View Post

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Documentary, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Pre-internet, for many people in Australia, Garry Shandling arrived on our shores in 1986 with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. We hadn’t seen anything like it, as this postmodern take on the sitcom format broke every rule in the book, and the show developed a cult following, with its creator cementing it years later with The Larry Sanders Show between 1992 – 1998.

When Shandling passed away in 2016, there was an outcry from North America, where comedians – through podcasts and online followings – paid their respects to a comedy genius. One of his loudest champions was Judd Apatow, now a comedy industry in his own right, who was given plenty of breaks early on by Shandling, and has now directed this personal, grandiose documentary.

With AAA footage, journals and talent, Apatow has constructed an exhaustive and entertaining film, and unlike his later feature films (This is 40, Funny People), the extraordinary length of the enterprise is actually for the audience’s benefit. When after more than 4 hours, Apatow reveals the secret to Shandling’s being, you would be hard pressed not to tear up at a beautiful but complicated life that you have just had presented before you.

Divided into two eps, the first part charts Shandling’s childhood and family life, the journey to comedy, all the way up until the launch of The Larry Sanders Show. Part two ends with the comedian’s memorial service where anyone who is anyone was moved to laughter and tears in equal measure.

A bunch of talent – Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Leno, etc – is interviewed sitting down in conversation with Apatow, who appears often and makes for a sensational, knowing moderator; whilst others – Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Tom Petty, Chris Rock, etc, etc – are captured in intimate behind the scenes footage during Garry’s often filmed career.

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling fills in a lot of gaps about Shandling’s life and career, especially for Australian audiences, and does it in a dramatic, often hilarious, ultimately profound and highly emotional way. It’s a highly fitting tribute to a comedy genius who touched millions of lives on a macro level, but here we discover the hundreds that he affected daily, and how.

At a minimum, you will be hunting down a DVD copy of The Larry Sanders Show to check out the special features, which this documentary poses was Garry’s final masterpiece.

 
View Post

Billionaire Boys Club

Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s a stinky pall of cruel fate hovering over this retooling of 1989’s based-on-a-true-story TV movie, Billionaire Boys Club (which served as a starring vehicle for “Brat Packer” Judd Nelson). The story is a classic one: ‘80s excess and coke-fuelled youthful promise corrupted by greed and the sweaty-palmed clutch for cash.

Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) lives with his father, Ryan (Judd Nelson), and spends his days on the make, struggling to sell his stock market skills and coax over-cashed, feckless trust-fund brats into investing the money that their parents worked so very hard for. Enter Dean Karny (Taron Edgerton), an old school buddy whose ambition-fuelled trajectory intersects with Joe’s, and the two form an unholy alliance, as they spruik their “paradox philosophy”, a masturbatory exercise in business ethics and moral equivalency, conveniently negating morality and ethics that might serve to hinder money-making opportunities.

Such lunk-headed wisdom soon converts brothers, Scott Biltmore (Ryan Rottman) and Kyle Biltmore (Jeremy Irvine), who sign on board the fledgling BBC, an investment company which allegedly took its enigmatic acronym from “The Bombay Bicycle Club”, though once all the crooked and shady events had unspooled, it was dubbed by the media, “Billionaire Boys Club.”

BBC’s partners soon meet Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks mode), and it’s with Levin’s promise of mountains of investment cash that the young men’s dreams of mammon begin to take shape, and pretty soon it’s cavernous marble and glass apartments, coke lines on glass coffee tables, and pastel polo shirts with popped collars.

Though all is not what it seems, and the hustlers soon become the hustled, which eventually spirals into murderous deeds, orchestrating kidnappings, fraudulent Ponzi schemes and wrestling to the death with crazed, opium-addicted Iranians.

Look, this isn’t a bad film; in fact, it’s a fairly enjoyable cautionary yarn. Taron Egerton is slightly miscast as the conniving “Mean Dean” but he shoulders the part; Elgort offers much the same problem as he did in the catastrophically overrated Baby Driver: he’s a charisma vacuum and presents something of an issue in a story that requires audience connection with the plight of the lead character. Spacey is pretty good as the dodgy Ron Levin, hamming things up and sleazing his way through scenes.

Director James Cox (who previously directed Val Kilmer as porn icon John Holmes in Wonderland) really just copped an unlucky roll of the dice, in that this was the final performance of Kevin Spacey, before his career was immolated by the revelations of his predilection for aggressive sexual harassment. As a result, the film was shelved, and then after the dust settled on Spacey’s behaviour, and kicked into a measly theatrical release in order to honour contractual obligations. The resulting box office gross of $618 had to have been a kick in the teeth for the filmmakers; for Spacey, it’s something of a death knell for his cinematic career.

Overall, the treatment is too tepid to rub shoulders with The Wolf Of Wall Street and too derivative (despite being a true story) to set itself apart from other “impressionable guys getting in over their heads” movies (Oliver Stone’s return to the Wall Street well Money Never Sleeps and Todd Phillips’ War Dogs spring to mind). Okay movie, wrong actor, wrong time.

 
View Post

Bird Box

Home, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week 2 Comments

The first time that we see Sandra Bullock in the terrifying dystopian thriller, Bird Box, she’s flatly and brutally laying down the law to two sweet faced little children who she refers to plainly as “Boy” and “Girl”, providing them with a bone-shaking guide for survival free of sugar coating. It’s tough stuff, and an instant signpost that this is not the Sandra Bullock that we know and love. Harsh, desperate, and no-nonsense, this is a call-back to her stunningly abrasive turn in the Oscar winning Crash, and she’s just as good here, if not better. Superbly directed with a wonderfully grim sense of economy by Danish filmmaker, Susanne Bier (Brothers, Open Hearts, In A Better World Bird Box), Bird Box punches hard and offers no emotional quarter, and neither does Sandra Bullock.

In this semi-sci-fi shocker’s very, very near future, a cruel, unforgiving – and unseen – presence has decimated the world’s population, with all who make the mistake of glimpsing it prompted into a suicidal frenzy. With pockets of humanity staking out their own claims, and other groups not jumped to suicide but instead taking on a kind of zealot’s fury in forcing others to embrace the horror, the world has become a truly horrifying place. With these death-bringing creatures swooping out of the sky at any moment, Bullock is Malorie, a mother desperately trying to protect her children from the nightmare around them. All blindfolded to prevent them from inadvertently looking at the thing that will instantly make them lose their minds, this vulnerable trio embarks on a journey toward hoped-for safety.

While the world created by Bier and screenwriter, Eric Heisserer (adapting Josh Malerman’s novel), is a singularly frightening one, Bullock’s Malorie is equally fascinating. As we learn in flashback scenes (including an extraordinary set-piece introducing the unseen horrors), she is a cynical, deeply reluctant mother, and her actions throughout the film are never quite what we expect. Whether in her relationship with fellow survivor, Tom (the charismatic Trevante Rhodes in a sweetly sympathetic turn), or her harsh interactions with the kids in her care, Malorie constantly switch-foots audience expectations.

She is, however, a real anchor in this very scary film, as her glacial exterior slowly melts to reveal the humanity beneath. It’s a fine performance from Bullock, and an equally impressive one from director, Susanne Bier. While her decision not show the film’s threat (except in a few briefly glimpsed drawings) is a bold and daring one that will infuriate many viewers, her expert handling of the material is undeniable. There are a number of sequences that will literally have you on the edge of your seat, and Bier’s mastery of suspense and emotion is near remarkable. Packing an intense emotional wallop and a truly nail-grinding sense of suspense, Bird Box is a surprise stunner.

 
View Post

Just Cause 4

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

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.

 
View Post

Darksiders III

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

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!

 
View Post

The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

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.

 
View Post

Hitman 2

Game, Gaming, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

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.

 
View Post

The American Meme

Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Like some visitation of a harbinger of a coming apocalypse that is starting to seem more-and-more like something we deserve, the documentary The American Meme explores the rise of the Instagram celebrity, the ‘influencer’ and in particular, a cross-section of Insta-celebs who’ve gained an insane amount of notoriety through shameless self-promotion in social media.

Musician and producer DJ Khaled, an affable personality who documents his daily rituals and combines self-promotion of himself as a brand.

Kirill Bichutsky, known to his 1.1 million Instagram followers as @slutwhisperer. He lives the kind of Girls Gone Wild, party-every-night lifestyle that would be the daily routine of a cashed-up, feckless, misogynist douchebag. Curiously though, at his core, Kirill seems tormented by the utter emptiness of his fame and ultimately sees the party-boy reputation he’s constructed as being an impediment to moving on to a different career and phase in his life, mainly because of the gargantuan legacy of his digital footprint. If you search his name online, all that appears are reaction-baiting boorishly sexist memes, such as selfie shots of Bichutsky wedging his head between hundreds of different women’s naked backsides and breasts or numerous images of the Russian American bon vivant spraying champagne in the faces of a plethora of glazed-eyed women. By celebrating this debauched lifestyle, he’s become a social media celebrity though even he himself seems innately aware that it will dry up sometime soon, faster than you can say ‘vine’.

Brittany Furlan is an actress and comedian who built a huge following on Vine with little mini comedy clips and character skits, only problem was Vine closed its doors. Furlan’s self-promotion has seen her gain small movie roles and development deals for TV comedy shows.

Josh Ostrovsky goes by the twitter name @thefatjew and has likewise established himself as a personality unattached to any kind of comedy or acting career, though he will most likely move into those areas.

Capping off all of these personalities is the one who really started this: Paris Hilton. Having established perfume and fashion accessory lines, she has built her own huge pile of cash on which to cry herself to sleep at night. These days, Paris exploits her fanbase on social media as something of a rent-an-acolyte as she visits international cities and DJs at various parties and events. Paris Hilton is nothing if not a businesswoman, seemingly possessing an almost Warhol-esque sense of the pop culturally relevant (Warhol is something of a touchstone for her), she rides a self-obsessed wave of narcissistic branding which no doubt rubbed-off on her former assistant, Kim Kardashian West.

Frankly, we are not entirely sure if this documentary is genuinely informative and interesting or, in its depiction of the weapons-grade vacuity of its subjects is actually just terrifying and galactically disheartening.