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The Last Survivors

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With Mad Max: Fury Road having blazed a trail last year, and Katniss’ story coming to an end in the second part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, The Last Survivors arrives at a time when female characters are not simply strong because they can kick hard.

Sometime in the future, the world has been crippled by a ten-year drought. In a valley somewhere in America, a water baron by the name of Carson (John Gries) has taken it upon himself, like any good George Miller antagonist would, to round up anybody using his precious water on their dilapidated farmland. Hayley Lu Richardson plays Kendal, a young woman keeping her head whilst those around her literally lose theirs. Having managed to hide herself and her ill partner (Booboo Stewart) from the machinations of the corrupt baron and his small army, she soon finds that time and water are running out.

Visually bleached to the bone, The Last Survivors plays out like the adaptation of a Young Adult novel that’s yet to be written, where youth must triumph over the old. Kendal, however, is a resourceful protagonist who isn’t trying to lead a revolution, but just trying to survive. Richardson plays her with ruthless efficiency, and there are chills when she confesses to her boyfriend that she hadn’t planned on him surviving as long as she has.

John Gries (Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite!), meanwhile, plays Carson as the hero in his own story, forgoing the usual villain’s arched eyebrow and moustache twirling. Both Carson and Kendal don’t want to have to hurt anyone really, but needs must when the devil drives. At times, like its cast of characters, The Last Survivors looks a little rough around the edges, but it certainly achieves more than its glossy compatriots.

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In a deep, dark bunker, a young family have been surviving for over 300 days with limited light and even more limited food. Outside and above the bunker lurk “The Breathers.” With glowing eyes and Darth Vader’s respiratory problems, they stalk the night on the lookout for the family.

Hidden is a chamber piece spiked with apocalyptic sensibilities. At least to begin with anyway. Directors, The Duffer Brothers, set up a grim, bleak world which we view through the eyes of daughter, Zoe (Emily Alyn Lind), who has spent nearly a year living in fear of the mysterious Breathers, and stuck in the middle of her loving, well-intentioned parents.

Like any true parental team, mother and father want the best for their children, but choose different routes to get there. Mother, Claire (Andrea Riseborough), tries to maintain order with a series of rules intended to keep Zoe safe, but ultimately to help herself cope with their desperate situation. Meanwhile father, Ray (Alexander Skarsgard), agrees with the rules set in place, but his more relaxed, cavalier attitude causes tension. With everything going on, there’s a lot here for a child to emotionally unpack, and young star, Emily Alyn Lind, gives a strong, emotional, and heart wrenching performance.

As deliberately paced as the film is, Hidden picks up speed when an attempt to destroy a rat in their makeshift kitchen leads the family to exposing their hiding spot to the things upstairs. From this point on, Hidden takes a sharp turn from thriller to something altogether different. It’s a gut-punch of an ending, and it’s a testament to the cast that things stay as grounded as they do.

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Bound To Vengeance

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Revenge films, particularly those where the protagonist is a terrorised woman being brutalised by a gang of men, can easily fall under scrutiny for their lurid eye. These Femsploitations, as recently as the rebooted I Spit On Your Grave trilogy, are sometimes too focused on the victimisation of their protagonists, as opposed to their eventual bloody vengeance. Jose Manuel Cravioto’s Bound To Vengeance skips this problematic ghoulishness by setting its sights firmly on what really should be the selling point of these films in the first place: the revenge.

When we’re first introduced to Eve (Tina Ivlev), she is being held captive in a dark basement by Phil (Richard Tyson). Spotting an opportunity, Eve escapes his clutches, but upon realising that he has other women incarcerated around town, she forces Phil to help her set them free…but not everything is as it seems. Despite Eve’s best intentions, her white knight attitude puts her into contact with people who are not as strong as her. PTSD, Stockholm Syndrome, and even indifference to their own plight means that Eve struggles to rally the troops.

Bound To Vengeance is a brutal film that doesn’t rely on brutality. Reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive, Only God Forgives) aesthetic, its slick neon visuals offset its grimy underbelly. Whilst it could have been an excuse for 90 minutes of violence towards women, the film’s onus is very much on the aftermath of Phil’s brutal campaign of fear and abuse towards his “sweethearts.” We’re not invited to be a silent participant wallowing in their suffering, but we’re sure as hell going to be there when Eve storms the Bastille. With grounded performances from Ivlev and Tyson, this is an excellent indie thriller that tries to do something a little different from the norm.

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Screenwriter turned director, Brian Helgeland’s penchant for brutal noir (Payback, L.A Confidential, Man On Fire) gels easily with the British gangster genre’s droll humour and casual violence.

This project sees him in the director’s chair charting the tale of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the twin gangster brothers of sixties East End London. Reggie (Tom Hardy) is the charming rogue and club-owner criminal. Ronnie (also Tom Hardy) is a paranoid schizophrenic, certified insane until Reggie blackmails a shrink and orchestrates his release from an institution. Out in the world, Ronnie is a hair trigger; he’s violent, brutal, openly gay in a time of repression, and willing to use its shock value to provoke violence. The brothers form an antagonistic partnership with club owner, Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), who facilitates an alliance with US Mafioso, Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri). Around the same time, Reggie meets the meek and mild Francis Shea (Emily Browning) and falls in love. All the while Ronnie, a crazed and manic time bomb, wants to go to war with the world, permeating the plot with the stench of inevitability.

There have been Kray cinematic treatments before (notably with Spandau Ballet’s Gary and Martin Kemp), but this take on the tale lulls the uninitiated into its gloss and period excess until it’s interspersed with horrifically jarring violence, though clearly that’s the point that Helgeland is trying to make. Hardy is a true movie star, and here he is astonishingly good in one of the best depictions seen of one actor playing twins on-screen, rivalling even that of Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. It’s undermined by an ill-fitting score and a puzzlingly structured third act, but there’s real pleasure in Hardy’s bold, intense, and utterly compelling lead performance.

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Two of the great time travel thought experiments are, “would you kill Hitler?” and “would you save JFK?” The slick J.J. Abrams produced mini-series, 11.22.63 seeks to address the latter question and, based on the first two episodes, does so extremely effectively.

11.22.63 started life as a massive, 900-page Stephen King novel. With an emphasis on character and drama rather than horror, it lends itself beautifully to the mini-series treatment. The story focuses on Jake Epping (James Franco), a high school English teacher who is a bit lost and listless after his divorce. Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) is the proprietor of Al’s Diner, Jake’s favourite eatery, and one day Al tells Jake a secret: there’s a doorway in the diner that leads into the past!

The thing about this specific brand of diner-based time travel is that there are rules. This isn’t a DeLorean situation, Jake has to live, work and exist in 1960s America for some years before that fateful day in Dallas. Much of the first episode’s humour comes from Jake’s very 2016 attitudes coming into conflict with a vastly different society.

It’s not all smiles and era juxtapositions, however, and episode two teases the story’s tantalising thriller elements, wherein the past proves that sometimes it doesn’t want to be changed. Sci-fi, thriller and Stephen King fans would do well to tune in to this stylish and thought-provoking adventure.

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Better Call Saul: Season 2

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The Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul, proved showrunner Vince Gilligan is no one trick pony. The first series comprised ten tightly-plotted episodes that, while tonally similar to Breaking Bad, cemented its own worth.

So how does Better Call Saul look after viewing the first episode from the second season? Short answer: very good. In fact, one could argue that the only negative of Saul season one was in the closing minutes of the tenth episode, where Saul (Bob Odenkirk) appeared to flee his new job and potential love, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). ‘What are you doing, Saul, you fool?’ one felt like crying at the telly. ‘This is madness! Madness, I say!’

Then the end credit block appeared and a long, soul-wrenching wait until season two began, with all the attendant internet speculation and online arguments.

The first episode seeks to explain Saul’s change of heart and spends a lot of time exploring his character and relationship with Kim. Beyond that we’d be getting into spoiler territory, but the good news is: everything you loved about season one is back, with ten brand new episodes airing over the next few months.

Bette Call Saul season 2 is not to be missed.

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Before We Go

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Chris Evans trades in the red, white and blue battle armour for his directorial debut that sees two people meeting by chance and sharing a night walking the streets of New York.

Borrowing heavily from the works of Linklater, Evans plays Nick, a young trumpeter coming to the aid of Brooke (Alice Eve); stranded in New York after losing her purse and missing the last train home. Despite not being part of Marvel’s cinematic universe, Evans still gets to play the hero it seems.

Perhaps one of the film’s strengths is its inversion of tropes, with the character of Nick sketched up as a gender reversal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Whilst Brooke stifles in her starchy collar, Nick bounces around showing her how to grab life by the horns. It certainly makes a change from the usual formula of middle aged man learns life lesson from a woman half his age.

Films like Brief Encounter and Before Sunrise work because of the rounded characters on display. We can feel them living off screen. That just doesn’t happen here. Despite the charismatic nature of both the leads, Before We Go is a light affair that never really does more than scratch the surface of their characters. Which is frustrating considering how much time they spend together. They share misty side eyes, whilst getting into sweet escapades that see them crashing parties and pretending to time travel. If it sounds a little cute, that’s because it is. Even the presence of the shifty gang who stole Brooke’s purse offer nothing that can shatter this idyllic evening.

That said, Evans has a good command of the camera, filtering the lightweight tale through a fairytale lens. In terms of a debut, its safe, sturdy and, if he challenges himself, shows promise.

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Big Sky

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Mexican Director Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are) helms this sun soaked and dusty thriller that sees one too many narratives fighting for attention.

Bella Thorne (The DUFF) plays Hazel, a teenager suffering from extreme agoraphobia. Accompanied by her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), she takes a bus trip through the desert to a sanatorium for help. When the bus is attacked by armed men looking to kidnap one of the passengers, Hazel and her mother, Dee, are the only ones left alive; albeit with Dee bleeding out from a gun wound. Big Sky then follows Hazel as she struggles with her condition, in order to make it to the nearest town for help.

Hazel’s pain is emphatic as we watch her take excruciatingly small steps, all the whilst telling herself that everything will be okay. A dreamlike quality underlines her journey as she encounters stoned motorcyclists, kindly couples and vivid hallucinations. All of which works well in the film’s favour.

However, not content with this narrative thread, Big Sky also checks in on mother Dee bleeding out and reminiscing, as well as the kidnappers with their prize. Surprisingly for a thriller, each thread focuses on the themes of growing up and parenting. Hazel learns to stand on her two feet, and Dee lets her do so despite her own concerns. Even the kidnappers have their moments to reflect on whether how they were raised has made them the violent men they are today.

A series of interesting ideas in their own films, but sadly, there’s so much going on in Big Sky that the spotlight is taken away from Hazel and she becomes a bit part in her own story. When the disparate threads do finally dovetail again, the result is a finale that’s undermining to say the least.

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Happy Birthday to Me

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If there ever was a film that could adequately warn against the dangers of eating shish kebab then 1981 Canadian horror Happy Birthday to Me is that film. In this comic book slasher, Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) has begun to experience flashbacks to the day her mother died. Fortunately, she has her friends, a clique known as the ‘Top Ten’, to support her. Unfortunately, someone is killing each of them one by one.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, the whole affair perhaps has more in common with his output for Cannon in the ‘80s, such as Death Wish 4, than his Oscar nominated work on Guns of Navarone. Despite his presence and that of Glenn Ford – who apparently had great issues with being in the film – this is a pulpy affair that sees college students being bumped off in ghoulishly imaginative ways, including weight lifting, garden shears and the aforementioned kebab. In between these macabre moments, most of which offer gratitude to giallo movies, the script serves up lashings of twists that see the rug being pulled from the audience on numerous occasions.

So many twists in fact, they become the film’s biggest weakness and, coupled with numerous lengthy scenes of the ‘Top Ten’ watching each other play sports, pad the film out to a running time of just under two hours. With other classics of that era, such as Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, making the most of 90 minutes, this bloatedness is a shame. Cutting off the fat would do wonders.

Putting that on the back burner, there is still a lot to enjoy, so to speak. A cult favourite to many due its black sense of humour and nonsensical ending, Happy Birthday to Me will be a bewilderment to others for exactly the same reasons.

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The Green Inferno

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Delayed in release due to various hiccups, Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno is finally seeing the light of day in Australia. So has it been worth the wait? Based on what Roth serves up over 90 minutes, the answer is a resounding – kind of.

College freshman Justine, (Lorenzo Izzo) signs up to a social activism group seemingly on the basis of getting into the trousers of enigmatic leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Before she can shout ‘Hell no! We won’t go!’ she and several others end up in the Amazon protesting its deforestation. After a successful demonstration, the group fly off into the sunset, only to crash into the middle of the rainforest and get kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe.

The Green Inferno is a love letter to the work of Ruggero Deodato. However, those wanting to get stuck straight into the main course will probably be restless as Roth takes a leisurely pace to get to the jungle. Once he does, he does so with a set piece that foreshadows the violence to come.

The film is also a middle finger to the social construct of ‘slacktivism’. Roth clearly has no time for this certain brand of protestor, spending a large part of his film painting them as backstabbing glory hunters. The after-effect being that it’s hard to decide who you’re supposed to be rooting for – the students or the villagers.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is any serious chin stroking to be had though, as any message The Green Inferno purports to have is drowned out by screams, blood and yes, explosive diarrhoea. So, whilst this is perhaps Roth’s most mature film to date, and looks frankly gorgeous, if you’re not already on board with the provocative style of filmmaking (Cabin Fever, Hostel), you’re going to find The Green Inferno hard to digest.