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Godzilla II: King of the Monsters

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Godzilla has always been bit of a tough sell for western audiences, at least compared to the near unanimous adulation he receives in Japan. It doesn’t help that attempts to make him western-friendly have included the disastrous 1998 version by director Roland Emmerich. But hell, even the 2014 Gareth Edwards version seemed almost embarrassed to show the big scaly bloke for more than a few seconds at a time, leaving the heavy lifting to a largely tedious human cast and a bewilderingly under-utilised Bryan Cranston. Still, the 2014 version made bank and allowed the creation of an extended “MonsterVerse” that continued with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and now manifests its most spectacular entry, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

King of the Monsters really has two stories happening throughout. There’s the monster story and the human story and you can probably guess which one’s the best. The monster story features stunning action sequences with the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah (and numerous lesser entities) fighting amongst themselves or destroying whole chunks of this pretty blue planet we call home.

Director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) has an absolute ball setting up blistering beastie beat downs in all sorts of environments, and they never fail to impress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the human story – despite featuring quality actors like Vera Farmiga, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe and Kyle Chandler – is adequate at best, bewilderingly silly at worst. The plot, revolving around crypto-zoological agency Monarch and an eco-terrorist conspiracy, works on paper but in execution falls flat. It’s strange because monster movies don’t need to be this flavourless, Kong: Skull Island proved that, so quite why KotM chooses to be so is a little baffling.

However, this is Godzilla II: King of the Monsters, not Humans: A Coherent Story and taken as a loving homage to the Godzilla flicks of yesteryear and a balls-to-the-wall creature feature in its own right, KotM succeeds; and in terms of sheer unbridled spectacle, it is the best of the MonsterVerse so far. One does rather hope, however, that when Godzilla vs. Kong drops next year, they’ve actually included some human stories that are either good enough to enjoy or silly enough to appreciate ironically.

Still, if you’re in the mood to see skyscraper-sized monsters smacking the everloving shit out of one another, you’re absolutely going to have a good time with Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Offering an inspirational look at the process of coping with emotional and physical trauma, Camino Skies is a powerful feature documentary looking at the lengths people will go through to experience recovery.

Tracing the path of a group of Antipodean walkers as they traverse the 900km route from the French Basque town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the film naturally provides space for each individual story to shine through.

The major motivating force at work in all of their recent histories is a desire to push themselves and to confront and hopefully come to terms with recent or ongoing pain. Each of the walkers have experienced grief of some kind, and the filmmakers sensitively display all of the accounts with integrity and purpose.

Displayed against the stunning scenery of the mountainous route, a pathway considered to be the Mecca of pilgrimages for religious and non-religious alike, the questions each walker asks themselves take on profound implications. At points, the film delivers a powerful level of emotional impact.

The filmmakers never overdo this however, and each response, be it laughter or tears, always comes across as a human reaction to where they are and what they happen to be talking about. The various personalities in the film are also linked by their sheer passion for wanting to complete the arduous walk.

Aged from 40 – 70, the walkers deal with all weather and terrain along the way, bravely coping with the blisters and bruises that come with the territory. Away from their homes for a whole month, the walkers learn to help each other; the comradeship and shared desire to experience a greater achievement is portrayed evocatively.

Key to this accomplishment of showing the stories of recovery up against the big picture of nature, is Noel Smyth’s cinematography. Demonstrating the majestic grandeur of the Pyrenees and the intense elements that preside around them, the camera work is at once transporting and beautiful.

It’s also a well-paced film, benefiting from editing that pushes the film along elegantly. Like the walk itself, it’s a steady and gradual journey that does not have need of overly dramatic disclosures or jump cuts.

A meditative film that invites reflection and wonder, Camino Skies delivers on its brief. We discover why people choose to put their bodies and minds through the pilgrimage, and just what can be learned. In effect, it’s a moving account of moving on.

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Happy As Lazzaro

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A fantastical magical-realist fable, Alice Rohrwacher’s beautifully crafted film is a time-spanning allegorical study of class and social-structures. Awarded the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year, the film fixes a studied gaze at the workings of exploitation, immigration and work.

Drawing on a wide template of influences, with echoes of Pasolini and Fellini sounding out amidst the exquisitely designed imagery, the film impacts upon the consciousness like a haunting dream. It’s a picture that wraps its mysterious arms around an audience, revealing long-held secrets and memories.

In the bright Italian summer at remote rural estate Inviolata, honest and hard working Lazzaro (a mesmerising debut from Adriano Tardiolo) is both taken advantage of and relied upon. Ordered this way and that, and living in a tightly controlled world ruled over by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), he never once complains, displaying a beatific, saint-like disposition to whatever is demanded of him.

Lazzaro has a sweet, guileless innocence about him, and has the tenancy to drift off at times, making it seem as though he is not wholly present. Early in the film, one of the townsfolk remarks on this and observes that he has been ‘staring into the void again.’

Given what happens later, with the stepping over into the future or possibly a different timeline, this sense of being caught between two worlds (and under la luna, the moon) makes Lazzaro more of a mystic or a seer.

Into this innocent world of hard work and the cycles of life steps Tancredi (Luca Chikovi), the marchesa’s rebellious and arrogant son. He sets about using Lazzaro as a way to make extra money, by invoking another well known story, the boy who cried wolf.

The interplay between these two forms another layer to the film, with the boisterous Tancredi offering Lazzaro a different view of the world, and ultimately bringing him into a completely different environment. Propelled by Tancredi’s ruinous, greedy plans, the boy suffers an accidental fall from a cliff-edge and, after being looked after by a far more dependable companion lone wolf, wakes up in a different world.

He then makes the long march from countryside to city, dramatically constructed to resemble a pilgrimage or a monastic walk of penitence for imaginary sins. For Lazzaro’s essential goodness is never in doubt, even in a turbulent world where people and things take on different appearances and roles.

All of this plays into Rohrwacher’s captivating artistry that draws out the ethereal and timeless imaginings of communities across the world, with a specific Italian sense of family and generational concerns. An exceptional film that constantly surprises, Happy as Lazzaro melds reality and myth, sound and vision, to create a wonderful feast for the senses.

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Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Biopics about subjects who are still very much alive are always a tricky proposition. The creatives involved want to tell a story that’s as true as possible, but at the same time don’t wish to risk offending the subject. We saw this in action with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, an entertaining film that nonetheless heavily sanitised the historical details of the surviving members of N.W.A. Then again, even when the subject is deceased, as in the case of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the tendency to omit the more complicated details persists; in the case of that film Freddie Mercury’s drug use and prolific sexual adventures. All of that brings us to Rocketman, a bright and intense biopic about Elton John and a film that seeks to straddle the line between warts and all truth and misty-eyed hagiography.

Rocketman opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed in a stunning devil costume, crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and spilling his life’s story. This is used as a framing device, giving writer Lee Hall license to skip back and forth through time, to better understand how a chubby little boy named Reginald Kenneth Dwight became the incandescent superstar we all know him as today. The action plays out as a sort of musical fantasy rather than a straight drama, with various characters breaking into song or choreographed dance numbers to underline an emotional beat or emphasise a specific moment in time. It works, for the most part, with plenty of joyous singalong sequences including a stunning scene where Elton makes his American debut at the iconic Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

Performance wise, Edgerton nails not only Elton John’s physicality but even has a crack at singing a surprising number of the songs himself and doing so really rather well. His turn isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Rami Malek’s from Bohemian Rhapsody, but in a film that spends much of its runtime questioning who Elton really is, that seems oddly appropriate. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Elton’s creative partner Bernie Taupin, who often seems to be the rock idol’s only true friend. See, for all the glitz and glamour, Elton has had a frequently sad life. His parents Sheila and Stanley (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) were manipulative and unavailable respectively, his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden) was a dead-eyed sociopath and despite all the adoring fans screaming his name, the man was unable to love himself.

Director Dexter Fletcher, who himself was brought onto Bohemian Rhapsody after credited director Bryan Singer went walkabout about two thirds of the way into production, crafts an imaginative and engaging story here. Although much less grim in its delivery, it has shades of Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, and the puckish, playful moments set the biopic apart from its safer genre mates. Things do drift a little towards the mawkish and sentimental by the end of the film, but generally speaking it feels earned.

Ultimately, Rocketman is a colourful, exciting tribute to a colourful, exciting musician, brimming with solid performances, imaginative direction and great music. And while it certainly glosses over some aspects of the man’s life, it contains an emotional truth that will likely resonate with you for a long, long time.

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Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The story of Clark Kent is a tender one, and you almost certainly know it already. A child from another world lands on a small Kansas farm and is cared for and raised by a sweet, childless couple. They instill their values in the little tyke and years later he grows up to be the heroic metahuman known as Superman. But what if that kid hadn’t come from an essentially good place like Krypton, and what if that boy, when he grew older, had zero interest in using his powers for good? That is, essentially, the premise of Brightburn and it’s a beauty.

The childless couple in this case are Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), who live in the small town of Brightburn and raise young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) as if he were their own flesh and blood. For twelve years things proceed beautifully. Brandon is a sweet kid, and appears normal in every way, but once puberty starts knocking at the door, things turn nasty fast. You think adolescence is rough with a normal kid, try that same journey with a sullen superpowered pre-teen!

Brightburn, produced by James Gunn and written by his brother Mark and cousin Brian, is very much a dark and violent “what if” story. And the notion of a young superhero as a budding serial killer is darkly ironic and appealingly subversive in a misanthropic sort of way. The cast do a solid job, with Elizabeth Banks giving a typically strong performance, and director David Yarovesky manages to keep the tension high and really delivers on the squirmy gore when needed. One sequence in particular involving ocular trauma will have even the stoutest of gorehounds wincing.

In fact, the only really flaw that can be levelled at Brightburn is that it doesn’t do much with the premise other than what’s on the tin. The story proceeds briskly, and sometimes very nastily, but it never really offers much in the way of big surprises or twists once the conceit has been established. Still, if you’ve had a gutful of hopeful heroic adventures, and crave something from the darker side of the genre, Brightburn offers a jet-black look at a bad seed with super powers. And you don’t need X-ray vision to see that this is one story that’s going to get super bloody.

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family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Few films in recent memory have managed to maintain a level of potential audience scepticism like the remake to Disney’s Aladdin. With every new piece of marketing that became public, it somehow grew less and less appealing at every turn. And bear in mind that it started with the idea that Guy Ritchie should direct a musical, as if his collaborations with Madonna weren’t enough of a sign that he shouldn’t. This film could only go in one of two directions with that in mind: It could either be a pleasant surprise that sticks to the mostly-positive turn-out for Disney’s recent remakes, or it could be a trainwreck that ranks among Disney’s recent worst. Sadly, this is the latter.

More so than any of the other remakes thus far, this film is hurt the most by the transition from traditional animation to live-action. All of the personality and expressiveness and just plain fun of the original is sorely lacking here, managing to make a screen flooded with Bollywood colours feel drab and uninteresting. Where there should be wonder, there is CGI serving as the watered-down substitute. Where there should be frisson-creating music, there is feeble lip service to the music of the region. And where there should be a fun and exciting comedic presence with the Genie, we get Will Smith doing his best Kazaam impression.

In keeping with Disney’s M.O. of late, the intent behind this film is to fix something that was present in the original, in this case being the agency of characters that aren’t in the title. However, much like when Bill Condon attempted the same with Beauty And The Beast, raising supporting characters comes at the expense of others.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine has been given a more wilful presence, akin to someone who could foreseeably be the ruler of a kingdom, and Smith as the Genie has been more humanised and even given a love interest. But even with an extra 40 minutes in running time, Ritchie and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie) somehow weren’t able to juggle the character boosting without turning Mena Massoud’s Aladdin into a footnote. The attempts at juggling even result in a gaping plot hole, making the filmmakers look like they’re unable to count up to 3 accurately.

With everything being considerably toned-down, including the legendarily-energetic Genie who basically made the original into the classic it is today (and whose actor got screwed over by the House of Mouse in the process), there’s nothing here that makes this remake feel like it has a reason to be. Even the Beauty And The Beast remake, as misguided as it is, still has a stronger raison d’etre than this. The only reason this doesn’t turn out worse than B&TB is because this doesn’t actively hurt the original through sheer proximity to itself. Let’s just hope that Disney doesn’t try for a Return Of Jafar remake anytime in the near future; they’ve done enough damage to this IP already.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

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The original John Wick came out in 2014 and was a neo-noir action flick with a tight premise, spectacular action and an utterly committed performance from the apparently ageless Keanu Reeves. A sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, dropped in 2017 and while the action remained kinetic and exciting, it was let down by an overly convoluted plot that rather diluted the elegant simplicity of the original. Now, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (oy, that title) is here, snap-kicking its way into your heart. But is it worth the bruises? Actually, yeah!

The story starts seconds after the previous film, with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) declared excommunicado by The High Table, and a fat bounty placed on his head. Basically, in a city brimming with assassins, John is now a very tempting target. As is typical of this series, the action begins almost straight away and rarely relents for the following 131 minutes. Parabellum is, thankfully, a lot more streamlined than Chapter 2. Oh, there’s still a bunch of goofy bullshit involving golden coins, secret societies, claimed marks and whatnot, but it never slows the pace of the overarching plot.

Keanu Reeves, still drinking from the same fountain of youth as Paul Rudd, delivers another grim but knowing performance as the titular Wick, and is joined once more by the always reliable Charon (Lance Reddick) and Winston (Ian McShane). Also, we have some newbies this time around, with canine-friendly killer Sofia (Halle Berry) and dark matriarch The Director (Anjelica Huston). Not to mention a delightfully camp villain, Zero (Mark Dacascos), who exudes giddy madness.

Chad Stahelski once again directs and does so with style and panache. Almost every action scene is shot in long lingering takes framed for maximum clarity, showcasing just how much of the action is genuinely performed by humans, and the result is often breathtaking. Combined with a spare script containing minimal dialogue, the film is a beautifully choreographed bullet ballet of shattered glass and broken bones.

Ultimately, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not quite the equal of the first film, but a stark improvement over the second. Fast-paced, explosive and chockers with jaw-dropping stunt work, it’s easily the best pure action destination in town. If that sounds like you, put John Wick on your hit list.

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

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Directed by Palestinian filmmaker Muayad Alayan, we follow the ill-fated affair between Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), an Israeli café owner from West Jerusalem and Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a Palestinian delivery driver from East Jerusalem.

After a tryst at a bar in Bethlehem brings them to the attention of security services, their relationship is mistaken for espionage and Saleem is arrested. While his pregnant wife races to find answers, Sarah contemplates telling the truth; the consequences of which would clear Saleem’s name but also vilify her as a traitor in the eyes of her military husband and conservative community.

Inspired by true events, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem gives a refreshing and vicarious look at two families in contemporary Israel – a part of the world that is often reported in the media for its conflicts. From geography to religion, Sarah and Saleem’s relationship is dangerous in practically every way imaginable. This is exemplified in a scene where Sarah confides in a co-worker about her affair and is met with immediate forgiveness. Yet when Sarah divulges that he was Palestinian and not Israeli, her friend is disgusted. Because in her eyes, the crime is more a concern of identity than it is of adultery.

What’s also interesting is that the film begins in media res and never determines the motivation behind the affair. For Saleem, perhaps it was a distraction from his working-class job and impending fatherhood. For Sarah, who mentions her business failing twice, it could be a means of escaping the shadow of her husband’s burgeoning career. Instead Alayan – whose brother, Rami Musa Alayan, also wrote the screenplay – looks at the ethical and political ramifications of the affair, with the “reports” in its title referring to the numerous cover-ups and accounts that permeate the story.

As the second half of the film turns into more of a legal drama, we move away from Safadi’s helpless Saleem to focus on the morally-concerned Sarah and their respective spouses. Maisa Abd Eihadi gives an earnest performance as Saleem’s wife, who carries out her own detective work in hopes of clearing her cheating husband from a mistaken political crime. Just as good is Isahai Golan, playing Sarah’s ambitious Israeli army husband – unafraid of employing any means necessary to preserve his family and position.

From lingering shots over Saleem’s shoulder, as he gazes over Jerusalem’s settlements, to glimpses of the Israeli West Bank wall when Sarah rides in the back of his van at night, the hand-held camerawork captures the partition and unrest of its characters and environment.

Despite wearing a little towards the end of its running time, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is an insightful and well-acted drama that draws you in without having to settle on either side of its socio-political backdrop.

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Trailer: High as Mike

Hot button issue around medicinal cannabis gets an airing with Australian-produced documentary being released through Fan-Force.
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Little Woods – Big Ideas

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Last seen as a bad ass space renegade in Avengers: Endgame, and soon to appear in Men in Black: International, Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her portrayal of Oleander, a woman struggling on the edge of poverty in Little Woods. It’s the first feature by New York based writer/director Nia DaCosta whose second film will be Candyman, a reimagining of the popular ‘90s horror film, due for release in 2020.

With compelling cinematography by Matt Mitchell, Little Woods grips you into a forbidding world and keeps you on the edge as Tess and her sister Deb (Lily James) battle for survival. The screenplay was supported by the Sundance institute where DaCosta gained a place in the Screenwriters Lab followed by the Directors Lab.

The location of the town of Little Woods in North Dakota was recreated in Texas and the poetic landscape in the early frames are literal and a metaphor for danger lurking. As an archetypal story of female struggle, this is no fairy tale. The use of sound is effective, alternating between passages of backwoods fiddle music, bold thrash song and strategic silences. The dialogue is naturalistic, though sometimes to the point of inaudible.

From the outset we see the sisters, who are mixed race as well as polar opposite personalities, caretaking men – Ollie to bandage a wound and provide painkillers, Deb as mother to a young boy. DaCosta has cleverly woven a narrative that embraces a catalogue of women’s issues. The sisters have to negotiate a harsh world where men, often disadvantaged and damaged themselves, still have more power to intimidate. Even a supportive man like Tess’s probation officer puts pressure on her with his high expectations and random visits to her home.

It’s a credit to Thompson that she gets us on her side from the intense, compelling start. When we meet her, she is a reformed criminal almost at the end of her probation for drug smuggling. When her sister is in dire need she is tempted to risk everything and re-offend. The story makes much of her being pushed into a corner through need but there’s also a nice admission when she tells her sister the danger isn’t just that she may do it again, but that she likes the rush of power it gives her. And, despite Ollie’s toughness, we come to realise her very human need to be needed.

While Thompson is totally believable as the resourceful, beleaguered Ollie, the casting of her flaky and fragile sister Deb is less sure. Perhaps we know Lily James too well as the refined period heroine in War and Peace and Downton Abbey, or the princess in Cinderella, but while she holds a strong emotional centre, she is rather less convincing as a product of the world we find ourselves in. Perhaps DaCosta made a deliberate choice to take a princess ‘type’ and explore what she becomes under hardship – unstable, susceptible to pimps and users. In this world, fine beauty can only get you pregnant and jobs in the sex industry. While we wonder if Tess will bust probation, we follow Deb’s conflict about being pregnant. Her side of the story illuminates a desperate lack of choices for single women in her position. There’s a pivotal fight between the sisters that is electrifying.

While the film doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of men as parasites and bullies, DaCosta reveals the context, a world where men are also brutalised and exploited. They are not the central characters but rather just people trying to live their lives and do the best they can with their circumstances.

We see rodeo riders and construction workers, and there is a fascinating theme of widespread drug dependency that drives the action. With bodies broken by years of harsh living, and in the grip of a pitiless, money-based medical system, the men’s pain is the weak link in the chain that Ollie can exploit. They are desperate for relief and she can get illegal prescription drugs on her runs across the border. The complication, apart from breaking her probation, is an attack by a local drug dealer when she threatens to infringe on his territory.

Described as a western and with echoes of Thelma and Louise, Little Woods is essentially a microcosm of many feminist themes wrapped in a tense thriller, worth the watch for Thompson’s virtuoso performance. When asked by Collider why she was drawn to the role, she explained, “it was getting to make a story about these two sisters that have to learn how to choose each other again that resonated with me so deeply. Obviously, it’s a film about two women, but I feel like she wrote Ollie, especially, as a character without gender. (She) just felt like a person that has a lot of things to do.”