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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

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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.