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Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

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Obviously recent events have rendered this tender yet incisive portrait of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds even more poignant. This HBO documentary was originally scheduled to air in March, but its release was moved up following Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths last week. As such, it serves as paean, portrait and epitaph to two extraordinary women who lived out their struggles in the heart of Hollywood, dealing with their personal demons in the glare of public scrutiny.

Except it’s not as grim as all that. The dynamic at the heart of Bright Lights, the relationship between mother Reynolds and daughter Fisher, is a loving and affectionate one, if not the most typical, and it’s plain to see. Using to-camera interviews, masses of archival footage, and fly-on-the-wall observation, director Fisher Stevens take us into a world that is at once amusing and more than a little disturbing. The upper echelons of Hollywood are a strange place populated by strange people, and their customs are sometimes hard for the outside observer to parse. Todd Fisher, Carrie’s brother, at one point cautions against “marrying outside the showbiz species” because only people accustomed to this world can understand each other. A little later he narrates the complicated family history, peppered with divorces, scandals and whatnot, using a series of framed movie posters as his story skeleton – a perfect illustration of how fiction and real life are irrevocably intertwined in this world.

For all that Fisher, Reynolds and their circle are hothouse flowers – there’s more than a touch of Grey Gardens in the way their lives at the family compound are depicted – they’re still human, just people trying to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. All and sundry are eminently comfortable being on camera, and that perhaps makes the film incredibly intimate as they open up about their most pressing fears and concerns. Fisher worries about her mother’s health and her insatiable need for the adoration of an audience (at the time of filming, Reynolds was still doing a stage show in Vegas), while Reynolds frets over her daughter’s mental issues and worries how Carrie will fare after she is gone. There’s a core of sadness here that is always palpable, as our subjects wrestle with ageing, mortality, illness, and the need for love, comfort and acceptance.

Yet there’s so much joy, too. Reynolds’ “old Hollywood trouper” attitude, even this late in her life, is delightful, and it’s clear that Fisher was beloved be everyone – friends, family, employees and fans (there’s an extended sequence at a convention where we get to see how gracious she is to her fans, and it is genuinely heartwarming). There was little to no self-pity in either of these women, and a lot of the pathos comes from our knowledge, outside of the film itself, of their ultimate fates.

Bright Lights is an extraordinary work, and while that is in part due to the timing of its production, that doesn’t lessen its value as portraiture and cultural artifact. All that aside, it stands now as an incredibly touching tribute to two people who loved each other so much they couldn’t spend even a day apart. Keep the tissues handy.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds premieres in Australia exclusively on Foxtel this Sunday, January 8, at noon.

 
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REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (SPOILERS EDITION)

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We’ve got eight Star Wars movies in total – ten if you count the Ewoks adventures like the deranged purist you may be very well be – but this is the first one that feels like an actual war movie, with all the murky morality and difficult choices that entails. The model here is essentially World War II, and Rogue One takes us from the grim and ruthless world of the French Resistance to the large scale, large body count beachfront battles of the Pacific Theatre, all set in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s a side of Star Wars that has been hinted at but never fully explored on screen before, and one a long way from the simple Light Side/Dark Side morality of the Skywalker saga. Early on in the proceedings one of our “heroes” quickly and brutally executes a contact rather than let him fall into Imperial hands. As a statement of intent, it works a treat; while there is plenty of derring-do to be had, it’s underpinned by a perpetual sense of dread. Much has been made of director Gareth Edwards’ sense of physical scale, which served him so well on Monsters and Godzilla, but perhaps even more impressive here is the way he nails the scale of threat arrayed against the scattered, fractious and eternally backfooted Rebellion. Culturally we have a better understanding of the nature of asymmetrical warfare than we did in 1977, and Rogue One is less about “rebel spaceships striking from a hidden base” and more about desperate operatives living in the cracks of a fascist regime, fighting back with sabotage and assassination.

The plot is right out of the “guys on a mission” playbook. A defecting Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has brought news of a new Imperial super weapon (no bonus points for guessing what that is). Alliance command need to know what he knows, but he’s fallen into the hands of the militant Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his band of fighters, who certainly blur the line between “freedom fighter” and “terrorist”. The Alliance need an in with Gerrera, who would much rather be blowing up stormtrooper patrols than debating policy with the more timid rebel leaders, and so covert operator Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is tasked with recruiting Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), freelance bad ass and former protege to Gerrera.

Jyn has more skin in the game than that, as we see in a flashback that owes more than a little to the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds: her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist forced to work on the weapons project (we should stop skirting around it and just start calling it the Death Star now) by Imperial rotter Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who murdered Jyn’s mother in the process. Thus the mission has a personal dimension for Jyn, giving her the possibility of seeing her father for the first time in years.

r3But personal is not the same as important – a message Rogue One rams home again and again. This is a film deeply concerned with notions of duty and sacrifice, of subsuming the personal in service to a greater whole, be it the rebellion or, indeed, the Force. This is the most Jedi-free Star Wars installment yet but we get an intriguing new angle on the Force in the form of blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his partner, the dour assassin Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Chirrut treats the Force as a religion, and although you could argue that his fighting prowess derived from Jedi powers or something similar, there’s never anything explicitly supernatural going on, which is a nice touch. If Jedi are warrior monks ala the Templars, then Chirrut is a devout layperson.

The final element of our motley crew is the former Imperial Enforcer Droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), reprogrammed by Andor to act as his right hand. K-2SO gets most of the laughs, his bluntness and matte-black, menacing demeanour at odds with his servile function. On a broader thematic level, K-2SO is what you get when there is no conflict between duty and desire – he fulfills his role come hell or high water, no matter the personal cost.

For everyone else, though, there’s a choice to be made, and once the destructive power of the Death Star is apparent, our heroes commit to stealing the plans that reveal the hidden weakness built into the battle station by our man Galen, despite the suicidal risk. It’s at this point that Rogue One really comes into its own, admittedly perhaps a little late in the game (the actual mission to swipe the plans should probably kick off at the midpoint, rather than the tail end of the second act).

The most interesting element of this film is that it exists in a kind of discrete pocket of the Star Wars universe, connected to the main storyline (and remarkably seamlessly) but without the need the consider future installments beyond the requirements of continuity. To put it bluntly, no characters need be saved for sequels, and as befits the “guys on a mission” model, the body count is high. The assault on the Imperial records depository on the tropical world of Scarif is incredibly exhilarating, but also fairly confronting; it’s hard not to feel sorry for the parents who, over the coming weekend, will be explaining to their Star Wars-mad children why their favourite characters don’t make it to the end credits.

r2But let us focus on the exhilaration. The action is perfectly handled, with Edwards and his team intercutting between an orbital assault by the rebel fleet, squad level skirmishing between rebel commandos and Imperial stormtroopers, and the personal action beats of our heroes. Throughout the film, the production team get to play with all the toys in the box, leading to some exquisitely enjoyable moments: an AT-ST coming to support infantry troops in an urban firefight, X-Wings strafing AT-ATs like WWII tank busters. The Scarif land battle even draw inspiration from George Lucas’ old sparring partner, Francis Ford Coppola; some of the shots of flames and explosions against palm trees could be straight out of Apocalypse Now.

As the third act progresses and the body count climbs, it becomes apparent that Rogue One is not shying away from the grimmest possible interpretation of both its scenario and its themes, telling a boots-on-the-ground war story about flawed and forgotten heroes giving their all for the greater good. In doing so, it has expanded our understanding of what kind of stories are possible in the Star Wars milieu. For the greater Star Wars universe to thrive, Disney and Lucasfilm first needed to prove that stories outside of the core Skywalker narrative can work. Rogue One not only does that, it shows that there are stories out there that are arguably better than what has gone before. The galaxy is in good hands.

 
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Mad Max: Fury Road Black and Chrome Edition

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Let’s dispense with recounting the narrative details of George Miller’s fourth journey into the blasted world of ex-cop and expert wheelman, Max Rockatansky; nobody coming to this version is going to be a virgin. What we have here is the Black & Chrome Edition of Mad Max: Fury Road – allegedly Miller’s preferred version – which exchanges the original release’s searing desert ochres and stark blue skies for metallic monochrome, and to excellent effect. Miller’s preferred version? It just might be yours, too.

It must be said that this is not just Mad Max in black and white, an edit available to anyone who can find their TV remote. The Black & Chrome Edition is based off the “slash dupe” made available to the sound team for scoring and foley work, and the result is a colourless image where the “white” spaces seem almost to gleam like silver, and the edges of darker objects have the gritty buzz of hastily-scratched pencil work. Black and white film can look cold and sterile; this looks like oil on a hot engine.

The monochrome also allows the eye to pick out more subtle details – throughout the film, you’re noticing little bits of design that perhaps went unseen in all the noise and fury of the colour cut: tattoos and scarification, elements of heraldry and costume design, textures. The action – and whatever high-minded praise we might throw at Fury Road, it is still almost all action – is even more impactful and impressive. Seeing the stark white bodies of the War Boys slam into the ground when vehicle after vehicle is destroyed is incredible. The moment where Max swings by on a pole as the convoy explodes behind him is simply sublime.

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There are trade-offs, of course. We lose the contrast of the Citadel’s aquaponics forest against the blighted wasteland around it, and we lose the gorgeous, oily orange and yellow flames and explosions that have been such a visual signature of the series to this point. But we gain so much more than we lose.

Look, we’re already in the bag for Fury Road around these parts – we even named it the best Australian film of the 21st century. This new look only confirms it – Fury Road is a modern classic that will ride forever, shiny and chrome, on the highways of Valhalla. Audience reaction will determine whether the Black & Chrome Edition is definitive; we can only tell that it is essential.

 
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Marvel’s Luke Cage

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The third of Marvel’s six Netflix shows* is almost upon us, with Mike Colter’s super-strong, bullet-proof street hero, Luke Cage, taking centre stage, fighting crime and corruption in modern day Harlem.

Making a living sweeping up at a barber shop and moonlighting as a kitchen hand, escaped con Luke Cage doesn’t want any trouble. He certainly doesn’t want to draw any attention to the superhuman abilities bequeathed to him by an illegal experiment undertaken in prison, even though his friend and mentor, Pop (Frankie Faison) urges him to use his powers to help people “like them other fellas”. For all his protestations, though, Cage is a good man and a man of his place who feels responsibility for his neighbours, and it isn’t long before he’s on a collision course with both local crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his more respectable but arguably more dangerous cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard)

As a comics character, Luke Cage was a response to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, and its surprising and exhilarating how much the show leans into that, laying on a garish, pop-cinema aesthetic that really makes the show stand out from its more dour counterparts. Add to that a constantly shifting, energised soundtrack that takes in everything from Motown to jazz to modern R&B to gangsta rap, and slick, tough street-smart writing, and what we have here is, for all intents and purposes, the story of a modern day John Shaft, dealing with the problems of his community that nobody else can or will.

Mike Colter is simply fantastic in the role, expanding on what we saw in Jessica Jones. Possessed of an incredible dignity and gravitas, his Cage is man who doesn’t swear and doesn’t grandstand… at least until his star starts to rise and he allows himself to begin to enjoy his “local hero” status. One of the key themes of Luke Cage is the reclaiming of selfhood and pride after being beaten down, and it is so much fun to see the character evolve until he’s walking the streets in a tailored suit, putting the fear into thugs and criminals in order to help out the hardworking people of Harlem, and clearly loving almost every minute of it.

In the other corner we have Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, the scion of a family of Harlem criminals and the inheritor of a generational cycle of violence and graft. Cottonmouth’s arc goes in the opposite direction, beginning as a figure of confidence and strength due to his elevated position as a feared criminal, and gradually losing it all as he starts to realise that it’s hard to deal with a problem that you literally can’t shoot. That’s the central binary of the story right there: Cage’s sense of responsibility versus Cottonmouth’s love of power – it’s the classic Spider-Man ethos dramatised.

Around this is woven the larger story of Harlem and the African American community therein. Make no mistake, Luke Cage is specifically and unapologetically a black story, and indeed it communicates the experience of blackness in America more entertainingly and more authentically than its Netflix stablemate, The Get Down, could ever dream of doing. That’s down to the work of the showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who has worked elements of the African American experience into every facet of the show. It’s in the dialogue, the music, the fashion, the history, the locations and the palpable sense of place that infuses the show. From the writ-large themes of race and community to the tiniest details – at one point Cage is kicking back reading a Walter Mosley novel – this is a series that celebrates African American culture in a manner both deep and vibrant.

Which is to say it’s fun – this is a superhero show, after all, and it doesn’t shy away from its pulpy roots. Connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic are layered in, which is only to be expected, and the action beats – which are a little too spaced out, if we’re being honest – are great. Cage’s hesitant, resigned approach to fighting is never not fun; he knows he can’t be hurt, so he just kind of gently thumps his enemies until they go away, looking disappointed when they keep trying to batter his unbreakable skin.

If there’s a problem with Luke Cage, it’s one endemic not just to Marvel’s Netflix shows, but to the majority of streaming binge-watch drama: there’s not quite enough story to fill the episode allotment. Netflix supplied seven episodes for review, and there are thirteen in total, but unless something extraordinary happens in the back half, the show feels like it could have been better served by a tighter eight to ten episode season. The idea that length is its own virtue is one that plagues modern TV, though, so we’re not exactly singling Luke Cage out for it.

That niggle aside, this is an absolute win. It’s not the absolute triumph that Jessica Jones was, but it’s also not the rather muddy Greatest Hits package that is Daredevil. Luke Cage is a bold, strutting, confident slice of street heroism and urban culture, expanding the superhero paradigm to tell  a story about pride, respect, community and responsibility. Can you dig it?

*We’re getting a Punisher series now, remember?

 
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The BFG

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Considering it’s coming our way under the auspices of Spielberg, Disney and (courtesy of Walden Media) original author, Roald Dahl, this long awaited adaptation of the classic 1982 children’s novel should be a landmark. Instead, it’s just pretty okay. As to why, well, that takes some unpacking.

For the uninitiated, the BFG is the Big Friendly Giant (a mo-capped but recognisable Mark Rylance), the only non-cannibalistic member of a race of giants who come down from the unknown island that is “Giant Country” to prowl a benighted picture-book England for children to eat. The BFG’s remit is much more agreeable: he uses a kind of magic trumpet to blow dreams into sleepers, a penance for the predations of his kin.

The BFG’s world begins to change when he is spotted by – and subsequently kidnaps – young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a precocious, bright, lonely orphan of the type that usually inhabits these sorts of stories. Through Sophie, we get a tour of the BFG’s world of snozzcumbers, frobscottle, and malapropisms (Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s jumbled lingo is a highlight), but inevitably something must be done about the rest of giant-kind, who are led by the ogre-ish Fleshlumpeater (an unrecognisable Jemaine Clement), and what passes for the plot kicks in.

The BFG is a gorgeous, reverent, occasional magical work of cinema that moves like a dead fly in molasses. Everything is beautifully crafted but seemingly nothing happens for such long stretches that the movie seems much longer than its actual two hour running time. It’s as though everyone involved felt the need to treat the source material with kid gloves, lest they sully the esteemed Dahl’s revered work.

The problem with that approach is that what works on the page does not necessarily work on the screen. The novel’s uncomplicated plot exists because it is squarely aimed at young children (7-9 is probably the sweet spot for this kind of Dahl), who can get by on funny words and fart jokes and a plot that doesn’t feel the need to twist in on itself for the sake of cleverness. The rest of us might need something more.

And yet Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) staunchly resist the common practice of slipping in some background fare for the older set; The BFG is absolutely a children’s film, not a family film in the commonly understood sense. It’s all whimsy and simple machinations, running on a childlike grasp of how the world functions, and it’s oddly beautiful for that. Kids who can gut out the slow stretches will be entranced – are there still kids like that?

Ultimately, the film is more admirable than enjoyable, although there are numerous small and joyful elements sprinkled throughout; Rylance’s soulful performance, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s seemingly effortless command of composition, Barnhill’s bossy charm, the sight of the royal corgis farting their way across a ballroom (the third act ropes the Queen into the silliness, and things pick up immeasurably once this happens). It’s not enough, though. The BFG is like a mandated visit to a beloved but doddering grandparent – you love them, sure, and you’re happy enough to see them, but you’ve one eye on the clock the whole time.

 
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The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film and second western after the gleefully bombastic, Django Unchained. Despite occupying the same genre, The Hateful Eight couldn’t be more tonally or visually different than the 2012 hit. As the title suggests, Hateful doesn’t feature a cast of loveable rogues and it’s as dark and unrelenting as anything Tarantino has directed before.

The story has bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) transporting criminal, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock to hang. Along the way John picks up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and soon-to-be Sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). This unlikely band are soon forced off the road by a raging blizzard and they take cover in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a small business run from a wood cabin. Inside they meet Bob (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight then spends most of its 167 minute runtime in said cabin, as characters reveal their pasts and true intentions through banter, monologues and telling reactions. It’s staged almost like a play, and the sense of mounting tension is genuinely gripping. The pace is deliberate, some might say slow, but it’s a testament to the director’s faith in his story and it’s faith well-placed. The third act of the movie features some of the most shocking, graphic violence on screen in recent memory. Set against the backdrop of the howling blizzard outside and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, the tone is bleak indeed. Sure there are some laughs, big ones in fact, but it’s pitch black gallows humour that underlines rather than lightens the savagery on display.

Performance wise Kurt Russell is his most delightfully John Wayne-ish since John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China and Samuel L. Jackson delivers yet another stunning turn. However the two big surprise performances come from Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both do the best work of their already impressive careers.

The Hateful Eight isn’t a pleasant film, but it’s a brutally engaging one, the confident character work juxtaposes with the shocking bloodshed (and seriously, you haven’t seen a cabin this blood-soaked outside of an Evil Dead film) and racial subtext to create something quite unique and memorable. It certainly won’t be a film for everyone, but for those who can handle the brutality and nihilism, there’s a lot to love about The Hateful Eight.

 
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Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

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Digitally animated, yet with a crisp simplicity, Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie retains the visual minimalism of its massively syndicated newspaper forebear, and its unapologetically sentimental spirit. It also gets the details right: the characters are mostly voiced by real children rather than adult stars, and the old-fashioned jazz soundtrack feels appropriate. But the net result is underwhelming.

The story centres on hapless Charlie Brown’s poignant attempts to win the respect and admiration of his classmates, and the heart of the new kid in class, the unnamed Little Red Haired Girl. If you’re a Peanuts fan, she’s the only major character that you won’t recognise: all the familiar ones are duly present, from Linus (replete with security blanket) to Lucy, dispenser of psychiatric advice and thorn in Charlie Brown’s side. And then, of course, there’s Snoopy, “the world’s most adorable beagle.” The scenes depicting his daydreams of dogfights (no pun intended) with The Red Baron are the most diverting, and by far the fastest-paced. There’s the odd chuckle to be gleaned elsewhere, and there’s something vaguely endearing in the innocence of a cartoon world where a kid can become class hero by supposedly scoring 100% in a test. But the pickings are decidedly slim.

It’s hard to imagine a receptive target audience for this film. Most people will be either far too young or too old, even for nostalgia. There’s nothing crucially wrong with Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie. It’s mercifully “un-modernised” and pretty faithful to Charles M. Schulz’ original comic strip, but it’s also rather flat and not especially funny. And there’s too much padding; it could just as well have been a short rather than feature-length. But most of all, it’s superfluous.

 
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StalkHer

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John Jarret steps behind the camera, as well as in front of it, in this unusual battle of sexes by first time writer Kristijana Maric. Co-directing with Kaarin Fairfax (Bed of Roses), Jarrett plays Jack, an extreme stalker breaking into the home of nurse Emily (Fairfax herself). After caught off guard by Emily, Jack finds himself tied up and having to explain himself before Emily calls the police.

It quickly becomes apparent that Jack knows Emily from working in the same hospital as her. Through the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Jack is adamant that his breaking and entering is part of a misogynistic plan to get at her for simply being a woman. Emily, to her credit, doesn’t believe him and spends the evening sharing diatribes about the futility of men with the woman hating Jack.

Both leads clearly relish the opportunity to shout and spit at each other over the course of 90 minutes with enough foul language to make Tarantino seem coy. Fairfax as Emily is the backbone of the movie, playing Jarret’s John like a violin as she mothers him one minute and then admonishes him the next, playing upon the sexist characteristics his chauvinist mouth has tars her with. There’s no doubt she’s in control. Like a nihilistic When Harry Met Sally they share their thoughts on relationships, the world and their place in it. Their dialogue is broken up by individual fantasies about the sadistic things one would do to the other.

At times, it’s a confronting movie which specialises in dark humour. Whilst it doesn’t stick its landing when the credits roll, Wolf Creek fans are perhaps going to get a kick out of seeing Jarratt failing to get the upper hand for a change. Others may find it a little too acidic to swallow.