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comic book, Marvel, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Created in the mid ‘80s and becoming inexplicably popular in the ‘90s, the Venom comic book character looks like an over designed toothy scribble without much personality beyond “really big mouth” and “likes breaking/eating things”. So, in a weird way having a terrible film based on a terrible character is somewhat fitting? Sadly, that doesn’t make schlepping your way through 112 long, tedious minutes any more enjoyable.

Venom tells the tale of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist/vlogger/sexy mumbling man who manages to blow up his life with Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) after executing a bone-headed plan to publicly expose the shonky shenanigans of Elon Musk-like evil genius, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This leads, in a slow, roundabout way (that we won’t spoil, but it’s very stupid indeed) to Eddie becoming a host to an alien parasite that chats a lot, possesses super powers and has a penchant for biting off human heads. That last sentence probably makes Venom sound like dumb fun. Don’t be fooled, a couple of moderately entertaining moments aside the flick is a dud, making bafflingly poor decisions at almost every turn.

For a start the three main actors – Hardy, Williams, Ahmed – all deliver the worst performances of their respective careers. None of them will be ruined by this turkey, thankfully, but holy crap what a difference a decent script and a canny director make! Ahmed in particular appears to be drowning in a sea of godawful dialogue and staggeringly inept character work. The visual effects are okay but they’re in service of a character, Venom himself, who seems to change motivation and mood for no reason at all, leading to a climax with an almost identical foe that you might be able to make out if you squint really hard. Of course, by the time this flick reaches its third act you’ll just be glad it’s over, as all but the most masochistic audience members will have checked out over an hour before.

Venom is a bad film, poorly plotted, shockingly acted with nary but a couple of visually interesting moments to lift you from the oily black swamp of boredom. It’s not hard to see what director Ruben Fleischer was going for here, and once or twice snatches of the film that could have been shine through, but ultimately this is a jaw-dropping misfire and feels like a product of a time when comic book adaptations were notoriously bad like Spawn (1997). And hell, at least Spawn had an awesome soundtrack, the only appropriate musical accompaniment to Venom is the scornful, mocking laughter of an irritated audience.

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Book Week

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

The crumpled, under-achieving, slightly lecherous but still somehow charming literary professor/teacher type is a familiar trope when it comes to American films, but is far less prevalent here in Australia. Book Week – the new film from writer/producer/director, Heath Davis, who announced himself as a major talent to watch with his striking 2016 debut, Broke – shoots to redress the balance, and in the figure of misanthropic author turned high school teacher, Nick Cutler (superbly played by regular film and TV supporting player, Alan Dukes), we get a wonderfully lived-in character to rival Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys or Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man. Cutler is irresponsible, immature, self-centred, mean-spirited and pretentious…in short, he’s not the kind of guy that you’d like to actually hang out with, but he makes for an utterly compelling screen creation.

Vaguely famous for a book that he wrote eight years ago (and equally infamous for the mess of boozy bad behaviour that accompanied its publication), Cutler is now toiling away unhappily at Little Fields High School, dealing with disinterested students and a world that feels like it’s passing him by. But when a hip publishing company (hilariously embodied by Toby Schmitz and Khan Chittenden) looks set to pick up his latest novel, Cutler’s life starts to look up. Self-sabotage, however, is his business, and a pair of ill-judged romantic entanglements (with Susan Prior and Airlie Dodds, both excellent), along with his own bad attitude, soon threatens Nick Cutler’s imminent success.

Wittily scripted, sharply characterised, and smartly performed (Rose Riley, Pippa Grandison, Steve Le Marquand, Rhys Muldoon, Tiriel Mora, Maya Stange, Nicholas Hope and Jolene Anderson all do great work in small roles), Book Week is a little gem of a film. It not only celebrates the joy of reading (and learning), but also the ability of people to change for the better. You always get the feeling that there’s a better man beneath Nick Cutler’s sour exterior, and Alan Dukes ingeniously reveals his character’s true self slowly and authentically as the film unspools. It’s a lovely portrait piece, and Book Week is nothing short of a cinematic page-turner.

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First Man

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Outer space on film has always had a sense of collective ambition to it. Rarely as simple as just being about one person or even a group reaching for the stars, it’s a narrative that usually aims to show humanity at its most collaborative, with everyone pulling together to do extraordinary things among the celestial orbs. While Star Trek may lay claim to that in the more fantastical parts of our culture, this mindset largely traces back to those famous words from Neil Armstrong; the giant leap for mankind that he and the Apollo 11 crew took over fifty years ago.

First Man’s visuals and the writing, rather than sticking to loftier ideas of what this leap could mean for the human race, aim for raw, almost uncomfortable intimacy. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Battle Of The Sexes) keeps a very tight and claustrophobic proximity to the actors, letting every whimpered tear and dreading glance plaster itself onto the screen.

Of course, that’s what you get when things are deceptively placid; during the space-oriented moments, the combination of handheld camera work and pristine use of lighting gives a Stargate-sequence-from-2001-into-its-own movie vibe that Chazelle and Sandgren were aiming for. While this method brings the occasional headache, it ends up fitting the chaotic nature of the scenes.

As for the writing, it takes an unshakeably personal look at the story from Neil’s perspective, sometimes literally as aided by the point-of-view camera angles. The depiction we get of the legendary astronaut is a man who has seen death’s handy work far too often, who knows the risks that he and his colleagues are taking. A man who understands how much is weighing on this mission all too well. It is through that lens that we see this story, informed by the American/Russian space race but more intently fascinated by the personal drive at the heart of that race. Not only does this give the film solid emotional grounding throughout, it also delves into the ultimate why of this entire venture. With all the dangers involved, all the public scrutiny as to how practical this all is, and all the worry that these men will not make it back to Earth, why would someone put so much at stake? Because any giant leap involves taking risks, ones that not everyone is willing to take.

First Man shows Damien Chazelle doing what should be impossible: turning a well-worn piece of history into a down-to-earth and frequently nail-biting piece of cinema. Creating tension in a story where most people already know the ending is an impressive feat, and it does justice to the legacy of a true pioneer.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Devised as Part 1 of ‘The Five Frequencies Saga’, Harmony will forever be remembered as the first and final lead role for actress Jessica Falkholt, who passed away in January this year after a car accident that also killed both of her parents and younger sister. Even without this prior knowledge, Harmony is eerie and cathartic.

Falkholt is the title character, a young woman who lurks in the shadows, coming to the rescue of those in need. Into Harmony’s orbit steps a psychologist played by Jacqueline McKenzie, her son Mason (Jerome Myer) and bad seed Jimmy (Eamon Farren), spiralling the story towards a high stakes climax.

The all Australian cast employs American accents, which could be construed as distracting, but this type of fantastical, spiritual material is only ever pulled off convincingly by the US, so it makes sense, despite wavering interpretations. There are large leaps of logic, too, with certain narrative questions left unanswered – perhaps that was planned for Part 2?

If you go with it, Harmony rewards you with an emotionally complex, fulfilling ride. It’s so refreshing to watch something truly original for a change, human made, with all the foibles that entails, at a time when CGI and dumbing down is de rigueur. The three young leads – Falkholt is all The Craft type smoulder, Myer is a humourless, angst-ridden Buster Keaton while Farren channels OTT Willem Dafoe in Streets of Fire. All are exceptional in their commitment to challenging roles that skate such a thin line between gritty reality and caricature.

This is the second film that Writer/Director Corey Pearson has had released this year, with Message Man a brutal action flick that deserved to find an audience, and now he takes on the well-worn YA genre with this highly ambitious emo fable that if released a decade ago would have been picked up by a Hollywood studio a la Gabriel. Its high production qualities, moody score by Tai Rotem and committed performances would be embraced by the streaming generation, and perhaps down the track that is exactly what will happen. But to release in cinemas these days, you really need strong IP to get any sort of traction, and it is going to be another tough slog for Corey Pearson to find an audience in the first instance, even though it is clear that he is a filmmaker well aware of who he is making this film for.

Let Harmony wash over you; it will touch and reward you.

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A Prayer Before Dawn

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Based on the real-life accounts of boxer Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn delivers a powerful message on the dangers of drugs – and more importantly… getting caught with them in the wrong place.

The place in question is Thailand, where Moore – portrayed with vigour and sensitivity by Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) – has been working as a bodyguard in between boxing matches. He also spends time partaking in the smoking of local drug yaba, a crushing addiction that leads to him being busted and thrown behind bars.

Billy’s confusion in the prison is well brought out. The Thai spoken by guards and inmates is not subtitled, meaning the audience is in much the same position as Billy, relying on context and body language to discover what is being said. Luckily for us though, we don’t experience first hand the slaps and kicks.

The young Englishman’s rage at being imprisoned needs to have an outlet, and he begs to be allowed to train with the kickboxing team. His prowess is quickly recognised and a chance at survival and even release from prison hell is offered when he is allowed to compete in the inter-prison Muay Thai boxing tournament.

Billy is then packed off to another prison, where they swap subtitled stories of the grim deeds they did to end up there. Some of these conversations are delivered by real life ex-cons, so there is a provocative and alarming documentary quality about these scenes.

The fights themselves have a demonic circus atmosphere about them, with intensely maddening pipe music played over the speaker systems to accompany the blood and sweat. The close ups of whirling heads and flying fists (and feet) launch the spectator right into the heart of battle. It’s anything but a pretty sight.

The fights in the ring are gruelling enough, but the real challenge for the viewer is when the film details the violence in the prison itself. Painful and at points almost unwatchable, the film illustrates the suffering experienced by the prey of predators within a deeply flawed system.

Calling to mind something of the torment of ‘70s prison drama Midnight Express, but with the added confusion of blistering kickboxing bouts, A Prayer Before Dawn is a resolutely tough watch. But it’s also one that rewards, with the hope of redemption and rebirth.

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Night School

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A side effect of the ubiquity of Judd Apatow’s brand of comedy, seeing grown-ups actually being pushed into mentally and emotionally growing up is something of a modern cliché. Sometimes, it can lead to moments of real, mature introspection and character study (Bad Neighbours, Sisters, Tag), but too often, it ends up being used as an excuse to just see people act like brats. That is not a real problem if said bratty behaviour is leading to something, but some films don’t get that far. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

Much like in a real classroom, the teacher is the only thing holding this together. Haddish struck gold last year with director Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip, and while it’s good to see that her immediately-striking personality carries through here, she’s the only person in Night School’s ensemble with an actual character to speak of, whilst Kevin Hart continues milking a Napoleon complex for jokes.

Looking at the overly-crowded writers’ room for this, we have Hart himself, three writers whose biggest claim to fame is working on Hart’s stand-up and award show appearances, genuinely talented writer/director Nicholas Stoller (Bad Neighbours, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and John Hamburg, who gave us the yuletide rectal examination that is Why Him? The blame has to sit somewhere; it’s baffling that there was no room to actual work out a plot between the six of them.

Take any scene from this film – from Hart’s stint as not-quite-MC-Hammer working for a fried chicken restaurant to the faux-heist to steal a test paper – and removing it whole-cloth from the plot changes literally nothing. If anything, it might help this nearly-two-hour film feel like less of a colossal drag.

It’s a do-nothing film where the most urgent things it has to say are “be yourself” and “stay in school”, the kind of revolutionary, mind-exploding ideas some might remember from old Captain Planet re-runs. Kevin Hart has officially struck rock bottom with this one, giving us a film about school that makes sitting through stress-inducing finals exams seem like the more pleasant and entertaining option.

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The Great Battle

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week, Trailer Leave a Comment

Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Two Towers ‘Helms Deep’ battle looms large in this South Korean period action epic, loosely based around historical events from 625AD, during the Tang Dynasty when Chinese emperor Taizong was rolling across outlying nations unopposed. His armies attempted to annex the nation of Goguryeo, on the Korean peninsula.

In a version of the Thermopylae scenario (immortalised in Zack Snyder’s 300) where an outnumbered few stood against many, a rag-tag handful of crazy-brave warriors stand against Emperor Taizong (Park Sun-Woong) and his 200,000 strong army. The five thousand warriors take refuge within the walls of the Fortress of Ansi, commanded by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung). The odds are not good.

While director Kim Kwang-sik goes for a fairly classical treatment of the material, there’s a good amount of creative liberty taken with the plot and execution. The story begins as a young officer named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is despatched to the fortress of Ansi, where Commander Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung) has supposedly gone rogue and become disloyal to his lord, Yeon Gaesomun (played by Yu Oh-seong who starred in the recent South Korean film The Spy Gone North).

After spending time with Commander Yang Manchun, the young officer wrestles with his own loyalty to his orders and whether this man is a traitor or a well-loved leader of a large civilian populace and army. Once Emperor Taizong and his armies arrive, the testing of the people within the fortress begins and the young Samul sees real sacrifice and honour, first-hand.

Given the extensive battle sequences, it’s no surprise that their nimble execution is paramount. There’s a very stylised approach to the violence, including ye olde Zack Snyder-style ramping slow-mo effect (that 300 made famous) that ensures the audience can clearly see the jets of claret and slicing swords, something Kim Kwang-sik deploys with aplomb. CG aerial views and close-quarters combat meld with a visceral intensity that indulges in some CG enhanced bloodletting and hyper-stylised fight choreography that’s more than a little Manga inspired.

Overall, this rip-roaring battle epic has genuinely got the goods, with big emotions and accessible characters, while never descending into saccharine theatrics; it chugs along like a rollicking hybrid of Seven Samurai, 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Terrifically enjoyable.

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Golden Job

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

To know Young and Dangerous is to know 1990s Hong Kong cinema. This pulp action franchise, which started in 1995, was the biggest cultural phenomenon on the screen. Based on a popular local comic book, and starring a string of white-hot young actors, it presented the ongoing twists and struggles of an up-and-coming triad gang. By the time the franchise died down, it had resulted in six main films plus seven prequels, spin-offs, and parodies.

Nostalgia is a big seller these days, not simply in Hollywood but in Chinese-language film markets as well. As a result, four of the main stars of Young and Dangerous – Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan, Jerry Lamb, and Michael Tse – have been re-assembled in a suspiciously familiar action film about a gang of orphans who grew up together on the streets. Instead of joining organised crime, they are taken under the wing of the elderly ‘Papa’ (Eric Tsang) to become good-hearted mercenaries-for-hire.

Golden Job is a globe-trotting, over-the-top action film. There is a sense of Mission: Impossible about it, but also a lot of Fast & Furious and overall retroactive sheen of Handover-era Hong Kong cinema. The emotions are melodramatic. Themes of loyalty and brotherhood dominate. Ekin Cheng’s hair is as lustrous and flowing as ever. Aside from the two decades of the cast getting older and the use of previously unavailable CG effects, this is essentially Young and Dangerous all over again.

That is both good and bad. It is enjoyable to see Cheng, Chan and friends back together again, in slightly remixed but comfortably familiar roles. At the same time, it makes the entire film seem rather out of date. It looks contemporary, but the story feels 20 years old. It has been 16 years since stunt coordinator turned TV host Chin Kar-lok last directed a feature film (2002’s adventure sequel No Problem 2). He returns to direct here, and it is clear he hasn’t learned too many new tricks in the interim. It is solid and capable work, but nothing feels exceptional, nothing feels new.

The lead cast remain charismatic with a great screen presence. Eric Tsang makes for a cheerful mentor, however with the current cloud of an assault allegation levelled against him he is something of an uncomfortable presence these days. Midway through the film Japanese action heavyweight Yasuaki Kurata pops into frame as a kindly sake maker who befriends Papa in his retirement. It seems an odd little cameo until Bill and his mercenaries show up; then it all leads to one of the film’s most enjoyable moments.

If you enjoy the Hong Kong action films of yesteryear, or if you’re keen to discover just what they were like in the comfort of a cinema, Golden Job is a nostalgic delight. It has plenty of action, humour, and overwrought emotion. It is a hugely pleasing victory lap for a great generation of movie stars. It also fails to bring anything new to the table, and that ultimately lets it down. Rather than revisit older glories, it would have been best to see this cast build new ones.