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Top End Wedding

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

It might feel incongruous to describe the sunny, diminutive Miranda Tapsell as a burgeoning powerhouse – with the connotations of ruthless ambition which that may entail – but that’s exactly what the actress, writer and producer is shaping up to be. A much loved player thanks to her roles on TV’s Love Child and Doctor Doctor, and a prominent figure in indigenous screen storytelling (The Sapphires, Redfern Now, Cleverman, Little J & Big Cuz), Tapsell now truly asserts herself with the big screen delight, Top End Wedding, on which she is unquestionably the driving force, weighing in as star, co-writer and associate producer. The film also mines details of Tapsell’s own life for its background, while her commitment to telling indigenous stories means that Top End Wedding is much, much more than just a fizzy, frolicking romantic comedy, though it’s certainly that too.

Tapsell stars as Lauren, whose warmth and ditziness have been no hindrance to her rapid rise in the corporate world. She’s in love with nice guy British lawyer, Ned (Bohemian Rhapsody’s Gwilym Lee), who pops the question after losing his job, and gets a big yes. The loved up pair set to planning their wedding on Lauren’s Northern Territory home turf, but there’s one problem: her mother has gone AWOL, leaving her dad a heartbroken mess, and putting their intended nuptials on hold. Ned and Lauren head off to Darwin, and then begin a frantic search to find the bride-to-be’s missing mum and get the wedding back on track.

With Tapsell and Lee a literal explosion of charm and chemistry (though Kerry Fox steals all her scenes as Lauren’s domineering boss), Top End Wedding delivers the same kind of commercial kick as director Wayne Blair’s debut feature, The Sapphires. Like that film, it unashamedly shoots for a big, broad audience in the mood for a good time, with its plentiful laughs, upbeat tunes, and Tourism Australia-worthy cinematography (Eric Murray Lui does truly stunning work here) and eye-popping Northern Territory backdrops. But within that warm-and-fuzzy outer package are threaded themes of cultural connection, the importance of family, and the essential ties that our indigenous peoples have with their geographical and spiritual homes. So characteristic of Miranda Tapsell as a talent with something to say, these finely wrought elements ground the film beautifully, and add much needed weight to its frothier moments. Bubbly but meaningful, Top End Wedding ingeniously has its (wedding) cake and eats it too.

 
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Breaking Habits

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Good documentaries need good subjects, but sometimes a good subject just isn’t enough. Ex-BBC documentarian Rob Ryan obviously thought that he was on to a winner with this one. It is an account of a woman calling herself “Sister Kate” (she actually isn’t a nun at all, but more of that later). She and a group of her friends are into growing and supplying medical marijuana in Merced County, California. They espouse hemp-based products rich in CBD (but not the psychotropic THC). CBD is indeed remarkable, and we have yet to fully explore its potential for treating everything from seizures to cancer pain.

Ryan follows Kate and the other “sisters” as they walk around their local town. We don’t really get to see much of the public’s reaction to them but, then again, this is America where attention-grabbing stunts are ten a penny. There is one revealing scene where a man upbraids Kate for posing as a nun which he, as a Catholic, finds offensive. Kate quickly back peddles by saying how much she respects his right to believe what he believes etc, but this just leaves one wondering why they feel the need to dress as nuns in the first place.

In fact, Kate’s motivations are always a little mixed throughout, although Ryan gives her enough time and space to explain herself. She was apparently a “high powered” businesswoman, but when her marriage fell apart, she suddenly found herself with a need for cash. Somewhat opportunistically (and at the suggestion of a brother that she later fell out with), she becomes a grower/supplier. Kate lived in Holland for eight years where she presumably learned to enjoy the product – THC and all.

We also get a bit of Kate’s somewhat vexed relation to her grown up son and her occasional run-ins with the local gangs. These gangs rightly see ripping off Kate’s crop as an easier way to get product than growing their own and, this being America again, they have no shortage of guns to enforce their point. This takes the picture toward more extreme and violent territory, but it doesn’t quite know where to go with that angle.

Then there is the issue of the local sheriff. He’s a bit of a straw man, but the film needs an antagonist. He’s not a complete redneck incidentally (and he realises that pot is here to stay), but he rightly worries about the violence that potentially big profits bring. Ryan clearly tries to understand the sheriff’s position, but he also realises that Kate is better doco material.

All of this could have made for a fun ninety minutes, but somehow the film doesn’t hang together that well. A lot depends on one’s interest in the self-obsessed Kate. Though she is brave to expose herself to the documentarian’s lens, she is, in the end, not as interesting as she thinks she is.

 
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Red Joan

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If you think about it, the most successful spies are the ones we have never heard of. British director Trevor Nunn has brought to the screen the rather extraordinary tale of Joan Stanley – here styled as ‘Red Joan’ – who leaked nuclear secrets to the Russians for decades. (The real-life Joan was arrested very late in her life). This isn’t really a spoiler because Nunn shows us from the very beginning the end-point arrest and interrogation.

Joan (the ever-splendid Dame Judi Dench) is by then a little old lady pottering around her cottage garden. No one would have guessed the passionate and dangerous life she led in the 1940s. She gives the impression that she barely remembers it too. But then maybe that suits her.

The film uses the device of intercutting between the current day interrogation and her war-time exploits. The period-set sections, which occupy the majority of the running time, are as much concerned with Joan’s love life as her spying.

The young Joan is played with great verve by Sophie Cookson (perhaps best known for a rather different take on secret service work in the Kingsman films). She steals the hearts of men as well as the secrets of the state. Concentrating upon the affairs and the sexual games could be seen as trivialising the historical and espionage elements, but here they are convincingly intertwined. The characters’ motivations are constantly made more complex by their attachments and jealousies.

Nunn belongs to that generation of British theatre directors (like David Hare and Peter Hall) who are left-leaning and drawn to political and historical subjects, but he shows he can handle cinema just as well. The problem, as suggested, is to balance the ideological issues at play with the human story. Perhaps on the stage one could attempt a more wordy and sombre philosophical debate about the niceties of politics and the complexities of deciding what the ‘right’ side’ actually was. As Joan says, “it was all so different then”. However, there is also the hard-to-square idea that, by providing nuclear secrets to Stalin’s Russia, Joan aided the uneasy post war nuke-laden peace based on ‘mutually assured destruction’.

That is one of the sticking points of the film. Joan has a grown-up son (Ben Miles) who has an establishment job. It is not just that he is shocked by the belated revelation that he never really knew his mum, there is also the problem that he thoroughly disapproves of her treasonous acts. The arguments between the two are perhaps a little too condensed so that the dialogue in their scenes becomes unrealistically position-setting and even a bit unconvincing.

It is a small flaw though. The film as a whole does have a fascinating story to tell and with this cast (especially Dench, of course) it is brought to the screen with considerable aplomb.

 
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The Curse of the Weeping Woman

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The Conjuring series has long since expanded from being a franchise and is now a legitimate cinematic universe, for good and ill. While few would argue with the merits of the main series entries The Conjuring 1 and 2 (and upcoming 3), we’ve also had to contend with the likes of Annabelle and The Nun, with Annabelle Comes Home, The Nun 2 and The Crooked Man all on their way. The latest spin-off is the barely-connected-to-the-main-series Curse of the Weeping Woman.

Proceedings focus in on the slight tale of social worker, Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), who is working to support two kids after the death of her police officer husband. Anna becomes involved with a case involving two apparently abused children, who are terrified of the spectre of La Llorona, a ghost in Latin American folklore. Naturally, Anna takes the pragmatic view that ghosts don’t exist, but soon the crying lady’s evil intentions are fixed on our plucky heroine’s family and she may have to reevaluate some stuff… if she survives.

Originally titled The Curse of La Llorona (and inevitably released in the US under the title due to the large Hispanic audience), the film has a few things going for it, but it seems intent on squandering them all. Linda Cardellini is an agreeable lead and tries her best, but the material is so bare bones she never really gets a chance to shine. Similarly, Raymond Cruz, who was so unforgettable as Tuco in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, has nice moments as troubled ex-priest Rafael Olvera, but they never add up to anything. Hell, even the Weeping Woman herself, played capably by Marisol Ramirez, never gets to do anything other than lurch onto screen accompanied by loud noises or look creepy hanging around puddles.

The Curse of the Weeping Woman had a lot of potential, but like a lot of The Conjuring spin-offs, it feels like a lesser entity. Worse still, it’s not at all scary and frequently a bit dull. Hell, at least Annabelle was bad enough to cause a few unintentional chuckles, whereas mirth of any kind is in short supply here; as is tension, atmosphere or any compelling reason to keep watching.

Ultimately, The Curse of the Weeping Woman is a forgettable dud, and that’s a crying shame.

 
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Back Of The Net

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Though catered to with primping regularity on the small screen, the tween audience has copped short shrift when it comes to cinema. Their tastes are so singular that they practically exclude interest from all outside demographics, perhaps putting the brakes on any possibility of making true box office gold. After crafting a modest success with 2017’s Rip Tide, prolific and enterprising producer Steve Jaggi replicates that film’s formula – relatively-high-profile-American-gets-transplanted-to-Australia – with Back Of The Net, which sees Disney Channel darling, Sofia Wylie (Andi Mack, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), taking on a similar role to Rip Tide’s Debby Ryan (Jessie, Sing It!). The results are equally fresh and entertaining.

American-in-Oz, Cory Bailey (Wylie), is a nerd of the first order, more interested in science and studying than just about anything else. But when a classic absent-minded-professor move sees her board a bus for a soccer academy instead of the one taking students on an ocean study trip, Cory is thrown way, way outside of her comfort zone. Suddenly surrounded by cute boys, bitchy girls and sweet new friends, Cory has to use her considerably sized brain pan to find a way to carve out success on the soccer field.

Equipped with a cast boasting energy to burn – Sofia Wylie is like a cinematic ray of sunshine, while Kate Box (TV’s Rake and Wanted) gleefully steals all of her scenes as the soccer team’s harried coach – director, Louise Alston (making a surprise detour after the impressive Jucy and All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane), mines them for all they’re worth. With a limited budget, she really showcases her cast, letting their natural charisma and screen presence glow through. While the messages are strong and on-point, and the humour is effortlessly bubbly, the cliches do admittedly fly thick and fast, and you can pretty much see every plot move coming from a mile away. The film’s abundant warmth, energy and charm, however, make up for these shortfalls, and Back Of The Net ends up kicking more than a few nifty goals.

 
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Hellboy

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In 1993 a talented comic book artist/writer named Mike Mignola debuted the now iconic character of Hellboy, a demonic bloke who loves pancakes, cigars and punching the shit out of evil. Just over a decade later, in 2004, a talented writer/director named Guillermo del Toro released a cinematic adaptation, Hellboy starring Ron Perlman, that while taking some liberties with the source material and adding an unnecessary romance, brimmed with whimsy and imagination. Said film got a sequel in 2008, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which performed adequately but not spectacularly at the box office and, for a time, the embers of the Hellboy franchise cooled.

Fade in to 2019 and another talented director by the name of Neil Marshall, the chap who brought us the excellent Dog Soldiers (2002) and all-time genre classic The Descent (2005), has rebooted big red in a brand new adventure. And the result? Ehhh it’s a bit of a mess, hey.

Hellboy (2019) focuses on Hellboy (David Harbour this time around) on a quest to defeat an evil witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who is gathering an army of monsters and ready to unleash a plague across England and then the world. It’s a fun premise, with a lot of eye-catching creature effects and gore, but there’s just something missing in this adaptation. Ian McShane, one of the world’s most charming actors, is horribly miscast as Hellboy’s adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the new BRPD team members, Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) are only sporadically interesting. Most disappointing is Hellboy himself, however, who has gone from being an optimistic dreamer and charming smart arse to a whiny, self-loathing dickhead who spouts unfunny zingers every ten seconds. It doesn’t help that David Harbour’s wonderfully expressive face is covered in layers of stiff makeup effects, so he looks for all the world like a frowning botox tragedy; but it’s hard to imagine what Neil Marshall was going for here with this singularly unappealing performance.

The thing is, lower budget remakes of large comic book properties can actually be a good thing. Despite its relatively poor showing at the box office, 2012’s Dredd reboot is remembered much more fondly than 1995’s Sylvester Stallone-starring stinker, Judge Dredd. Same goes for 2008’s Lexi Alexander-directed Punisher: War Zone, which was arguably the best take on the material until Netflix took that crown. However, this Hellboy seems intent on avoiding everything that makes the character likable, unique or interesting.

On the slender plus side, some of the creatures look pretty cool and the gore is… kinda fun? A couple of the sequences in the third act are so batshit crazy in their viscera-splattered invention, you can’t help but chuckle.

Sadly, however, a few good gore gags and a monster or two can’t disguise the dearth of imagination on display here, and the whole effort feels like an unfortunate misfire. While not without occasional goofy charm this version of “diablo muchacho” should have probably spent more time in (development) hell.

 
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Thunder Road

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In a steady opening 12-minute shot, director Jim Cummings invites you to watch Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings), the protagonist of his film Thunder Road, wrestle with a multitude of feelings and insecurities as he tries to give a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. He cracks jokes, only to immediately regret them. He apologises to the people crying in the church, assuming that he’s being too emotional. He’s a mess and the cherry on the whole pathetic cake comes when Jim attempts to perform a choreographed dance to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, unable to play the song due to a faulty CD player.

On its own, this whole shower of shame would make a great short – and indeed, it does (https://vimeo.com/174957219). As a prologue, it perfectly pitches the sad and humorous tone Cummings is gunning for. It’s okay to laugh at Jim, but you’re going to feel incredibly sorry for him as soon as you do.

Thunder Road sees Jim trying and failing to cope with his mother’s death. His only solace comes in the shape of his daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), who he shares custody with along with his deadbeat ex-wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer). Despite her young age, Cummings shows Crystal talking to her father like she’s an exhausted mother. Realising that he’s forgotten to pass on an invite to friends’ birthday now long gone, Crystal returns to her colouring as if she’s run out of things to say. Jim, for his part, knows his own shortcomings and overzealously tries to be a good dad; at one point, staying up all night so he can learn how to play patty cake.

Trying too hard and falling short is the thread that runs through Thunder Road as Jim seeks ways to settle the angst and regret born from his mother’s passing. Hints are dropped that Jim was never the dutiful son, but equally, he could just be convincing himself that he wasn’t. However, realising that he’ll never be able to make amends for the times he believes he never got to truly understand his mother, he exerts more effort on himself to be the perfect father to Crystal and ultimately, seems to just get in his own way more often than not.

As Jim, Cummings portrays a painfully insecure man wrapped up in nervous, twitching skin. Constantly on edge, you’re just waiting for the dour police officer to snap at any moment and hoping that he gets his stuff together before he does so. His momentary flashes of rage erupt at the most inopportune moments – such as halfway through a parent teacher meeting, squished into a child’s school desk – and are for the most part, excruciatingly funny. Other times though, Cummings ensures that the seriousness of Jim’s mourning bubbles to the surface to remind us that he is not just a uniformed Pagliacci the clown. In one scene, Jim’s partner finds him at home having torn up his entire home after a particularly vicious custody trial with Rosalind. Like Adam Sandler’s outbursts in Punch Drunk Love – to which this film would make an extremely satisfying double bill – these moments show the impotent rage that courses through our ‘hero’.

Overall, Thunder Road is a brilliant piece of work that paints the portrait of an all too human response to tragedy building upon tragedy. We are all guilty of not doing the right thing when we need to, or doubling down on repressing our feelings in case people think we’re weak. Officer Jim Arnaud is a poster child for those moments and his tale is as sad, and as happy, and as mournful, and as uplifting as you could expect. It’s an absolute treat of a movie.

 
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The Hole in the Ground

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Being a parent is hard work. That’s a statement with which even the most earnestly evangelical of breeder will agree, and being a parent of a difficult child is immeasurably harder still. But what if your child isn’t just a bit of a dick, what if your ruggie is actually supernaturally evil? This premise has proven fertile ground for horror movies throughout cinema’s history, with classics like The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976) and Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). More recently films like Insidious (2010), The Babadook (2014) and Hereditary (2018) have joined the ranks of this well-worn subgenre. Now, first-time feature director Lee Cronin brings his take, The Hole in the Ground, to the table to mostly effective results.

The Hole in the Ground tells the tale of Sarah O’Neill (Seana Kerslake) and her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). The pair have moved to the idyllic, but isolated, Irish countryside for reasons initially unspecified, but clearly not ideal. Sarah is trying to be strong for her son, but she’s experienced recent trauma, both physical and mental. Chris is an odd, imaginative, kid who is unsure about the reasons for his life’s upheaval, and does take it out on his mum from time to time. However, he soon becomes fascinated by an enormous hole in the ground out the back of his new house, and wouldn’t that be fun to explore…

The Hole in the Ground spends the bulk of its 90 minute runtime building tension slowly, but effectively, as Chris’s behaviour gets more out of character and bizarre. His change from weird kid to ‘the other’ is conveyed effectively by both director and the young actor. Of course, these films depend in large part on the effectiveness of the pay off, and in that regard The Hole in the Ground doesn’t disappoint. The third act is tense, surreal and genuinely gripping, showing that Cronin haseserious genre chops.

In terms of its overall place in the subgenre, The Hole in the Ground is not quite as revelatory as The Babadook or Hereditary, treading more familiar genre beats rather than forging its own identity. That said, it’s still an effective, lowkey bit of allegorical horror with solid performances and a third act that crackles with surreal menace and effective tension. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll find The Hole in the Ground has a lot to dig.

 
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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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The novelist Graham Greene once quipped along the lines that “Don Quixote is considered a great novel because nobody ever finished it”. What a delicious irony there is in relation to Terry Gilliam’s obsessive and relentless pursuit to get to film Cervantes’ iconic tale. As many movie buffs will know, Gilliam tried to get the project up over a very long period and his attempts were always thwarted by a combination of things that sink films; failure to get finance, creative differences, inappropriate casting and so on. There is even a killer documentary about this saga with the perfect title Lost in La Mancha (2002).

Now the time bandits have re-landed as it were and, in 2019, the film is releasable. In this iteration, if that is the right word, Adam Driver takes the role of Toby (essentially Gilliam), who is going out of his mind trying to get the film made. He has cast his Quixote (the wonderfully versatile Jonathan Pryce) but the old actor is also having difficulty in not falling into the role and then being unable to get out. To make matters worse, Toby has unwisely flirted with the girlfriend of his boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and there is a good chance that a violent retribution will befall him.

While the baffled and exhausted crew wait on, Toby becomes a sort of dragooned Sancho Panza and follows the now-deranged Quixote on a picaresque sojourn through the desert regions of Spain, thus ensuring the very chaos he has sought to avoid.

It is a great circular premise and writers Gilliam and Tony Grisoni want it to amuse and bemuse in equal measure. This is a double-edged sword of course, because there is always the danger that we will just get lost ourselves and become tired of the whole charade.

Gilliam himself has form here. He can be so inventive and perhaps so unable to listen to common sense (he has had several projects blow their budget/time line etc) that he ends up producing a fascinating mess.

He was never the most logical of thinkers, but he has great madcap powers. We owe him his seminal visual contribution to the Monty Python. We really can’t be too cross with Gilliam, after all some of his iflms have been near masterworks (Brazil, The Fisher King). It can be exhausting keeping up with him, but we should still go and see his films and just be grateful that this too-bland world contains a mind dedicated to such glorious folly.

 
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The Aftermath

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What’s worse than a bad idea? A good idea presented badly. And the idea at the heart of director James Kent’s (The Testament Of Youth) latest is indeed a good one: Re-examining the culpability of the parties involved in World War II, using a love triangle as a proxy for the strained relations between Britain and Germany after the war. As personified by Jason Clarke’s British colonel, we get glimpses of a darker aspect of the Allies’ involvement in the fight, one that shows their hands aren’t clean.

It’s not something that often comes up, this Satoshi Kon-esque pointing-of-fingers at post-war culture, and it could have made for an interesting flick. Unfortunately, nothing here carries the same venomous accuracy as something like Paranoia Agent, and that blind aim dooms the movie.

The execution, which ultimately means far more than the intentions behind it, cannot pick a single tone to go with. We go straight from grime-coated interrogation scenes that depict not killing one’s self as the cowardly thing to do, right into a snowball fight between Keira Knightley and a turtleneck-sweater-wearing Alexander Skarsgård that looks like something out of a Hallmark production.

It is frankly baffling how aloof this film can get about its own subject matter, always one rendition of ‘Springtime for Churchill’ away from becoming a total farce. It doesn’t help that the displays of prejudice here are about as subtle as a Mel Brooks production too, except this isn’t meant to be funny.

But ultimately, the biggest problem is with the love triangle itself, even ignoring its place as a vehicle for the film’s grander point. It’s not just that all three people involved are unlikable, which they definitely are in their own ways, but it’s that the circumstances that push the romance forward are incredibly forced. There isn’t nearly enough chemistry between any of them to make the jarring turns into trysting the night away feel like they’re worth your investment. Then again, when the literal furniture has more personality than the people struggling to sit on it, engagement is probably too much to ask for.

And we haven’t even gotten to the sheer drabness of this production, where it feels like we’re being subjected to white noise with the occasional glimpse of grounded terror just to claim that something is happening. But even when we get to the end of this affair, nothing even comes of it. It spends so long trying to insist it has a point, only to completely fumble the landing and make this whole exercise feel even more wasteful.

This is a situation where nobody wins. Those who want romance aren’t likely to vibe with the walking billboards offered here, those who want period drama will be aghast at the apathy behind it, and those who like to think about a film’s ideas will likely be giving more thought to them than the filmmakers themselves. It’s a mess.