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All Hail the Popcorn King

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There is no writer like Joe R. Lansdale, the man is a genre unto himself. The criminally underrated East Texan wordsmith has been thrilling those in the know since the early 1980s, releasing a staggering number of novels, novellas, short stories and scripts, including The Drive-In, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Bottoms and the Hap and Leonard series. Despite the complete and total adoration of artists and celebrities like Stephen King, Joe Hill, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Bruce Campbell, Don Coscarelli (and many, many more), Joe’s never quite hit mainstream success, occupying a space somewhere in the cult or indie realm. This is a savage injustice, as Lansdale pens some of the most vivid, deranged yet heartfelt yarns ever scribed by (bizarre) human hands, and freshly cooked documentary, All Hail the Popcorn King seeks to correct it.

All Hail the Popcorn King, directed by the wonderfully-named Hansi Oppenheimer, is clearly a low budget labour of love. Fittingly, a large portion of the screen time features Joe on his own self-describing where he came from and why he writes. Lansdale is a natural born storyteller, who can’t help but spin a yarn even when he’s just chatting, and Popcorn King’s best moments have Joe holding court on all manner of subjects including film, Texas, the nature of politics and racism in America. The rest of the doco features famous admirers of Lansdale – like Bruce Campbell and Joe Hill – giving their impressions of the man, with Campbell in particular offering hilarious insight into why you should both admire his writing but “not fuck with [him]” (Joe both knows and teaches martial artists, y’see).

As pleasing as these observations are to long term fans of Lansdale, it would have been great if the documentary had included more material for newbies. Not much time is spent on Joe’s actual written works, and with so many wonderful talents on board, a couple of paragraphs from The Drive-In or Bubba Ho-Tep read by these luminaries would have sold the premise much more effectively. The documentary is also quite clearly made on the cheap, so the sound and visual quality is variable, which may be distracting to some.

That said, All Hail the Popcorn King does effectively convey the love of rabid fans (of which your humble reviewer is certainly one), and the sheer unbridled charm of champion Joe R. Lansdale. Freewheeling, and occasionally undisciplined, it nonetheless offers an insight into a fascinating, unique artist who in a just and decent world would be a beloved household name.

 
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Below

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

Slow-motion, skull-cracking violence sets the scene for Below, inspired by Ian Wilding’s award-winning play of the same name. Wilding’s screenplay shifts the action from a mining town to a slightly dystopian outback immigration detention centre run by the evil guards from Newhaven Border Solutions, no doubt privatised out by the Australian Government. Dark web con-artist Dougie (Ryan Corr) finds himself working there to repay a debt to his Scottish stepfather and detention centre guard Terry (an almost unrecognisable Anthony LaPaglia), after an online bribery scam he sets up under the moniker ‘Dreadnought’ goes south.  

Detainees faced with little to no chance of freedom are microchipped and numbered. Self-harm becomes the norm, so to flatten the curve inmates, or their extended family members, are threatened with a trip to ‘the cage’ as punishment. Curve flattened, Terry and his cohorts reinvent the cage as a fight club for their captives. Ever the shyster, Dougie revitalises his Dreadnought persona and offers a live stream of the fights to voyeurs on the dark web. When champion fighter Azad (great work from Phoenix Raei) cops a shiv to the throat, Dougie’s conscience kicks in and he must find a way to help Azad’s orphaned little sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell) escape to a new life of freedom in Australia.

Skilfully directed by Maziar Lahooti on his first feature-length film, Below paints a pitch-black comic portrait around the horrors of Australian immigration detention. At one point Dougie exclaims ‘every day in here is like a holocaust movie’, he wants out, so sets up another pay per view fight, this time between detainee ‘King Ciggy’ (Robert Rabiah) and three double-ended dildo wielding female MMA fighters (Deanna Cooney, Lee-Ann Temnyk, Shimain Osbourne).

Performances are inventive and energetic, with Corr and LaPaglia excellent and Morgana O’Reilly as detainee guard Michelle hilarious. Director of photography Michael McDermott adds another character to the film with his footage of the foreboding detention centre.

Below‘s darkly comic undertones don’t shy away from the nightmare existence of a people locked away in a system designed to break them. Lahooti’s film, while bleak, shines a light on Australia’s moral compass and when those ethics are questioned, we’re left with a glimmer of hope.

 
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Relic

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Home, Home Entertainment, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Of all the multifarious horrors of the human condition, dementia is surely one of the most chilling. A disease that not only steals memory like a thief in the night, but dignity, hope and connection to family as well. Multiple films exist touching on the subject matter, but usually in the context of a drama or tragic romance. Aussie horror Relic, helmed by first time feature director Natalie Erika James, views the condition through a genre lens, and the result is poetic and, ironically enough, unforgettable.

Relic tells the tale of mother and daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who have left the big city of Melbourne to try and find their family matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin). When they arrive at Edna’s sprawling, messy home they find evidence of dementia but little else. Kay tries to piece together her mother’s movements, while dealing with her occasionally surly daughter and being plagued by strange, vivid nightmares. And when Edna finally does make it home? Things start to get weird.

Relic is very much of the Babadook/Ari Aster/Mike Flannagan school of horror, where family trauma and tragedy go hand-in-withered-hand with more familiar genre trappings. The notion of an older loved one losing their mind is deeply confronting, even without supernatural elements, and Relic cleverly toys with the audience’s perception. The first half hour plays a little prosaic, even dull, but when the story properly kicks in, the film becomes a grimy, slowburn nightmare that is both tense, uncomfortable and yet somehow oddly beautiful.

Three assured performances anchor Relic, with Heathcote, Mortimer and Nevin all providing some of their career-best work as three generations of women from the same family. Natalie Erika James’ direction is clever and confident, imbuing the film with a Japanese horror vibe which juxtaposes nicely with the initially mundane rural Australian setting. The final twenty minutes in particular, with its clever use of dimensional subversion and mould imagery, are unforgettable and feel fresh in a genre woefully bereft of original iconography. While Relic’s themes are never exactly subtle, they’re strongly realised and add texture to the proceedings, making the experience a pleasingly cerebral affair.

Relic is perhaps not the unrelenting spookshow some of the advertising material suggests it to be, and fans of more traditional meat and potatoes horror may want to look elsewhere. However, if you like your genre flicks with lashings of nuance and subtext and very little exposition or easy answers, you’re in for a treat. With strong performances, confident direction and a stunning third act, Natalie Erika James is a director to watch and Relic is an Australian horror movie not to be missed.

 
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Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

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In Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, Juha (Pekka Strang) is a happily married father and husband, who (in a lyrical and dream-like opening sequence) loses his wife in a drowning accident at their lakeside holiday home. Jumping forward many years, we find Juha entirely focused on his career as a heart surgeon and directing the rest of his energy toward his strong-willed and independent teenage daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta), and generally just drifting through his existence as a loving single-dad. His emotional inner life atrophied by grief, Juha does his best as a dad but denies himself any kind of relationship.

One evening, when celebrating Elli’s birthday, Juha takes her to get her tongue pierced. While he’s waiting, he wanders through the cavernous basement of the tattoo and piercing shop killing time, into a downstairs room that’s the workspace for professional dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen, Blade Runner 2049). Mona’s reflex response when she discovers Juha in her ‘office’ is to aggressively leap on him and choke him, presumably because she thinks he’s a client. This impromptu dalliance with erotic asphyxiation unleashes strong visions of his near-drowning in his attempts to rescue his late wife.

After the encounter with Mona, Juha drives home with his daughter and cannot think about anything else other than Mona’s attack on him. So, after some hesitance, he makes an appointment to see her. Their initial encounter devolves from the usual boot-licking into somewhat darker territory, as Juha insists on more aggressive asphyxiation, a line Mona doesn’t like to go near, let alone cross.

As Juha escalates his fetishism towards something akin to grief therapy by way of BDSM, Mona becomes disturbed by Juha’s fragile mental state. As we follow Juha through the experience, titillation isn’t really the point, it’s more Juha’s state of mind and his feelings during the BDSM experiences that we’re given access to.

Which all makes this story less a quirky, button-pushing romance and more a non-judgemental and heartfelt love story of how Mona and Juha each provide a salve to the other’s inner scarring.

Krista Kosonen’s Mona is a quietly intense character, saying everything with a glare. Pekka Strang’s initially rigid and stoic Juha, unravels into an emotionally unhinged mess, though his journey is strangely relatable and at times, it’s quite moving.

This subtle emotional manoeuvring by writer/director JP Valkeapää (and his co-writer Juhana Lumme) shows us the interior life of Juha, letting us understand his actions, his sense of loss and emptiness, something key to the strangely moving and tender brutality at this film’s heart and to the evocative spell it casts.

 
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The Wretched

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

For some reason, witches never seem to get a fair shake in the realm of horror movies. There are about sixty trillion vampire flicks, a cool million werewolf joints and more zombie movies than you can shake a severed femur at, but witches? A scant few. Oh sure, there are some notable examples. The Blair Witch Project (1999), of course, although the titular witch never actually appears on screen. There’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Luca Guadagnino’s enthusiastic 2018 remake of the same. And, of course, there’s the best recent example, Robert Egger’s divisive, subversive The Witch (2015). The Wretched, from brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce, attempts to add to that slender canon, and the result is… fitfully entertaining.

The Wretched is essentially the story of affable teen, Ben (John-Paul Howard) who comes to stay with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones) during the messy divorce of his parents. Life with dad isn’t so bad, and Ben meets the quirky Mallory (Piper Curda) with whom he is quite smitten. What puts a damper on the whole caper is that there seems to be a body-possessing witch crawling around the area, and it just might have taken over sexy neighbour lady, Abbie (Zarah Mahler). What follows is a cheerful, albeit derivative, mashup of the likes of Rear Window (1954), Fright Night (1985) and Supernatural, with loads of jump scares, decent creature effects and a gamely over-the-top third act.

The Wretched has the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the few box office success stories during COVID-19, mainly because it played in drive-in theatres across the United States when there was bugger all else on. Taken as a trashy, fun-but-forgettable, drive-in flick The Wretched provides an amiable 95 minutes that, while unlikely to leave you with any lingering nightmares, or indeed vivid memories of the film at all, is a mostly entertaining, occasionally imaginative, bit of escapist genre fluff.

Younger audiences or those hard up for new genre offerings will likely appreciate the modest charms on display here. Witches, however, will probably be extremely unimpressed.

 
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Stellaris: Console Edition

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

Console gaming is great. Oh sure, your root-dodging “PC Master Race” ballbags will call you a “casual” (like that’s a bad thing!), but you’ll be chilling on your couch, playing games on your enormous telly, like some kind of hedonistic Roman emperor. It would, however, be disingenuous to claim that consoles can deliver a perfect experience with all video game genres. Third person action/adventure? Hell yeah. Online shooter with your mates? Step right on in. Real time strategy games? Ehhhh not so much. Something about that more strategic, fiddly style of gameplay is traditionally ill-suited to lounging on the couch in your trackie-daks with a controller in one hand and a hot Milo in the other. Every so often a developer decides to give it a bash, however, and the latest to do so comes in the form of Stellaris: Console Edition.

Stellaris has actually been available on PC since 2016, and has remained a favourite for fans who like their strategy with a sci-fi edge. The basic premise has you controlling a race – be it human or other – that has just invented FTL (faster than light) technology and is ready to take its place amongst the “species of the stars”.

It’s a lofty, heady concept brimming with imagination and potential, but in practical terms involves a lot of forward planning, micromanaging and sensible distribution of resources. This sort of gameplay is practically custom-designed for PCs, with keyboards offering numerous options and commands, and the transition to console isn’t exactly smooth. Certainly, the D-pad can be used to switch things around, but it’s hardly the most elegant of solutions.

Further to the controller limitations, the game is bloody complex! Even after taking part in the game’s many welcome (although not exactly eloquent) tutorials, beginners will almost certainly feel the need to take to Youtube and watch one of the dozens of ‘how to’ videos that are available. It is, at times, a bit of a pain in the arse. However, if you do persevere, a fascinating game awaits. Will you lead your civilisation into a golden age of peace, or start a series of intergalactic wars? Will you be religious zealot, resource-hoarding arseholes or altruistic, benevolent peacekeepers?

Stellaris: Console Edition is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have an intelligent, sprawling and thought-provoking (and time consuming!) game at your disposal. On the other, playing on console really does feel like a clumsier, lesser option. Still, madly keen strategy nerds who don’t own a decent PC will delight at finally being able to get their hands on this bad boy, and will drink in the chance to get lost in their own universe. The rest of us filthy casuals, however, will be scratching our heads and spending a whole lot of time on Youtube.

 
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The Last of Us Part II

Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge,” the old saying goes, “dig two graves”. In the case of The Last of Us Part II, that should probably be amended to “dig about three thousand bloody graves because you are going to be killing an absolute shitload of people, monsters and dogs.” Yes, the sequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013 masterpiece The Last of Us is here and it’s every bit as dark, violent and nasty as you’ve been led to expect. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste, but even hardened apocalyptic veterans should know, this is at times a very rough ride indeed.

The Last of Us ended on a beautifully bittersweet, ambiguous note. Joel, our main protagonist, decided that instead of sacrificing Ellie to cure the virus at the core of the story, he’d kill to keep her alive. Later, she questions Joel, who lies to her face. Does she believe him? We don’t know, because that’s where our story ends. It was a near-perfect conclusion to a beautiful masterpiece of a game. The Last of Us Part II opens four years later, reintroducing us to our beloved characters for the first couple of hours and then… well, something happens. An event that is so savage and shocking, it’s had gamers and journalists incandescent with rage and chucking a massive sook respectively.

After said event, Ellie is ready for revenge and sets off on a bloody journey through post-apocalyptic Seattle, killing infected and human alike to reach her final goal. If the original game was an occasionally grim road trip, Part II is a nihilistic wallow in mankind’s darkest nature featuring some of the most realistically portrayed, horrific violence in video game history. This title earns every scrap of its R-rating and then some. However, around the halfway mark the game makes a story choice that we won’t spoil, but it is designed to make the audience question everything they know. It’s smart, subversive, perhaps a little oversalted – and not exactly brimming with subtlety – but it’s a bold and unexpected move in a AAA game, which is an arena not exactly overflowing with risk-taking creative decisions. Although it’s one that has proved extremely divisive.

Story aside, The Last of Us Part II is possibly the best looking game currently on the market, certainly the PS4. The animation, character models, environments, motion capture, music and voice acting are some of the best ever seen, and the immersion you’ll feel in the 25-30 hour journey will be total. Yes, there are some clumsy moments in this grim pairing of The Road and 28 Days Later, but there are also giddy highs, soul-shattering lows and moments of pure, genuine terror.

Ultimately, The Last of Us Part II isn’t quite the perfect experience of the original (which you can grab for a song these days, if you’ve not played it). But it’s a bold, nasty, and uncharacteristically risky undertaking for an AAA studio, and an absolutely unmissable video game. If, that is, you can handle the gore, horror and heavy-handed nihilism.

The Last of Us Part II isn’t always a good time – hell, sometimes it’s genuinely harrowing – but it’s also an engrossing experience that interrogates the very notion of revenge and personal narratives. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can deal with a story that may not go the way you’d hoped, The Last of Us Part II is a bloody, body-filled grave that you’ll very much dig.

 
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What Goes Around

Australian, Home, Horror, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Taking its cue from the likes of I Know What you Did Last Summer and Heathers, What Goes Around manages to blend a teen drama and a checklist of slasher tropes into a bloody smoothie that goes down exceedingly well.

Erin (Catherine Morvell) is a socially awkward film student living with anxiety; the kind which makes you lock yourself in a club toilet and cry until there’s not a drop of water left in your body. While her BFF Rachel (Gabrielle Pearson) stands fast with her troubled friend, the other members of Erin’s social circle share varying degrees of impatience with her. Friends such as the political pillock Cameron (Charles Jazz Terrier) and the mouth on legs Marnie (Ace Whitman) seem like the very people you should stay away from, but seemingly wanting to appear ‘normal’, Erin hangs with them regularly.

Entering from stage left is Alex (Jesse Bouma), Erin’s class crush and very quickly her lover. Despite finding what appears to be a snuff film on his laptop, Erin lets herself get lost in Alex’s doe eyes. And that’s when the bodies start piling up. Someone is picking off Erin’s ‘friends’ and uploading their violent deaths online.

Like any good slasher, you’ll need to not question the fact that the police are rarely, if ever, seen investigating these public mutilations. Nor does Erin appear to have any kind of structured support despite clearly battling some kind of trauma. Writer/Director Sam Hamilton leaves them to fend for themselves before they’re vivisected in front of a go-pro camera during one of the film’s more tense moments.

In fact, at times, Erin doesn’t seem too fussed that her chums are being turned into chum.

Hamilton – making his strong feature-length debut – uses Erin’s apathy to their termination to throw the viewer off his scent. Sure, Alex acts a bit odd, but our hero also fantasises about slicing the face off the eternally cheerful Cara (Aly Zhang) while she’s at work. So, its anyone’s guess as to who is doing what. In fact, had What Goes Around been longer it would have been interesting to see the film play out this conceit a little bit more.

Acting like a swift, deep knife to the guts, What Goes Around is a nice throwback to the slashers of the ‘90s where kids rule and adults drool. While it can’t completely hide its rough edges, it does enough to be an entertaining 80 minutes that knows precisely what kind of film it is.

Available globally now via Prime Video, Genflix and Vimeo on Demand.

 

 
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Lizzie

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The fascination with the true case of Lizzie Borden, involving the violent hatchet murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, has persisted throughout the years to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the violent nature of the crime, or the fact that Lizzie, while almost certainly guilty, was acquitted of the murder and no one else ever charged. Regardless, it’s rich material for the right storyteller and with Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, we have the tale reimagined as a slowburn, simmering queer romance.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is a smart young woman, frustrated by her lack of agency in society and very dubious of her father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and his ongoing fiscal mismanagement of her inheritance. Lizzie is a bit too forthright for her own good, and finds herself alone and mostly friendless. That is, until the arrival of Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), whose gentle manner and innate kindness have the pair bonding and then becoming faltering but passionate lovers.

Lizzie works best as a romance, with the forbidden love between Lizzie and Bridget providing an extremely engaging throughline. Slightly less deft is the handling of Andrew, stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) all of whom are so cartoonishly evil you’ll be yearning for them to cop a hatchet to the bonce within the first fifteen minutes. While it’s fine to have an unpleasant antagonist or two in your tale, their complete lack of literally any redeeming qualities means there’s very little room for character development or nuance, which leads to some awkward pacing issues particularly in the second act. The always-welcome Kim Dickens fares better as Lizzie’s slightly more sensible and practical sister, Emma, who seems to sense her sister’s growing rage and tries to calm it.

Director Craig William Macneill’s direction is deliberate and may, for some audience members, be just a little too slow for its own good. However, the central performances from Sevigny and Stewart anchor the piece and the eventual reenactment of the bloody crime is certainly visceral and effective.

 
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Angel of Mine

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There are few things worse than a parent losing their child. One of them would be letting a deceptive hope creep in that maybe, just maybe, the child isn’t lost after all.

Dealing with a tragic situation is already too much for a lot of people to take, as the psychological strain of death that can truly mess with the mind. But throw in the possibility that all that pain and heartache might have been misplaced and… well, you get films like this.

A remake of the 2008 French film Mark Of An Angel, with the only major change being the framing of the narrative climax and who is directly involved, it plays out as a character study of Noomi Rapace’s Lizzie, a divorced mother who has been left traumatised by the death of her daughter, and who starts obsessing over a child in the neighbourhood that she believes is her.

Thrillers of this nature benefit from plot ambiguity, keeping the audience in stasis while the two potential outcomes whirl around the story: Is this actually her daughter, or has she lost her mind from the grief?

In the hands of writers Luke Davies, who has experience with displaced families through his work on Lion, and David Regal, best known for his work in late-‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons, that ambiguity feels somewhat misplaced.

Lizzie herself isn’t given the most sympathetic of frames, even with her emotional baggage. This isn’t helped by Rapace’s performance, which is a little too dead-eyed to give the audience a chance to consider her actually being right.

But as the story plays out, its position both as a stand-alone film and as a remake starts to become clearer. Director Kim Farrant (Strangerland), even when the scripting lets her down, shows staggering empathy for the position Lizzie is in, along with that of Yvonne Strahovski as the child’s mother.

On one hand, having an adult basically stalking your child will never not be cause for alarm. But on the other, it’s a nightmare-come-to-life scenario to be so wracked with sorrow for the loss of one’s own flesh and blood that some hope, any hope, is worth clinging to. And this is all without getting into Australia’s dark heart, with children being separated from their families, a history which is still irritatingly debated to this day.

This is definitely rough around the edges, and the weakest of Luke Davies’ most recent efforts (also Beautiful Boy) dealing with familial strains, but overall, it just manages to work.

The performances may not be as strong as they needed to be, but the film’s sense of mood and unending sense of dread fill in the blanks, and the intent at its core regarding maternal instincts feels like it’s tapping into something real. More than a little unsettling, but real.