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McKellen: Playing The Part

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In the opening scenes of McKellen: Playing The Part, the great British thespian, Sir Ian McKellen – a longtime veteran of both stage and screen – admits that he sees interviews as another form of performance. At first, it’s disconcerting, as this whole documentary is based around a sit-down chat with the man himself. Does this mean that the viewer is in for a kind of cinematic sham, whereby McKellen acts rather than reveals himself? There is, however, no need for concern, for while McKellen is undoubtedly “on” – his majestic phrasing, heavily pregnant pauses, and inherent sense of drama are seemingly in-built after decades treading the boards – he is also at his most revealing, open, and honest. In McKellen: Playing The Part, the viewer feels as if they are there in the room with the veteran actor as he reminisces over his fascinating life and career.

Spinning his film outwards from McKellen’s remembrances, director, Joe Stephenson eschews the usual tropes of documentary biopics. There are no interviews with fellow actors, no tear-flecked chats with family members, no woozy recollections from directors or collaborators, and very few film clips. Sir Ian McKellen is the whole show here, but he’s certainly big enough to fill the screen. A series of artful, impressionistic, stylishly tailored black-and-white re-enactments (with McKellen’s Mr. Holmes co-star, Milo Parker, as the actor’s childhood self, and Scott Chambers as the young adult version) add effectively to the atmosphere, while there are a number of stunning grace notes, the most unforgettable being McKellen’s heartbreaking recollection of the premature passing of his mother. His growing up gay is discussed in great, candid detail, as are his philosophies about activism and acting, which McKellen largely does to make people happy.

While a treasure trove for those seeking insight into both McKellen’s psyche and the great institution of British theatre, those hoping for bundles of amusing anecdotes about the actor’s most famous mainstream work – namely the Lord Of The Rings and X-Men films – will likely be mildly disappointed. But McKellen: Playing The Part is a bigger, weightier affair than that. Endlessly fascinating and well crafted, this burrows deep into the mind of its subject, and the craft of acting itself.

 
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Deadly Dinosaurs

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Will there ever be a time when we’re not fascinated by dinosaurs? Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow certainly hopes not, and nor does the BBC as they release Deadly Dinosaurs onto the big screen in time for the half term hols.

Spun off from Auntie’s decade old franchise Deadly 60, where host Steve Backshall looked at some of the most vicious creatures in nature, the central conceit here is staked around the largest and most vicious dinosaurs on land and water.

From his steampunk lab, Backshall introduces us to several species, including raptors and the indomitable T-Rex, breaking down their stats like fighters in a boxing match. After enthusiastically highlighting everything that makes them ‘deadly’, he then tries to replicate their power in the outside world using industrial tools and diggers, often sacrificing various doors, TVs and cars in the name of proving a point. It’s an extremely blunt and loud way of getting your point across admittedly, but it certainly does the trick if you’re looking for some education-based destruction and mayhem.

When he’s not blowing up fish tanks to prove how the dinosaurs were wiped out (no, really), Backshall also narrates several CGI dino-battles that go some way to show how these prehistoric creatures would have fared in a fight. There’s even a handy ‘Gore Warning’ for those parents who may be a little bit sensitive to seeing claret being spilt. These same parents will also likely switch on to the fact that at 90 minutes long, Deadly Dinosaurs does become rather repetitive in its formatting; a consequence of a lack of narrative and also it really being a literal compilation of the best bits from the original TV series.

However, let’s be honest here, this isn’t aimed at the parents. This is for the kids who will likely reel off every fact before Backshall can even open his mouth. For them, this will likely be a cracking afternoon at the cinema.

 
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Custody

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Best Director and Best Debut Film at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival, as well as winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2017 San Sebastian Film Festival, Xavier Legrand’s Custody (Jusqu’à la Garde, literally translated as ‘up to the hilt’) is nothing short of remarkable. Inspired by and somewhat a continuation of Legrand’s short film Just Before Losing Everything, Custody touches on a topic that remains largely taboo, and the release of this film couldn’t be more timely.

These are the facts: in France, a woman dies every two-and-a-half days as a result of domestic violence. In Australia, one woman is killed every week as a result of domestic violence.

Miriam and Antoine, played exceptionally by Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet, fight for sole custody of their son Julien. The beginning of the film is cleverly shot as there’s a sense of uncertainty and it’s intended to challenge the viewer’s judgement of both parents. Miriam and Antoine sit in front of a family law judge who tries to determine which of the parents is fit to take sole custody of their son. But really, the judge is just trying to figure out whom is the lesser of two evils.

The opening scene might frustrate audiences as there is a feeling of uncertainty on whether the mother is the victim she claims to be or not. Miriam is tight-lipped and timid as she sits in the room, barely speaking a word. It’s evident in this scene that their 11-year-old son Julien wants nothing to do with his father, yet Antoine, who is much more vocal and clearly possessive, convinces the judge to grant him weekend visits.

From here the relationship between father and son takes a downward spiral, revealing cracks in Antoine’s personality and inability to be a caring father. His obsession on finding where and how his estranged wife lives without him reaches a high level of manipulation as he uses his ‘charm’ to influence his son to give up details on the mother’s whereabouts and new phone number.

Thomas Gioria’s performance as Julien is remarkable as he navigates a rollercoaster of emotions each time the weekend comes around and he’s in the company of his father.

Throughout the film you carefully put together the pieces of the puzzle as to who the true victim is, and you may believe you have the third act all figured out, but it will hit you like an unexpected blow to the stomach. It’s confronting and unforgettable.

Custody is social realism that will spark a flame. It’s a powerful debut feature from Legrand and reminds us of the alarming reality of domestic abuse in the real world.

A psychological drama-thriller that is hard to swallow and will hit a nerve, as intended.

 
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Trailer: Book Week

Not to be confused with a US movie starring women of a certain age, the new film from Australian writer/director Heath Davis, looks like a joyous, blackly comic ride with a bloke who refuses to grow up.
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Trailer: Stan & Ollie

From Jeff Pope, the writer of Philomena, and Jon S. Baird, the director of Filth comes this biopic starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.
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I Am Paul Walker

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When it comes to intimate documentary portraits, producer Derik Murray has cornered the market. In a series of fascinating big and small screen films (I Am Bruce Lee, I Am Steve McQueen, I Am Chris Farley, I Am Sam Kinison, I Am Heath Ledger), he has effectively celebrated the lives and careers of a diverse group of performers who were all snatched away far too soon. And while Murray’s latest subject may not have the cultural and artistic significance of the aforementioned game-changers, the highly affecting I Am Paul Walker proves that the titular actor – best known for the Fast & Furious series – was a far more interesting figure than his cinematic oeuvre may have suggested.

Featuring extensive interviews with most of Paul Walker’s family members, along with a treasure trove of archival footage, I Am Paul Walker (like most of Derik Murray’s films) makes no apologies for its loving, affectionate tone. All the remembrances of the handsome movie star are glowing and effusive, but this still stands as much more than simple hagiography. Walker was an occasionally difficult figure deeply at odds with his chosen career, and the doco dives right into that, sketching in the actor’s habit of “dropping out”, with the California surfer boy often opting to hit the waves instead of tending to his booked-in movie commitments. A full-tilt adrenaline junkie, Walker was constantly chasing excitement and stimulation.

Obsessed with the ocean and determined to create a decent and loving home for his daughter (who Walker had at a very young age), the actor appeared to be drifting further and further away from his Hollywood career, instead throwing his energy into various aquatic charities. Where he would have ended up will tragically remain a mystery, with Walker’s life sadly cut short in 2013 by an auto accident. More interested in the real Paul Walker than the on-screen one (featured industry players are here restricted to 2 Fast 2 Furious co-star, Tyrese Gibson, directors, Rob Cohen and Wayne Kramer, and Walker’s longtime agent), I Am Paul Walker is a sensitive, deeply moving look at a profoundly well-loved man.

 
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The House with a Clock in its Walls

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This has to be the biggest cinematic swerve of the year. Eli Roth, the neo-exploitation devotee who brought us such family-friendly(!) features as Cabin Fever, Hostel and even the nauseating Death Wish from earlier this same year, is at the helm of what could easily be mistaken for a lost Goosebumps sequel. Is he selling out or just trying to do something different? Well, strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to be doing either. Not only does this manage to stand out nicely all on its own, it actually fits in closer with Roth’s aesthetic than it would seem at first glance.

Jack Black as yet another eccentric uncle brings that same quirkiness that made his take on R. L. Stine so fun, but gives the warlock enough of his own self-consciously pompous identity to stand out. Opposite Cate Blanchett, the rapid-fire ribbings they throw at each other makes for some nice witty fun. And then there’s Owen Vaccaro as the erudite lead, in his first film without a parent in the name and that actually merits watching. Between the three of them, the film is kept on sturdy ground throughout all the whimsy, only for Kyle MacLachlan as the villain to give a surprisingly unnerving performance. For a family film, this is pretty intense and it’s not just him who has that effect.

While cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (School Of Rock, Disturbia, Death Wish) fills the frame with golden-tinged wonder, the innards of the story give way to an obsidian heart. Beneath the veneer of living chairs and crapping topiaries (a bit of Roth’s juvenile pandering still lives from the looks of it), there is a story about blood rituals, raising the dead and genocide. Cut from a familiarly murky cloth, but snipped from a more innocent time. A time where interests in the more macabre side of the world likely began to blossom, and where an understanding of what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘strange’ made the latter that much more appealing.

Because regardless of how the ‘normal’ world tries to shut out the darker elements, they’re still there. Whether it’s the pains of grief, the woes of exclusion or the horrors of war, no amount of shielding stops these things from existing. And in the world of this film, they carry the same mortal burden as demons, evil witches and murderous jack-o’-lanterns. All of the spookiness that makes for great Halloween horror, but with a learnedness that shows maybe the world could use some more strange. Maybe we needn’t be so scared of what makes us uncomfortable. Hell, there might even be some fun in it for the right people. It sums up Roth’s entire schtick in the most appealing way yet.

The House with A Clock in its Walls not only fits in astoundingly well with Eli Roth’s larger aesthetic, it’s also an incredibly entertaining, if derivative around the edges, family-friendly fantasy flick. One that isn’t afraid of the darkness and invites us along for the ride.

 
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Ghosthunter

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week, Trailer Leave a Comment

Ghosthunter is a film about hunting ghosts, but not in the sense that Ghostbusters is a film about hunting ghosts. While ‘real’ ghost hunting does occasionally occur, the film’s title alludes to a far deeper meaning. Our protagonist, Jason, spends much of the film searching for the ghosts of his past; people and places long forgotten by him but vital to the sort of person he has become.

While Ghosthunter moves at an engaging pace, to the audience the real development is within Jason himself. Within the first few shots of the documentary he is presented as an intimidating figure: a scar running down the side of his face and tattoos up his arms. As the plot progresses, so does Jason, and by the end of the movie we are presented with a completely different person. A victim of abusive parents, Jason’s agitation is apparent – has he become his father or is he his own person? If it were not a documentary, Jason’s development could easily be the centre of a biopic. It’s undeniably heartbreaking but intriguing nonetheless.

Ghosthunter follows in the footsteps of many of its American contemporaries (Making a Murderer, among others) by pairing its gripping plot with stylishly heightened filmmaking. Hospital records and photos are enhanced, text messages are superimposed and key events are recreated with effective results. Telephone conversations are played back over shots of Jason at work – an idea that sounds mundane but has spectacularly eerie results. One particularly atmospheric scene, set in a security control room, feels like it could be straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. Although thematic transitions to and from these recreations feel clunky at times, they do stand as a testament to the skill of director Ben Lawrence (who, like his father Ray ‘Lantana, Bliss‘ Lawrence has mostly worked in the TVC space).

As it was filmed over a 6-year period, there are understandably a few instances where Ghosthunter loses its footing, particularly in the second half. The complications of the plot wrap themselves up within the first hour, and the final third of the movie shifts the focus back to Jason as he attempts to fix his forever-changed life. It is when the camera is on Jason, however, that Ghosthunter manages to spread its wings. Because of this, Ghosthunter works best as a character study – whether that study is Jason or his many friends and workmates, everyone seems to be hunting their own ghosts.