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Mojave

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Award winning screenwriter, William Monahan (The Departed), writes and directs this psychological thriller that’s light on thrills and heavy on the philosophical banter. The story centres on two men crossing lonely paths on a cold night in the desert. The first is Hollywood big shot, Thomas (Garrett Hedlund), who is escaping his LA lifestyle via suicide by vodka and heatstroke. The second man is Jack (Oscar Isaac), a shifty loner who, unbeknownst to Thomas, is a serial killer. Breaking bread over a campfire, the two men come to blows, and a third man winds up dead. Seeking sanctuary, Thomas hightails it back to Hollywood with Jack in pursuit.

After a slow-burning but strong start, Mojave’s wheels spin once it leaves the titular desert. Thomas tries to return to a life of normality whilst in danger of tripping over his furrowed brow. It’s safe to assume that Thomas is our hero, but he’s so distinctly unlikeable that it’s hard to know whether you should cheer or boo his behaviour. It doesn’t benefit the viewer that Hedlund chooses to mumble his lines into his beard.

Meanwhile, Jack trades in his drifter gear for a pair of pink speedos after he starts housesitting for a man that he’s just killed. In fact, Isaac’s scenes are the more enjoyable, and he’s missed when not on screen. The Star Wars: The Force Awakens star captures your attention even when the script isn’t giving him much to do but debate George Bernard Shaw and call everyone “brother.”

A classic game of cat and mouse threatens to break out at any second, but never really comes to fruition. Instead, Monahan takes pot-shots at the showbusiness world with frequent drop-ins on Mark Wahlberg, cameoing as a loudmouth studio exec who continually fights with Walton Goggins as Thomas’ lawyer. Mojave is a wandering oddity that doesn’t really go anywhere.

 
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Stretch

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Joe Carnahan (The Grey) writes and directs this off-kilter comedy that, but for the grace of God, could share a cinematic universe with Todd Phillips’ Hangover trilogy. Patrick Wilson plays Stretch, a struggling actor begrudgingly admitting to himself that his part-time job as a limo driver is really a full-time gig. Racking up a six-grand debt to a Mexican cartel, salvation comes in the form of Chris Pine’s hedonistic playboy, Roger Karos, who will pay off all of Stretch’s debts if he just does exactly what he says for one night.

After an unnecessarily slow start to introduce Stretch and his universe, Stretch picks up speed once Pine parachutes naked into the limo driver’s life, with the Star Trek actor clearly having the time of his life buried under an absurd amount of beard and hair. The scenes that he shares with Wilson are some of the best, as Stretch’s schtick comes undone in the face of Karos’ penchant for snorting anything and causing as much disturbance as possible. “Are you a Firestarter?!” he screams, lit up by a fire that he himself has started in the back of Stretch’s limo.

In what is almost an evil twin to Michael Mann’s Collateral, Stretch soon finds himself under pressure to meet his passenger’s increasingly bizarre demands, culminating in the centrepiece of the film: a race against time to pick up a large amount of drugs and money for an orgy. With its superfluous female characters (including poor Jessica Alba), who say little and wear even less, Stretch is essentially a boy’s club movie. Sweep that aside if you can, and the film’s absurd and often offensive humour will win you over. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but it will raise a smile or two.

 
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Little Dead Rotting Hood

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In Little Dead Rotting Hood, a small Midwestern town struggles with its ever increasing high body count. Haven’s Eric Balfour plays the sheriff heading up the investigation and trying to maintain order. The cause of death in all instances – even those that happen in college kids’ bedrooms – point towards wolves snacking on the town’s residents. Things become increasingly complicated though, when a young woman (Bianca A. Santos) turns up, very much undead and willing to take on the wolves in hand-to-paw combat.

With production company, The Asylum, best known for their prolific output of mockbusters and shark movies – whether they be in tornado form, megasized, or otherwise – it’s refreshing when they send something out of their stable that looks like neither. And as originality goes, Little Dead Rotting Hood is definitely shooting for high concept. Director, Jared Cohn (Bound), and writer, Gabriel Campisi (Jailbait), offer up a solid B-movie premise that would make Roger Corman envious. But whilst the planning is sound, the execution is not as fun as it should be for a film that sees rednecks whooping and a’hollerin’ whilst firing off flamethrowers into the air.

Balfour does his best Sheriff Brody as he struggles with the fur-covered threat, undead women, and juggling the responsibility of being a divorced dad of two (!) Wisely, he never coyly winks at the audience a la Sharknado. However, he’s unable to hide the stilted dialogue, iffy pacing, and “vicious” wolves that leap on their prey with all the ferocity of a dog having a brilliant day out. There’s a rushed feeling to Little Dead Rotting Hood that puts a damper on its fun schlock. But if you’re partial to The Asylum’s brand of budgetary storytelling, then you’re in for an enjoyable, if disposable, time.

 
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Dark Souls III

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It’s hard to write this review of Dark Souls III. I don’t mean that as an abstract, by the way. I’m not saying it’s intellectually difficult to define the frequently subjective appeal of this series. No, I’m saying it’s physically hard for me to keep my hands steady enough to type. Because they’re shaking, quite a lot, from the excitement of besting the final boss about 35 minutes ago.

I am suffused with a sense of bone deep satisfaction and accomplishment. I’ve spent more hours than I care to contemplate sitting in my tracksuit pants, on the couch, working my way up to the final boss, only to be rebuffed again and again and again. But that ended today. In a focused session, with much swearing and punching of ragecushions*, I finally toppled the entity (whose identity I won’t spoil) and I’m already planning my second playthrough.

See, that’s the thing about the Dark Souls series (encompassing Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I,II and III) and FromSoftware’s other, thematically similar entry, Bloodborne – they’re tough, unforgiving and, ultimately profoundly rewarding on a weirdly psychological level. From a distance their appeal is baffling: third person, dark fantasy adventures with insanely high degrees of difficulty, obtuse, minimalist storytelling and enemies that respawn every time you die. Why would any sentient being subject themselves to that level of masochistic bullshittery?

To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to explain. But I’ll share some experiences I jotted down in my 55 hours of playtime.

There was the moment in the cheerfully named Crucifixion Woods where I got lost. Like, powerfully, utterly, completely lost. I ran from one ill-fated encounter with a couple of giant crabs to a mob of skeletal wizards and finally met my maker at a boss who seemed to come out of nowhere. And it felt wonderful. The game opened up and swallowed me whole and it was great.

Later a literal army of skeletons chased me across a rickety rope bridge. I channelled my inner Indiana Jones and hacked at the side of the bridge. Two chops and I sent the horde of Harryhausen-esque creeps flailing to their doom. Then I climbed down the bridge like a ladder and uncovered a whole secret area… where a fire demon immediately killed me.

More recently, in a massive library area called The Grand Archives, I ran afoul of ghostly hands that burst unbidden from bookcases as I walked past them. Shortly afterwards I noticed wax-headed acolytes beaming deadly spells at me. I killed the acolytes and stumbled across a vat of boiling wax. The game prompted me to dip my head in the hot wax. Following the logic of a half-remembered nightmare, I dipped my head and found that the ghost hands could no longer hurt me. Of course, the trio of powerful knights and gargoyles still could, and did.

I could go on, but I won’t. Half the fun of Dark Souls III is the joy of discovery. The moment when you realise that chest you were fighting towards was in fact a toothy Mimic ready to feast on your delicious flesh or what you thought was a shortcut is in fact filled with poisonous rats. There’s a rhythm to the proceedings and if you learn to be patient and methodical, you’ll eventually emerge triumphant.

Gameplay wise, Dark Souls III has learned a few tricks from Bloodborne. The combat is faster and much more responsive. There will still be moments where a heavy blow feels unfair or the camera a tad unwieldy but overall there’s a lot to love. Graphically this is a beautiful game, with massive environments brimming with more enemies than ever before. The downside to this is sporadic framerate issues which are distracting, but rare enough that they won’t ruin the immersion.

Ultimately, a few stumbles aside, Dark Souls III is a worthy (allegedly final) chapter in a series that is both confounding and compelling. It’s not quite the focused Lovecraftian masterpiece that is Bloodborne, but it improves on almost every aspect of Dark Souls II. It’s dense, sprawling and rich with secrets – but they won’t reveal themselves easily.

So gird your loins, grip your weapon and step into the darkness… and may the flames guide thee.

 

*Ragecushions – are cushions specifically used to scream into and/or punch. If that sounds absurd you’ve clearly not played a Souls game before.

 

 
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February

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Oz Perkins, the son of the late, great Anthony Perkins, writes and helms this European-influenced dark horror that confounds as much as it delights. Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka plays Kat, a young boarding school student being cared for by another student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), after their respective parents fail to pick them up for the holidays. Initially annoyed at the burden she’s been given, Rose begins to suspect that something is wrong with her young ward when she catches Kat talking to herself and worshipping the school furnace. Somewhere else, a woman who says that her name is Joan (Emma Roberts) hitchhikes her way back to the school.

To say anything more would ruin the effect of February, as it has to reveal itself to you slowly and surely. Its deliberate pacing is a trap that ensnares you like quicksand, enveloping you before you realise that it’s too late. Perkins offers up a stifling and tense atmosphere that mutates the halls of a 60s-built school into a gothic nightmare where the shadows reach out to grab you. It’s all heightened by a piercing and sparsely used score composed by Oz’s brother, Elvis

The three leads are extraordinary, with Shipka successfully shedding the skin of Sally Draper once and for all. She gives Kat a sense of naivety that’s underscored by something much more troubling that snowballs out of control. Meanwhile, Roberts exudes uneasiness simply because she says so little. Picked up by a middle-aged couple, her silence allows them to open up to her about their feelings for each other. As the two seemingly disparate storylines finally dovetail, it does so in the fairest way and, fighting against a feeling of being cheated, Perkins shows himself to have performed a cinematic sleight of hand in the last moments of his film’s dénouement.

 
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Dead Kids

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When the quiet town of Galesburg is rocked by a series of brutal murders, Sheriff John Brady (Michael Murphy) is tasked with the investigation. Seeing similarities between the slew of horrific murders and his own wife’s death years earlier, the burden of the case begins to take its toll on the mild mannered country cop and his well-meaning son, Pete (Dan Shor). It’s only after Pete volunteers to be part of the local university’s psychology department’s control group for a series of experiments under the mysterious Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) that Sherriff Brady finally uncovers not only the mystery surrounding his wife’s death, but also the grisly goings on in the town.

Dead Kids is a particularly unusual piece of Ozploitation in that while it’s quite clearly filmed in New Zealand with a predominantly kiwi cast, it tries to pass itself off as a home grown US slasher. While this leads to ropey dubbing in parts, it also gives the film a very off centre appeal. Produced by Anthony I. Ginnane (who gave us such classics as Patrick, Thirst, and Turkey Shoot, and was often dubbed “Australia’s own Roger Corman”), Dead Kids is one of the international productions that he brought here during the renaissance of Australian film in the late seventies and early eighties. Even though this may be a low budget genre flick, Dead Kids is a stand out piece of local filmmaking even by today’s standards. A decidedly guilty pleasure, Dead Kids is a real treat for both horror and Ozploitation fans alike.

Along with the crystal clear transfer which was done from original negatives, this Blu-ray comes packed with bonus features, including audio commentaries from director, Michael Laughlin, co-writer, Bill Condon (who would eventually go on to direct Gods And Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), and stars, Dan Shor and Dey Young. There’s also a swag of trailers; an interview with Dan Shor (on his favourite park bench, no less); and an isolated music score from Tangerine Dream, whose music for the film is a true highlight. There’s also a highly informative booklet about the movie with a great collection of behind the scenes production shots.

 
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Thirst

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The long-time Ozploitation favourite, Thirst, finally makes its glorious debut on Blu-ray. Made specifically for the late seventies drive-in market, Thirst has aged surprisingly well, and it certainly has a very “modern” horror feel about it.

After being abducted by a mysterious group called The Hyma Brotherhood, Kate (Chantal Contouri) learns that she is a direct descendant of the infamous vampiric Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The brotherhood, headed up by the villainous Mrs. Baker (Shirley Cameron), Dr. Gauss (Henry Silva), and the slightly less evil Dr. Fraser (David Hemmings), run a “blood farm” for their vampire masters where “blood cows” – read, people – are literally bled dry, and view Kate as a trophy addition to their list of vampire clients. But Kate remains unconvinced, so a psychological battle ensues between her and The Brotherhood as they try to unleash her inner vampire. But will they push her to the brink of madness, or will she destroy them?

Less of a traditional vampire movie and more of a psychological horror, Thirst is a surprisingly solid entry into the canon of Ozploitation. Chantal Contouri gives a stand out performance as the initially weak and frightened Kate, who endures a seemingly endless parade of tortures at the hands of The Brotherhood before finally fighting back. The real star of the movie, however, giving a truly maniacal performance, is Shirley Cameron, who steals every scene with equal parts malice and malcontent. Likewise, Poliziotteschi favourite, Henry Silva, gives his usual monotone performance, but benefits from a truly electrifying finale.

In addition to the pristine transfer of the original movie, the Blu-ray also comes packed with special features, including an audio commentary from director, Rod Hardy, and producer, Anthony I. Ginnane; interviews with the pair; the original theatrical trailer and three TV spots; and a fascinating collector’s booklet packed with behind the scenes photos, original artwork, and an in-depth look into this overlooked classic from highly astute cult film commentator, John Harrison.

 
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Amnesiac

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An unnamed man (Wes Bentley) wakes up after a car accident to find himself being cared for by a woman (Kate Bosworth) that he has no memory of. Claiming to be his wife, the woman nurses him in her palatial house, but keeps him on a short leash, restricting his access to certain rooms. As his strength returns, the man begins to suspect that the woman is not all that she claims to be. Remembering that a young girl was in the car, he tries to piece together the mystery.

Amnesiac is the kind of film to which the term “Hitchcockian” could be safely applied. We have a mystery to solve, an even more mysterious blonde in the form of Kate Bosworth, and a dark haired, steely jawed hero in Wes Bentley. This could have been something. Instead, what we have struggles to entice or encourage continued watching.

The problem comes largely from the pacing. Amnesiac is a long, drawn out affair; it’s so slow in reaching its conclusion that an almost meditative calm envelopes the audience, lulling them into a form of apathy. Bosworth’s constant whispering of her lines does nothing to enliven proceedings, and Bentley flip flops between tired and confused. The woman is a deliberate enigma upon which the film centres its entire story, but aside from flashes of violence – she really dislikes her postman – there’s little to encourage us wanting to crack her code. Her affectation of reciting pub quiz trivia is equally annoying. When all explanations are finally given – and bolster yourself for a huge info dump in its dying minutes – Amnesiac proves itself to be nothing more than anaemic.

 
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Behind Closed Doors

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This French drama from filmmaker, Audrey Estrougo, was released in its native country under the title of Une Histoire Banale, meaning An Ordinary Story. The original title serves as a bleak irony to this tale of health care worker, Nathalie (Marie Denarnaud), who struggles to cope in the aftermath of being raped after a night out. It’s a horrific, dehumanising thing to happen to anyone, but as the original title suggests, this kind of thing does happen, and sadly all too often.

Made on a small budget financed through crowdfunding, Estrougo’s film follows Nathalie as she copes with what’s happened to her. Refusing to go to the police, she becomes a recluse; overeating and scrubbing herself red raw with a hard bristled brush. She separates from her fiancée and seeks out one night stands where she gets her lovers to unwittingly re-enact the rape. These are all clear moments of her trying to stay in control. Her friends, unaware of what has happened, try to advise her on her behaviour. They question the way that she dresses and how she talks to men. And in doing so, they unknowingly compound the idea that whatever happens to Nathalie is her own fault.

Denarnaud gives an exquisite performance as her character tackles the conflicting emotions playing for dominance in her mind. A moment when she finally musters up the courage to talk to someone in authority is heartbreaking. As audience members, most of us are lucky, for whilst the atmosphere is stifling, we know that the film will be over soon. Behind Closed Doors highlights that for people like Nathalie there isn’t always a reprieve, and a moment to come up for air. This is a powerful and important piece of work that deserves a lot of recognition.

 
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Applesauce

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Let it be known that actor/director, Onur Tukal, doesn’t invite you to like his characters. His last multitasking effort, Summer Of Blood, saw him shake up vampire mythology by playing a man on who the powers of immortality are wholly wasted. In the equally nihilistic Applesauce, Tukal’s tale blossoms on a hotbed of marital indifference, hypocrisy, and body parts.

When high school teacher, Ron (Tukal), confesses to his wife, Nicki (Triese Kelly Dunn), and friends, Kate (Jennifer Prediger) and Les (Max Casella), that he once accidently cut the fingers off someone in college, his tale sparks off a series of confessions that culminates with one of infidelity that reverberates through the group. Soon afterwards, someone starts sending Ron severed fingers in the mail.

Perhaps not surprisingly if you’ve seen Tukal’s previous work, the cast-offs from a cadavre play second fiddle to the group’s cynicism and hysteria. If Ron is the hero of the piece, then it’s only because we spend more time with his self-righteousness. He waxes lyrical to his students about the need for empathy, before failing to give Nicki any wiggle room when she burps out her latest confession. Their inability to listen to each other and talk things through means that they doom themselves to ever-increasing acts of one-upmanship and tit for tat, where no one learns their lesson. Their world is so insular that a severed penis found in a portion of chow mein isn’t enough for them to miss a step as they point the finger. Pun not intended. Applesauce is an uncomfortable watch that is blisteringly funny. It’s Seinfeld, a show that revelled in its nothingness, brought to its natural conclusion. Its emphasis on the group’s fighting shows that you don’t need a social network account to highlight your own narcissism.