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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.

 
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Sinister 2

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2012’s Sinister saw Ethan Hawke knee-deep in snuff films and shielding his family from a bogeyman known as Bughuul, who coerces children into killing their families before kidnapping them. Sinister 2 sees the return of Deputy So & So (James Ransome) from the first film as he looks for a way to end Bughuul’s reign of celluloid terror. His mission sees him cross paths with Shannyn Sossamon, who plays Courtney, a single mum of twins hiding away from her abusive ex.

Whereas the original Sinister allowed us to uncover some kind of mystery alongside Hawke, this time around the film’s focus is on the children and how they’re provoked into such murderous actions. Courtney’s son, Dylan, is visited nightly by the spirit of Bughuul’s ‘children’ who force him to watch 8mm reels of families being dispensed of via being set alight, electrocution, and even crocodiles; all done with the intent of encouraging him to do likewise.

With the first being a moderate success, Sinister 2 wants to capitalise on this and does so by flying its colours under the banner of ‘more is more!’ More Bughuul stalking dark corridors like a Slipknot cast-off. More child-on-parent violence. More Ransome looking confused. None of which really adds anything to the narrative which feels more like a kitchen sink drama with a bit of bloodthirsty violence thrown in intermittently.

Perhaps with the first Sinister being such a standalone movie there’s nothing of value for original writers, C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson, to explore. Did anyone need to know why the children do what they do? Often, things are scarier when they’re not explained. And whilst Sinister 2 at least manages to avoid being a mere re-tread, the final product comes off as decidedly flat.

 
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Two Men In Town

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A remake of the 70s French film, Deux Hommes Dans La Ville, this is the sorry tale of William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) on parole after spending 18 years in prison for killing a deputy. Now a convert to Islam and desperate to start a new life, William is constantly harangued by Bill, the town’s sheriff played by Harvey Keitel. Elsewhere, his former partner in crime, a human trafficker called Terence (Luis Guzman), wants to offer him a new life as long as it’s under his rule.

Directed by Rachid Bouchareb, Two Men in Town is a dusty, sun bleached saunter through redemption with William being taken under the wing by Brenda Blethyn as his parole officer, Emily. If it’s not already noticeable, this is a stellar cast and they are uniformly brilliant. Rather than the male leads sharing scenes that make the film, its perhaps Blethyn and Keitel locking horns that truly stand out. Keitel as a man who feels justice has yet to be done, and Blethyn as someone who has built her sense of the law on the ideals of everyone being allowed a second chance.

Unfortunately, there are faults. Particularly in a subplot that sees William quickly setting up a relationship with a Bank Teller that ends up feeling like nothing more than a quick fix to push William further in his story, rather than something natural.

However, its Whittaker’s nuanced performance that wins over as he tries to bury his youthful rage under his new religion. When a shift as a farm hand threatens to get in the way of his prayers, William tries to maintain dignity as he contemplates washing in a cow’s trough and kneeling in the manure. It’s truly a heartbreaking scene as, in a world that hates him, William tries to save himself and others by swallowing his rage.

 
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Take Care

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There are thousands of romantic comedies in the cinema canon. A large number of those are set against the backdrop of New York. So, when another example rolls around every few months, it needs to have something going for it. Take Care by writer and director Liz Tuccillo, may be set in the Big Apple, but we rarely set foot outside of the apartment of its lead Frannie, played by Leslie Bibb.

Frannie is recovering from being hit by a car and being left with several broken bones. When her friends and family reveal themselves to be too busy to help her with her day to day, she emotionally blackmails her ex, Devon (Thomas Sadoski), into helping. It’s a foolhardy act that allows the two to ruminate over their failed relationship and see if they still at least have a friendship they can maintain. It’s a simple premise with a plot that doesn’t leave you sweating with anticipation about what’s going to happen. However, it flies by on the charm of its leads, with Bibb channeling every cute happy-go-lucky character trait she can muster and Sadoski turning on the puppy eyes at the right time to make some scenes extra heart melting.

Admittedly, depth of character is largely missing, painfully noticeable with Devon’s girlfriend, Jodi (Betty Gilpin). Jodi is the film’s antagonist, of sorts, whose only crime is to wonder why her boyfriend is lying to her about taking care of someone and refuses to let her meet them. Take Care isn’t the first film to do this, but it does grate. Instead of cheering on the leads to get together, the mind often wonders if it would be better to take Jodi out for a coffee and shoulder to cry on.

 
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Drone

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The introduction of drones into warfare is a sobering and terrifying prediction of what’s to come. Relatively safe within the confines of a US military base, a drone operator can obverse and report on the enemy in real time. They can also assassinate quickly, but perhaps, as this documentary from Tonje Hessen Schei points out succinctly, not so efficiently. In the effort to show whose army is the biggest, Drone points out the dangers of trying to be king of the castle. As one candid official wonders aloud during the course of the film, are some of the costs of drones outweighing the benefits?

With no added narration, Schei allows the subjects of his film to answer this question. Take, for example, Brandon Bryant, the drone operative suffering from PTSD and shunned by his peers for speaking out. Closer to the ground, there are the people of Waziristan, who have been rocked by the careless use of drones. That they look forward to cloudy days, when even the drones’ powerful telescopic lens is useless, speaks volumes. Hauntingly effective is Schei’s usage of headshots of those civilians who have died in drone raids, despite often having no connection to those originally targeted. Some old, many young, all of their deaths achingly pointless.

 Yes, Drone clearly has an agenda, and sometimes that clouds its judgement. The documentary is quick to point out that the military funds computer games for training the next generation of soldiers. However, without explicitly stating who these companies are, the accusation sounds simply like something from The Last Starfighter. But with 89 countries reportedly owning their own drones, it’s hard to deny the film’s ultimate goal of opening up a public discussion about how we wish to be defended by our governments.

 
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[REC] 4: Apocalypse

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Spanish filmmakers, Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero, gave the found footage genre a shot of adrenaline back in 2007 with REC and later REC 2, which saw a theological tinged virus corrupt the tenants of an apartment block in Barcelona. Co-directing those first two, Plaza and Balaguero went solo for the next chapters in the franchise. Plaza shifted to an anarchic comedic tone with 2012’s Genesis, and now it’s Balaguero’s turn with the fourth and final chapter, Apocalypse.

Despite the promise of the title, there’s very little that’s apocalyptic about this fourth film. Set immediately after the events of REC 2 – but making cheeky references to the third – it sees Manuela Velasco return as TV journalist, Angela, now under quarantine on a tanker in the middle of the ocean. Her captors have her under close scrutiny as her constant survival could lead to the development of a retrovirus to cure the zombie outbreak. Of course, nothing in life is that simple, and when the virus spreads again due to zombie monkeys (yes, really), Angela must fight her way off the floating coffin.

It’s interesting to note how Plaza and Balaguero’s styles contrast when they don’t work together. Plaza aimed for splatter comedy, and here, Balaguero’s efforts resemble more of an action movie, as he replaces heightened tension with bombastic set pieces and a high body count. That’s not a dismissal of the film’s scope, just an acknowledgment that Apocalypse is perhaps not the ending to the franchise that fans were expecting. Those wanting to sift further into the REC universe will certainly leave wanting. Thrilling in parts but just missing the mark in so many other aspects, Apocalypse literally ends on a confused look instead of a bang. Maybe use less zombie monkeys next time.

 
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Terminus

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This high concept (though evidently low budget) dystopian sci-fi thriller is set in America’s Midwest, although it was actually filmed in Sydney and Portland, NSW. The title refers – at least in part – to Operation Terminus, an engagement which has involved the US occupation of Iran. It’s all gone horribly wrong, and a nuclear war appears to be imminent…

Meanwhile, back in the States, the focus is on the less apocalyptic but still dismal problems of three people. There’s David Chamberlain (Jai Koutrae), a widowed small-town mechanic who donated a kidney to his late wife. Her dying words were the portentous statement “Nothing bad will ever last”. Then there’s their distressed daughter Annabelle (Kendra Appleton), and a stereotypically embittered war veteran called Zach (Todd Lasance), who does actually have some reason to be bitter, given that one of his legs was amputated in combat.

A series of untoward and bizarre incidents occur, and it becomes apparent pretty early in the proceedings that some sort of alien life form has arrived. Read no further if you want to retain what little suspense can be generated by this story, but it seems that the organism has the very useful property of being able to repair or reanimate any ruined organs with which it comes into contact. Severed legs, say, or donated kidneys. And then, on a much larger level, there is its implicit potential for use in warfare…

Terminus is slow moving and often underlit – presumably in the interests of ambience, but the murkiness gets monotonous and the creepy soundtrack music does little to alleviate the torpor. And it’s also patently absurd, without the requisite sharp dialogue or imaginative direction to get away with it.

 
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The Shannara Chronicles

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There is a peculiar dichotomy to fantasy fiction. If by name it suggests a limitless scope for imaginative invention, its pitfall in too many examples is that it binds itself to the tropes of its own genre too rigidly. Rather than stretching its own capacity, it is prone instead to slavishly repeat its own inbred repertoire of invented pro-nouns, elvish caricatures, and mythic demons

The Shannara Chronicles, a new series produced by MTV and based on the novels by Terry Brooks, epitomises this problem to a fault as a virtual catalogue of fantasy genre clichés, a show in which a jargon talking race of future Elves must fight to conquer an awakening army of demons formerly warded off by an ancient but now dying tree.

For generations, The Chosen have been charged with protecting the Ellcrys Tree in order that it will continue its mystical function. The problem is that over time, these young upstarts have lost faith and come to view the tree as merely folkloric. Bad idea. The tree starts to decay, and a three-thousand year old Druid devil imprisoned by its branches wakes up, summons his hellish army, and begins to wreak havoc.

Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton) is one of the newly Chosen. Feared and fleeing from her destiny, she must be recovered to the kingdom by Wil (Austin Butler), a naïve half breed whose father was a great magician, and Allanon (Manu Bennett), a druid newly woken from several decades sleep.

In narrative terms the show is reasonably compelling, if unsurprising. The tried and true nature of its arc would be more tolerable if its themes and characters were fleshed out further beyond its stock standard ad hoc. Instead, its vague allusions to Christianity – the confounding of myth with faith – function primarily to serve the action rather than to enhance the subject.

Meanwhile the actors do their best with cumbersome, over expository dialogue, filled with self-specific jargon and LA accents; and contemporary music ups the teen angst several fold.

The Shannara Chronicles is entertaining, if violent, fantasy that will probably endear itself to young adults and genre enthusiasts. Whereas Game of Thrones crossover appeal is its ability to render its goings-on with Shakespearean gravitas, The Shannara Chronicles suffers by contrast from its inability to reach beyond its own self-imposed restrictions. Fantasy by its nature should be imaginatively boundless; by a stringent reliance on worn out archetypes, The Shannara Chronicles chokes out its own potential.

 

The Shannara Chronicles airs 7:30pm, Saturdays on SyFy.

 
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The Lives We Lead

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Made on a budgetary shoestring of $20,000, Davo Hardy’s The Lives We Lead is summed succinctly by its title. Following the intertwined fates of four friends from early childhood until old age and finally death, the film is a painful snapshot of human mortality and the worst aspects of its pitiful ordinariness.

Pamela (Sally Williams) grows up enthralled by the prospect of stardom. Oblivious to her lack of ambition and natural talent, she finds herself diverted into unplanned pregnancy and a dead-end marriage with Kerrod (Davo Hardy), growing ever more despondent as age and lovelessness erode her spirit. Kerrod’s best friend Gavin meanwhile (Josh Wiseman), an aspiring actor, is railroaded into porn by his boyfriend and eventually raped by Pamela’s writer sister Edith (Georgina Neville), a frumpy and cynical spinster looking to get pregnant.

While the film is as melodramatic as its plot suggests, what actually redeems it is its own amateurishness, a Tommy Wiseau by way of Larry Clarke cinema aesthetic whose result is a cross between employment training film and government service advertisement; wherein is a gritty sense of honesty that excessive polish could only erode. Despite for instance, the clunky dialogue which, based on a play, retains the sort of stagy exposition less suitable to film than to theatre, the film manages to be convincing on an emotional level. The characters as individuals are authentically pathetic as to be recognisable, and structurally the film benefits from its ability to capture the finite and fleeting nature of life by way of its birth to death story arc.

This also means that by its nature The Lives We Lead is highly depressive, seeming to revel in the dire misfortune of its proponents with malevolent glee while its conversely ‘uplifting’ musical theme plays repeatedly. Blackly comic, but mostly just black, this small Aussie film is an interesting, if rather acquired taste.