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Black Mirror Season 4

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2017 has, by any objective metric, been an unholy garbage fire trundling down a mountain of excrement. It’s been a time in which we’ve seen the true faces of our heroes, watched a cadre of mad despots busy themselves ruining the planet and been witness to many attempts by nature to rid itself of our malevolent taint.

Plus season eight of The Walking Dead has been a bit shit so, you know, bad times all around.

Just in case your being isn’t yet fully suffused by existential dread, Black Mirror season four is here to stab your optimism right in the kidneys. Although this latest outing of Charlie Brooker’s notably bleak peek into the future of technology has been experimenting with a new flavour: hope.

Yes, although season four has its share of nightmarish tomorrows, it also delivers some moments of light in the darkness, and is all the more effective for doing so. Obviously picking “the best” episodes is subjective, but in terms of overall quality standouts include: “Hang the DJ” – about a society where companionship is dictated by an app, “Crocodile” – a tense tale of retribution superbly directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), and “Metalhead” – a black and white vision of a terrifying utopia directed by David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) and unlike anything Black Mirror has ever produced before.

On the slightly-less-successful-but-still-decent side we have “Arkangel” – directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) in an effective, but rather predictable look at parental intervention and “USS Callister” – a movie-length look at geek culture that is fun, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The only real dud in the bunch is “Black Museum”, an anthology episode that drags and is way too similar to 2014’s “White Christmas” which was itself a bit naff.

Ultimately Black Mirror season four is another solid outing, and while nothing quite hits the giddy highs of last season’s “San Junipero”, the overall quality is more consistent this time around. It’s not always an easy watch, but Black Mirror remains one of the smartest slices of speculative fiction around. All six episodes will be on Netflix from December 29, so why not see out the year curled in a fetal ball, dreading the future, and occasionally experiencing fleeting moments of (very) cautious optimism.

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Wolf Creek Season 2

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Few horror franchises have capitalised on the inherent creepiness of the Australian outback like Wolf Creek. With the possible exception of Razorback (1984) and Wake in Fright (1971), the Aussie outback tends to be the sight of cinematic spiritual awakenings or the backdrop for epic movie road trips. Greg McLean’s robust horror franchise has managed to straddle multiple mediums, including two movies, various books and now a second televisual outing with Wolf Creek season 2. The question you may be asking is ‘how?’ How does such a seemingly simple premise lead to so many stories? The answer is Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Mick is such a quintessentially Aussie antagonist, an uncomfortable reflection of the sunburnt country’s darker impulses – ready to strike at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to him. He’s also extremely easy to adapt to different genres.

Case in point: Wolf Creek season one featured a one-on-one grudge match between Mick and Eve (Lucy Fry), the latter of whom was on a one woman hunt to avenge her slaughtered family. Season two of Wolf Creek flips the script yet again and this time we’re travelling into the outback with a group of international tourists, keen on exploring the Aussie outback with Davo (Ben Oxenbould). A chance meeting of Mick and Davo sparks the killing urge in our favourite tourist hunter and Mick decides he’s going to take these soft city folk on an outback adventure they’ll never forget, and most of them won’t survive.

It’s a classic horror premise, and interestingly one Greg McLean has been toying with since before the first Wolf Creek movie (check out our interview). Over six episodes Mick puts the tourists through various hideous trials, whittling them down one by one until the inevitable, and grisly, climax.

Wolf Creek season two feels like a more pure horror experience than the slightly more experimental previous season. The scares are solid, the tension palpable and the kills effective, if occasionally slightly ropey. The cast acquit themselves well, and while no one is quite as standout as Lucy Fry from season one; Tess Haubrich, Laura Wheelwright and Matt Day all provide compelling personalities under duress.

Best of all director Greg McLean is on hand to deliver some of his best work to date, providing a cinematic-quality genre experience you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your undies.

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It’s been almost a decade since the seminal Western text of this century, David Milch’s Deadwood, concluded its all too short lifespan on HBO. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) scrubbed the dark blood stain out of the wooden floors in his office and left the audience with a sentiment that encompassed the pathos of the series. “What do you want me to do, tell you something pretty?” That final line was the final ugly dagger that extinguished Milch’s masterful observation about the mechanics of modern civilisation. This week enduring fans had cause to celebrate; Milch and Co. are mere months away from production rolling on a standalone Deadwood film.

But it’s a distinct pleasure to report that streaming on Netflix right now is a series that finally satiates your desire to be taken back to the west and deep into the muck of human impulses.

Godless, unlike Deadwood, isn’t concerned with nursing a singular unincorporated town into the burgeoning Union. Writer/director Scott Frank takes us into New Mexico and the desolate and disconnected frontier makes monsters out of the hypocritical and greedy patriarchy.

Frank is a long-time screenwriter of films such as Minority Report and Logan and novelist (Shaker, a crime mystery, was released in 2016). Godless is Frank’s cinematic novel, that wears the techniques of his former collaborators on its sleeve. The world feels saturated like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, approaches action like a soldier tearing up a beach in Saving Private Ryan and contains a chorus of world weary and battle-scarred characters like James Mangold’s Logan.

Frank explained in a recent interview with NPR that “any self-respecting screenwriter at some point has to give [writing a western] a crack. And I wanted to do something different that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s tricky because there have been so many westerns…”

When his long-term researcher Mimi Munson drew his attention to “several towns in New Mexico where all of the men died in an accident in a single afternoon stranding the women in these places. And sometimes the women would leave and move on. And sometimes they would stick around and try and make a go of it. And I thought, wow. What a great starting point.”

Godless, a limited series by design, finds a way to use the pockets of the underrepresented crawl westward across the American continent to reflect the unchecked turmoil. Godless sets its scene in the 1880s in a newly formed union. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) seeks out his former ‘favourite’ turned defector Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). The town of La Belle, a town struck by a mining accident that resulted in the sudden death of nearly all of the town’s men, is the fragile flower in this totally hostile environment that has remained unplucked. This hint of beauty and vulnerability is a time bomb that you know must go off.

In the opening moments of the series, through a blinding haze of dust, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) and a posse of men come upon the town of Creede. The town is hauntingly quiet, bodies litter the streets and sprayed across the flats like the remains of a game corpse is the tangled metal skeleton of a derailed train. Cutting through the dust is a melancholy ditty, a lone female survivor hovers over the corpse of her lover. Strung from the highest railway pole is a young lad, swaying in the breeze like rotting fruit on a poisoned tree. The senseless carnage of outlaw Frank Griffin’s (Jeff Daniels) party of thieves is enough to bring Marshal Cook to his knees.

Daniels’ Griffin is a man with twisted psychopathic piety. He’s a bundle of strange mysticism, predicting that he’s seen his death and casually reassures those he interacts with that he’s seen what’s to come and that any ‘threats’ need not be heeded. He’s, at times, calculating and conducting his personal mercenary force that swarms the landscape. Small towns and their underrepresented populace provide little resistance to their domination. However, the cracks have begun to emerge in the impervious myth that he’s conjured for himself.  In the first episode we see Griffin undergo emergency amputation surgery that takes away his arm. In a gesture of pure denial, he carries his detached limb with him long after the surgery. The sum of the parts for Griffin must represent the whole.

It’s highly likely that you’ll love the show because of how it manipulates Western archetypes to make every character an agonisingly conflicted being. Throughout the series the viewer will wrestle with finding Griffin deplorable, disgusting and yet, finding a strange kinship with the neglected orphans of heinous acts. While we view Roy’s entry into Griffin’s band of lost boys we can imagine that this is a regular recruitment drive tied intrinsically to his beliefs and fashions a portal to his soul. His scriptures and life advice ring true in the context of this world. (Most episodes contain flashbacks where Griffin is providing guidance and advice about life, morality and being a ‘good’ citizen of the world.) While you’re viewing, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the same hypocritical notions of members of an inherently corrupt and morally bankrupt institution like the Catholic Church while still being able to move you with the beauty of scriptures and visions of belief. Daniels’ manner as Griffin is often one of softness; he considers himself a teacher. The drought of real representatives of God paves way for this false prophet.

Driving Griffin’s ferocity and malice is the slight of his formidable ward, turned hardened killer Roy Goode (O’Connell). Roy rides away from the fracas with his former crew, gut shot toward a likely death when he comes upon the ranch of one Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). This is Dockery about as far away from Downton Abbey as possible. She’s a stoic lioness, more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. In the first exchange with Roy, riding up to her ranch on the outskirts of La Belle in the dead of night, he’s bewildered and unable to respond. She does not hesitate and fires a warning shot that grazes his neck and throws him out of his saddle and onto the ground. Alice is the widower of a Native American man, eking out a modest existence with her son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and mother in law played by Dances with Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal. They begin nurturing Roy back to health and as he regains strength he begins to reveal who he is in the actions that he’s able to undertake. One reflective shot, taking the head off a rattle snake about to take a swipe at a toddler hits the seismograph and people begin to feel that he’s not who he claims to be.

O’Connell plays a haunted Roy, running away from the killer he’s become in the presence of Griffin; the greater the likelihood of Griffin’s descent on La Belle, the more that the ‘old’ Roy begins to emerge. Roy decides that instead of potentially endangering Alice and family with his presence, he’ll hand himself over to La Belle Sherriff Scoot McNairy’s Bill McNue.

McNue, a widower and father of two, is slowly being crippled by an encroaching blindness. In this vulnerable town, their lone law man (the Sherriff’s Deputy Whitey is still a gangly teen) seems more like a bumbling hazard than a town saviour.  McNairy is a terrific and diverse character actor. He’s got such a command of his posture and gait, and conveys inner turmoil with his dark eyes.

La Belle is the heart of the show. It’s here that we set the scene for some of the most fascinating explorations in the genre. In an instant, a mining accident decimates the male population, stranding an almost exclusively female community to find their own way. The stand outs are Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes – sister to Sherriff McNue (McNairy) – and Tess Frazer’s Callie Dunne; they are Godless’ answer to Deadwood’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Mary Agnes and Callie feel like the only characters in the town that are relieved in the wake of the accident. For Mary Agnes it’s about being able to assert, to step out of the dainty frontier homemaker garb and to assume a role in the town’s future that her gender had denied. Wever’s performance alongside Callie is like an island of tenderness in this harsh world. Her self-consciousness informs the way that she occupies space in an interaction, but she’s extremely forthright. While external mining interests hold the women over a barrel for the opportunity to kick-start works in the mine, it is Mary Agnes that attempts to reassert their authority. For Callie, her thriving business as a town whore dried up instantly in the wake of the accident. She then became free to reclaim her body for pleasure instead of commerce. There’s electricity between Mary Agnes and Callie that’s hiding in plain sight amongst their intuitive harem.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Whitey Winn is the cocky teenager hoping to assume the position of defender to the town. Whitey takes interest in a young African American girl living in an adjoining community, Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula). Her community is segregated, by choice, assembled by a formidable and infamous civil war unit. In the post war period they’ve made the decision to remain separate from La Belle and white society proper, in order to live their lives in peace.

Frank wants us to experience the poise of the West. Cinematographer Steven Meizler, a journeyman camera operator working on a swathe of films (Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Che) defines the aesthetic of Godless by placing the audience in the zone to experience the action. On Alice’s ranch we get inside the wooden ring to break horses and the over the shoulder style that defined Ryan and was adopted wholesale in the video game genre. It’s a great experiential posture and director/writer Frank allows each scenario to breathe. The scope of the show allows you to experience the graft of the day to day.  Frank and Meizler also show the devastation of the gun. Metal minces human targets and each wound lingers for a suitable recovery time.

At the conclusion of Godless there’s a deep satisfaction. It’s an epic and singular Western film that was granted the permission to run as long as a TV show and like all great Westerns, reflects contemporary times. Frank is aware that Godless and its characters are not wholly unfamiliar to the audience, but is innately cognisant of the enduring tragedy and relevance of the American frontier. Slimy pulp journalists exaggerate to save their skin. Corporate interests increasingly capitalise on the disenfranchised and easily exploitable. Absent patriarchal structures provide little comfort in death. The ghosts of displaced Native American Nations pushed to the fringe of the emerging society echo in the characters consciousness.

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Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.

There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.

The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.

Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.

What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.


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Star Trek: Discovery S1E9: Into the Forest I Go

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The peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pahva have sent a signal to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire to come to their world and negotiate peace. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) knows that the Klingons are on their way and will decimate the Pahvans when they arrive. Against Starfleet orders he commands the USS Discovery to stay and face the Klingons head-on.

With this ninth episode Star Trek: Discovery concludes its initial run, referred to by CBS as “Chapter One”. Another six episodes will be released in early 2018 to properly conclude the first season, but for now it is mid-point climax time for Lorca, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of the Discovery crew. It has been a maddening and frustrating ride, with numerous outstanding elements in the series constantly over-shadowed by inconsistent characterisation, poor plotting, and an attitude to Star Trek continuity that is most politely described as ‘dismissive’.

That in mind, it is a genuine relief to find the plot of “Into the Forest I Go” to be straight-forward, dramatic and pretty much the most Star Trek-like narrative so far. The Discovery is under orders to retreat, leaving the Pahvans defenceless, but Lorca disobeys orders and stays behind to fight. The bulk of the episode, in which an attempt is made to detect a cloaked Klingon starship using a combination of ship-to-ship espionage and the Discovery’s spore drive, is a wonderfully suspenseful exercise in action, character development, and the finest Star Trek technobabble. It also all leads into a great end-of-chapter cliff-hanger that suggests more than one of the current fan theories circling the Internet might be true.

The episode takes time for its characters as well. The most impactful scenes involve Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was held captive by the Klingons and tortured for seven months by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). Their relationship was in part sexual, and the profoundly traumatised Tyler confides in Burnham about his experience. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing I was expecting from a 21st century Star Trek series: genuinely progressive subject matter that earlier versions were too conservative to address. Could the episode have handled Tyler’s sexual assault and PTSD more sensitively? Very probably, but in the context of an action-packed mid-season finale it seemed impressive as it was.

Of course, there are still the silly bits. The sensors Burnham and Tyler must place in secret around the Klingon ‘ship of the dead’ are comically large with bright lights and a loud voice recording. The episode begins with Discovery remaining to protect Pahva, because if they leave the Klingons will destroy the whole planet, and ends with the Discovery flying away with multiple Klingon ships on approach – and Pahva presumably abandoned to destruction anyway. Star Trek continuity obsessives like me will be left wondering why Spock and McCoy had to retro-fit a photon torpedo to detect a cloaked Klingon ship when the Discovery solved that problem 40 years earlier. To be honest it’s all minor; this episode is genuinely great where it counts.

The potential in Discovery has been there from the start, but these first nine episodes have offered one hell of a rough ride. “Into the Forest I Go” brings the promise of a much-improved series as it goes on. If the production team can stick to the core of what makes its characters work, and shave off the elements that have been dragging the series back – poor plots, inconsistent characterisation, and a quite frankly insulting attitude to the franchise as a whole – it could become something quite special.

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The Punisher

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Hell, where do we be begin?

The hotly anticipated Punisher TV series represents the nadir of Marvel’s Netflix streaming projects, narrowly nudging out the widely derided Iron Fist by dint of squandering a perfect set up and a shedload of goodwill left over from the character’s Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity debut in season 2 of Daredevil. That’s pretty impressive; Jon Bernthal’s turn as the ex-Marine vigilante Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character since Dolph Lundgren took on the name (And little else) way back in 1989, and is pretty much universally considered the best by a considerable margin. This time, fans told each other, they got The Punisher right. Now, on the other side of 13 turgid, meandering episodes, it seems it’s time to go back to the drawing board once more.

When we left our man Frank back in Daredevil, his origin was done and dusted; his family was dead, and he’d acquired for himself an arsenal of terrifying weapons and a rather striking white on black skull motif, leaving him in prime position to begin his never-ending war on crime. The follow up series wastes no time in undoing that. After a brief, bloody and quite enjoyable montage that sees him cleaning up the last few mooks responsible for his family’s deaths, Frank calls it quits, picks up a construction job under an assumed name, and does his level best to put his violent past behind him.

That’s strike one right there: the idea of The Punisher, of all people, trying to go on the straight and narrow contradicts the very essence of the character. Luckily, we have a mechanism to pull him back into action: former NSA analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has uncovered evidence of military malfeasance linked to Frank’s time as a marine in Afghanistan, and needs his help to take down the bad guys. We still have to put up with a lot of wheel-spinning and wool gathering, though – especially frustrating when you have a character such as this stuck on the “Refusing the Call” chapter of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, The Punisher suffers from the now-familiar Marvel/Netflix issue of having to spread too little story over too many hours; there’s actually about a feature film’s worth of narrative here, maybe two at a pinch. It’s possible to actually skip from the first episode to episode 10 and not miss anything of value or, indeed, any plot points you won’t be able to infer for yourself. Much of the series is just Frank and Micro arguing in Micro’s warehouse base of operations – especially galling considering the promise of plenty of action is baked into the basic concept.

Instead we get side-plot after side-plot that drags us slowly toward the inevitable climax, and precious little mayhem until things ramp up in the final stretch. After all, why have our skull-shirted avenger mowing down armies of deserving criminals when we could be watching Micro fret over his family, who think he’s dead since he faked his own death to protect them from reprisals? Or Frank, acting as Micro’s catspaw, fixing their sink, at the same time getting a taste of the family life that was torn from him? It’s not as poignant as it sounds.

Also in the mix are a couple of Homeland Security agents (Amber-Rose Nevah and Michael Nathanson) who are also on the case; a disabled veteran (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for returned soldiers; returning supporting character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil; and Billy Russo, Frank’s old comrade-in-arms, now working as a private military contractor and, of course, The Villain. Rather than build a narrative that operates organically and builds satisfyingly, show runner Steve Lightfoot has simply packed the show with enough separate story strands and characters that he can just cut between them whenever a scene begins to run out of steam.

Which happens a lot – it’s impossible to overstate how leaden and badly structured The Punisher is. There are endless dialogue scenes that go nowhere, flashbacks to backstory we already know or can parse for ourselves, pointless verbal confrontations and posturing… the list goes on.

It’s also dumb. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin when it comes to an action series, but you want to make sure things are moving too quickly for the audience to notice how sloppy things are in the moment. The Punisher does not do that. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be smart – there’s a bit of business in the back half addressing the ever-topical gun control issue that just comes across as glib and contrived, especially in a series specifically built around and celebrating the “good guy with a gun” myth beloved of the NRA. It’s actually, on reflection, rather offensive, an act of blatant ass-covering so that the producers can point to it and say that they addressed the issue.

If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps Frank’s laughably mawkish hallucinations of his wife will. Or Paul Schulze’s scenery-chewing turn as a corrupt CIA agent. Or the fact that, when you elide away all the unnecessary window dressing, the actual plot is basically Lethal Weapon, to the point that Frank sitting down for Christmas dinner with Micro’s family as the credits roll seems like an all-too-possible denouement.

There are a few positive elements in play. The cast do everything they can to elevate the substandard material they’ve got to work with, and Jon Bernthal remains a flat-out great Punisher, all barely restrained rage and possessed of a physical stoicism that borders on the masochistic. It is absolutely frustrating to see this guy, who for a brief moment was well on track to being the definitive on-screen Punisher, undone by such bad writing, and such a misguided understanding of the character. The scenes where Bernthal gets to cut loose against his enemies, carving his way though them with methodical fury, remain the highlight of the series, but boy do you have to wade through a lot of dross to get to them.

And, in the end, it’s just not worth it. The Punisher is an absolute mess. It’s thematically naive, narratively inert, condescending to its audience,  and lacks almost any understanding of its central character’s appeal. Only the low bar set by previous on screen Punisher incarnations prevents it from being unarguably the worst live action version of the character.

And he hardly ever wears the damn skull, either. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea?

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Ren (Jessica De Gouw) is the designer of OtherLife, a liquid substance that can be dropped onto the eyeball and re-program the human brain. As the release date for its recreational use fast approaches, Ren spends an increasing amount of time on her own secret project. When her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) comes with a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to use OtherLife as an alternative to incarceration Ren is horrified – but opposing such a high-value offer has made her a target.

OtherLife is a new science fiction film from Perth-based filmmaker Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young). It does a superb job of spinning a smart, engaging thriller out of a modest production budget, and marks a fresh and still comparatively rare Australian contribution to science fiction cinema. Sadly, it does not quite vault from being a solid genre entry into something ground-breaking or progressive, thanks to a string of comparatively safe choices in the plot.

Where it does excel is in taking the sort of well-established virtual reality tropes of such films as Total Recall and grounding them in a much more contemporary context. The virtual reality of OtherLife is a chemical one, applied via a liquid agent, and combined with scenes of Ren being interrogated over the drug’s safety and ethical concerns it feels genuine and believable. It may be a science fiction, but it feels aggressively contemporary at the same time. As with all science fiction cinema, making the science fiction parts seem real is half of the battle – and it is a half that OtherLife absolutely wins. It also rather clever to see virtual reality, something often presented in film and television as a drug-like experience, presented as an actual narcotic.

Where the film struggles is in the predictable story. Twists and turns in the narrative feel predictable and unfold in ways that can be seen from far, far ahead. For any viewer half-versed in virtual reality thrillers there will be few surprises to be found. As it stands the film is an entertaining one, but a few more ideas and unexpected developments in the plot and it could have been something tremendous. In that respect it is largely par for the course for writer Gregory Widen, whose previous screenplays such as Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft all betray a similar problem: strong ideas, but a relatively ordinary execution.

Jessica De Gouw presents Ren as a complex and damaged figure, and brings a lot of talent to enhance the character and provide additional depth. It is a valuable performance given how much of the film focuses directly on her. There is a bit of a stereotype at work in Ren’s goth fashion sense and demeanour, but design-wise it does look great on screen.

OtherLife is Lucas’ second feature, following his 2010 debut Wasted on the Young. It shows a strong and developing directorial talent, and marks Lucas out as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on in the future.

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Star Trek: Discovery S1E8: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

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Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru (Doug Jones) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) beam down to a strange planet in the hopes of utilising its natural harmonic transmissions to detect cloaked Klingon vessels. Their mission is complicated, first when they discover a species of intelligent energy-based aliens living on the planet, and secondly when Saru appears to fall under the planet’s control and begins working against Burnham and Tyler.

I honestly cannot pin Star Trek: Discovery down. It is a series visibly made by a lot of talented people – particularly its cast – and yet the end result each week veers wildly from well-observed drama to genre cliché, and then stumbles into bizarre tone-deaf moments of poor character development. It is the least Trek-like Star Trek series ever made, in which the upbeat Utopian values that typified its predecessors – yes, even the murkier Deep Space Nine – are sidelined in favour of a bleak setting, a war criminal captain, and an inexplicable obsession with straining franchise continuity to breaking point. At this stage I am loving Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as protagonist Michael Burnham, and Jason Isaac’s committed portrayal of the horrifying Captain Lorca, and pretty much despising almost everything else.

Recent episodes have seen a partial shift towards the episode-of-the-week science fiction stories of earlier series. Last week saw Discovery revisit the well-worn ‘time loop’ story with fairly ordinary results. This week sees an honest-to-god away mission, with a bonus first contact scenario thrown in for free. Starfleet ships cannot pinpoint cloaked Klingon vessels to avoid getting ambushed, but the strange emanations from the planet Pahvo may hold a key to developing some sort of interstellar sonar that would pick such disguised ships out from the darkness. When the planet’s wraithlike inhabitants reveal themselves it throws this mission into crisis mode, since it means that in addition to investigating the crystal tower that is transmitting the signals the away team also has to beg permission to touch it. Saru tries to negotiate with the Pahvans, but their constant alien signals do something to his brain and lead him to sabotage the mission in order to live with them forever.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Saru. Doug Jones plays him wonderfully, and he is an exceptional piece of prosthetic design and application. At the same time he is a grossly inconsistent character. At first he seemed so risk-averse one questioned why he would have joined Starfleet at all. By three weeks ago he was willingly torturing a sentient creature to complete a mission. Now he is sabotaging mission-critical work in order to escape the war and live in peace. One spends much of the episode assuming he is under alien control, however later scenes reveal he knew exactly what he was doing all along. It turns his character into a joke, since he cannot be taken seriously as the first officer of a warship any more – assuming he ever was. Between his treachery, the captain’s willing betrayal of his superior to the Klingons, and Lt Stamets’ hiding of serious medical issues to the captain and ship’s doctor, this is the most wildly incompetent Starfleet bridge crew since they let a teenage boy pilot the Enterprise.

The production values are top-notch, with each episode looking and sounding great. Burnham is a truly brilliant lead character. The rest is just a weird mess. If Discovery was simply bad television, it would be easy to dismiss and ignore. Instead it’s actively frustrating: you can see the decent series that is almost in view, and cannot help but want the production team to somehow find it under their noses.

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Alias Grace

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Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Alias Grace is the true story of Irish immigrant Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and her 15-year imprisonment for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy (Anna Paquin) – yet she claims to have no memory of the murder, throwing into question whether she is even guilty.

The six-part miniseries directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), and co-written by Atwood and actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley, follows Grace as she shares her story with psychologist Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who was enlisted by the committee for Grace’s freedom to clear her name, but as their sessions grow longer and Dr Jordan becomes more invested in her story, it grows more and more unclear as to whether Grace can be trusted with her own story.

This framing device allows the first half of the series to be dominated by Grace’s recollection of her story, punctuated only by brief scenes with Dr Jordan serving to remind us of the present. Yet this is in the series’ favour: Grace’s dramatic story of her immigration to Canada with her family, the close friendship she develops with fellow servant Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) at her first job in Toronto, and her hasty exit to work for Master Kinnear and Nancy in the country, is fascinating, layered with an enchanting voiceover from Grace as she tells her tale. And as her story becomes more twisted and blood-soaked, the viewer becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about Grace, just as Dr Jordan does: is she guilty? Is she mad? Is she both?

Sarah Gadon is absolutely captivating as Grace Marks, wide-eyed and seemingly innocent, yet with a hidden coldness and darkness to her that the audience can sense just under the surface, anticipating its reveal.

However, it is Dr Jordan’s side of the story, the present, which is Alias Grace’s downfall. The series’ reliance on Grace’s story leaves his character woefully underdeveloped, and his interactions with the committee and his odd sexual dreams surrounding Grace, the few pieces of character we discover about him, are so few and far between until the final episodes that they seem almost unnecessary to begin with. His character is simply there, as are most others, to facilitate Grace’s incredible story.

With such an intriguing first two episodes setting the stage, Alias Grace settles into its groove through the middle, but just as you think you know what you’re watching, the final episode goes off the rails with shock and surprise, leaving you wanting just one more episode to process what in the hell you just discovered. Whilst not entirely earned, the twist is worth it, especially for a series that leaves you in the dark for so long.

Certainly, a different way to end what starts off as such a straightforward period murder mystery, Alias Grace is an electric six episodes driven by the pursuit of truth and a hell of a main character, but which could’ve been more.

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Small Town Hackers

Australian, Home, Review, Television, web series Leave a Comment

When Alex (Tim Watts) returns home to the small country town of Durran for the funeral of of his ex-girlfriend (Caris Eves), he soon discovers that her death may not have been accidental. Luckily for him, his oyunger brother, the alienated and nerdy Devon (Sam Campbell) runs a cell of anarchist hackers out of their mum’s spare room, including tech guru Peng (Trystan Go) and the violent, anarchic Tess (Adriane Daff). Can the nascent underground revolutionaries solve the mystery?

As a comedy, Small Town Hackers spreads a wide net, ripping strips off of small town mysteries ala Twin Peaks and Riverdale, hacker culture and hacktivism in particular, and teen alienation in general. It’s a good time, mainly down to the efforts of Sydney comedian Campbell as the ambitious, frustrated and generally hopeless Devon, who wants to be a feared cyberterrorist but can’t seem to get over the obvious wounds a lifetime of being picked on and put upon have dealt him. Other characters haven’t really snapped into focus yet but will hopefully get some spotlight time going forward, although Luke Hewitt clearly enjoys himself as the local cop, who also happens to be Alex and Devon’s mum’s new boyfriend.

In terms of style, the show takes a scattershot approach – genre parody is its main game, but its not afraid to grab for any laugh that’s close to hand. This makes it a little tonally uneven as non sequiturs get thrown at the audience,  but it also means you’ll be smiling or laughing more often than not

Small Town Hackers screams potential, but it’s a little hampered by its format – this feels like a full half hour pilot chopped into six segments, not six discrete episodes building to a climax. Still, it does lay out the scenario and promises some interesting developments down the track – hopefully we’ll be getting a second series sooner rather than later.

Small Town Hackers is streaming now on Above Average.