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I Kill Giants

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There’s something of a sub-genre of films which feature protagonists escaping into self-created imaginary worlds in order to deal with real-life issues. It’s a style of storytelling given fairly on-the-nose treatment in films such as Bridge to Terabithia and Richard Donner’s Radio Flyer though the recent (and extremely affecting) A Monster Calls and Terry Gilliam’s masterwork The Fisher King are probably better examples of how far the conceit can be successfully pushed. In the case of I Kill Giants, it’s squarely aimed at a teenage audience and doesn’t seem too concerned with attempting to traverse any high degree of emotional complexity.

The screenplay was written by Joe Kelly (based on his and J.M. Ken Niimura’s graphic novel) and it tells the story of a teenager named Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who lives in a small New England coastal town, in the care of her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots). Barbara lives predominately in her own head and creates elaborate Dungeons & Dragons-inspired mythologies where a variety of giants menace her with threats of impending death and destruction. So, she occupies her days laying traps and magical charms in her role as a self-designated ‘giant killer’.

Barbara’s school life is similarly consumed with mythology-building, in between encounters with school bully Taylor (Rory Jackson) which only serves to make her withdraw further from classmates and from the hand of friendship extended by newly arrived student Sophia (Sydney Wade) who’s similarly an outsider. The school psychologist Mrs Mollè (Zoe Saldana) expresses concern though she finds Barbara’s world-building to be a largely impenetrable bubble. Barbara and Sophia eventually become firm friends though the exact reasons for why Barbara has created (and continually escapes into) this fantasy world is not fully explained until much later in the film. That’s a frustrating script choice because it means that audience patience wears thin with Barbara’s inexplicably withdrawn behaviour, something that prevents the film from shifting into a gear that would reward an older viewer, less interested in the emotional theatrics and searching for meatier metaphors.

That said, it’s a sweetly intentioned film, beautifully shot and with a strong lead performance from Madison Wolfe, so it’s certainly recommended for the angsty teenager in all of us.

 
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Gauguin

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Gauguin In Tahiti – to quote its full title – begins in Paris in 1891, with the artist planning to move to French Polynesia. Unfortunately, neither his friends nor – much more crucially – his wife (and kids) are prepared to accompany him. We know virtually as soon as we glimpse Vincent Cassel in the titular role that he’s perfectly cast – his craggy features are expressive in themselves – and that his performance will be as great as we’ve come to expect.

As we know, Paul Gauguin does of course proceed to follow his romantic vision and go it alone, spending years in Tahiti. His health is very poor and his art is not appreciated, but he does find inspiration. Not to mention love in the form of a new wife, Tehura (Tuhei Adams), and the film is at least as much a relationship saga as an aesthetic one.

Gauguin has been met with disappointment in some quarters for not being picture postcard/tropical paradise material, but it needn’t and indeed shouldn’t be. It’s largely a study in sustained melancholy, and as such a good combination of form and content. In any case, it’s not so much bleak as subdued in its early stages, when Gauguin finds a measure of contentment and fulfillment – chronic lack of money notwithstanding.

This is a solid, poignant and engaging drama, though not a knockout. The best thing about it, actually, is the absolutely superb instrumental soundtrack by Warren Ellis: some of the most evocative music he’s ever created, and certainly the best he’s done for a film.

 
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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Of course producer and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan made Han Solo’s origin a Western. After fleshing out the Corellian scoundrel with his writing on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and breathing life into Lucasfilm’s other big franchise by scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kasdan went on to write and direct 1985’s Silverado and 1994’s Wyatt Earp, two old school, classical oaters packed full of gunslingers, bad men, desperadoes and outlaws. His love for the genre is palpable. So while Solo: A Star Wars Story is nominally set in the seedy criminal underworld of that long ago, far, far away galaxy we’ve all become so familiar with over the past four decades, it’s really just the Old West with the serial numbers filed off and a light dusting of spaceships, droids, and Wookiees.

And that’s a good thing! While we get a couple of epic scale scenes, including a land battle inspired by World War One-era trench warfare (or perhaps Warhammer 40,ooo) and a space chase that includes a tangle with a vast, Lovecraftian beastie, Solo‘s narrative parameters are notably more modest than what we get in the core Star Wars flicks. This isn’t a story about saving the galaxy or vanquishing evil; rather it’s a fairly picaresque tale of a callow youth becoming a man, more or less, with a bit of adventuring and lesson-learning along the way. Our end goal here isn’t to change the world, but to put Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, giving good Solo without doing a straight-up Harrison Ford impression) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, replacing the now-elderly Peter Mayhew) in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, and it’s no spoiler to say that, yes, that’s where we wind up, and we have a lot of fun getting there, spending a bit of time in the industrial slums of Corellia, a brief stint taking the Imperial shilling in the armed forces before our man Han hooks up with gunslinging gang leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson having too much fun) and learning the outlawry ropes.

The thread that ties young Han’s escapades together is lost love – our boy pines for his old flame Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, not quite up to the task the script requires of her), the girl he loved as a gutter rat back in the day and who he finds again in the orbit of terrifying crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, mixing camp and menace to good effect). Vos provides the potentially deadly pressure that sends our ragtag team off to steal a lucrative score from a spice-mining operation on the planet Kessell lest they feel his considerable wrath, and another piece of the Han Solo legend slots into place.

Solo‘s chief problem is that it so often feels like its checking boxes off a list, filling in the details of the Han Solo story already sketched out in the pre-existing films (and novels, comics, games, etc to varying degrees of canonicity. So: rescuing Chewbacca from slavery? Check. Meeting Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and acquiring the Millennium Falcon? Check? The Kessel Run? Check.

There are few surprises in Solo and that’s fine – in fact it’s something of a relief to have an almost spoiler-proof blockbuster on our hands for once. The film doesn’t deal in twists, but does throw in the occasional reversal, and these proceed from well-established character motivations, rather than being shoehorned in for the sake of shock. What the film trucks in isn’t surprise, but anticipation – the delicious thrill you get as a viewer when the penny drops for you ahead of the film’s characters, and it feels like it’s been a while since we had that sensation served up to us. One element aside – and that exists purely to set potential, nigh-inevitable sequels – Solo eschews “mystery box” storytelling in favour of good old-fashioned fun.

And what fun it is! This is after all, the movie where lifelong Star Wars fan Donald Glover gets to be Lando in all his cape-wearing, smooth-talking glory, and effortlessly steals almost every scene he’s in – it’s hardly a shock that there’s already talk of a Calrissian-centric spin-off. This is the movie where Woody Harrelson gets to spin a blaster pistol in each hand as he leads his team on an honest-to-God sci-fi train heist, a near-perfect marriage of Western tradition and modern tentpole spectacle (and never mind that Joss Whedon’s Firefly kinda did it years earlier and on a fraction of the budget). This is the film where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sardonic, robot-rights expounding droid sidekick gets to inadvertently start a slave uprising in the middle of a heist.

Hell, this is the movie where you get to see Han and Chewie pilot the Millennium Falcon together for the first time. All pretence to critical distance aside, if you’re of a certain age and cultural disposition, that’s a moment that lands like a punch.

It’s not perfect, though. While the one-liners and banter generally land, the more straight-up attempts at comedy tend to fall flat, and Jon Favreau’s comic relief alien pilot is just painful. The simple fact that Ehrenreich isn’t Ford, and that this Solo is not quite the Solo of old, takes a little getting used to and, let’s face it, may be an insurmountable hurdle for some. Poor Emilia Clarke simply doesn’t have the acting chops for the character she’s been given, and drags things down a couple of notches simply by defaulting to being Emilia Clarke in almost every scene she’s in, which is a shame. Qi’ra is central to Han’s character arc in the film, but the complexity required to make their story really land is simply absent due to Clarke’s limitations as a performer.

Still, in many ways Solo feels more like Star Wars than any of the other new generation episodes and, in what may be a first for a prequel, more readily lends itself to expansion and extension as well. With any luck we’ll spend a lot more time bombing around the galaxy with Han and his hairy co-pilot, getting into and out of scrapes by the skin of our teeth. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got, and it’s an absolute blast.

 
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Trench

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A change is as good as a rest for many, allowing us to step away from crushing stagnation of our supposedly dull lives. In Trench, the Melbourne mystery from Director Paul Anthony Nelson, the change is a whole new career and the stagnation comes in the form of the comedy circuit and toxic masculinity.

Marking Nelson’s feature debut, after several shorts for the independent company Cinema Viscera, Trench takes a blanket of film noir tropes and casts it over a modern Aussie cityscape. Trudging through this landscape is stand-up comedian Sam Slade (Samantha E. Hill) and writer Becky Holt (Perri Cummings, who also helped write Trench), two women trapped within their own lives. For Sam, this means shedding the shackles of her microphone and reinventing herself as a private detective, and Becky is going to be her first case.

Filmed in sumptuous black and white, Trench uses this initially simple premise to subvert the detective genre. Gone are the dames who teach you how to whistle, and being handy with your fists is no longer a suitable substitute for conversation skills. Investigating strange things happening in Becky’s flat, the progressive Sam crosses paths with the kind of arched brow, public face misogynists that have taken an unfortunate front seat in the current political climate. Ostensibly set up as interrogations for Sam to gather clues, Trench explores why these archetypes – from ‘ironic’ funny men to sleazy raconteurs in ‘negging’ – they do what they do, and in doing so, manages to flesh them into real people. It is, to be fair, only a light grilling, played mostly for laughs, but it is an interesting way to wrestle with this particular mindset.

For all its modernism, Trench is equally comfortable falling back on some good old fashioned storytelling; with the film’s denouement seeing the unmasked villain donning black gloves and detailing their masterplan like they’re in a Bond film. To some this might be a little played out, but it highlights Nelson’s desire to emulate cinema from the likes of Howard Hawks.

Whilst Cummings and Hill play well off each other, Sam’s picking apart of Becky’s life means we never really get to know much about our hero outside of being exceedingly broke. There are some lovely flourishes that show a Sherlock Holmes just simmering under her surface – using her deductive powers to blag free lattes – and it would have been interesting to see Sam apply more of the skills of her former trade to her new career.

When all is said and done though, Trench is a slick looking piece of independent cinema that mines laughs out of its premise, whilst biting its thumb at the kind of people who were never going to take a female detective seriously in the first place.

Melbourne’s Lido Cinemas is hosting a special Q&A screening of Trench tonight, May 17, 2018. Click through to book your seats

 
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I Kill Giants

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A graphic novel that speaks more directly to its demographic than just about any other, Joe Kelly and J.M Ken Niimura’s 2008 tome, I Kill Giants, is also rich and deeply moving proof that comic books can be a lot more than just superhero flights of fancy. The big ideas of the graphic novel are finely distilled in this big screen adaptation from Danish director, Anders Walter, who makes his feature debut after four shorts which tread similar ground in terms of style and theme. He announces himself as a major talent to watch, but the real breakout figure here is young actress, Madison Wolfe (TV’s Zoo), who delivers a performance of supreme confidence and nuance.

Wolfe is the coolly named twelve-year-old Barbara Thorson, an outcast in her small, coastal Long Island hometown (the film was shot in Belgium, giving it a curiously dislocated and otherworldly feel), who meets mocking sneers with a series of pithy put-downs. Fighting with a gaming-obsessed brother, and enjoying only brief moments of tenderness with her older sister and constantly harried principal carer, Karen (Imogen Poots), Barbara also believes that she is the town’s defender against a horde of murderous giants that will soon emerge from the ocean to crush and kill its inhabitants. As her only friend – new-in-town Brit, Sophia (winningly played by the sweet but steely Sydney Wade) – and her concerned school counsellor, Mrs. Molle (the always impressive Zoe Saldana, again proving herself as an MVP when it comes to lending her name to smaller indie projects), try and pull her back from her increasingly all-consuming fantasy world, Barbara continues to wage war on the giants in her head.

Though ingeniously visualising Barbara’s fantasy world courtesy of CGI and animation, I Kill Giants doesn’t indulge in any but-is-it-actually-all-real? style theatrics. The viewer always knows that Barbara’s weapons and elaborately laid giant baits and traps are just products of her fevered imagination, and that cleverly avoids any muddying of what I Kill Giants is all about. This is a film about mental fracture, the effects of familial disintegration, and the quiet horrors of growing up, and it elucidates them beautifully. It’s also (despite its male creators) a wholly female-driven tale, with no meaningful male characters (and not in a negative or pejorative way, mind you) in sight. Thematically echoing the great Pan’s Labyrinth, the profoundly moving I Kill Giants effectively weighs in on issues that matter while boasting fantastical flourishes – and a brilliant leading performance – of the first order.

 
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Deadpool 2

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Sequels to surprise comedic hits are always a risky undertaking. Repeating what worked in the scrappy underdog original can seem like unimaginative pandering in the sequel. Similarly, if the second chapter forges a path that’s completely different, it can be accused of forgetting what made the first film so good. This volatile paradox has clearly been on the minds of the folks behind Deadpool 2, a sequel that switched up directors (David Leitch for Tim Miller) and changed directions at least a couple of times during its tumultuous development. Happily these behind-the-scenes shenanigans have had little effect on the end product, as Deadpool 2 swaggers confidently onto screens, with a smirk on its face and a dick joke spewing out of its sassy, pretty mouth.

Deadpool 2 sees Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) at something of a loose end in life. Due to events that occur before the opening credits (which we won’t spoil, so calm your tits) he’s unsure of what to do next. Happily a visit from Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) sets Wade on a path to become… a trainee X-Man! It does not go well. One scene of fairly hilarious ultra-violence later, Wade finds himself in the pokey with the unfortunately named teen mutant, Firefist (Julian Dennison), and that’s when cybernetic future soldier, Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives and shit kicks off in earnest.

If the above sounds a little overstuffed, you’re not wrong. Deadpool 2 seems to have taken the criticism of the original being a little plot-light and piled on the narrative strands. Happily, Wade and crew manage to juggle these balls for the most part, although some characters like Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) are sidelined to introduce the new cast. Of the newbies Brolin excels in yet another Marvel property as the grizzled, no-nonsense soldier with a metal arm and a dark past (in our future), but it’s Zazie Beetz as Domino who is best in show, bringing a physicality and wry wit to a role that could have been a goofy misstep.

However, this is Deadpool’s show and Reynolds has lost none of his smarmy, smirking charm as the merc with a mouth. Expect endless rapid fire gags, puns, in-jokes, fourth wall breaks, pop culture references and winking nods to camera at about the same success rate as the original. Sure, a lot of the gags fall flat, but there’ll be another half dozen that work just around the corner, so just relax and enjoy the ride.

Ultimately, Deadpool 2 is a fast-moving gag machine, with an overstuffed plot and a surprising amount of pathos. The humour and heart can both be a little hit or miss, but Reynolds’ performance as Wade Wilson holds the whole caper together, delivering a joyous, violent, profane and occasionally quite sweet cinema experience worthy of the original.

 
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Between Land and Sea

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In the Irish town of Lahinch, filmmaker Ross Whitaker finds a community of surfing enthusiasts drawn there because of the town’s craggy rocks and killer waves. The documentary follows these folks for 12 months, and sees how they keep their heads above water, recreationally and financially, when both are dependent on the country’s erratic seasons.

Signs the locals of Lahinch are a people who have to adapt comes in the film’s first shot; a sign at the front of a milkshake bar informs its patrons of its closure and that it’ll return in the summer. As grey clouds loom over, it’s obvious to most that there’s probably not much current demand for Coke spiders.

Whitaker meets a surf teacher whose very career choice relies on tourists, and whilst they can sort of hibernate for the winter, the summer means a lot. Which is why you will feel for them when the ‘sunny’ season does arrive, bringing with it miserable weather. During these times, Whitaker never plays up their stress – and it’s clear they are – instead choosing to focus on their pragmatic nature to muscle through the days.

And that’s what Between Land and Sea is about; like surfing itself, you must adapt and change to suit your environment. Whether it be the surf teachers, the charity swimmer who refuses to let his age affect his hobby, or Fergal Smith, the professional surfer who went full The Good Life and dived into organic farming. Narration free, Whitaker lets his subjects tell their stories and for the most part it’s engaging. Even if it never feels like Whitaker is really digging deep and that he may have missed an opportunity in not talking to Lahinch’s less sporty citizens, who may have something to say about this influx of outsiders.

Where Between Land and Sea really shines is through its cinematography and the way it captures the thrill of surfing. These scenes are the strongest parts of the documentary and manage to translate to non-surfers what makes the sport so intoxicating. Definitely worth a watch.

 
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Kodachrome

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In the age of digital technology, it can be easy to take said technology for granted. Photos that used to take the right mixture of chemicals and patience to process can now be taken and shared with millions with the press of a button. Music no longer requires a group of musicians working together; nowadays, anyone with a laptop and the right programs can do it on their own. Even film has become as easy as point, shoot and upload. But with all that data, all that clutter, all that ease of use, the reliability of tangible product can be lost.

This line of thinking, one most recently popularised by the retro-adoring hipsters, takes on a decidedly less pretentious tone in the hands of director Mark Raso and writer Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You). Taking on a stranger-than-fiction story about the end of a once-dependable type of film stock as its bedrock, Kodachrome depicts the incredibly rocky relationship between struggling record executive Matt and his dying photographer father Ben, played by Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris respectively.

Their comparable levels of surliness make for rather tense conversations, particularly with Sudeikis, who just oozes contempt for his deadbeat dad out of every syllable he utters.

Harris’ Hunter-S-Thompson-by-way-of-American-Recordings-era-Johnny-Cash demeanour shows a man who knows the way of the world, fully aware that he is an irritant within that world, and that he doesn’t have much time left in it. Add to this Elizabeth Olsen’s Zooey as the frequently ignored voice of reason, and you have a highly uncomfortable road trip… but in a good way.

Tropper’s dialogue has an effect akin to a sledgehammer to the stomach, as a lot of the conversations are peppered with moments where the bluntness and harshness makes for serious impact. Whether it’s showing how much the characters hate each other or how much they love each other, that impact almost takes on a physical sensation in how cold and heart-tugging it can get. It’s balanced out beautifully, meaning that when we get to the point of sheer pathos and we see why more antiquated methods are used in photography and music, it lands perfectly.

It’s all an ode to how connection to the physical, rather than ephemeral or even digital, is what truly matters. When you have to put in that much effort to get something done, like driving cross-country just to get to a single photo development shop, it makes you appreciate what that something holds. Like how food tastes better when you make it from scratch, rather than defrosting it; the effort makes the connection.

As both a dysfunctional family road trip film and a look into the way we preserve our memories and experiences, Kodachrome serves as a (forgive the pun) snapshot of why the older methods were as dependable as they were.