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Cut Bank

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The Coen Brothers have become the high mark in modern neo-noir, and most young filmmakers crafting dark crime tales look to them as a tonal touchstone to invigorate their own efforts. Cut Bank locates its characters in the eponymous Montana town that is known as the coldest spot in the United States, and it’s where Dwayne (Liam Hemsworth) and Cassandra (Teresa Palmer), young lovers who dream of leaving their small town for the endless possibilities of the big city, inadvertently catch a murder being committed in the background of a video they are shooting. Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) and Cassandra’s father, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton), are soon drawn into the investigative proceedings for the first murder ever recorded in the town. Local postman, Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern), figures in the crime, and it’s the half-arsed plan that he’s set in motion that sees local psychotic recluse, Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg, of The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), crawl out from under his rock to exhaustively (and violently) hunt for the “special” parcel that he was expecting to be delivered. The bodies soon pile up as Postal Service boss, Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt), arrives in town to join the investigation.

Director, Matt Shakman, strives for the unravelling nightmare of a “money bag” caper like A Simple Plan or Fargo, but falls short for several reasons, not least because the local flavour and importance of its eponymous town is never successfully conveyed, and the lead performers end up overwhelmed by the seasoned actors in support. Hemsworth has been good elsewhere, but here he fails to spark, with his character lacking weight and definition; perhaps another actor could’ve brought that, but for Hemsworth, it’s a Sisyphean task. This is due largely to Rodrigo Patino’s problematic script, which is a veritable homage-a-thon, most notably with Stuhlbarg’s terrifically creepy performance as Derby Milton, which feels like a blatant facsimile of No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. Shakman directed episodes of the Fargo TV series, which while speaking to his worthiness, also flags the influences to which he unsuccessfully aspired.

 
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Review: Wolf Creek The Series: Episode 1

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The Wolf Creek films are essentially Australia’s answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) filling in for Leatherface, preying on ill-fated tourists who make the fatal mistake of wandering into his territory. Both Wolf Creek films were box office hits, and both films generated a bizarre amount of controversy (including a baffling low point where David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz flat out refused to review the sequel on At The Movies), but neither film seems even vaguely suited to the long-form storytelling treatment of a TV series. Slasher films are, by their nature, short and sharp. Even within the Wolf Creek movies, the original works much better than the sequel because Mick is kept enigmatic and mainly in the shadows. It’s unexpected and gratifying then, that the Wolf Creek series works so well.

The first episode of the series begins in a similar fashion to its cinematic forebears. An American family visits the great outback of Australia, to take in the sights and keep their troubled daughter, Eve (Lucy Fry), on the straight and narrow. Of course, Eve’s addiction problems seem very minor indeed once the family meet Mick. One scene of slaughter later, Mick takes the bodies of the family and drives off. But here’s the rub: Eve didn’t die. The rest of the episode puts the pieces in place for the series arc. Eve recovers from her wounds, befriends sympathetic cop, Sullivan (Dustin Clare), and begins planning her revenge on Mick, with the hunter literally becoming the hunted.

Lucy Fry and Dustin Clare in Wolf Creek

Lucy Fry and Dustin Clare in Wolf Creek

The Wolf Creek series benefits from solid central performances, with Jarratt in fine form, and Fry (last seen in 11.22.63, playing the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald) providing an engaging and nuanced protagonist. Wolf Creek is also beautifully shot, with the Australian outback looking vibrant and terrifying, the perfect place for Mick to ply his grisly trade. The tone is more thriller than horror this time, which is perfect for the six-episode arc, although Mick certainly hasn’t toned down his bloodletting or laconic gallows humour. The whole season begins streaming on Stan on May 12 – and if the rest of the season is as good as the first ep, then Australian horror and thriller fans are in for an entertaining, white-knuckle ride into hell and (hopefully) back again.

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! – ARGH ARGH ARGH!

 

 
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Glassland

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Carrying his alcoholic mother to his car after finding her comatose in her own vomit at home, young minicab driver, John (Jack Reynor), performs a quick look around to ensure that his neighbours are nowhere to be seen. Is he doing it for the sake of his mother? Or is it perhaps to save him from pitying glances?

Glassland, the second film from Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim’s Hill), is a brutally honest portrait of a mother and son relationship as the effects of alcoholism take a stranglehold on them. Set in the estates of Ireland, it’s an unsurprisingly bleak affair, bolstered by the performances of its two leads. Toni Collette plays John’s mother, and John’s whole world, Jean. She slurs and screams for her booze one night, and then stays shamefaced in her bedroom the next morning. It’s a difficult part to pull off without being overly theatrical, but Collette is uniformly brilliant. For his part, Reynor tries to hold John’s temper down. When we first meet him, he no longer shouts when his mother destroys the house; he simply records her on his phone as evidence. As the film progresses, and Jean refuses to even go to work, the cracks in John’s façade begin to show.

Away from home, something about John’s life stalks him until he can no longer ignore it, leading to a dovetailing of plots that sees him being able to save his mother’s soul by taking a chunk from his. Barrett plays out this B-plot with such subtlety that come the third act, it feels like it’s appeared from thin air. But upon closer inspection, the director was leaving us a breadcrumb trail all along. Glassland is an uncomfortable must see.

 
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La Bare

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There’s a moment in La Bare – a documentary from actor turned director, Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike) – that could easily have tainted everything. Sitting in the La Bare male strip club, a former male stripper turned DJ practically high fives the camera after boasting about the numerous women that he’s slept with and how quickly he can get through a thousand condoms. It’s a crass moment, and it almost reinforces the stereotype of the muscled, oily male dancer. But Manganiello’s film shakes off this creepy moment by being a cheeky, if somewhat disposable, celebration of comradery and the male form of striptease.

Following the dancers of the La Bare strip club, Manganiello gets them to talk about the reasons they got into the profession, and how it affects their daily lives. Aside from an emotional discussion about the loss of one of their fellow dancers in a shooting, these are mostly bright and breezy affairs, with very few of the men exposing deep, dark secrets. Nor does Manganiello dwell long on the themes of objectification, something that you would imagine would be ripe for the picking, even as the dancers quickly brush over any qualms that they have with boisterous laughter.

But then, La Bare doesn’t set out to be that that kind of film; the kind which wallows in the dark side of the adult entertainment industry. Everyone is here by their own volition, so why brow beat them! Perhaps the strongest moments in the film are those spent with Randy “Master Blaster” Ricks. Having been in the profession for 34 years, Randy has made a mini-empire for himself, and he puts it all down to the support of his 78-year-old mum, who later fusses over Manganiello like a lost son. A shrewd executive will probably pick these two up for a reality show, which wouldn’t be so bad.

 
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Goodnight Mommy

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Young Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are as close as twins can be. Never leaving each other’s side, they romp through the fields and lakes that surround their mother’s palatial house in the Austrian countryside. When a woman (Susanne Wuerst) arrives at their home, with her head wrapped in bandages and claiming to be their mother, the boys struggle to believe her. She’s tired, she’s angry, and she pointedly refuses to acknowledge Lukas; very much the opposite of their mother.

Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy deals with a child’s fear of change and unfamiliarity. At first at least, for the directors ensure that what seems clear cut in the beginning becomes muddied as the narrative develops. “Mommy” may very well indeed have had an operation, hence the bandages, but that doesn’t explain the aggressive behaviour that she has towards Lukas. Goodnight Mommy shakes the boys’ paranoia until it threatens to explode and consume everyone.

The Schwarz brothers are strong in relating a series of dark and troubling emotions. Equally, Wuest is skin crawling as the faceless, bandage-wrapped woman screeching like a harpy one moment, and lovingly whispering the next. This deliberately paced film works best when it’s throwing its audience numerous red herrings. But when the pieces start to fall into place, something is lost. Goodnight Mommy sheds its Polanski sensibilities, and deep into the third act, it replaces subtlety for shock and awe, with the twins taking on their foe with scissors and superglue. Did the filmmakers need to resolve their central mystery then? Maybe not, as the film lends itself to being scarier by not being so explicit in its fiery finale. Moving that to one side though, Goodnight Mommy is a gorgeous horror to look at, especially with its methodical camerawork and sumptuous country backdrop.

 
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Electric Slide

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In 1983, furniture store owner, Eddie Dodson, robbed over 60 banks in the space of nine months. Six in a single day. After doing time for his crimes, he ended up working for Jack Nicholson before robbing some more banks and eventually dying of liver failure related to hepatitis C. It was, to be fair, a busy life. Electric Slide, directed by Tristan Patterson, focusses on that year in ‘83 when he would become the gentleman bank robber.

Glossing over his well-known drug addiction, the movie Dodson (Jim Sturgess) must get money together when Christopher Lambert’s mob boss threatens to break his legs. During his crime sprees, Dodson picks up Pauline (Isabel Lucas), a waif who appears to have been blown into LA in the last breeze. She’s enamoured with Eddie, and clearly finds his new career path something of a turn-on. It’s a shame then that this central romance is uninvolving, no matter how many LA punk songs the soundtrack plays during their love scenes.

And that’s the problem with Electric Slide as a whole. It emotes all over the place, but never gives you anything substantial. It’s a glossy and slick affair, that occasionally reminds the audience of Scorsese in his youth, but that’s not enough. Like Dodson’s fake bravado in the face of adversity, or his flirtations with the cashiers that he robs, it all rings hollow. We come in knowing little about Dodson and leave perhaps knowing even less. Take the film as a fairy tale with Dodson as his own unreliable narrator, and the vapidity of it all begins to make sense. It would certainly justify why every woman, including Patricia Arquette and Chloe Sevigny, who meets Dodson wants to sleep with him upon contact with his pencil moustache.

 
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Hap And Leonard: Season 1

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Having impressed festival audiences with their feature film adaptation of cult author, Joe R. Lansdale’s Texas-noir thriller Cold In July, director, Jim Mickle, and screenwriter, Nick Damici, return to the well once more. This time, they’re bringing Lansdale’s unique combination of laconic humour, unforgettable characters, and brutal violence to the small screen with a cracking take on Savage Season, the first of a long-running series of novels featuring down-home detectives, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

The scene is set in East Texas, 1988. Hap Collins (British actor, James Purefoy, sporting a pretty spot-on accent) is a former conscientious objector who spent time in federal prison for refusing to serve in Vietnam. His best friend, however, did serve; Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams) is black, gay, angry as hell, and prone to delivering terrible violence upon whoever raises his ire. The two are grappling with their most recent foray into unemployment when Trudy (Christina Hendricks), Hap’s ex-wife, swans back into their lives with a proposition involving a sunken stash of cash somewhere in a nearby river. If the two can find it, they’ll split it 50/50 – half for Trudy and the posse of wannabe revolutionaries she’s partnered up with, who want to use the money to start a grass roots uprising. Further complicating things is the presence of a psychotic drug dealer (Jimmi Simpson) and his Amazonian girlfriend/enforcer (Pollyanna McIntosh), who would much rather take the money for themselves, and don’t much care how many bodies they have to pile up to accomplish that.

Christina Hendricks and James Purefoy

Christina Hendricks and James Purefoy

Hap And Leonard is a good story well told. The plot is straight forward, but the joy comes in watching these characters bounce off each other and crack skulls. Purefoy’s Hap is a charming homespun philosopher, averse to violence but perfectly capable of it should the need arise. Williams’ Leonard, however, is a hair-trigger menace who spends most of his time daring the world to take a swing at him. Polar opposites, they’re nonetheless tighter than brothers and tackle whatever the world throws at them as a team – an arrangement threatened by Hendricks in full-on southern-fried femme fatale mode.

Tonally, the most obvious comparison is Justified, the recently wrapped series based on Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens character. Hap And Leonard isn’t quite that good, but it certainly operates in similar territory, taking place in a world of rural poverty where everyone has a quip on their lips and a gun on their hips, and violence is sudden, shocking, and terribly final. As a writer, Lansdale is always fun to read but tough to pigeonhole in a genre, and that has carried over here; Hap And Leonard combines crime, comedy, action, and occasionally violence that borders on the horrific to come up with a flavour that might share similarities with other properties, but is nonetheless very much its own thing.

The series ticks along nicely for six episodes, which is enough time to let things develop and breathe, but not long enough to outstay its welcome – a useful corrective in a time when so many series seem to view length as its own merit. Still, if this blast of sweaty southern adventure leaves you wanting more, there’s a sequel hook left dangling that promises a second season if the numbers add up. Bring on Mucho Mojo.

 
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12 Monkeys: Season 2, Episode 1: Year Of The Monkey

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Translating Terry Gilliam’s 1995 philosophical time travel drama to the small screen was always going to require sacrifices and hard choices, some of which might horrify purists. Gone is Gilliam’s intricate visual style, which would have been a non-starter in the fast-paced world of episodic TV production. Gone too is the meticulous and incredibly coherent script by David and Janet Peoples, which welded together narrative and thematic complexity with a kind of warm, broken humanity. In their place we get a more polished and narratively complex offering, which trades in the earlier film’s fatalism for time-spanning conspiracies, portentous doomsaying, and globetrotting thrills. That it manages to be quite enjoyable in its own right is impressive.

 

After a quick recap of the previous season we jump straight to an action beat, where time traveller James Cole (played by Aaron Stanford as a much more stable protagonist – in this iteration time travel doesn’t scramble your eggs) and his best bud/frequent enemy, Jose Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) confronting the forces of the 12 Monkeys in a blast of pyrotechnics and gunplay before bouncing off to find a backroom surgeon to pull a tracking device out of Ramse’s neck because this is time-travel-as-technothriller, not time time-travel-as-meditation-on-predetermination.

 

Meanwhile, in the post-apocalyptic future that Cole is struggling to prevent, Doctor Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) – spirited up the time stream at the end of last season after being shot – finds herself making a deal with the devil in the form of head thug Deacon (Todd Stashwick) against the ruling cabal of the 12 Monkeys, here reconfigured as a kind of religious cult rather than the original’s driven eco-terrorists.

 

Finally, in New York City we check in on crazy person Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire riffing on Brad Pitt’s twitchy anti-messiah), who has been appointed by the 12 Monkeys to unleash the virus that will bring about the end of the Anthropocene era, but may or may not be having second thoughts about being the midwife of the apocalypse. Out of all the cast, Goynes alone brings the off-kilter attitude of Gilliam’s film, with everyone else having their idiosyncrasies shorn off so that they can shoulder a more intricate plot. It’s really only when Hampshire’s on screen that we’re reminded that this is indeed 12 Monkeys and not some lost Sarah Connor Chronicles spinoff.

 

Still, everything ticks along nicely and we’re set up well for a full season of signs and revelations, which is pretty much the object of the exercise. You may want to marathon the first season rather than jumping on here, though.

 
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Un Village Francais

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It’s not just Netflix, Scandi, and HBO who are contributing to the high standard of new television programming; the Italians have been doing it for years with the likes of Inspector Montalbano, and so have the French with Un Village Francais, which has been in production since 2009, with its first season recently enjoying a spotlight during the popular Alliance Francais French Film Festival tour in Australia. If you got a taste for the show through that, or if this is the first time that you have heard of it, then rejoice, because three volumes/seasons are already on DVD, with a fourth due in June.

The show is rumoured to shoot its final, seventh season in 2016, so there’s never been a better time to binge on the three sets that are available in this country. Un Village Francais kicks off at virtually the time that German forces invade a small village in rural France in 1940. It captures vividly the sense of something extraordinary, as it focuses on various members of the community – doctors, teachers, wives, children, immigrants – whose day to day activities are suddenly disrupted by the reality of war. Petty quibbles are suddenly set aside as higher stakes of life and death become the stuff of daily life; and emotions escalate as love affairs and human connection are embraced to the full.

It’s location and period are reminiscent of Claude Berri’s classic, Jean de Florette/Manon De Sources, with the show runners embracing complex characters set adrift amidst beautiful scenery to keep you glued through each hour-long episode. Notable is the conclusion to each episode as the screen dissolves into a black and white freeze frame, resulting in a still that wouldn’t be remiss in a classic history text about WW2. One of the world’s great filmmaking nations, France has mostly reverted to banal rom-coms or action flicks these days, and like the US, it seems that their television landscape is all the better for it if Un Village Francais is anything to go by.