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Escape Room

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Horror movies can work spectacularly well when confined to a limited number of locations. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, to Vincenzo Natali’s Cube and, of course, homegrown James Wan’s Saw – not to mention about a million others of varying quality – limited locations can often lead to genuinely clever, imaginative stories.

So, as silly as it may sound, the premise of Escape Room is actually a pretty tidy one. Six strangers are invited to participate in a fancy escape room challenge that promises a prize of $10,000 for those who can complete it. They soon realise, however, this is no ordinary group activity and the stakes are life or death.

It’s a promising start for a genre yarn and the early minutes of Escape Room, comprising the first few rooms, are very enjoyable indeed, featuring clever puzzles and decent tension. See, although the characters are fairly thinly-sketched archetypes – the shy science nerd, Zoey (Taylor Russell), the wounded veteran, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the affable father figure, Mike (Tyler Labine) – they all react to their situation using logic and reason, even when they’re shitscared. This is a nice change from the directionally-challenged teens who populate many horror films and actually makes you interested and engaged in who will survive.

Unfortunately, the script cannot support the neat conceit, and somewhere a little over the halfway point the story takes a sharp left turn into Dickhead Junction and never finds its way home. It’s a pity too, because director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) does good work here framing the diabolically clever puzzle rooms, with an upside down dive bar location where the floor drops away a piece at a time being a highlight.

Performance-wise the cast are mostly fine, with Deborah Ann Woll and Tyler Labine doing their usual schtick and Russell providing an appealing enough wide eyed earnest protagonist, however the film simply doesn’t know when, or how, to end and offers a baffling array of epilogues and cack-handed twists that simply don’t work.

Sadly, the biggest puzzle of Escape Room is why they didn’t spend a little more developing such a promising idea.

 
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Border

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Tina (Eva Melander) is a Swedish border control officer with an almost preternatural ability to smell people’s emotional states, making her extremely effective at seeking out illicit carriers of contraband.

Her almost Neanderthal appearance (protruding teeth, heavy brow, bristled hair and thick set nose) and a lifetime of rejection and stares, makes her withdrawn and cautious of people’s intentions. She keeps to herself, living in a cabin in the woods where her only company is her feckless live-in boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who seems to love his show dogs more than her.  Her only other relationship is with her elderly father (Sten Ljunggren) who she visits often, though he suffers from dementia and struggles to remember her at times.

One day, while working at her border control station, Tina encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff) whose luggage she searches. Vore looks almost identical in appearance to Tina, same features, same teeth, though with a charismatic swagger and intensity that Tina struggles to shake off. Who is he? Where did he come from? Tina can’t ‘detect’ anything about Vore, he’s mysterious and intoxicating to her but she feels something dark and dangerous about him.

While in Vore’s presence, her sixth sense is inexplicably muted, and she’s forced to rely solely on her more ‘human’ frailties: her emotions. Driven to investigate her own murky past, and Vore’s, Tina begins to uncover disturbing revelations about Vore and her childhood and the unanswered questions begin to pile up.

Iranian-born, Denmark-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi has crafted one of the most singular and genre-defying films to come along the pike in a great while. Based on a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Border (original title: Gräns) is a mind-bending melange of romance, Nordic dark noir and fantasy-horror. It’s almost social realist in its style yet interweaves moments of fantasy with a seamless ease.

Lindqvist co-wrote the script with Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf and it’s a filmic experience unlike anything in recent memory.

Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff’s performances are equal parts subtle nuance and searing, primeval intensity, delivered from under layers of prosthetic appliances. It’s in their characters that the film’s truly haunting edges are revealed and even then, it’s hard to isolate precisely what’s going on in its engine-room; to narrow-down precisely what buttons it’s pushing while you’re watching it. The sheer left-field sideswipe of letting several genres bleed into each other, it creates an unsettling, hypnotic and chilling experience that defies description and prediction. An absolute cracker.

 
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The Combination Redemption

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Back in 2009, The Combination came hard out of the blocks, painting a grim but highly energised picture of the tough day-to-day lives of teenage Lebanese-Australians. Written by first-timer, George Basha, and directed by veteran character actor, David Field, the film bounced and jumped with a rare sense of authenticity, and showed a side of Australia never before seen on film. It kick-started a major controversy when the strongly performing film was absurdly yanked from cinemas during its first days due to a minor incident of audience violence, effectively cruelling its chances of leaping into breakout success territory.

The Combination closed out with the tragic death of its deeply conflicted adolescent leading character, Charlie (Firass Dirani in his wonderful star-making turn), at the hands of a ruthless drug dealer. In this surprise sequel, the original film’s supporting character of John (George Basha) – Charlie’s brother, a hardman now on the straight and narrow – is pushed into centre stage, giving The Combination Redemption a much different feel. John is a figure in constant crisis: he’s ripped apart by guilt over his brother’s death; he’s an Arabic Christian dating the Muslim Amira (Abbey Aziz); he’s on the wrong side of a crew of bumbling but still dangerous White Pride lunatics; and the appearance of Charlie’s friend, Mo (Rahel Romahn), has put him in the crosshairs of a flamboyant criminal (Johnny Nasser). Beset by trouble on every side, John desperately tries to keep a calm head, but even a decent man has a breaking point.

Whereas The Combination threatened to constantly boil over, The Combination Redemption sizzles away at a dangerous temperature from beginning to end. But that feels wholly right: the film is wired in to the horrors at the heart of the nation. Though recalling Romper Stomper with its frightening visions of white-is-right machismo, the film is equally powerful in its depiction of racism amongst minorities, as John is spurned by Amira’s family solely because of his religion. The Combination Redemption highlights the ugly fact that bigotry and xenophobia exist everywhere, even though we might not like to admit it; it’s a sad message powerfully told. But this is no soapbox piece – like Two Hands or The Hard Word, The Combination Redemption is also a top-tier crime movie, boasting gunplay, chase sequences, a volatile sense of threat, fist fights, and tightly choreographed moments of mayhem.

Boasting strong performances (Basha is superb, while the wonderful Geoff Morell slyly steals all of his scenes as a decidedly odd mobster’s henchman), salty, off-the-streets dialogue (Fs and Cs abound), a richly evoked sense of place (its depiction of Sydney’s south-west and its dead-end boys doomed to short lives of violence and hopelessness is heartbreaking), and a from-the-gut dispatch about what’s going wrong in this country, The Combination Redemption is a deeply human film that nevertheless has no problem whatsoever getting right up in your face.

 
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Maria By Callas

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Maria Callas was a superstar before the word existed. Unfortunately, her success came at a huge personal cost, and that’s the sad theme at the core of this documentary, which is drawn directly from her letters, TV interviews (especially one with David Frost), home movies and unpublished memoirs.

Born in New York City, but stuck in Greece during WWII, Callas owed her singing career –but also her deep regrets – to an extremely pushy mother and later an equally domineering husband.

She made no bones about the fact that she would gladly have swapped her vocation for the joys of motherhood and a happy private life. She was also deeply traumatised by the fickleness and cruelty of some of the media, who ‘lynched’ her over her failure to complete a concert performance in Milan. (Never mind that the poor woman had bronchitis!) And then there was her long and complicated relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who of course eventually married Jackie Kennedy.

Maria By Callas is unquestionably well made, and was exhaustively and meticulously researched. Some of the footage is fascinating, notably the brief scenes from the making of Pasolini’s Medea, in which she starred and acted. The catch is that the doco – being so subjective – is not quite satisfying in terms of giving a fully-rounded portrait of its subject, and we’re not always entirely sure what to take at face value. On the plus side, given her technically phenomenal voice, the footage of her singing will be thrilling to people who aren’t impervious to the charms of opera.

 
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The Mule

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When we first meet Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), he is riding high on a wave of self-congratulation, having won a coveted horticulture award, and is charming his friends and co-workers. In fact, he’s so busy being boozy and gregarious he misses his own daughter’s wedding.

A decade and change later, Earl’s fortunes have turned, with his flower business becoming the latest victim of that gawdang internet. At age 90, Earl finds that he wants to make amends with his family but lacks the funds to help with the wedding of his granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). As luck would have it, a rather sketchy gentleman approaches Earl and makes an offer: a fat chunk of cash to simply drive a package across state lines, what could be easier? Earl accepts and (somewhat) unwittingly becomes a 90-year-old drug mule.

The Mule is Clint Eastwood’s 38th film as a director (the acting count is closer to 70) and it’s a powerfully weird bit of business. Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, Clint plays Earl as an amiable chap out of synch with the rest of the world but perfectly content to go along with the changes. He is mildly amused by a bikie gang of lesbians, bourgeois African Americans, useless young people and cartel affiliated Mexicans, but treats everyone with a warmth and tenderness that makes him a likable, albeit deeply flawed character. Clint’s performance genuinely embraces his true age of 88, and he looks doddering and frail, as he never has before.

The support cast are worthy, with Bradley Cooper and Dianne Wiest offering strong showings as an ambitious DEA agent and Earl’s ex-wife, respectively. However, this is unmistakably Clint’s show, and The Mule plays out as part old man wish-fulfillment fantasy and part amiable cinematic victory lap. Tonally, it’s all over the shop, with comedy and tragedy squeezed occasionally uncomfortably close, but there’s a charm to the piece and some wry, knowing observations about the current state of America that ring true and offer surprising nuance.

Ultimately, The Mule isn’t the near masterpiece of a film like Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) but it is an engaging, often shambolic and pleasingly odd journey that will likely win you over with its kooky charms.

 
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Dragon Ball Super: Broly

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The latest feature-length instalment of one of the most ubiquitous, beloved and memeable anime franchises out there, Broly is basically a best-of-both-worlds situation. It takes the endearingly goofy tone of Battle of Gods and the large-scale action chops of Resurrection ‘F’ and combines them in a way that retains all of the positives and burns away most of the negatives.

The sense of humour on display here is so on-point, it’s staggering. Not since the legendary DBZ Abridged series has this material been able to generate this many belly laughs, largely thanks to Sean Schemmel as the ever-loving goofball Goku and Jason Douglas as Beerus, the destroyer god who just wants to nap without being interrupted. It’s all character-derived stuff, leaning less on the BoG slapstick, and through that, it turns out effective as well as melding well with the more action-oriented moments.

When it comes time for Goku and the eponymous Broly to start throwing down (the bulk of the film is that fight), it results in glorious displays of widespread destruction. The intensity and high-flash line work in the animation is on the same tier as Asura’s Wrath, right down to the amount of terrain-scorching that goes on; looking like the result of two gods brawling with each other. It can get quite hectic in places and admittedly a little difficult to entirely make out, but between the raw strength at work and the adaptability of the fighters involved, it makes for well-earned chaos.

It even features solid dramatic touches connected to Broly’s character. Shown through an impressively-nimble flashback sequence, which gives plentiful background history for the characters and story at large, he is depicted as a rather tragic antagonist. Born with immeasurable power, exiled out of jealousy and raised to exact revenge, Broly’s first official entry into the franchise sets him up as the yang to Goku’s yin.

Both are exceptionally powerful, both were sent away from their home planet, and both have a natural tendency for friendship rather than aggression. But because of their different upbringing, what we get is a rather point-blank depiction of the classic ‘nature vs. nurture’ dilemma, showing how Broly being raised as a weapon of vendetta turned him into a psychologically-scarred and damaged soul. It adds an unexpected touch of unease to the action scenes, knowing that Broly was pushed into them by intents other than his own. It’s kind of sad in its own way.

Considering this and the previous films exist out of a potential need for creator Akira Toriyama to redeem his own franchise after the baffling Westernisation of Dragon Ball: Evolution, this represents the absolute accomplishment of that goal. A very funny, very thrilling and even occasionally moving effort that gives the long-time fans more of what they love, and a sufficient entry point for newcomers to get in on the fun.

Photo credit: ©BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA ©2018 DRAGON BALL SUPER THE MOVIE PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

 
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Arctic

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Survival dramas are at their best when the protagonist is smart about their choices, pre-empting possible dangers and demonstrably resourceful in the face of them. This storytelling tenet is on full display in filmmaker Joe Penna’s debut drama.

As the film opens, we find plane crash survivor Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) stranded in the icy tundra and some weeks into his ordeal. A massive S.O.S sign carved deep into the snow, he tends to fishing-lines dangling through ice holes and places the fish he’s caught into a storage chest buried in the snow. Having already established the bare necessities, Overgård spends his days hand cranking a dynamo that powers a transmitter, hoping like hell for a rescue.

Through a series of events, Overgård witnesses a helicopter crashing nearby in high winds. When he reaches the wreckage, he finds a sole survivor: a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradôttir) who he pulls from the wreckage unconscious, but alive. Overgård tends to her wounds, then sets about examining maps from the downed helicopter to find the nearest base or place of rescue.

Revitalised with a sense of purpose and determination, Overgård lashes the wounded woman to a rescue toboggin, wraps her for the cold, then sets out into the white, towing her barely conscious body on an epic walk across the bitterly cold and windswept ice.

Virtually dialogue free, the dramatic heavy lifting is handled predominantly by Mads Mikkelsen’s weathered face. Pain, desperation, empathy, elation, sorrow; it’s all writ large within the lines of Mikkelsen’s hypnotic noggin.

Filmed in Iceland over 19 days, director Joe Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison originally set the story on Mars, rewriting it for a real-world scenario after the success of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

The simplification of the story and plotting frees the film, liberating it from laborious exposition. We know so little about Overgård, it serves to heighten the audience experience because we’re forced to fill in the gaps ourselves as to who we think this man is, based solely on his actions.

Mikkelsen has called the film’s production ’the hardest of his career’ and he stuns with an effortlessly magnetic performance. The quiet stoicism of the film, its lack of theatrics and showy set-pieces, set it apart from most films of this ilk, akin to a Robert Bresson film in its stark minimalism and use of purely visual cinematic storytelling.

Director Joe Penna was a YouTube viral sensation back in the early days of the video platform. In the years since, he’s channelled his internet fame into making short films. This transition to feature directing shows a confident and deft directorial style, that eschews short-changing the audience by taking dramatic shortcuts and instead favours F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that ‘character is plot’, focusing on the minutiae of survival and the humanity that can be found in desperation, wordlessly fleshing out characters through action and ordeal.

Captivating stuff.

 
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The Hate U Give

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Amandla Stenberg starring in yet another YA adaptation would normally be cause for concern, given her track record with the Munchausen nightmare of Everything Everything and the generic backwash of The Darkest Minds. However, to call this a YA adaptation immediately belittles the material. This isn’t about the younger generation raging against a fantastical tyranny; this is about all generations raging against a tyranny that is all too real.

Inspired by real-life cases of police brutality in the U.S., director George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honour, Notorious) and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (The Master, A Walk Among the Tombstones) give a vibrant, down-to-earth and unnervingly complex look at the socio-political climate that gave birth to those deaths.

It creates a rather comprehensive breakdown of the factors that contribute to the proclivity of deaths like that of Oscar Grant and the film’s Khalil: the community who are taught as children not to give police an excuse to open fire; the criminals whose rule of ‘no snitching’ maintains the existence of a threat much closer to home; the police who are trained to anticipate dozens of possibilities for any situation, primarily based on racial assumptions; and the culture-appropriating white population whose idea of being an ally is self-serving and counter-productive. All anchored by Stenberg as a high schooler who has enough to worry about trying to fit in at a predominantly-white school.

2018 served as a highly successful year for black American cinema, from the absurdist satire of Sorry to Bother You to the blockbuster cultural melange of Black Panther. While those films dealt with the underlying cultural factors in the background of events like those in this feature, the story presented here is a more immediate and disquieting depiction of the unfortunately common result of those factors.

At once personal and communal, the vision of reality here serves as both a snapshot of the Black Lives Matter movement from the inside out and an opportunity for the well-meaning white liberal members of the audience to check themselves. It’s a message of love, hope and forgiveness, but one tempered with the knowledge that some things can’t be fixed, least of all overnight, but an effort must be made. Effort made from a point of real understanding, not just face-saving lip service. Hate only grows more hate, and it has caused enough damage already.

 
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Free Solo

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Alex Honnold is fully aware of the risks he takes when he climbs massive rock faces without safety harnesses or any form of support. Just one tiny mistake or mistimed judgement would lead to his sudden demise. This stark potential outcome is always present throughout the film; neither climber nor film crew ever shies away from it.

The process of ‘free-climbing’ and Honnold’s career of sheer drops and intense highs is closely examined in this intimate and frequently terrifying documentary.

The film charts Honnold’s progress as he attempts to become the first person to climb the 3,200 foot El Capitan rock-face in California’s Yosemite National Park. Facing this challenge without a rope or harness, Honnold is realistic about the dangers, but is mostly untroubled by the risk before him.

Why climbers, including Honnold, choose to put their lives at such risk is closely examined during this adrenaline-charged film. Honnold undergoes an MRI scan at one stage, and is found to have a dysfunctional amygdala – the part of the brain that helps to process fear and alarm – which may well have something to do with his choice of career.

Ultimately, free climbers love the buzz and adrenaline rush of climbing ever higher. Pushing themselves to the limit to see the rest of the world down below is a calling that they simply cannot resist.

Part of the film that is well drawn is how the intelligent and sensitive Honnold interacts with others; his new relationship with Sanni – someone with a greater emotional awareness than the self-focused free-climber – is examined sensitively.

An inspiring and rewarding journey through the limits of human endeavour, Free Solo is an exhilarating look at a world of immediate danger and committed athleticism. Managing to capture the technicalities of what it’s like to attempt a scaling of such magnitude, alongside a warmly drawn personal character study, the film is a triumph in both beauty and understanding.

 
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Loro

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If you want corrupted power in all its lurid excess then, in the European context, you have to go to Italy which has an almost-proud tradition stretching right back to the barking mad Roman emperors. Paolo Sorrentino takes on the life of such a leader in the jaw-dropping career of Silvio Berlusconi.

If you think this crazy political biopic is overdone, you have to remind yourself that Berlusconi is real and wonder how much of the film is actually an exaggeration. That’s part of the delicious fun because, although the implications for the body politic in Italy are as serious as ever, there is no other way to depict Berlusconi.

Sorrentino is an experienced filmmaker, of course. He has made numerous films (and recently directed the TV series The Young Pope), but is best known outside Italy for The Great Beauty. There too, a lavish style and grand set pieces produced a lush visual experience that was almost overwhelming. If you want austere, go somewhere else.

However, Loro isn’t just an exercise in visual overload, there is also actor Toni Servillo’s complex portrayal to consider. It must have been a role of a lifetime in some ways. Servillo doesn’t succumb to the temptation to settle scores by portraying the man as either evil or a black hair-dyed buffoon. What is impressive about the performance is that he makes Berlusconi a complex, real person.

Perhaps Sorrentino’s final takeaway is that he was above all a great salesman with all the falsity and charm that could imply. There is a wonderful extended scene in the film where we see Berlusconi sell a dodgy investment opportunity to a lonely middled age woman down the phone. As with wooing the nation, he has to go from unknown quantity to trusted friend by saying whatever the hell it takes.

There are many riveting scenes in this long film. There was so much material that Sorrentino made two long films, a part 1 and 2 in the true Godfather tradition, which were screened at the Italian Film Festival, however here, we get a condensed version at 2.5 riveting hours.

Though Berlusconi might like to present himself as a man of the people who got there through sheer will, this is not the whole story. He also, more or less, owned the mainstream Italian media at one point, so was able to carefully project his image. Imagine Trump and Murdoch rolled into one. And then there are the ‘bunga bunga’ parties (sex parties with scores of beautiful call girls in various states of undress) without which no portrait of the Berlusconi era would be complete.

Sorrentino has a pimp-like character here called Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who, knowing Berlusconi’s weakness for such pleasures, assembles a small army of ‘girls’ as a way into the political inner circle. The Great Beauties perhaps. These parties in the mansion are loosely choreographed ballets of lust, over which Sorrentino’s camera swoops and whirls. Like the film as a whole, they are highly stylised. But then, as they say, the style is the man. It is certainly a memorable piece of work.