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Happy Death Day 2U

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2017’s Happy Death Day was a fun, albeit flawed, genre romp from director Christopher Landon. Featuring the wonderful high concept pitch, “it’s Groundhog Day meets Scream”, the movie benefited from an extremely polished script and an absolutely stellar performance by Jessica Rothe. The film went on to do shockingly well at the box office so a sequel was inevitable, but it’s difficult to grasp what exactly they were going for with Happy Death Day 2U.

Happy Death Day 2U begins promisingly enough. We’re reintroduced to the time loop concept through Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), who finds himself in a situation similar to that of Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in the first film. Through the zappy, obnoxious dialogue, lip service is paid to the multiverse, alternate realities and a number of intriguing sci-fi concepts. However, just when things are about to get interesting the movie shifts back to Tree’s point of view and becomes a fairly standard rehash of the first one, although this time set in an alternate dimension.

Tree’s journey in the first film was fun because she was a legitimately terrible person and watching her suffer was amusing. In the sequel, however, she’s lost her edge and apart from one pretty hilarious suicide montage the story lacks the calculated lunacy of the previous entry. Worse still, the slasher movie conceit has been all but abandoned, which leaves the central whodunnit mystery a thin and unsatisfying concoction. This wouldn’t be so bad had the new additions worked, but a streak of dumb, broad comedy (replete with zany French accents of all bloody things) has replaced the stabby shenanigans. Oh, and remember the sentimental claptrap from the first film? Well, it’s returned threefold and is truly painful.

On the upside Jessica Rothe is still fantastic, and honestly deserves to be in a better film than this one. She fully commits to every moment – even the wretchedly mawkish ones – and is a delight. The support cast are mostly fine, with the science nerds providing some chuckles, but it’s all in service of a script that seems unsure of what it wants to be and consequently ends up being a whole lot of noisy nothing.

Hardcore but undiscerning fans of the first film might find something to enjoy here, but the rest of you are probably better off skipping Happy Death Day 2U and staying in to watch Russian Doll instead.

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Alita: Battle Angel

Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

During the 1990s, a young man by the name of Robert Rodriguez was one of the most exciting and inventive directors around. He burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992 and kept cranking out the hits, with gems like Desperado (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Sin City (2005) released to much acclaim. Post Sin City, however, it seemed that Rodriguez missed a trick or two. And though his output still had some appeal (2007’s Planet Terror remains an underrated flick) there were some significantly disappointing efforts like Machete Kills (2013) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Well, friends, it pleases us greatly to inform you that Robert Rodriguez is back and all it took was a little robot girl and a bit of James Cameron magic.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, a multi-volume cyberpunk series released in the ’90s. In fact, producer James Cameron has been trying to get the adaptation made since the late ’90s/early 2000s, which gives you an idea of the torturous route this project has taken.

The story takes place in 2563 and revolves around the (very) wide-eyed cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is saved from the literal scrapheap by cyborg Scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). The two bond, and Ido attempts to teach Alita about society; the underclass who live in grungy Iron City and the upper class who live in a sky city called Zalem.

Alita: Battle Angel is many things – exciting, propulsive, full of spectacle – but it’s certainly not subtle or in any way “hard” science fiction. The movie plays out more like a technology-infused fairy tale, with Alita uncovering her history, unexpected strengths and even a burgeoning relationship with affable human spunk, Hugo (Keean Johnson). It also feels as if the plot contains about three trade paperbacks worth of story and even at 122 minutes zips along at an occasionally dizzying pace. That means that the narrative, involving menacing cyborgs, dark conspiracies and unexpected betrayals doesn’t always have time to give every moment space to breathe. Unfortunately that means a few subplots, including one involving Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, feel under-cooked when set against the rest of the film.

That aside, however, Alita: Battle Angel is an absolute hoot. The world of Iron City feels rusted and lived in, the characters all have clear agendas and the action is superbly executed, with genuinely exciting set pieces that build to a glorious climax. It’s not a perfect film, at times the dialogue can be wince-inducing and the pace inconsistent, but there’s a joy and excitement here that mirrors Alita’s gleeful appreciation of life itself. Rosa Salazar gives a spectacular performance (albeit one augmented with hefty amounts of CGI) and makes Alita an extremely appealing heroine. If you had fears about taking a trip to the uncanny valley from the trailers, just know that in the final product it all works spectacularly well.

Alita: Battle Angel is gorgeous and at times an unwieldy and profoundly strange beast, that doesn’t always work as well as it could. It’s also consistently enjoyable from start to finish and exciting and wide-eyed in a way that should liven even the most jaded and black-hearted audience member. If you can get in line with its gleeful, cyberpunky charms you’re in for a grand old time at the cinema. Welcome back, Robert Rodriguez, we’ve all missed you.

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Undermined – Tales From the Kimberley

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

An insightful examination of the threats from irrigated agriculture, pastoralism and intense mining to Kimberley’s remote Aboriginal communities, Undermined – Tales From the Kimberley focuses attention on the often unheard voices and commentaries of people living amidst this ongoing struggle.

Written and developed with producer Stephanie King, Nicholas Wrathall’s (Gore Vidal – The United States of Amnesia) film is an eye-opening look at the impact of sustained pressure from big business on the culture and society of residents in the Kimberley. The film follows veteran cattleman Kevin Oscar, Senior Elder June Davis and community leader Albert Wiggan as they strive to preserve their country and their culture. Also including commentary from Dr. Anne Poelina, the film is an urgent call for greater communication and understanding.

The vast unspoilt wilderness of the spectacular Kimberley region in the north west and its superb coastlines are captured beautifully. The magnificent ancient land is set to the music and words of the people, with folk music from the communities involved painting an extra layer of meaning and resonance.

The Kimberley is currently at the centre of not only an unprecedented land grab, but is also the location of a spate of recent youth suicides. These are tragedies that have, after intense scrutiny, been judged by coroner Ros Fogliani to have been shaped by “the crushing effects of inter-generational trauma”.

Made before this judgement, but very much in full knowledge of the devastation experienced in the land, the film looks at the damage done to not only the land, but also to the culture and identity of First Nations people of the region. As deals and proposals for projects continue to roll in, it asks ‘for whose benefit is this development?’

The film skilfully deploys a non-traditional, hybrid style of documentary, driven not only by thorough investigative journalism, but most importantly by the personal stories of the characters at the front line.

It is the connection between country and culture that is at the heart of the tales detailed in the film. Panning out of the close ups on local communities whenever relevant in order to provide context and background, the painful facts surrounding the narratives of the central figures are given in full detail. We discover that attempts to develop and impose an outside way of using the land are often proposed quickly, with unfavourable terms offered. The status of land rights, and how they can be used to give authority to a proposed business venture, is also closely studied.

Inextricably linked to the process of unwanted development is the forced closure of communities and the relocation of First Nations residents; effectively leaving young people lost and homeless in towns and cities far away from the country that they so strongly identify with. The film visits lost Kimberley communities, where all the young have been forced to move, either through necessity or otherwise, and finds places lost in pain and hurt.

Acting as a stark reminder of the importance to look at issues that are at once both complex and straightforward, Undermined – Tales From the Kimberley is a powerful and enlightening film. It highlights the fundamental necessity to hear, listen and understand from those that know the realities of the situation far better than anyone else.

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John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Cinema and tennis are not the most obvious of bedfellows, but here we are with John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a film that’s part sports document and part film essay. The majority of the footage in the film is down to the work of a one man, Gil de Kermadec, who made numerous instructional films on how to play tennis, one of which plays at the beginning of this film. It’s amusing in its stilted nature, with the film’s subject having to reduce the fluid nature of his talent to rigid, repetitive movements for the benefit of the viewer. Moving forward, de Kermadec knew that no film could capture the true feeling of watching sport, but cinema could help us understand it.

For the purpose of this documentary, director Julian Faraut uses footage that de Kermadec filmed of hot head tennis player, John McEnroe in the run up to what would be his defeat in the 1984 French Open. Narrated by Matthieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Faraut carries on de Kermadec’s work, drawing a line from John McEnroe’s performance to that of any film director in the quest for career defining perfection. Case in point: using a montage of McEnroe’s infamous court side tantrums, the suggestion is made that the player, like the filmmaker, can become easily upset by those who do not understand his vision. To some this will be a revelation, for others it just underlines that McEnroe acted like a spoilt child who’d never been told no before.

It perhaps goes without saying that In the Realm of Perfection is unusual in its subject matter and its delivery, being both interesting and unbearably dry. Seemingly aware of this, Faraut throws in splashes of absurdity to mitigate the overt seriousness of Almaric’s narration; at times the film feels like every character in a Wes Anderson movie got up and made a documentary on tennis. Faraut stops the film to take time out in order to watch McEnroe rest between sets, he uses audio samples from Raging Bull to soundtrack McEnroe’s dummy spits, and most interestingly he shows how de Kermadec’s quest for sport realism effected the very people he was filming. Already bristling because of the presence of a press pool, we see McEnroe fit to burst as he becomes increasingly aware of de Kermadec’s crew dotted around the crowd; leading to one moment where the frustrated player threatens to force-feed someone his racquet.

Does the film work as a portrait of a sport star in his prime? In a way, yes. Like Douglas Gordon’s Zidane – which saw Gordon keep his cameras locked on footballer Zinedine Zidane for a whole match – there’s something hypnotic about watching McEnroe trapped within the confines of the frame; reacting to things only he is witnessing. Being forced to watch only him, you can’t help but study his movements which is likely the kind of thing de Kermadec wanted you to do in the first place.

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Vox Lux

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Promotional trailers for director Brady Corbet’s disturbing, edgy and deliberately uneven Vox Lux focus on the Madonna-like stadium show that Natalie Portman carries off in the movie’s final act. But it is the centre of the film where Portman’s rendering of a very damaged woman and her out of control narcissism and meltdown that is the powerhouse heart of Vox Lux.

Corbet’s debut feature The Childhood of a Leader explores the wealthy, dysfunctional and unhappy childhood of someone fated to become a fascist. Brady examines the notion that we don’t grow up in a vacuum, that we are forever harmed by the influences and traumas that shape us. The 10-year-old Prescott in Childhood is not redeemed, and Vox Lux takes a parallel journey. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is an ordinary schoolgirl physically and emotionally wounded during the Columbine school massacre. She is thrown on a broken course that she never comes back from.

A modest musician, Celeste plays a self-penned song at the memorial service for the massacre victim and is from that moment a poster girl for tragedy and survival. Jude Law is the manager who discovers her and remains her co-dependent companion as she scales mega successful heights.

This is Law at his best in an intimate, chaotic portrayal of a man who loses all boundaries to become whatever Celeste needs in order to stay afloat.

Cassidy plays the teenage Celeste with a somewhat distant flavour, not entirely credible as the traumatised girl but she shines when she reappears as Celeste’s daughter, crushed and dimmed against Portman’s portrayal of a monstrous needy mother.

Corbett has an art house pedigree of acting roles in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Clouds of Sils Maria. He keeps us ever-aware of Celeste’s long-term damage by physicalising her dependence on a neck brace and painkillers, supplemented with booze and recreational drugs. Portman inhabits the character’s savage edgy movements and defiant vulnerability as the camera follows her backstage and through claustrophobic streets, dragging viewer and cast in its wake.

With art film sensibility, Corbett plays with repeated visual motifs that trigger associations and meaning. In the first Act, ‘Genesis’ are lights; street light, Christmas light and candlelight. A theme of speeding along highways and through tunnels is another.

Vox Lux isn’t a perfect film but here is a director willing to take risks in this thoughtful and disturbing look at what happens when we process collective grief by placing it on the shoulders of ordinary, broken people. Is the sheer fact of survival enough to give us hope? Enough to overlook Celeste’s emptiness at the heart of her quasi-religious, deeply cliched pop concerts? Perhaps – the pop numbers, performed with maximum sequins and filmed by an uncomfortably close camera, are soaring tunes from Australian musician Sia.

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Lords of Chaos

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Black metal is one of the most puzzling and antisocial music genres to exist on the face of this planet. Seemingly designed to be as harsh, tuneless and borderline unlistenable as possible, it makes one wonder ‘who in the name of the Dark Lord Satan would create this screeching noise and why?’ Lords of Chaos does its best to answer that question, and manages to be pretty bloody entertaining along the way.

Lords of Chaos is the true(ish) story of Euronymous (Rory Culkin) a twitchy but ambitious young man who forms a band called Mayhem in Norway in the 1980s. The band soon garners a reputation for being the darkest of the dark, particularly after the original lead singer blows his head off with a shotgun; and Euro uses this notoriety to open his own record store and start his own music label. Enter Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) a former Scorpions-loving poser now death-obsessed madman, who forms an uneasy and competitive friendship with Euronymous that begins with admiration, mutates into jealousy and ends in bloodshed. Plus a shitload of churches are going to get burned down before the credits roll on this bad boy.

Despite the grim subject matter, Lords of Chaos is actually quite fun for most of its runtime. Culkin’s wry, knowing voiceover gives some of the grimmer moments levity, and the interplay between the characters trying to outdo one another by being darker-than-thou is frequently hilarious. The self-proclaimed Black Circle are, essentially, a pack of cocky little pricks, but director Jonas Akerlund doesn’t attempt to lionise these long-haired doom groupies but rather lets their story play out with little judgement, just observation. Of course things do get quite nasty, particularly in the third act, which is to be expected. This isn’t a happy story and Euronymous warns us from the jump that “this will end badly.”

Performance-wise it’s pretty much a two-hander between Culkin and Cohen, both of whom manage to be at turns sympathetic and just plain pathetic. Sky Ferreira also shines as Ann-Marit, photographer and sometime groupie, giving empathy and depth to a role that could have played as thin and thankless in lesser hands.

Ultimately, Lords of Chaos is a bit of a niche proposition, taking a look into a world that most people neither know nor particularly care about. However, if you can get past that barrier to entry, there’s an intriguing and well observed exploration of a genre and subculture that is strangely insular and perversely fascinating. If that sounds like your jam then you and Lords of Chaos will get along like a church on fire.

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Stan & Ollie

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Laurel and Hardy were Hollywood comic stars – a double act – who started in the silent film era and were famous and popular throughout the 1930s. This might be an unnecessary little bio snapshot, but we have to think carefully about who would even know their names or their work today. Perhaps everyone would still know who Charlie Chaplin was, but is this still true of Buster Keaton? Or Harold Lloyd, or this pair? It was a very long time ago.

Present day funnymen Steve Coogan (The Trip, Philomena) and John C. Reilly play the comedians in this bittersweet drama based on a book about the era. Director Jon S Baird (who made Filth, which could hardly be more contrasting to this film), goes for gentle pacing and character study.

The film takes place mostly in the 1950s, decades after the comic pair’s heyday in Hollywood. Somewhat marooned by fashion, they are reduced to doing a nostalgia tour of Britain and Ireland. There, they are put into the tender clutches of empresario Bernard Delfont (a wonderfully oily-but-ruthless performance by Rufus Jones). The hotels he books them into are not exactly what they are used to but then they are not exactly packing the small regional theatres and, as he reminds them, their food doesn’t pay for itself. To add to all of this, their wives Lucille Hardy (the wonderful Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) are coming over from America. Ida is Russian and no nonsense, Lucille worries about Oliver’s heart problems and the fact that the workaholic (and part alcoholic) Stan might drive him into an early grave. However, the heart of the film is the ‘love story’ between the two performers. They have their falling-outs, but really, they not only can’t work alone, they have this lifelong bromance that both cherish till the end.

The film recreates snatches of the perfect slapstick that made them so famous, but it only uses it by way of illustration. In fact, most of the film concerns their tribulations on tour and their arguments and reconciliations. It is all about the behind the scenes aspects of performers’ lives.

Perhaps it is wise not to try and make it a comedy in its own terms, but what we are left with is something that audiences might not expect or easily relate to. Though the emotional moments are touching and largely earned, the film feels – like the pair in later life – like a lot of talent in search of a still-appreciative audience. The love of the bygone era isn’t the only thing that drives it, but it probably wouldn’t work if you cannot access that sentiment, which kindles nostalgia in all of us.

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Vox Lux

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The ‘Prelude’ – as it’s called onscreen – to this film is memorable and jarring, to put it mildly. It’s 1999, and fourteen-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her classmates have just assembled in their schoolroom for the first lesson of term when – SPOILER ALERT! – one of their number bursts in and proceeds to go on a shooting rampage. Celeste is shot, but survives, and goes on to write a song which catapults her to teen pop stardom.

The plot thickens considerably from there on in. We jump a few years from scene to scene, and over time Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become a musical megastar of an immeasurably more flamboyant and ‘decadent’ variety. She’s also a mother, and her daughter Albertine is played by – as you may have guessed – Raffey Cassidy. There are further tumultuous events, violent and otherwise, but it would be best to reveal no more.

There are a couple of flaws in this movie: the (grand) finale is cheesy and predictable, and Celeste’s sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) hardly seems to age a day. But it seems almost churlish to mention them in view of the film’s many strengths: the naturalistic acting, especially the virtuoso performance by an almost unrecognisable Portman (who actually both looks and sounds more like Fran Drescher)… the glorious thunderous soundtrack by Scott Walker… the droll and literate script, with its often savagely witty dialogue… the plethora of ideas… the moments of heart-stopping drama… the striking visual images…

Vox Lux somehow manages to be simultaneously moving, cynical and facetious. It’s definitely a must-see.

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Cold Pursuit

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For a little over a decade, Liam Neeson has been enjoying a bombastic career rejuvenation thanks to a jump-starter performance in Pierre Morel’s Taken. However, his ubiquity has reached a memetic breaking point of late. Whether intentionally, like the Jimmy Kimmel mock trailer for Taken 4, or unintentionally, like with the actual Taken sequels, he’s become a walking self-parody. And with every year, there comes yet another action thriller where Neeson is called on to play the hero who gets dragged into events because a family member is in trouble.

Thankfully, with Cold Pursuit, that’s really where the similarities end as far as what audiences have come to expect from a modern Neeson flick.

Instead, we find the main man in more darkly comedic territory with the snow-capped, small town setting the stage for a violent turf war between drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman) and Native American kingpin White Bull (Tom Jackson). It hits a healthy midway point between the idiosyncratic quirkiness of a Coen Brothers effort like Fargo, and the cathartic blend of mirth and murder of Martin McDonagh with In Bruges or the more recent Three Billboards.

Cold Pursuit manages to hit drama, pitch-black comedy and hard-hitting action in all the right doses, allowing each element to breathe without negating the effects of the others. Neeson’s wheelhouse of gritty, low-flash action holds true here, as the fight scenes can get gory and brutal. But that never gets in the way of the bigger jokes, like Viking’s demand for loyalty that reaches legit self-parody at times or how, for once, Neeson isn’t playing someone with an actual past in gunplay. Potential nepotism and reading habits are about as close to the Taken character’s particular set of skills as it gets here, and yet he still sells it like a champion.

Now, this is one of those weird Americanised remakes where the director of the original, here being Hans Petter Moland, is retelling their own story. The main difference between the two, aside from shifting from Norway to the Northwestern United States, is the culture at the heart of the turf war. Neeson’s Nelson, who pushes literal snow for a living; Viking, who pushes figurative snow for a living; and White Bull, who is pained to see what has happened to the snow that his people used to call home. It touches on some Wind River-esque territory regarding Native/Caucasian relations in America, aided by a very McDonagh approach to racial tensions as comedy, and it adds a surprisingly clever layer that makes the blood-soaked goofiness on display feel like it has a greater purpose than just visceral reaction. The result is easily the best thing Liam Neeson has starred in since Taken, maybe even better.