is her daughter’s old lover.

While very much in keeping with the operatic comedic pitch of Lang’s previous work, this is the kind of bright and shiny romantic farce that France is best known for (and usually get snapped up as remake fodder by US studios). It’s at times funny and silly though slightly tone deaf in the era of #metoo; ultimately, it’s eager to keep things enjoyably breezy and light.

Also screening at the Gold Coast Film Festival.

 
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At War (En Guerre)

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At War is an explosive account of the full extent workers are pushed to keep their jobs and lives together. Brizé and Lindon reunite after 2015’s The Measure of a Man, to explore similar territory of a proud working-class driven to take action by threats to their jobs and security.

Given the recent political events in France with the ‘gilet jaune’ (yellow vests) movement, any film covering sustained protest and civil unrest is bound to be viewed in light of contemporary news. This certainly does not harm Brizé’s vérité influenced film looking at a 1,100 strong workforce facing the prospect of redundancies following the forced shutdown of their factory. Despite personal financial loss and an uncertain future, the workers decide to fight the decision in any way they can.

Led by the fiercely committed Laurent Amédéo (Vincent Lindon), the group do their best to remain solid and strong in the face of hardships, in-fighting and corporate manoeuvring. The tension of the powder-keg situation is built up both by the excellent performances and through video footage and staged news reports.

The film expertly showcases how a group with a shared belief driven by a sense of injustice – it is continually pointed out that the factory was in fact performing well – will do anything when passionately fired up by what it perceives as malicious wrongdoing.

At certain points the main plot of the film feels overstretched, but it makes up for this with the pace picking up again in the final third. Frequently eye-catching and captivating when the emotional intensity really hits home, the film acts as a cri de coeur and rallying call for dispossessed working people everywhere. Examining the human cost of industrial and commercial upheaval, the film looks at people who are more than mere statistics or points on a spreadsheet’s profit margin.

The documentary style takes the audience straight to the heart of the action in a variety of locations, from the factory floor right up to an impassioned stand-off with the CEO of the factory’s ultimate owners. There is never any doubt that Laurent and his colleagues are being exploited by the profit-chasing company. The real question is how long they can continue to strike, and what will the fall-out be?

A provocative and powerful state of the nation address, At War delivers the stark message of a man and a movement that will not meekly step down.

 
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Waiting: The Van Duren Story

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Taking a night-in with bottles of wine and a newly discovered record as its jumping-off point, Waiting is a wonderfully positive and frequently amusing doco concentrating on the joys of music and friendship.

Greg Carey and Wade Jackson couldn’t believe Memphis native Van Duren wasn’t better known on first hearing his unique voice and infectious power pop-rock. The melodious highs and catchy piano led hooks certainly seemed to announce a major music star. But nobody had ever heard of him or his music. After making a late-night promise to investigate further, the two vowed to document their search for the mysterious singer-songwriter.

Inevitably drawing comparison with the hit 2012 documentary film Searching for Sugar Man, which also detailed a quest to seek out an under-appreciated musician, Waiting is nevertheless its own unique story.

The decision – largely thought up by fellow writer and producer Jonathan Sequeira (Descent into the Maelstrom) – to push the two debut filmmakers to the front of the story is one that pays off in full. The two friends, both experienced music industry professionals, bring a camaraderie and sense of fun to the project that provides lightening of the mood when things potentially turn dark.

As the two point out, and as we learn throughout, Van Duren was tipped to be a major star in the late 1970s. Indeed, had it not been for a combination of poor management, financial naivete and the strange workings of promotional activity, he might well have been. He was even represented and produced by the former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog-Oldham, who shows up in the film recounting alcoholic misdemeanours, tax-havens and a somewhat random approach to star-making.

In his own words, “you can strike gold, or pick gold, even when you’re out to lunch”. And this expression for being out of one’s mind, sounds like a fairly accurate summation of much of the 1970s career planning on behalf of the singer.

Forming out of the ashes of Memphis cult-band Big Star, Van Duren released his widely tipped debut Are You Serious? in 1978. Despite sell out shows and rave reviews, his dysfunctional record label refused to release his follow up, which was completed in early 1980.

What was never in doubt was Van Duren’s essential talent and musical ability. When Carey and Jackson find out that he no longer owns the rights to his own music, they set about fininshing the film and returning the legal rights to him. The emotional consequences of this decision are beautifully played out.

As well as the fantastic soundtrack drawing on Van Duren’s rediscovered classic cuts, the film also has a great visual sense helped along by the wonderful graphic-novel like illustrations of key points in the tumultuous back story by Sydney artist Aidan Roberts.

Taking the audience on a voyage through seriously strange waters, including legendary rock stars, con-men, barroom legends and Scientologists, Waiting is an enticingly entertaining and insightful feature documentary. Recommended viewing for anyone in love with creativity and keeping the flame of musical inspiration burning and alive.

Van Duren is set to tour Australia in April.

Waiting – The Van Duren Story is also screening here:

Tuesday 9 April  – Blue Room Cinebar, Brisbane QLD
Tickets

Wednesday 10 April – Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney NSW
Tickets

Thursday 11 April – Cinema Nova, Melbourne VIC
Tickets

Saturday 13 April – Presented by High Tide, Central Coast, NSW 
Tickets on sale and location revealed Thursday 28 February

Friday 26 April – The Gum Ball Festival, Dashville (Hunter Valley) NSW
Tickets

Saturday 27 April – Bendigo Autumn Music Festival, Bendigo VIC
Tickets 

VAN DUREN – AUSTRALIAN PERFORMANCES

Thursday 18 April – The Curtin, Melbourne VIC *
Tickets

Sunday 21 April – Boogie Festival, Tallarook VIC
Tickets

Tuesday 23 April – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW *
Tickets

Thursday 25 April – Baroque Room, Katoomba NSW *
Tickets

Friday 26 April – The Gum Ball Festival, Hunter Valley NSW
Tickets

Sunday 28  April – Bendigo Autumn Music Festival, Bendigo VIC
Tickets 

*Headline shows

 
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A Man in a Hurry

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Alain (Fabrice Luchini) is a no-nonsense CEO of a large car manufacturer. He has what they call the gift of the gab, being able to rouse up a boardroom like no one else in the business. His career comes with a price including alienating co-workers and playing absent father to his daughter, Julia (Rebecca Marder). Suffering two large strokes in one day, Alain wakes up in hospital to discover that he’s forgotten how to use the French language. He knows exactly what he wants to say but can’t choose the right words to say it. He says some words backwards, replaces other words with similar sounding ones and will even greet a room with a cheery ‘Au revoir’.

Like Eddie Murphy in 1000 Words or Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, A Man in a Hurry follows an extremely formulaic narrative which sees him lose everything in order to regain everything. Unable to embrace his mother tongue like he used to, Alain struggles to keep his head above water in the cut throat world of car design. Conversely, his relationship with his daughter has a chance to blossom now that he’s vulnerable. And of course, there’s always time for another vaudevillian spoonerism.

It’s all so very breezy that it’s extremely easy to miss the moments of pathos that dot the linguistic landscape. Alain’s twisted tongue also comes with a patchy memory and the film makes moments of comedy – in which Alain learns about what kind of man he was – into something more poignant when he has to be reminded that his wife passed away. Later, an eloquent speech given by Alain is soon revealed to be nonsense in the ears of his audience. Sadly, these moments resonate, but they’re few and far between.

Confusingly, the film chooses to take a break from Alain every now and then so we can focus on his speech therapist, Jeanne (Leila Bekhti) and her search for her real mother. It’s an odd storyline that feels better suited to a completely different film and suggests wanting to give a little more backstory to one of the main characters in Alain’s life. However, once a further subplot about her romance with a hospital porter is tagged on, it starts to feel like we’re just padding out the screenplay.

That’s not say that as a final product, A Man in a Hurry is a bad film. Luchini is well known in France for his showmanship. Playing his wordplay completely straight adds a touch more depth to the comedy than he would have gurning and winking at the camera – hello Mr Carrey. Luchini plays his own straight man and it’s all for the benefit of the film.

Light, frothy and untaxing on the brain, A Man in a Hurry will make you wish you could speak French so you could really appreciate the wordplay without the aid of subtitles.

 
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The Night Eats the World

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The zombie genre has become such an overused cliche that it’s even a cliche to talk about what a cliche it is, so we’ll spare you to the usual spiel. Point is, if you’re going to release a zombie flick in the year of our Dark Lord 2019, you’d better be bringing something fresh, unique and interesting to the table. Happily, The Night Eats the World manages at least a couple of those accolades and is an effective slice of genre filmmaking in its own right.

The Night Eats the World tells the tale of Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), a vaguely misanthropic musician who is reluctantly visiting his ex-girlfriend, Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) to retrieve some audio tapes he left with her. However, when he arrives there is a party in full swing and Sam, unable to get Fanny alone, retreats to a backroom and passes out. During the night chaos reigns and when Sam wakes up the next day, he faces a world that has completely changed, and the surprisingly spry dead are frenziedly feeding on the flesh of the living.

Anyone who has seen 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (1978 or 2004) or even Shaun of the Dead (or about six hundred others) will be familiar with the basic setup here. Where Night sets itself apart is through tone and perspective, which in this case is very French. Sam is a compelling protagonist, who reacts to most situations with an appealing sense of practicality, but he’s also troubled and possibly mentally unstable. This volatile mix adds a unique sense of tension to the proceedings, where we’re never sure how much to trust Sam’s perspective. The zombies, too, feel quite fresh, standing stationary until they see or hear something and then moving nightmarishly fast, similar to the Aussie undead in Cargo, but also completely silent; with nary a groan of a hiss to be heard from them. Combined with very little dialogue throughout the film, this imbues the movie with a curious sonic minimalism which is oddly effective and extremely creepy.

Ultimately, The Night Eats the World plays out like a French indie I Am Legend, with lashings of 28 Days Later-style fast paced action and surprising moments of existential rumination. It’s confidently directed by Dominique Rocher, extremely effectively acted by Anders Danielsen Lie and reminds even the most zombie agnostic why there’s still twitchy, toothy life left in this versatile sub-genre.

 
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Revenge

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The rape-revenge subgenre is, as its title incontrovertibly indicates, not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean this lurid and confronting corner of the genre ghetto doesn’t occasionally yield treasures. As evidence, take in debut writer/director Carolie Fargeat’s contribution, which sees Matilda Lutz’s sex kitten transform herself into a brutal and branded engine of retribution after being left for dead in the desert by her married boyfriend and his hunting buddies.

“Left in the desert” is playing it too coy – Lutz’s Jen is turfed off a cliff and left impaled like a bug on a tree branch, forcing her to painfully free herself before proceeding with the violent business at hand. Fargeat films her impalement and subsequent torturous escape in agonising, close-up detail – perhaps standing in for Jen’s earlier rape at the hands of the oafish Stan (Vincent Colombe), one of the few instances where the camera cuts away from violence and horror.

Every other incident of bodily violation is framed with crystal clarity, queasily constructing scenes of shocking brutality with meticulous, often beautiful precision. Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert’s bright, eye-popping palette and strong, stark compositions reference the cinema du look of earlier French provocateurs Luc Besson and Leos Carax, while Jen’s hallucinatory sojourn in the desert as she tends her wounds with heated metal and a peyote anaesthetic before embarking on the inevitable roaring rampage sits alongside any number of Acid Westerns, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo.

Still, like all good survival horror films, Revenge keeps its focus firmly on the body and all the horrible things that can happen to it. Fargeat willfully and transgressively fetishises Lutz’s lithe form, her camera lingering on the curve of her buttocks and tanned tummy in the film’s opening sequences (is it still male gaze with a female director?), before the crucible of pain transforms her into a wholly different icon of feminine strength and rage: scarred, bronzed, armed to the teeth and hellbent on revenge. It’s territory that’s been mapped before – think about Sarah Connor’s transformation between The Terminator and Judgement Day or, better still, Mario Andreacchio’s 1986 Ozploitation schlocker Fair Game – but Fargeat’s brazen artfulness presents it in a different and far fresher context.

In terms of narrative, there are few surprises – films of this type tend to hit the same procedural beats, with little variation. However, what Revenge does have that sets it apart from the pack is a bottomless reserve of well-earned rage and the artistic temperance to channel it to best effect. It’s easy to imagine a sleazier, grimier, version of this film; however, Fargeat’s sheer authorial brio to shoot pain and torture and murder not just artfully but beautifully, means that Revenge packs more of an impact than any 10 random ‘straight-to-disc’ titillating terrors.

 
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An Impossible Love

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Set over the course of several decades, An Impossible Love is a love story told through the words of the protagonists’ daughter, slowly revealing a bleakness underneath the picturesque French scenery and fashion.

Virginie Efira (Elle) plays Rachel, a secretary in 1950s France, who falls head over heels for Phillipe (Niels Schneider). Whilst Rachel is a hybrid of sweetness and naivety, Phillipe is a collection of affectations in a pair of skinny jeans. On their first date together, he takes great delight in Rachel having never heard of Nietzsche, becoming giddy at the prospect of lending her not one, but two of his works. He also sports a fine line of racism running through his core, which Rachel manages to overlook because of her affection for him. When she falls pregnant, however, Phillipe runs away from fatherhood, returning intermittently to see his daughter, Chantal and play with Rachel’s simmering devotion to him.

Directed by Catherine Corsini (Summertime, Leaving), and based on the book by Christine Angot, An Impossible Love follows Rachel as she fights for Phillipe to recognise his daughter. Being a single mother in the ‘60s is never touched upon; Corsini focuses solely on Rachel’s struggle and her constant, almost tragic hope that Phillipe will stay for longer than one night in bed with her. All of this would be enough to fill two melodramas, but a third act reveal rachets up the drama to a point that borders on horrific.

Those familiar with Angot’s book and her other work will know exactly where the film is headed once Phillipe returns (again) to check in on his now teenage daughter. Taking a much darker turn, An Impossible Love charts how Phillipe, hiding in the shadows, continues to flex his dominance over the two women.

It says something of Schneider’s (Heartbeats) performance that his shadow looms heavily over the rest of the film. Estelle Lescure and Jehnny Beth play the adolescent and adult Chantal, both bringing a brooding intensity to the role that echoes Schneider’s earlier scenes. As Rachel, Efira tries to muscle through the darkness, it’s a tragedy watching her realise almost too late where her sights should be set.

Despite all of its strengths, the film’s greatest weakness comes after the aforementioned third act revelation. Both women know of Phillipe’s secret and yet, not realising they both know, they refuse to talk about it. An Impossible Love charges through the scenario with the 30-something Chantal snarling at an elderly Rachel. It doesn’t need to be spelt out that the daughter has become the father, and yet the film feels the need to dress her up as him and talk like him. It just feels a little heavy handed in light of how it tackles other topics.

What is wanted instead is more shared screen time with Beth and Efira as they navigate the weight of 30 years of an oppressive patriarchy. This may all sound like a minor quibble but having spent so long leading its audience to this point, it feels that they, like Rachel, deserve a better send off.

 
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A Glimpse Inside a VR Mind

Alongside Exquisite Corpse, another VR experience is catching eyes in the interactive section at MIFF this year – Mind at War – the new project developed by director and interactive designer Sutu, and internationally leading VR producer RYOT.
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The Films That Changed My Life: Phil Grabsky

Acclaimed documentarian and filmmaking entrepreneur Phil Grabsky turned up in Australia to promote his latest film Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of the Arts, and we managed to nab him for a chat to discuss that, film distribution of documentaries, and the films that changed his life.
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The Films That Changed My Life: Phil Grabsky

Acclaimed documentarian and filmmaking entrepreneur Phil Grabsky turned up in Australia to promote his latest film Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of the Arts, and we managed to nab him for a chat to discuss that, film distribution of documentaries, and the films that changed his life.
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Devil May Cry 5

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Video games, as a medium, have evolved so far beyond their earliest forms. What once existed as a brief diversion, an amusing gimmick, has now attained levels of sophistication impossible to have imagined even a couple of decades ago. Titles like God of War (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/god-of-war-2/) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/red-dead-redemption-2/) have raised the storytelling bar so high, legitimising video games as an art form capable of nuance, pathos and depth. All that being said… sometimes it’s fun to just beat the shit out of a bunch of demons, hey. Sometimes it feels good to unleash colourful carnage on deserving foes and look good while doing so. Devil May Cry 5 scratches that particular itch like an itch-scratching pro.

Devil May Cry 5 is the latest installment in the strange but stylish series from the good people at Capcom. Although the series was rebooted with DmC: Devil May Cry in 2013, this is a direct sequel to Devil May Cry 4 which dropped in 2008. Confused? Of course you are, but to be honest, familiarity with the series is an optional extra at this stage. Because what Devil May Cry is about, and has always been about, is spectacular action, and oh good (Dark) Lord does this game deliver.

Practically, you’ll be playing as one of three rotating characters. There’s Nero, the arrogant youngster with interchangeable arm attachments; Dante, the classic demon slayer with sword and guns; and V – the lanky, tattooed emo newbie – who can’t actually fight himself but commands a demonic bird, big cat and enormous golem. He also reads poetry to amp up his dark powers and no, we’re not even joking. These three characters have vastly different play styles, unlockable skills and alternate weapons. Even completionists are going to have a hard time experiencing every single trick of the trade during a single playthrough, which is where Devil May Cry 5’s “Son of Sparda” mode comes in handy, basically the title’s version of NG+.

This trio of unlikely friends travel through a pretty ordinary story, that time jumps a little too much for its own good, but essentially the narrative is a delivery system for action scenes. And the action is buttery, fast-paced, exciting, visually spectacular and original. The sheer feeling of unbridled glee as you tear a motorbike in half and smack fools as Dante, or ride your own rocket arm as Nero or leap atop your golem and curb stomp some evil, is genuinely wonderful. After a slew of excellent, but deliberately-paced story-based games, it’s a rare joy to just shut up and fight.

Devil May Cry 5 is, quite simply, a fantastic action game. The story is threadbare, the dialogue frequently appalling, and geez it would have been nice to have a playable female character along with all the NPC eye candy, hey Capcom? But all those concerns will evaporate like a demon’s freshly-slaughtered corpse when the aggressive metal cranks up and the next pulse-pounding blue begins. Slick, gorgeous and utterly addictive, Devil May Cry 5 is a terrific ball-tearing action extravaganza of ultraviolence and chaos and one not to be missed.

 
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Trials Rising

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The Trials games are weird, narky little titles that absolutely should not work and yet somehow, against all odds, do. The premise is thus: you’re a little 2D bloke (or lady) and you ride a motorbike through increasingly evil courses involving the need for speed, precision, stunt skills and nerves of steel. The tracks get harder and more elaborate and the player gets sweaty and more frustrated, until you either run out of tracks (unlikely) or rage quit (extremely likely).

And yet despite obviously being a lower budget title, with 2D courses and occasional moments of graphical glitching, Trials games are utterly compelling. Trials Rising, the latest incarnation, is no exception to the rule and in fact features some of the cleverest, most devious and darkly diabolical courses in the series’ history. You’ll cackle with laughter as your manage to just survive an insane jump leaping through fire, you’ll punch the couch in spit-flecked frustration as a second later you’re coat-hangered by the lip of a ramp you hadn’t previously been aware of. You’ll repeat the courses over and over again, trying to shave precious seconds off your best time, and why? Because the real metagame of any Trials title is beating your mate’s high score.

Ironically, Trials Rising’s biggest problem is the opposite of most AAA games. As a critic one gets wretchedly tired of reviewing yet another tentpole title that doesn’t revolutionise or even vaguely evolve the core gameplay or mechanics, yet Trials Rising has done that and, uh… it’s not great. See, the way you unlock new tracks in previous Trials games was by getting better and better scores on existing tracks, which unlocks new areas. While that mechanic still exists here, to some degree, the main method of unlocking involves grinding random tracks that have new objectives like “30 back flips” or “finish in under a minute”. This sort of randomised content would be fine if it was optional, but it rather steals the thunder – and indeed the whole joy of progression – from previous games.

Other additions to the formula like online multiplayer and the ability to do tracks with your mates are fun, if inessential, but the progression system is a real bummer and feels antithetical to the precision and discipline required to “git gud” at these games.

Ultimately Trials Rising remains a worthy addition to a somewhat niche series, and features some of the most clever, wonderfully torturous tracks in the masochistic series’ history. However a new, frankly baffling, progression system steals the game’s thunder in a confounding fashion. Well worth a squiz for veterans and newbies alike, however, particularly if you have a group of competitive friends whose tears you wish to drink like salty, salty wine.

 
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Anthem

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Here’s the elevator pitch for Anthem: you’re on a strange world, spectacular and beautiful, that is chockers with deadly fauna, shonky humans and an ancient power you barely understand. The good news? You’re in a freaking Iron Man suit and you can fly all around this daunting, picturesque landscape, getting into adventures with your mates who are along for the ride. Sounds good, right? Well, the even better news is that the game’s by BioWare. You know, the people who brought us the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series’? So you just know the characters will be fleshed out and the story intriguing.

It’s a great elevator pitch, and a great concept, so why then is the actual result so bland and lifeless?

Perhaps the problem with Anthem is the fact that it’s an online shooter/looter, a genre of game best represented by Destiny and The Division. This is new territory for BioWare, it’s true, but even grading on a curve, Anthem is shockingly light on narrative hooks and any atmosphere that extends beyond the admittedly pretty aesthetics. This is less Mass Effect 2 BioWare and more Mass Effect: Andromeda BioWare.

On the plus side, the flying is fun, and the mountainous, vertical terrain looks very cool. You’ll fly through the air, soaring past waterfalls and grazing creatures and shoot through alien technology, and gape in awe at how beautiful it all can be. This sense of spectacle won’t last long, however, as you’ll soon realise just how shallow and repetitive the gameplay is, even by shooter/looter standards. The combat feels okay, the missions are deeply unimaginative and the villain of the piece, called “The Monitor” is one of the more forgettable villains in recent memory.

The biggest problem with Anthem, however, is that it simply doesn’t feel that great to play. Flight is cool, it’s true, but the shooting and exploration are just adequate. There’s none of that addictive Destiny-style shooting that practically floods your brain with endorphins every time you pull the trigger. Instead, you’re left with an experience that’s just sort of… okay.

Even if you can look past the numerous technical flaws, the frequent drop outs, insane loading times and a staggeringly clunky User Interface, Anthem just isn’t that good of a game. It’s average in a sea of better products and while it may fix its various problems down the track, right now it’s a tragic waste of potential.

 
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Metro Exodus

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You remember that scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds? Right in the opening, where Christoph Waltz is talking to that hapless dairy farmer about trying to uncover any Jews hiding in the area. Waltz is amiable, chatty and very decorous right up until the moment he isn’t, and a bunch of nazis are blasting through the floorboards and it’s shocking and scary and you can’t quite believe the tension has finally been expelled? That’s the feeling you get playing Metro Exodus.

Metro Exodus is the third, and possibly final, chapter in the Metro trilogy comprising Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light. The series has always been a criminally underrated slice of post-apocalyptic, first person action and suspense and hopefully with this entry will finally get the recognition it deserves.

The story revolves around Artyom – a robust but disillusioned man who, along with wife Anna, believes there are people and life outside of the claustrophobic confines of the metro system. Without getting into too many details – he’s bloody right and this fact sets him, the missus and a bunch of other characters off on a mostly above ground journey through post-apocalyptic Russia. This is a huge change for the series, and it works well for the most part. As atmospheric as the tunnels were in previous games, the change of location has added a lot more world building to the tale, and gameplay variety has increased.

The game is essentially divided into three large sandboxes that house the main missions, but also lots of side missions and environmental storytelling. The side missions aren’t 100% essential, but are really worth taking on just for the sake of getting a complete sense of the taste of texture of this grim, evocative setting.

It’s at this point we should probably bring it back to the Tarantino comparison, because Metro Exodus is a slow game. Artyom moves slowly, not sluggishly, but definitely with a certain deliberate pace. Most combat is best tackled in a stealthy manner, because death can arrive with little warning. You’ll need to worry about every bullet, because ammo is scarce, and even the ability to craft new ammo isn’t always going to help because the materials necessary to do so are also scarce. The game rewards thoughtful, meticulous forward planning and strategic thinking. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not a strategy game, and when the action kicks off, it’s frenetic and exciting, but the pace between encounters is not going to be for everyone.

Another potential sticking point is a few moments where the game’s a tad rough around the edges. The voice acting is a bit dodgy – utilising the ubiquitous but senseless ‘speaking English in bad Russian accents’ technique that hasn’t died yet for some reason – and there are minor bugs here and there, with a couple of hard crashes along the way. This is by no means everpresent or game-ruining, and will probably be fixed in patches, but it’s noticeable. There’s a slight clunkiness to some of the movement too, with the melee attack in particular feeling strangely weightless and clumsy. Still and all, these are minor issues when set against everything that works in this sprawling, ambitious tale.

Metro Exodus is engaging, tense and occasionally frustrating, but always compelling. Beset by occasional quirks of its lower-than-blockbuster budget it nonetheless delivers a freight train worth of excitement and never flies off the rails. For those interested in a thoughtful, deliberately-paced thriller with Tarantino-esque explosions of shocking violence, intelligent world building and genuinely scary monsters Metro Exodus might just be the train to board

 
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Kingdom Hearts 3

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Video games are weird, it’s just a fact. This is a medium in which one of the most successful iterations involves a heroic Italian plumber who jumps on evil mushrooms and rescues a princess from a spiky turtle. And another all-time classic is about an amphetamine addicted* hedgehog who attempts to acquire wealth and stay on the gear, running endlessly around diabolical mazes, grinning like a lunatic. The point is, games are so ubiquitously strange that it takes a truly bizarre entry to make one sit back and say: “Crikey, this is some weird shit!”

Kingdom Hearts III is such a game.

The plot is a byzantine nightmare, more convoluted than a thousand Inceptions, but the short hand is: a bunch of characters from Disney and Square Enix properties are on an adventure through various worlds from video games and movies to save the universe. Speaking in practical terms, that means a trio of heroes comprising Sora (young boy with silly hair and a keyblade), Donald Duck (sentient duck with a speech impediment, prone to rage) and Goofy (a creature we still don’t understand and perhaps never will) travel to far off lands to “discover the power of waking”. Congratulations if you understood the previous sentence, you’re absolutely in the minority.

The action plays out as a mixture of exploration, upgrading weapons and gear and combat loops, that are bright and sparkly and fun. You’ll spend most battles mashing the attack button, but eventually other combat moves unlock, including the inexplicable ability to use Disney theme park rides as weapons. You’ll do this, by the way, while interacting with all manner of characters from Disney and Pixar flicks including Frozen, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and even Pirates of Caribbean (!?), amongst others.

The problem with Kingdom Hearts III isn’t the zany, surreal nutbaggery, it’s the ghastly writing and voice acting. Every line reading feels about a second too slow, with awkward Lynchian pauses between each leaden slab of mawkish word salad. Combined with the distracting decision to have the characters parrot some variation of “believe in yourself” every fifteen bloody minutes and it’s hard to escape the cloying tweeness. Still, there is an odd charm to Kingdom Hearts III at times. It’s a bit like watching a small child smacking together toys in a bathtub, hopped up on a sippy cup full of red cordial, unconcerned about things like logic and reason. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and you won’t always be in the mood for it, but there’s an undeniable appeal here for those willing to brave the eccentricities.

Although, and it bears repeating, crikey this is some weird shit.

*probably

 
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Resident Evil 2

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Resident Evil 2, the game, was first released in 1998 and it blew audiences away. Although the previous installment had successfully introduced the concept of “survival horror” in 1996, part two honed the formula to a razor’s edge, delivering an experience that was scary, smart and absolutely absorbing. For those of us old enough to have been alive in that era, RE2 was a staggering achievement and managed to penetrate the ubiquitous haze of bong smoke and neglect to make an indelible impact on young psyches.

That being said, 1998 was a long-arse time ago, and time is least kind to video games. As the Resident Evil series lurched onwards it left those early entries behind, peaking recently with the somewhat divisive-but-brilliant Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/resident-evil-vii-biohazard/) which was a welcome return to pure survival horror. Still, when Capcom announced its Resident Evil 2 remaster it was hard not to get excited – but is it possible to twice catch horrific lightning in a bottle?

One thing we should get out of the way is that this isn’t an HD remaster but rather a full remake. The original RE2 featured static shots, clunky controls and graphics that were spectacular at the time but now look retina-damagingly awful. Although the game has been remastered for various systems over the years, presentation-wise it’s always looked… quaint. 2019’s Resident Evil 2 rebuilds the game from the ground up, putting the perspective in the RE4 over-the-shoulder view with a continuous camera that follows you around, not breaking for loading screens between every area. This is a welcome addition and makes the game play as smooth and immersive as your (lying) memories of the original.

Add to that, graphics as sharp and slick as any other modern release, replete with drippy, oozing zombies, genuinely scary, toothy monsters and character animations that make you actually feel for the other human characters – particularly when so many of them are viciously dispatched.

Actually, we’d be remiss not to mention the zombies at this point. In 1998, zombies seemed an amazingly fresh foe, having barely penetrated the cultural zeitgeist. In 2019, they’re basically a default option for most media, so how to make them scary again? RE2 adds a sense of unpredictability to the mix. The only way to permanently dispatch these ambulatory corpses is by destroying the head. You can do this using heavy weapons or grenades, however the zombies far outnumber your bullets so you simply don’t have the resources to kill them all. Therefore, you’ll need to leave some of the ghastly creatures lying around as potential jump scares, because they might rise at any moment (even if you’ve plugged ten rounds into their slack-jawed skulls) which adds a level of tension to an already scary game. See, Resident Evil 2 isn’t about killing all the monsters, it’s about surviving, solving the puzzles and escaping. It’s Capcom’s classic formula of puzzle solving under duress and it is edge-of-your-seat stuff, all the way through.

In 2019, video games pride themselves on being massive; the idea that more is more. Resident Evil 2 believes that to be a crock of shit, providing four of five medium sized areas to explore but you’ll know them like the back of your hand by the time the credits roll. The game also employs a map that really helps navigation, showing areas in red until you’ve solved the puzzles and collected all the loot in that area – whereupon it turns blue. This is a wonderful addition but much needed, especially as the game progresses and the character known as the Tyrant steps into view, providing a genuinely scary, seemingly invincible foe who dogs your steps like the STDemon from It Follows, and leaps out when you least expect it.

In terms of negatives, RE2 can be frustrating on occasion, particularly during boss fights where the lack of a dodge button would have been appreciated. And certainly, for some folks, the Tyrant is going to be a massive pain in the arse – although he does force you to think on your feet, which can be exhilarating. These are minor quibbles, however, in an overall experience that somehow keeps what was great about the original intact, while updating some of the wonkier aspects, like puzzles, voice acting and overall presentation.

Ultimately, Resident Evil 2 (2019) is everything a video game remake should be. It’s absolutely stunning to look at and a tense joy to play, paying nostalgic homage while improving nearly every aspect of the original. It’s scary, smart and absolutely absorbing – just like it was back in hazy 1998 – but with added levels of gore and unpredictability that will keep even series veterans on their toes. If you’ve never experienced the stories of Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield as they explore a bizarre, avant garde police station in the middle of zombie-infested Racoon City, now is absolutely the best time to do so. And hell, even if you have, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake is the best ever version of that iconic story.

 
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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

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Plane combat games are something of a rarity in this wretched year of 2019. Back in the olden days, when the PlayStation or PS2 reigned supreme in the lounge rooms of many, they were a dime a dozen with the best contender being the Ace Combat series. This frequently bizarre mix of unnecessarily convoluted storytelling paired with surprisingly detailed plane combat was a pleasing bit of airborne escapism. Then, for some reason, much like the western in cinema – the genre fell out of favour. Happily, it appears that the dark flightless time is over, as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is here and it’s pretty bloody good, for the most part.

Ace Combat 7 is set in the same alternate earth as the previous games in the series and follows on from the events of Ace Combat 4 and 5. If you can’t remember those events, don’t stress, as the war between Erusea and Usea is just as overcooked and daft as previous entries and you can, and probably should, take it with several heaping handfuls of salt. In short, war has broken out and you, “Trigger”, will need to put missiles aplenty into your enemies. The story is actually truly bizarre, even by Ace Combat standards, because the character you play is a total non event until about halfway through the game and a far more interesting character – imprisoned mechanic Avril Mead – is the one narrating the shenanigans… and yet you can’t play as her. It’s a bizarre, and very clunky, storytelling device that doesn’t really work. However, that’s not the draw here.

What really matters in Ace Combat 7 is what happens in the air and for the most part the game is a triumph of giddy dog fights, bombing runs and set pieces set in vicious storms. It’s actually quite a tough game all told, with some missions featuring ridiculously short timers and insta-fail objectives that may have you punching the couch in frustration (sorry, couch). However, if you listen carefully to the mission objectives, and make sure you have a decent variety of planes taken from the unlockable trees, you should eventually triumph over the game’s 20 missions.

The game also features a robust VR mode and an online multiplayer mode, which is a nice value add and sure to have VR owners dusting off their tech. Ultimately, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is more of the same from the series, for good and ill. It’s fast-paced, frenetic, frustrating and full of fun – if you can get past the baffling narrative conceits and occasionally enraging difficulty spikes. And hell, it’s been a while since you’ve taken to the skies so fire up and go right into the danger zone!

 
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Just Cause 4

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The Just Cause series has always been a strange one. The mixture of vaguely grounded political intrigue and personal stakes often juxtapose awkwardly with the gonzo, Michael-Bay-after-a-fat-line-of-blow bullgoose lunacy of the action sequences and set pieces. Still, despite this inconsistency the games are usually a whole lot of fun, and this is true of the latest entry, Just Cause 4, although there are a few caveats.

Set in the fictional South American country of Solis, Rico Rodriguez is back to take on the Black Hand, an army of ne’er-do-wells run by Gabriela Morales. This rather generic premise leads to a rather generic campaign, whereby you’ll retake various areas of Solis, unlock more main and side missions, grapple and wingsuit your way across the sprawling environments and, of course, blow shit up with great alacrity.

Just Cause 4’s newest addition is extreme weather, including missions where you’ll be forced to brave tornados and super storms that fill the skies with deadly bolts of lightning (which is very, very frightening). Later on, you’ll also gain the ability to control said storms, which is a fine idea but its execution feels a little limited in this context. Other than that, it’s Just Cause business as usual – use the grapple hook to destroy stuff, shoot stuff, explode stuff, repeat. It’s classic but it also feels a little samey, particularly if you have vivid memories of Just Cause 3 which only came out in 2015.

More damning is the fact that a lot of Just Cause 4 is, well, rather ugly. Character models, cut scenes and even some environments look seriously janky at times, and while it never reaches the levels of Fallout 76’s hideousness, it’s strange to see nonetheless. It’s hard to get truly invested in Rico’s story when his ugly mug keeps clipping into his shirt, or the characters that he’s talking to drop textures or pop in and out of view.

Ultimately, Just Cause 4 is a fun time, with great explosions and physics-based mayhem. It’s also basically an oversized Just Cause 3 expansion, with unfortunate technical deficiencies that mar the overall experience. Treat it like a b-grade matinee movie, and you’ll likely enjoy the slightly shonky, but explosive shenanigans on offer.

 
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Darksiders III

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In a world of nuanced, compelling narratives like Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War, there’s something almost quaint about a game like Darksiders III. Whereas GoW deconstructs ancient stories and superstition to try and ground the more esoteric elements of mythology in emotion, Darksiders III unapologetically leans into the goofiness.

You, the player, inhabit the role of Fury – third horse person of the apocalypse after Darksiders’ War and Darksiders II’s Death. Fury is a bit of a cranky moll, to be honest, wielding an acerbic wit and a powerful whip, she flits about the screen causing bulk carnage paired with nimble acrobatics. For reasons too convoluted to enter into without spending 45 minutes explaining the dense, silly backstory, Fury has to go to Earth – which is a total shitfight due to a war between angels and demons – and defeat creatures that are the literal personification of the seven deadly sins. To help her on the quest, Fury loses a horse but gains a spirit friend, and the mysterious Lord of Hollows assists her rise to power for reasons known only to him.

Darksiders III brims with style and goofy enthusiasm, and as a medium-budget hack and slash adventure there is fun to be had. Unfortunately, it lacks the depth of the previous entry, Darksiders II, and ugly framerate issues persist even when not much is happening on screen. This third entry seems more in line with a Dark Souls-esque experience, with challenging bosses all the way through, but never feels precise or tactical enough to wear that mantle comfortably.

Fury, also, is kind of a dickhead, offering snark and edgy witticisms that feel ripped straight out of a comic from the early 1990s. She’s fun to play, mind you, physically weaker than Death but faster and more agile, and the whip is a grand weapon/swinging device.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Darksiders III is going to depend on your ability to adapt and accept. You’ll need to adapt to the new direction the series takes here, ignoring your love for the previous entry and focusing on what’s in front of you. You’ll also need to accept that the game has technical issues. Nothing like the bewildering mess of Fallout 76, but enough that you’ll notice it and it may break the immersion.

Darksiders III isn’t quite the sequel fans of the series have been waiting for, but it’s engaging enough that you’ll want to see another, probably final chapter down the road. Hopefully next time they’ll keep the bloody horse!

 
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Hitman 2

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Hitman 2 proves one thing very well: sometimes plot can just get in the way. The second entry in the series since 2016’s bold and surprisingly effective reboot Hitman, Hitman 2 offers a familiar experience to its immediate predecessor but with enough polish and new tweaks to make the experience worthwhile.

Hitman 2 tells the tale of the bald barcode-bonced killer for hire, Agent 47. Old mate is still on the trail of the “Shadow Client” from the last game and it will take him all over the world to unravel a mystery that ranges from the unnecessarily convoluted to the downright silly. To make matters worse the between mission cutscenes are mainly a series of stills with exposition blurted over the top. This is likely due to the game’s comparatively small budget, but that doesn’t make these interludes any more compelling or coherent. Happily, they don’t matter. At all. You can, and should, skip right by these bits of business and get straight to what matters: large sprawling sandboxes full of murder toys!

See, once you bypass the aforementioned narrative info dumps you enter the real game. Hitman 2 offers the series’ distinctive sense of variety and black humour, gifting you with numerous ways of dispatching your targets in spectacular and frequently hilarious ways. Booby trapped cars, pre-programmed robots, explosive rubber duckies or just shoving a tattoo gun right inside a bloke’s ear – the game has it all. Each of the six levels are massive with multiple ways of tricking the AI and setting up legitimately satisfying kill scenarios. This might have felt grim in other hands, but the game’s sense of humour manifests in surprising ways. The fact that Agent 47 just happens to look exactly like a famous model/actor/hairdresser etc. is a frequent refrain and the monologues delivered by the soon-to-victims show them all as unlikable mongrels very much deserving of the ice embrace of the grave.

Hitman 2 is a little rough around the edges and light on narrative depth, but what it lacks in those areas it makes up for in viscerally creative murderous fun. Engaging and adaptable, Hitman 2 is a must for those feeling sociopathic in the silly season.

 
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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

 
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Zero-Point

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Comprising of four episodes that are each approximately five minutes long, the political animated web-series Zero-Point wastes no time ostensibly exposing the injustices experienced by Indigenous Australians beneath the backdrop of a society policed by superheroes.

The series focuses on Indigenous Superhero Zero Point (Mark Coles Smith), who is part of a government superhero crime fighting syndicate, A.F.E.C.O (Australian Federal Extra-Normal Civil Operatives), that is determined to uncover and take down a mysterious villain, Samson (Steven Oliver), who is determined to reassert sovereignty.

Zero-Point is then embroiled in a mystery to discover what happened to his father, with the show able to touch on topical Indigenous issues including white-patriotism, the stolen generation, substance abuse, and racism experienced in the judicial system.

All the more impressive due to the short length of each episode, characters are fleshed out to the extent that the audience can rationalise and understand their motivations, with enough mystery left should there be a second season.

There is a distinctly rigid style to the animation that resembles an ‘80s cartoon, that when combined with the action scenes elevate the story to highlight Indigenous Australian struggles.

Zero-Point, as was the case for Black Panther, uses the confines of a superhero story to highlight the inequality felt by Indigenous Australians and is done so with a clear agenda that never feels overbearing.

https://zero-point.tv/

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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The Cry

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Compelling four-part television drama mini-series The Cry will shock and enthral viewers.

Based on the novel by Australian author Helen FitzGerald, viewers will be on the edge of their seat watching this drama unfold. Over six-million people tuned into watch the show when it premiered on BBC One last year. The popular series also attracted 10 million plus plays via BBCs i-player.

The British-Australian co-production was filmed across the two continents (Glasgow and Melbourne) and features a strong cast – including Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake, Safe Harbour), Asher Keddie, Alex Dimitriades and Jenna Coleman (Dr Who, Victoria) – each delivering powerful and convincingly-played emotive performances.

Adapted by Jacquelin Perske (Love My Way, Seven Types of Ambiguity), The Cry follows the lives of a young couple, Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie). Joanna and Alistair travel with their baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother, and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter against his Australian ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie). Almost as soon as they arrive in rural Victoria, every parent’s worst nightmare is brought to life when their four-month old baby boy Noah goes missing. The already fragile relationship between the young couple quickly disintegrates as the public scrutiny intensifies and the mystery deepens.

There are echoes of little Madeleine McCann and Azaria Chamberlain disappearances and while the abduction of baby Noah is the catalyst and what drives this story, it’s the characters that provide the intrigue. The lines of truth and manipulation are blurred in this plot-twisting drama where everyone is a suspect.

Viewers will slowly despise Leslie’s character, who is smug, patronising and a completely unhelpful new father. “He earns the money; he wears the earplugs” Joanna justifies, explaining why Alistair never wakes to help with Noah’s night-time feedings.

Keddie is brilliant as the ex-wife to Leslie but it’s Coleman who excels, unravelling before our eyes. The English actress does not hide her feelings of loss, anger or confusion. She’s completely relatable as a struggling mother and viewers will feel her pain during the flight to Australia scene as she repetitively walks up and down the aisle trying to quieten her screaming baby and ignore the look of distain from fellow passengers. This intelligent drama provides a harsh view of motherhood at its most harrowing.

The Cry will not be relaxing Sunday night viewing, but audiences will find it grippingly addictive.

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.

 
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Naked Ambition: Lincoln Hall and Rory Kelly team up for Naked Strangers

Get 4 actors in a room (including Kate Williams and Jennifer Rani, pictured), physically and emotionally naked, and address hot button topics such as sexuality and identity, and you might just have a low budget feature film that connects with the elusive young audience for Australian content. That was the credo of producer/director Lincoln Hall and writer/actor Rory Kelly, who discuss their experience of making their first feature film, which premiered at overseas film festivals, and has just hit iTunes.
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Watch the first episode of Welcome to Daisyland

Starring Pepi Sonuga (Ash vs Evil Dead) as the temptress and ringmaster Daisy, with Jessica Amlee (Heartland), Tru Collins (Insecure), Kellan Rhude (The Axe Murders of Villisca), Aaron Groben (Face Off), Jarrett Sleeper (Stranger Than Fiction), George Todd McLachlan (Josie) and Sam Aotaki in support, and music and orchestration by hard rock outfit The Dead Daisies.
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Happy Death Day 2U

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2017’s Happy Death Day was a fun, albeit flawed, genre romp from director Christopher Landon. Featuring the wonderful high concept pitch, “it’s Groundhog Day meets Scream”, the movie benefited from an extremely polished script and an absolutely stellar performance by Jessica Rothe. The film went on to do shockingly well at the box office so a sequel was inevitable, but it’s difficult to grasp what exactly they were going for with Happy Death Day 2U.

Happy Death Day 2U begins promisingly enough. We’re reintroduced to the time loop concept through Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), who finds himself in a situation similar to that of Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in the first film. Through the zappy, obnoxious dialogue, lip service is paid to the multiverse, alternate realities and a number of intriguing sci-fi concepts. However, just when things are about to get interesting the movie shifts back to Tree’s point of view and becomes a fairly standard rehash of the first one, although this time set in an alternate dimension.

Tree’s journey in the first film was fun because she was a legitimately terrible person and watching her suffer was amusing. In the sequel, however, she’s lost her edge and apart from one pretty hilarious suicide montage the story lacks the calculated lunacy of the previous entry. Worse still, the slasher movie conceit has been all but abandoned, which leaves the central whodunnit mystery a thin and unsatisfying concoction. This wouldn’t be so bad had the new additions worked, but a streak of dumb, broad comedy (replete with zany French accents of all bloody things) has replaced the stabby shenanigans. Oh, and remember the sentimental claptrap from the first film? Well, it’s returned threefold and is truly painful.

On the upside Jessica Rothe is still fantastic, and honestly deserves to be in a better film than this one. She fully commits to every moment – even the wretchedly mawkish ones – and is a delight. The support cast are mostly fine, with the science nerds providing some chuckles, but it’s all in service of a script that seems unsure of what it wants to be and consequently ends up being a whole lot of noisy nothing.

Hardcore but undiscerning fans of the first film might find something to enjoy here, but the rest of you are probably better off skipping Happy Death Day 2U and staying in to watch Russian Doll instead.

 
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Lords of Chaos

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Black metal is one of the most puzzling and antisocial music genres to exist on the face of this planet. Seemingly designed to be as harsh, tuneless and borderline unlistenable as possible, it makes one wonder ‘who in the name of the Dark Lord Satan would create this screeching noise and why?’ Lords of Chaos does its best to answer that question, and manages to be pretty bloody entertaining along the way.

Lords of Chaos is the true(ish) story of Euronymous (Rory Culkin) a twitchy but ambitious young man who forms a band called Mayhem in Norway in the 1980s. The band soon garners a reputation for being the darkest of the dark, particularly after the original lead singer blows his head off with a shotgun; and Euro uses this notoriety to open his own record store and start his own music label. Enter Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) a former Scorpions-loving poser now death-obsessed madman, who forms an uneasy and competitive friendship with Euronymous that begins with admiration, mutates into jealousy and ends in bloodshed. Plus a shitload of churches are going to get burned down before the credits roll on this bad boy.

Despite the grim subject matter, Lords of Chaos is actually quite fun for most of its runtime. Culkin’s wry, knowing voiceover gives some of the grimmer moments levity, and the interplay between the characters trying to outdo one another by being darker-than-thou is frequently hilarious. The self-proclaimed Black Circle are, essentially, a pack of cocky little pricks, but director Jonas Akerlund doesn’t attempt to lionise these long-haired doom groupies but rather lets their story play out with little judgement, just observation. Of course things do get quite nasty, particularly in the third act, which is to be expected. This isn’t a happy story and Euronymous warns us from the jump that “this will end badly.”

Performance-wise it’s pretty much a two-hander between Culkin and Cohen, both of whom manage to be at turns sympathetic and just plain pathetic. Sky Ferreira also shines as Ann-Marit, photographer and sometime groupie, giving empathy and depth to a role that could have played as thin and thankless in lesser hands.

Ultimately, Lords of Chaos is a bit of a niche proposition, taking a look into a world that most people neither know nor particularly care about. However, if you can get past that barrier to entry, there’s an intriguing and well observed exploration of a genre and subculture that is strangely insular and perversely fascinating. If that sounds like your jam then you and Lords of Chaos will get along like a church on fire.

 
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Geraldine Hakewill: The Real Deal

Things are getting real for the actress currently appearing as Peregrine Fisher in Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, and who also stars in The Pretend One, a feature film that she made in rural Queensland not long ago, and which is getting a cinema release this week.
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Armie Hammer: Hotel of Horror

The star of The Social Network, The Lone Ranger, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Call Me By Your Name travelled to Australia to shoot the true story of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hotel Mumbai.
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Steve Jaggi: Digging for Pearls

Best known for his work as a producer (Rip Tide, Zelos, upcoming Back of the Net), the filmmaker broke all of his own rules when he embarked on his directorial feature debut, Chocolate Oyster.
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Ella Scott Lynch: Dual-Ing Feminine Hero Journeys

Acting since she was a child, and most recently popping up regularly on the small screen (The Code, Love Child), Pimped marks Ella’s arrival as a lead actress, with her brave and uncompromising turn in dual roles in this stylised thriller for our times.
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Truman Capote On Screen

With a special series of screenings of Breakfast At Tiffany’s coming up, we take a look at the big screen presence of that much loved classic’s author, Truman Capote.
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Sack The Director!

In light of Bryan Singer's now even more controversial sacking thanks to the Golden Globe Awards bestowed upon his film, Bohemian Rhapsody, we look at a host of other directors who were shown the door.
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Captain Marvel

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Of all the Marvel “Phase Three” movies, Captain Marvel seemed the most worrisome. Hitting screens with an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare, on the back of a series of middling trailers, the concern has been “will this one be a dud?” Add to that screeching incel choir gibbering madly from various dark and sticky corners of the internet, and it seemed poor old Carol Danvers had the odds stacked against her. Happily, like Ms. Danvers, Captain Marvel excels when the going gets tough.

Captain Marvel tells the triumphant tale of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a member of an elite Kree military unit called Starforce. Carol appears human, and even has sporadic human memories, but isn’t sure how much to trust them. She and the rest of Starforce, led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), are busy protecting the Kree empire from the evil Skrulls, an insidious group of shapeshifting aliens. During a rescue mission they fall afoul of an ambush led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the most nefarious and Aussie Skrull alive. Without wishing to spoil anything, let’s just say the narrative takes a few twists and turns and we end up on the “shithole” planet called Earth in the grungetastic year, 1995.

Captain Marvel, more than any other MCU flick in recent memory, is chockers with plot twists, feints and surprising reveals, so we’ll tread carefully. Needless to say, the action on earth features a younger, two eyed, Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), a mystery to unravel Carol’s former life, including bestie Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). This is where the film really begins to shine, with Larson able to show off some of her Academy Award winning acting chops. Carol’s snarky, glib banter with Fury juxtaposes beautifully with the genuine, rueful closeness she feels with Maria, offering surprisingly moving moments of pathos. However, it is homegrown Ben Mendelsohn who absolutely owns this film, speaking in his genuine Australian accent and bringing so much to a villain role that could have played as a shallow caricature.

The direction from the two-person team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) is initially a little more understated than previous entries, particularly in the film’s comparatively clumsy first act, but soon finds its footing once some of the plot reveals land. Plus the pair absolutely nail the more emotional beats, avoiding the schmaltz factor that can occasionally creep into these flicks.

Ultimately, Captain Marvel is an excellent addition to the Marvel canon, giving us a breath of hopeful fresh air before whatever occurs in Avengers: Endgame next month. The performances are stellar, the action – particularly in the third act – is spectacular, and charming banter meshes perfectly with more nuanced dramatic beats. Young Nick Fury is some of Jackson’s best work in years, Space Mendo is an actual revelation and Brie Larson proves herself a capable, admirable superhero who will hopefully curb stomp Thanos into a puddle of purple goo.

Captain Marvel is two hours of hopeful, colourful, space opera-ry comic book escapism, with a pumping ’90s soundtrack and, perhaps most importantly, an awesome ginger cat called Goose.

 
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Anna and the Apocalypse

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

The zombie comedy sub genre has become almost as stale and overused as the very zombie genre it seeks to parody/pay homage to. The high-watermark remains Edgar Wright’s wonderful Shaun of the Dead but other flicks like Zombieland and Dead Snow have their slight charms as well. The problem is it’s all been done before. Over and over and over again. To be a memorable zombie comedy in this most crowded of markets a film really needs to add something new. Anna and the Apocalypse from director John McPhail asks ‘what if it was a musical?’ to mixed, but mostly engaging results.

Anna (Ella Hunt) is a teenage student in her last year of high school. She wants to travel and see the world, much to the chagrin of her sensible dad, and has a close group of fellow misfit friends all obsessed with their own minor problems and triumphs. Everything goes tits up when a zombie apocalypse breaks out on Christmas and Anna and her mates must reach their nearest and dearest before it’s too late. And, of course, they’ll belt out a few songs along the way.

Anna and the Apocalypse is at its best when it plays to the angst and self involved myopia of being a teenager. One particularly striking number features Anna and her best friend (who would like to be more) John (Malcolm Cumming) singing about a brand new day, blithely oblivious to the fact that they’re prancing through a neighbourhood beset by zombies. A lot of the early moments ring true, authentically portraying the real concerns of adolescence without becoming cloying and twee. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite sustain this and in the second half becomes a much more familiar zombie romp, replete with gore gags and undead humour you’ve seen before, done better.

Still, charm goes a long way and Ella Hunt is an extremely watchable screen presence, managing to convey genuine pathos even while singing and dancing. The songs, overall, are a bit hit and miss – and there’s possibly one tune too many – but if you’re sitting within the venn diagram of “millenial”, “loves zombies comedies” and “lives for musicals” you’re likely to have a spectacularly good time with Anna and the Apocalypse. And the rest of us can, at the very least, admire a zom com that attempts to gnaw on something a little different.

 
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A Star is Born

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In the words of Sam Elliott’s Bobby: “Music is essentially twelve notes. All any artist can offer to the world is how they see those twelve notes”. For a film that serves as the fourth remake of a story dating back to the golden years of 3-strip Technicolor, these are words that could have sabotaged this entire venture.

First directing gig for star Bradley Cooper, first acting gig for co-star Lady Gaga that doesn’t involve music videos, witches or Robert Rodriguez, and both put towards a story that has been uttered through the lips of the likes of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. If this film was simply adequate, that would already be a serious feat, but it seems that Cooper isn’t one to settle for just being “adequate”.

His ability with directing actors needs to be brought up, as he manages to wring out impressive work out of pretty much everyone in attendance. His own performance as the sloshed country rocker Jackson, whose skin, jacket and lungs are all tanned leather from the look and sound of it, is very strong; same with Gaga as Ally opposite him, but it’s with the supporting cast that the bigger surprises lay in store. Everyone fits perfectly in place, and in the case of Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, he manages to bring out the best work of his entire career. Or, in the case of Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chappelle later on in the film, one of their rare cinematic gems. Add to this the dazzling lights captured by Matthew Libatique (Straight Outta Compton, Black Swan) and you have visual gold.

But for a movie musical, visuals are only half of the puzzle; the music needs to connect just as hard, if not harder. Well, this might be one of the single strongest musical efforts that have made it to cinemas in years, possibly decades. Aside from Cooper having an impressive set of pipes on him, giving the numerous live performances grizzled soul, and Lady Gaga finally nailing that country-western/pop fusion she attempted with her most recent solo album Joanne, the sound mixing is so clear that it feels like an actual live concert with all the ear-shredding distortion that comes with it. But one with all the heart-breaking and sobering behind-the-scenes drama kept in, giving the story a serious emotional push over the top.

A Star Is Born shows an incredibly strong first effort for actor and now director Bradley Cooper, leaving his own fingerprint on what has become a legacy remake in a way that does justice to the material, pays due tribute to the original, and shows why this story still resonates in a world populated by RuPaul’s Drag Race and Gaga’s brand of pop revivalism. It’s a timely feature that highlights the true timelessness of the original work; it’s the juggling act that all remakes strive for, but few manage to capture. Encore!

 
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Otis Dhanji: Young Aquaman

The Australian actor got to play a 13-year-old Arthur Curry aka Aquaman in the global box-office smash Aquaman, and now hopes to parlay that into more roles locally, and even to step behind the camera.
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Jordan Fassina: From the Apple Isle to the Big Apple.

“New York is in every way, shape and form, the complete opposite of Tasmania,” says actress and writer, Jordan Fassina, who left home at age 18. Five years later, her debut piece as a screenwriter, That Thing I Had One Time, which follows her personal story, is a few months away from its release date.
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Here Comes Kat Hoyos

Recently appearing in a surprisingly low key and ‘out of character’ turn in Jason Stevens' feature film Chasing Comets, the rising Aussie actress reveals what makes her tick.
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Kenneth Branagh: Fowl Business

Shakespeare, Marvel, Christie, now the actor/producer/director turns to Eoin Colfer’s best-selling books and a potential franchise starter for Disney. We caught up with Branagh on the set of Artemis Fowl.
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Set Visit: A Lion Returns

We could not resist an invitation to catch up with filmmaker Serhat Caradee in his element, barking instructions on the set of his long awaited sophomore film, A Lion Returns.
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On Set: The School

We spent an evening on the set of Storm Ashwood's feature directorial debut, a supernatural fantasy that tips its hat to Pan's Labyrinth and Peter Pan more than the usual Aussie genre fare.
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So, You Want to be a Film Critic?

Currently screening on ABC, the brilliant series Employable Me features young people with a disability seeking employment. One of its subjects, Cain Noble-Davies, aspires to be a film critic, and we gave him an opportunity to intern with us, which he writes about here.  
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Five Feet Apart

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Even for a medium as inherently manipulative as cinema, the recent young adult takeover of terminal romance (AKA sick-lit) pushes that boundary more than most. While it has given audiences some solid features like The Fault In Our Stars – the film that kickstarted the trend in earnest – that is still in spite of storytelling that is almost begging the audience to start tearing up. The latest in this trend, Five Feet Apart, isn’t annoying because it is manipulative. It’s annoying because it feels stuck between trying to wring honest engagement out of the proceedings, and just dovetailing the typical clichés of the genre.

For what works about this production, one needn’t look further than the main couple. While Cole Sprouse as the reclusive bad boy love interest is a little too on-the-nose as far as teenaged pandering is concerned, Haley Lu Richardson more than picks up the slack with a performance that demands empathy and entirely warrants it. Bonus points for having a main character with OCD and not completely adhering to wizened stereotyping about the condition, something followed with the story’s approach to the focal-point condition: Cystic fibrosis.

While most films in this genre are fixated with tying themselves to literary classics to give themselves a sense of importance, this film is more interested in the hard facts about the condition itself. And as a result, when it’s not highlighting the endearing cuteness of the main couple, it’s giving facts about CF, living with it and the paradoxical situation it puts people in. The one group of people that best understand what they’re going through (other people with CF) are the ones that they absolutely need to keep their distance from.

It emphasises the need for tactile contact, even in the face of worsening health, and by film’s end, it turns that need into something universal that goes beyond the diagnosis. This ends up declaring what defines sick-lit as a sub-genre: highlighting the romantic trials of the sick to give sentimental advice to the healthy. Manipulative as hell, but for the most part, it works.

However, for every moment that feels sincere, there’s another that adheres to the sick-lit doctrine. The near-endless montages set to sterilised dream-pop, the fear of character death as an impetus to feel something, not to mention the schmaltzpocalypse that is the entire third act, where any intention of emotional integrity goes right out the window; it’s still trying to push through a fog of familiarity to make any of it stick.

What results from all this is a film that highlights some of the best and some of the worst that the sub-genre has to offer. Its heart is in the right place, but its brain runs from it by the time we reach the third act. It’s still worth checking out, even if only to see Haley Lu Richardson stake her claim as an actress to keep an eye on, but it’d be easier to recommend if there was more consistency here.

 
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Pimped

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Can a film work when all of its characters are wholly unlikeable? It’s a dilemma that co-writer/director, David Barker, bravely toys with in his feature debut, Pimped. With a very small cast of characters made up of the unpleasant, the misogynistic, the snobbish, the cruel, and the unhinged, Barker truly backs himself up against the wall. Thankfully, he carries a few vital cinematic weapons: his themes are creepily prescient; his dialogue (co-penned with Lou Mentor) has a pruriently compelling quality; the locations are alluringly shot by talented DOP, Josh Flavell; the music is dynamic and original; and the cast is across-the-board excellent. The a-hole quotient undeniably strains the friendship, but Pimped remains a stylishly subversive treat…a bon-bon spiked with ground glass.

Lewis (a mind bogglingly smarmy Benedict Samuel) and Kenneth (Robin Goldsworthy nails the creepy-rich-best-friend trope with smashing bravado) are housemates with a taste for the debauched and amoral. When they target the loopy Sarah (a fragile but steely Ella Scott Lynch) – who is trailed by her alter ego, Rachel (also played by Lynch, but in an ugly black wig), with whom she actively and verbally debates the rights and wrongs of life – for an unpleasant sexual tryst, they get much, much more than they bargained for, and the bodily fluids really start to flow.

Mirroring low budget minor classics like Bound and Diabolique, the winningly titled Pimped has a real strut about it. Barker obviously knows that he can write and shoot, and he easily rises above his minimal budget. It’s a modest film with limited locations and a very small cast, but there’s an undeniable air of rumpled class about the film. The talented and charismatic Benedict Samuel (The Walking Dead, Gotham, Secret City) and Ella Scott Lynch (Love Child, The Code) are obviously major names-on-the-rise, and they add immeasurably to the sense of punchiness. It’s dark and nasty, but Pimped will continue to bang around inside your head long after the last evil deed has been done.

 
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Hal

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Hal

The late Hal Ashby was one of the great powerhouse directors of the 1970s, though he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman. He was a looser, more eccentric figure than those cinematic titans, but his output during that famously freewheeling decade is nothing short of stunning, with his seven key career works – The Landlord, Harold And Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home and Being There – among the best films of the era. Wildly anti-authoritarian, raggedly eloquent, utterly self-possessed, truly independent, and with a deep, deep fondness for medicinal herbs, Hal Ashby was an equally fascinating figure off-screen, and this beautifully realised documentary portrait from director, Amy Scott, is a true revelation. It’s heartbreaking, insightful, moving, authentic, hilariously funny, and wonderfully entertaining…just like Hal Ashby’s movies themselves.

Featuring interviews with Ashby’s colleagues and collaborators (Robert Towne, Robert C. Jones, Cat Stevens), cast members (the likes of Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Lou Gossett Jr., and Lee Grant – all in candid form – make this a very starry affair), and modern day acolytes (a literal who’s who of hip American cinema: David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Allison Anders, Adam Mackay, Alexander Payne), Hal captures all aspects of Ashby as a filmmaker and figureheads. There are great on-set anecdotes and teriffic stories aplenty, while the presence of Ashby himself is skilfully recreated via archival audio interviews and personal letters passionately read by actor, Ben Foster. Things get far more personal via emotional interviews with Ashby’s estranged daughter (like many men of his generation, he was no candidate for father-of-the-year), his ex-partners, and director and close friend, Norman Jewison, who gave Ashby his start in the industry as an editor.

While Ashby’s negligible 1980s output (Second-Hand Hearts, The Slugger’s Wife, Lookin’ To Get Out and The Rolling Stones lukewarm concert film, Let’s Spend The Night Together) is disappointingly glossed over completely in the space of literally one minute, the ignominies that he endured on his last feature film, 8 Million Ways To Die (on which he experienced constant and undue interference, amongst other indignities), are detailed in all their abject miserableness. With Ashby’s death from cancer soon after, it’s a sad end to what begins as a story filled with hope and raging brio, but as most of Ashby’s films themselves so lucidly demonstrate, happy endings are rare. Bittersweetness is often the best that you can get, and the insightful and affectionate Hal has it in spades.

 
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Swimming With Men

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Deep in mid-life crisis, vaguely unlikeable accountant Eric (Rob Brydon) walks out on his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) when she is elected to the local council, primarily because he thinks she’s having an affair. At his local pool, he finds solace with a group of other mostly middle-aged men who have formed a synchronised swimming team. Eric uses his aquatic and maths skills to help the amateurs perform various moves and with the subsequent help of pool attendant Susan (Charlotte Riley), who happens to be a synchronised swimmer, the eight men decide to enter the championships in Milan.

The underwater scenes, and the depiction of the movements of the men in the swimming pool, are the film’s strong points, one sequence showing Eric sitting alone on the depths of the pool’s bottom suggests that deeper existential themes could be at play. However, any genuine reflection on middle-aged-men is rapidly dismissed from the narrative through an almost instant depiction of male bonding thanks to a brief comic reference to ‘Fight Club’ (one of their rules is “no one talks about Swim Club”). The film sketches the men through meagre backstories, but these are brief and offer little insight into ‘masculinity in crisis’. Meanwhile, the two women lack any depth in this already shallow male world.

The film becomes most awkward when our protagonists face their opponents, the Swedish team, resulting in largely unfunny jokes and a predictable subplot (little Britain never seemed so little, and it’s hard not to want to make a Brexit analogy). All of which seems like a missed opportunity, especially when considering the film has roots in the true story the Swedish men’s synchronised swimming team documented in Dylan Williams’ (credited as executive producer here) Men Who Swim (2010).

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this film is knowing that the strong ensemble cast (which alongside Brydon, Horrocks, and Riley, features talented actors Rupert Graves, Adeel Akhtar and Jim Carter) can deliver so much more than this.

 
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The Pretend One

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Imaginary figures or friends in film are usually utilised as agents of mirth (Drop Dead Fred, Bogus), horror (The Shining) or freak-out (Fight Club), which makes the delicate sensitivity of the Australian drama, The Pretend One, even more arresting. Gorgeously shot, this feature from co-writer/director, Tony Prescott,, uses the imaginary friend concept as a springboard into dense, emotionally complex territory that belies the flippancy with which it is usually tarred.

Innocent and largely cut off from the world around her, Charlie (Geraldine Hakewell, currently starring in Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries) works the family cotton farm in rural Queensland with her single father, Roger (Aussie character actor supreme, David Field). Her only other companion is her imaginary friend, Hugo (Michael Whalley), who has been with her since childhood. Theirs is a strange, isolated world, which comes under threat with the reappearance of Guy (Benedict Wall), a local lad now working as a television producer and looking to make a series about lonely farmers and their approach to romance. While questioning her own sanity, and excavating dark moments from her own life, Charlie is pushed toward a decision that will radically alter everything around her.

With its themes of rural loneliness and the dislocation that farmers and their families can often feel, The Pretend One feels urgently prescient and of-the-moment. But while that gives the film an added sense of significance, it is the intimacy of The Pretend One that really marks it as something special. The interior world of Charlie (which comes with its own mythology and well-defined sense of logic) is beautifully painted, in strokes of both goofiness and deep sadness, as Hugo’s childlike absurdity twists into something else altogether, sending the film on unexpected narrative detours.

With its superb performances (the truly lovely Geraldine Hakewell and Michael Whalley share a gorgeous chemistry, while the ever masterful David Field does some of his most touching and transcendent work), shimmering cinematography (hats off to Robert C. Morton), and fresh, unforced dialogue (from con-writers, Tony Prescott and James Raue), The Pretend One belies its skinny budget, working perfectly with what it’s got at hand, but never skimping on ambition of concept or vision. It’s a sweet but never sentimental film that will break your heart in the best possible way.

For screenings of The Pretend One, click here.   

 
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Alita: Battle Angel

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During the 1990s, a young man by the name of Robert Rodriguez was one of the most exciting and inventive directors around. He burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992 and kept cranking out the hits, with gems like Desperado (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Sin City (2005) released to much acclaim. Post Sin City, however, it seemed that Rodriguez missed a trick or two. And though his output still had some appeal (2007’s Planet Terror remains an underrated flick) there were some significantly disappointing efforts like Machete Kills (2013) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Well, friends, it pleases us greatly to inform you that Robert Rodriguez is back and all it took was a little robot girl and a bit of James Cameron magic.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, a multi-volume cyberpunk series released in the ’90s. In fact, producer James Cameron has been trying to get the adaptation made since the late ’90s/early 2000s, which gives you an idea of the torturous route this project has taken.

The story takes place in 2563 and revolves around the (very) wide-eyed cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is saved from the literal scrapheap by cyborg Scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). The two bond, and Ido attempts to teach Alita about society; the underclass who live in grungy Iron City and the upper class who live in a sky city called Zalem.

Alita: Battle Angel is many things – exciting, propulsive, full of spectacle – but it’s certainly not subtle or in any way “hard” science fiction. The movie plays out more like a technology-infused fairy tale, with Alita uncovering her history, unexpected strengths and even a burgeoning relationship with affable human spunk, Hugo (Keean Johnson). It also feels as if the plot contains about three trade paperbacks worth of story and even at 122 minutes zips along at an occasionally dizzying pace. That means that the narrative, involving menacing cyborgs, dark conspiracies and unexpected betrayals doesn’t always have time to give every moment space to breathe. Unfortunately that means a few subplots, including one involving Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, feel under-cooked when set against the rest of the film.

That aside, however, Alita: Battle Angel is an absolute hoot. The world of Iron City feels rusted and lived in, the characters all have clear agendas and the action is superbly executed, with genuinely exciting set pieces that build to a glorious climax. It’s not a perfect film, at times the dialogue can be wince-inducing and the pace inconsistent, but there’s a joy and excitement here that mirrors Alita’s gleeful appreciation of life itself. Rosa Salazar gives a spectacular performance (albeit one augmented with hefty amounts of CGI) and makes Alita an extremely appealing heroine. If you had fears about taking a trip to the uncanny valley from the trailers, just know that in the final product it all works spectacularly well.

Alita: Battle Angel is gorgeous and at times an unwieldy and profoundly strange beast, that doesn’t always work as well as it could. It’s also consistently enjoyable from start to finish and exciting and wide-eyed in a way that should liven even the most jaded and black-hearted audience member. If you can get in line with its gleeful, cyberpunky charms you’re in for a grand old time at the cinema. Welcome back, Robert Rodriguez, we’ve all missed you.

 
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Robert Rodriguez: Battle Angel

With all reports pointing to a box office disappointment, it looks like James Cameron [pictured with Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau] may have dodged a bullet when he passed Alita: Battle Angel for Robert Rodriguez to direct. But the Tex-Mex filmmaker wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Sorry to Bother You

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How do you categorise a film that mixes low-brow comedy, social commentary, anarchism and sci-fi? That is the strange universe of Sorry to Bother You from writer-director/Oakland rapper Boots Riley; who also performs and writes the film’s score with his hip-hop group The Coup.

In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Short Term 12) is struggling through his 20s, living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Whilst he doesn’t live on much, and can’t get a job, he is loved by his artistic and political girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Portlandia, Dear White People), who also doesn’t have a job, and makes provocative sculptures and exhibits.

Detroit is part of a radical group called “The Left Eye”, whose primary adversary is a controlling corporation called Worry-Free, a company who offer an existence free of rent and bills – in exchange for a lifetime work contract.

Worry-Free, worth billions and gaining ever more popularity, is headed by maniacal millennial CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer playing any Silicon Valley head).

Feeling worthless and wanting to avoid working for the nefarious Worry-Free, Cash gets a job at the only place he can – as a telemarketer at firm, Regalview. Initially struggling with his job’s ethics, he soon rises to the top of the chain – impressing bosses by selling out consumers, friends and co-workers alike.

Cash is assisted by a youthful Danny Glover, taught to use his “White Voice” – and sound reassured, calm, privileged. (Actually, the voice of Arrested Development’s David Cross).

Trying the trick, Cash is suddenly rolling in money, out of his uncle’s house and promoted ‘upstairs’ as a “power caller” – advanced to an exclusive, gold suite where a select few make thousands a day.

But finding its groove as a pointed, if not exactly subtle satire of aspirational and corporate America (as Cash also finds his groove), Sorry to Bother You suddenly and abruptly abandons this tack.

Having more money than ever, Cash’s co-workers, including his friends and girlfriend – protesting their poor conditions – are all fired. Finding success for the first time, Cash stays and deserts all of them – including Detroit.

Enjoying the trappings of success, Cash is taken to a party where he meets eccentric Worry-Free CEO Lift, who offers him the opportunity of his life. And then he finds that the billionaire is turning employees into half-horse half-humans…

Yes. It goes there. And it only gets zanier from there.

While all of this is unfolding, and the aptly named Cash tastes success, the film tackles racism, slavery, class, consumerism, political interference, the American Dream, among myriad topics. Riley himself is an activist whose lyrics have been called revolutionary.

It is hard to describe the nature of the musician’s work, which mixes many elements, themes and concerns.

Is Sorry to Bother You an absurdist fable? An exercise in animal jokes? A parable for slavery? A trivial takedown of consumerist culture as silly as what it satirises? At times it is many of these, other times it seems it has less to say. Meshing and jam-packing multiple genres, the $3.2M budgeted film which premiered at Sundance is hard to classify.

What begins as a comedy degenerates into a bizarre, sci-fi dystopia – a doomsday scenario with apocalyptic humour. At times, it almost hits a John Carpenter tone.

Riots are everywhere, Oakland becomes a scene of mass-protests, violence; a warzone – and a vehicle for everything from the current US political state, police brutality, to the greed of the 1%.

Blood is shed. Horse-people beat police. America goes up in flames.

The humour in Riley’s work isn’t always subtle, or fresh. Some gags are overused and run long. Cash in real-time enters a 50-number password to get into his new suite, multiple times. Inevitable horse jokes are made.

While aiming for sheer lunacy and achieving it, the film may not offer much of substance, but will provide laughs along the way.

Mixing many concerns into a potent mix but offering more laughs than thought starters, Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge capitalist critique filled with hijinks, which asks: who are ultimately the slaves, and who are the masters?

 
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Watch Dear Michelle

Produced by Australian production company Exit Films to celebrate International Women's Day 2019, this short asks the question, what if Michael Jordan was Michelle Jordan?
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Joel Jackson – No Stranger

Currently appearing in Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, and just wrapped the feature film H is for Happiness and shooting I Met a Girl, the in-demand actor wastes little time by producing and starring in the impressive short film, Stranger.
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Why you should see this short film: The Creator

The writer/director of a new Australian short film has decided to forego the delay in getting his film to audiences that usually comes with extensive film festival submissions and has released his film, The Creator, straight online.
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The Importance of Oscar

Check out the short film trailers, one short film, and the reactions of its makers upon hearing that they have been nominated for an Academy Award!
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Trailer: City on a Hill

If you're missing The Wire, then this '90s set Kevin Bacon starring 10 episode drama from producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck may fill the void.
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Talking Movies: Olympics Hero Shane Heal

With The Boomers, well, booming at The 2016 Rio Olympics, we revisit a chat with Shane Heal, one of Australian basketball’s greatest legends, and a veteran of the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics.
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Talking Movies: Olympics Legend Andrew Gaze

With the 2016 Olympic Games now in full swing, we revisit our chat with basketballing hero, Andrew Gaze, who led the Boomers to five Olympics, and was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony of The 2000 Sydney Olympics.
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Tech Review: JBL BAR Series, BAR 3.1

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For someone who has to watch a lot of movies at home (hey, it’s work, someone’s got to do it!), up until now, my greatest extravagance was a flat screen TV. Living in inner city Sydney with two young children doesn’t quite allow for the luxury of a stand-alone home theatre, so when the boom happened a few years back, I had to visit a friend’s house to understand what all the fuss is about. Admittedly, it was impressive to watch a film in a darkened theatrette with sound that shook the seats when it needed to, and dialogue that was comprehensible all the time.

So, when tasked with reviewing a new soundbar, I jumped at the chance, wondering if my movie viewing experienced could be improved, especially as the FIFA World Cup was about to kick off as well.

Setting up BAR 3.1 was relatively painless. There are two major components in the pack, with a bar that is light and around the width of a standard flat screen TV, and a subwoofer that’s chunky, but heck, it needs to be to feel the vibration. Although Bluetooth capability is easy to set up (check out our review by filmmaker Serhat Caradee), I didn’t really have the time, so just went for the wire straight from the bar into the headphone jack on the TV, and away it went. Switching to the AUX setting on the speaker, I discovered that my volume for the TV, which I controlled with the TV remote, was now being sent through the speaker, including the subwoofer, after I pressed one button to pair it with the bar. Smart tech indeed.

The sound quality difference was immediately evident as I tested it by watching Dunkirk on Netflix. Christopher Nolan’s immersive, and sometimes plain evident, sound design on the film was better than I remembered when I watched the film in the cinema, but most exciting was that I could finally understand what Tom Hardy’s character was saying, even with that pilot’s mask over his face.

Without looking into this too much, I believe that the BAR 3.1 product is enhanced by an extra central speaker which makes the dialogue pop, and truly makes this skew perfect for movie watchers.

Next up, I flicked over to the soccer, switched the bar’s setting to sport, and was immediately struck by the surround sound difference, transporting me into the stands of the packed stadium ambience.

Occasionally, I am also privy to watching unfinished films, assembly cuts that are pre-sound mix. I flicked one of these on, and the magic of BAR 3.1 and the job of a skilful sound designer was truly revealed to me. Having watched the same thing on a laptop previously, with the sound output through the one speaker, it seemed flawed but excusable, whereas watching it with sound coming out of the bar, it became obvious how complicated both the thinking behind a film’s sound architecture is, and that this type of product is necessary to do a film viewing experience justice.

As I packed away the speakers to return them to JBL, there was a part of me that was nagging away, realising that my movie watching experience can be vastly improved without having to invest in a stand-alone home theatre. I unpacked again, set up BAR 3.1 and switched on The Dark Knight Rises! Woah!!

To find out more, click here.

 
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Filmmaking with the Blockchain

If you thought that digital technology had disrupted the film industry, well, it’s just getting started, with crypto currency now emerging as a filmmaker’s friend and a way of the future.
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Sounding Off

When it comes to cinema, sound is one of the great unsung heroes, and you can give it its due with JBL’s BAR Series soundbars.  
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Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

Review, Television, This Week 2 Comments

Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
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Disenchantment Season 1, Part 1

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In the magical kingdom of Dreamland, princesses just want to have fun. At least, Bean (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) does, much to the consternation of her grumpy, despotic old man, King Zog (the ever-reliable John “Bender” DiMaggio), who wants to use his hard-drinking, hard-partying daughter to seal up a political deal in an arranged marriage. Such is the lot of a fairy tale princess.

Onto this scene come two interlopers, Elfo the Elf (Nat Faxon), booted from his smurf-alike village for not being happy enough, and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s sarcastic, wisecracking personal demon, sicced on her in a subplot that will no doubt pay off some time down the track.

In the meantime, though, what we get is essentially Futurama-but-with-fantasy-tropes (Fantasirama?), which is only to be expected seeing as Disenchantment is the latest TV series from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the aforementioned sci-fi satire. 10 episodes will drop on Netflix this Friday and, based on having checked out the first seven, is worth carving some time out for over the weekend.

Let’s qualify that, though. Like all Groening series, Disenchantment takes its time to find its feet, and it’s not quite there yet. At the moment it’s a broad concept, some character traits, and a set of tropes that have been flung at the wall – we’re yet to see what sticks (Elfo’s characterisation is all over the shop right now, for example). It remains to be seen whether the fantasy genre, although a very broad church, offers to Disenchantment the depth and complexity that science fiction gave Futurama, in terms of providing  a variety of subjects and dilemmas for the show to deal with. Right now we’re pretty much dealing with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales/Game of Thrones mash up, which is fine, but may not have the legs required for longevity. Fantasy has a pretty deep conceptual bench – here’s hoping the creative team use it effectively. Bring us Conan, bring us Elric, bring us Dunsany, Peake, Liever, and more.

In the meantime, the jokes-per-minute ratio is in the acceptable range (and certainly bluer than what the Simpsons ever got away with on network TV), the animation is comfortably familiar (only Luci pushes the boundaries appreciably, being a matte black demony kinda thing) and the voice cast is game and talented – Britcom fans please note the presence of Noel Fielding, Matt Berry, and Rich Fulcher in supporting roles.

Based on this first taste, Disenchantment is good, and promises to get even better once it’s found its groove. It’s probably greedy to expect a third bonafide classic in a row out of Groening and co. – but let’s hope for it anyway.

 
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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.

 
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Luke Cage Season 2

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Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.

Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.

That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.

Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.

Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.

That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.

It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.

Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.

 

 
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Happy

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There’s a point later on in Happy where Nick Sax, Christopher Meloni’s substance-addled, self-loathing cop-turned hitman, is using a mob boss’s family as body armour. Literally – he’s got the guy’s wife strapped to his front, he’s got the kid in a papoose kind of arrangement, they’re both alive, and the squad of mafia goombas he’s up against are fearful of firing, lest they accidentally kill one of their boss’s beloveds.

Sax has no such compunctions about firing at them. He slaughters the lot. He slaughters a lot of people over the course of Happy’s eight episode first season, dispatching all and sundry in outrageous, over the top, blood-soaked ways, all the time ruminating on his own apparent inability to be killed in turn. Sax isn’t immortal, per se; it’s just that his life is a complete toilet and he figures the universe can’t be bothered sending him to hell when he’s suffering just fine here. There’s nothing supernatural about him.

Unless you count the tiny, blue winged unicorn he’s been seeing lately, telling him he has to save a little girl from a very, very bad man.

The unicorn’s name is Happy, and he sounds an awful lot like Patton Oswalt. He’s the imaginary friend of a Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), who’s been kidnapped by a grotesque pervert dressed in a macabre Santa suit (Joseph D. Reitman). Happy went out to find the one guy who can save her – and that’s our man Sax. Sax might be delusional. He might be hallucinating. Or he might have one last shot at redemption – if he can kill his way to Hailey. And we’re off.

Based on the comic series by Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) and Darrick Robertson (Transmetropolitan), Happy draws on a lot of influences, but reconfigures its sources into something wholly new and original. Imagine if Sin City had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. Imagine if Jimmy Stewart shot a bunch of guys in Harvey. Imagine if Law & Order SVU‘s Elliot Stabler went riiiiggghht off the rails and descended into drugs, alcohol, and murder for hire.

The whole thing is gloriously, gleefully, perverse, brutal and ugly – a trademark tone for executive producer and principal director Brian Taylor, whose works include the pretty decent Crank movies and the pretty terrible Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Everything is gritty and grimy, bathed in multicoloured neon, a nightmare New York populated by criminals, scavengers, hookers, psychopaths – and the odd innocent in need of salvation.

At the centre of it all is Meloni, who just nails it as the all-too-self-aware, all-too-self-destructive, anti-heroic Sax. It’s a bravura turn, with Meloni managing to tun every throwaway tough guy line into one for the ages. It’s an absolutely fearless performance, too; Sax might be an unstoppable killing machine once he gets up a head of steam, but he never looks cool doing it. He’s the universe’s chew toy, the butt of every joke, a loser’s loser, and he knows it.

He’s counterbalanced by Oswalt’s voice work as Happy, who is something right out of a Dsiney cartoon (well, maybe DreamWorks) and is determined to get this hulking hitman to do the right thing. The central joke is, of course, the contrast between this refugee from a Saturday morning kid’s show and the horrible urban milieu he’s forced to navigate, and the series plays with that in a number of fun and clever ways. It also toys with the nature of Happy’s “reality” a lot. The little unicorn is a self-described imaginary friend, but how imaginary is imaginary? As the season progresses the show teases out a background mythology that is more complex than first taste might suggest.

So urban fantasy fans will enjoy getting that box ticked, but they may have trouble shouldering their way through the tsunami of black, bad taste humour that is Happy’s stock in trade. The show is gleefully venal, delighting in presenting almost every single one of its characters at their worst. Happy’s supporting cast is a menagerie of sadistic killers, corrupt cops, vain mafia widows, coke-snorting card sharks, and worse – and why not? When your nominal hero is a suicidal alcoholic who kills for money, the sky – or rather the gutter- is the limit when it comes to the opposition. But don’t worry if you don’t like these people – most of them die. Horribly.

But the point is that Happy is not for everyone, and it doesn’t want to be. Having said that, those of us in its sights are in for a wild ride. It’s a perfect example of its type – deranged, hyper-violent, grotesque, too clever by half, but with a hidden heart that won’t stop beating no matter what the world throws at it. You’ll love it. Unless you don’t.

 
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Lost in Space

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The old Irwin Allen inter-generational staple of after-school TV gets the prestige treatment as Lost in Space comes to Netflix, boasting a bigger budget, flashier effects, a notable cast, and a curiously old-fashioned approach to sci-fi adventure.

The broad strokes of the plot map onto the original reasonably closely: the Robinson family are part of an interstellar colonial effort, but when things go awry they – and a larger number of supporting cast than we’re used to – find themselves sucked through a wormhole and flung across the galaxy, crashing on an alien planet where they must contend with hostile conditions, aggressive critters, and threats both exotic (the series iconic Robot is re-imagined as an alien combat drone that imprints on young Will Robinson) and insidious (Doctor Smith, now played with deliciously evil glee by Parker Posey, is a murderous saboteur).

By largely restricting the action to one alien world, this new Lost in Space hearkens back to the original’s literary antecedent, Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. By keeping the focus more or less on 11 year old Will (Maxwell Jenkins), it recalls the early young reader work of SF patriarch Robert Heinlein – the sort of freewheeling adventures typified by Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. That’s a good thing; SFTV has been trending darker of late (The Expanse, Star Trek: Discovery, Altered Carbon), and it’s a nice change of pace to have a genre series you might actually be able to watch with your kids.

Indeed, the series falters a little when it recentres the frame on the familial issues of John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), or the more disturbing machinations of the sociopathic Smith; tonally, they don’t jibe with the more innocent adventures of the Robinson kids, who also include medical prodigy Judy (Taylor Russell) and eternal middle kid Penny (Mina Sundwall). Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West tends to fare better, largely because he’s been re-positioned as a bumbling rogue in the Han Solo/Mal Reynolds/Star-Lord mould.

The biggest problem with the new Lost in Space is the tension between these two drives (that and the usual Netflix issue of being a couple episodes too long). Going forward, a commitment to one or the other will be needed and, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, a lighter, less dour approach to the material will probably serve it best. At this stage of the game, Lost in Space is promising; with closer attention to tone it could be a future classic a couple of seasons down the track.

 
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Santa Clarita Diet Season 2

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Television’s perkiest zombie returns in the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, aka: the show where Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Whereas the first season was mostly table setting, demarcating our characters – chiefly affluent suburban husband and wife realtors Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Barrymore) Hammond – and their situation – chiefly holy crap, Sheila’s undead! – the second course expands the menu somewhat, serving up interesting character dynamics and beginning to lay out a background mythology that looks to be more detailed and involving than the pop culture’s default zombie lore.

This season is marked improvement over the first, which was no slouch itself, benefiting from a more consistent tone and having put all that set up behind itself. We’re in full-on story mode now. The show knows its central activity (looking for a cure while concealing Sheila’s condition and inevitable murders), it’s go-to gags (contrasting extreme gore against the pastel banality of suburbia), and its tone (upbeat cheerfulness stretched skingraft-thin over howling madness – that’s a tough needle to thread). Everyone involved is pushing in the same direction; uneven performances have been smoothed out, the stakes and buy-in have been established, and the overarching narrative is underway.

Not that Santa Clarita Diet is overly concerned with the big moments and sudden reveal theatrics that plague so many shows – instead, it piles minor complication upon minor complication until we and the characters look up and realise we’re hopelessly mired, overworked, under-rested, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping. It’s the old rat-race rigmarole of having to get to work, do the shopping, pick up the kids, make a dental appointment, do the laundry, make dinner, only with the added complication of clean the blood off the kitchen, get rid of the body in the freezer, and obtain the bile of a Serb. If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another.

At the centre of it all are Barrymore and Olyphant, who are just killing it this season. Barrymore’s chipper and cheerfully homicidal Sheila is, of course, the main focus here, and its always fun to watch her try to conceal the fact that she is clearly loving being an undead cannibal (real talk: if a cure is found, will she take it?), while Olyphant continues to deploy comic gifts that could hardly be guessed at during his previous tenure as a tough guy in Deadwood and Justified. His ability to convey almost constant near-panic while maintaining a semblance of outward composure is remarkable.

The returning – which is to say, surviving – supporting cast are all in fine form. Liz Hewson as daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as professional dork Eric get a little more room to move on their own, with Abby becoming a kind of rebel hero at high school after she scones a bully with a lunch tray, while Eric continues to try and fail to be helpful. Andy Richter remains a perpetual thorn in the side as Sheila and Joel’s self-centered boss, while Natalie Morales is on hand as eccentric sheriff’s deputy Anne to crank up the tension whenever it needs cranking.

We also get a few new faces, some of which remain uneaten, including Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as a ruthless rival realtor couple, and old Deadwood hand Gerald McRaney as a retired army colonel who may hold clues to Sheila’s contagion.

Santa Clarita Diet remains a consistently funny, weirdly amiable watch. For all that it deals with murder, cannibalism, and lashings of gore, there’s something nice about seeing a family sticking by each other through thick and thin, even when their matriarch is using a human heart as a stress ball. There’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, which is not something we get to say often. If subsequent seasons can maintain this level of quality, we’re all in.

 

 
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Swimming with Men

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This slightly odd comedy/drama is more about men than swimming. In fact, the plot device –some men forming a synchronised swimming group – is treated mostly for its inherent absurdity while the emotional focus stays on men and manhood in the modern age.

“Everybody knows” that many men face certain challenges in this post-feminist age. The old midlife crisis trope is given a modern twist with the evolution of relations between the sexes. About 40% of first marriages end in divorce (and it is usually women who instigate the split), so there are plenty of men who have a lot of adjusting to do. The other cliché is that they have trouble expressing their emotions in relationships, perhaps that is why some of them engage in ‘men’s sheds’ activities to stay connected. All this sociological background doesn’t need to be stated directly, but it frames the characters’ lives and our reading of them, nevertheless.

The story centres on Eric Scott (Rob Brydon, best known for The Trip series with Steve Coogan). He is a corporate accountant now totally stuck in his office routine. His wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) is spreading her wings and getting into local council politics. Their marriage has hit a flat spot. To the bafflement of both Heather and their son Billy, Eric decides he has to move out of the home for a bit. He also becomes mildly obsessed with the idea that Heather is having an affair. One day when swimming, Eric stumbles on a group who are practicing synchronised swimming. They have even formed a sort of swim club which has self-mocking rules a la Fight Club (rule one: you don’t talk about swim club etc). The film also takes as a rickety scaffold the sport movie tropes of getting a reluctant trainer, bonding as a team, showing us a training montage, nearly falling out with each other, and then climaxing with a final competition. It struggles to bring much ironic distance to this burden of the formulaic.

All of this should have been more fun somehow, and, indeed, some may find the film quirky enough and charming enough. Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband, Dorian Gray) is very British and, true to type, the tone here is somewhere between heroic failure and succeeding despite yourself. The British, after all, are good at laughing at themselves, perhaps because they have to be.

The cast of semi-familiar faces are all troopers; they take to the material in good faith, but they can’t shake off the sense of doing the best of a bad job. Obviously, The Full Monty somewhat haunts this effort. That film too had a strong ensemble and something real to say about the challenges of modern-day masculinity, but it also had much more heart. Fun though it is in places, Swimming with Men won’t pass into the cinematic canon as Monty did.

 
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Destroyer

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You can see, from an actor’s perspective, what would be appealing about a completely transformative role; an opportunity to play against type. Charlize Theron did it playing Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003). More recently Christian Bale ballooned to Dick Cheney-size for Adam McKay’s Vice (2018), and now we have Nicole Kidman aka “Our Nicole” becoming the skeletal, damaged protagonist of director Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, to fascinating although not always entirely successful results.

Destroyer tells the tragic tale of self-destructive LAPD detective, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman). When we first meet her, she looks haggard and wan, barely able to stand up straight as she arrives on the scene of a “John Doe” murder. Erin soon realises this new case relates to her in a very personal way, and we begin a series of flashbacks that continue throughout the film, effectively showing us two timelines and explaining how Erin became the fatalistic scarecrow of her present, and how she’ll confront the many demons of her past.

First and foremost, it should be noted that Nicole Kidman is absolutely fantastic in this role. Although it’s hard to believe we’re uttering the words “neo noir thriller” and “hard-boiled drama” in the same sentence as “Nicole Kidman”, she really gives it her all, effectively portraying a doomed cop desperately seeking any kind of redemption she can find.

Director Karyn Kusama, who wowed genre fans with the effective, chilling The Invitation (2015) also brings much style and visual intrigue to the proceedings, effectively contrasting Erin’s past and present. The screenplay, however, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi feels like it could have used a little more work. It’s far from bad, but it feels a tad too familiar, playing out as a kind of mashup of Lili Fini Zanuck’s Rush (1991) and sprinkled with a little of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). And though it manages to be effective, and sustains interest, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the conclusion.

Another aspect that may be distracting to some is Kidman’s makeup. Quite a lot of it has been used to make her realistically sickly and hollow-cheeked and it does occasionally render her (let’s be frank) already rather stiff features even more so. Those quibbles aside, however, Destroyer is an extremely effective work. Kidman is capably backed by a support cast that includes Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany and Bradley Whitford – all of whom do exemplary work – and while the story is perhaps not fresh enough to make it an instant classic, it’s a solid, emotionally resonant film that will have you seeing a frequently overlooked actress in a new, grim light.

 

 
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Anthony Maras: Why the World Needs Hotel Mumbai

The horrific Christchurch terrorist attacks may put off audiences from seeing the Australian film’s intense depiction of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but it’s the humanity at its heart and the mirror that it holds up to our society that makes it essential viewing.
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Geraldine Hakewill: The Real Deal

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Truman Capote On Screen

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Trailer: Charlie Says

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Trailer: Good Boys – RED BAND

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Brightburn Trailer2 Brings the Scares

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Bond: Past, Present and Future

It’s been almost sixty years since moviegoers got to witness the man in his characteristically sharp suit on the big screen for the first time. Now, a total of seven actors have portrayed Bond, from dashing Connery right the way through to hardcore Craig.