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REVIEW: Underworld: Blood Wars

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It’s unlikely any particular chapter of the Underworld franchise will ever be considered a timeless classic. The movies have always been a showcase for stylish action scenes and Kate Beckinsale’s adroitness at filling out a pair of PVC pants rather than possessing old fashioned qualities like “a plot” or “a semblance of coherence”. However, if you make the mistake of seeing Underworld: Blood Wars (don’t) you may find yourself longing for the nuanced subtlety of the original Underworld or the Wildean wit of Rise of the Lycans.

Blood Wars’ story begins with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) narrating a summary of the previous four (!) films. It’s rather telling that the best bits of flashback footage all come from the original couple of movies. Hopefully you’re comfortable watching these rehashed loops, they return incessantly. Anyway, Selene’s moping around because she was betrayed by her vampire clan, and the Lycans (werewolves) have a new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies), and everyone wants her daughter’s blood because it’s full of magical antioxidants or something.

After what seems an eternity of endless, po-faced dialogue scored by shockingly bad and tonally mismatched music, the narrative limps along to a point where Selene, her pal David (Theo James) and his dad, Thomas (Charles Dance) uncover a plot orchestrated by bargain-basement-Eva-Green, Samira (Lara Pulver). The movie then threatens to become “dumb but fun” but, nope, one underwhelming action scene later and it’s back to moping and monologues.

Underworld: Blood Wars was clearly made for less money than some of its predecessors but in the hands of a skilled director a smaller budget need not equate to lesser thrills. However, first time feature director, Anna Foerster does very little with the admittedly thin material on offer here. The action scenes are all generic, the wirework obvious and clumsy and – with one or two notable moments aside – are forgettable variants of vampire action you’ve seen dozens of times before. This would almost be forgivable if any of the characters managed to be even vaguely interesting, but everyone is terminally dull with the possible exception of Lara Pulver, who is terrible but at least looks like she’s having a little bit of fun with her legion of baffle-witted emo acolytes. Kate Beckinsale looks great and fills out those pants charmingly as always but her entire character arc in this movie is: she eventually gets frosted tips and a new winter coat!

Of all the many sins that Underworld: Blood Wars commits, the most egregious is the fact that it doesn’t have a proper ending. The frequently hinted at McGuffin-daughter-with-the-magic-blood subplot remains unresolved except for a last minute stinger designed to excite audience members for the next chapter in the Underworld franchise. If it’s anything like this flat, inert, tour-de-force of mopey wankers you’d be better off staying home and doing literally anything else.

 
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REVIEW: Ruin

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From its opening scenes, Ruin plunges the viewer into a world of violence and suffering with grim authenticity. Set in contemporary Cambodia, the film follows young friends, Sovanna and Phirun, who together find brief moments of mutual solace in otherwise brutal lives. Directors, Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson, paint a harrowing picture of existence; Ruin imagines a world that is defined by misogyny, where the capacities for exploiting the poor and desperate appear relentless, and Sovenna and Phirun are forced to survive against desperate odds.

Sang Malen and Rous Mony deliver strong performances, often using gestures and movements to create their characters. This emphasis on performance is punctuated with a camera style that shifts from claustrophobic, hand-held shots of town and city streets and dank apartments with calm, almost-serene dreamlike images of the world beyond the city. Whether through the movements of water in the river or the slow dance of flames against the night, these sequences are poetic and haunting, in contrast to the air of imminent violence elsewhere. A powerful soundtrack that combines minimalist drones, tones and shimmering shapes, which add to the haunted atmosphere of the world, build upon the mood. At times these worlds seem to contrast too much, but the tension is carefully maintained throughout, adding to the movie’s style.

Ruin demands much of the audience, but it makes for necessary and ultimately rewarding viewing.

Ruin screens in one-off events in Melbourne (December 3) and Brisbane (December 4).

 
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REVIEW: Sand Storm

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Deep in the Negev desert in southern Israel, in a forlorn breeze-block Bedouin village where cultural and religious traditions have been adhered to for centuries, polygamy is widespread and women are assigned to prospective husbands in a deeply medieval manner. Suliman (Haitham Omari) is marrying his second wife. He returns home late on the afternoon of his wedding, leaving his daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar) and wife Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), to ready his wedding night bedroom themselves. Suliman’s marriage to the new younger wife throws a pall over the rest of the family.

When Layla falls for Anwar (Jalal Masrwa), a boy from another village whom she has met at her school, first wife Jalila becomes authoritarian and aggressive, taking out her frustrations and directing Layla not to see the boy any more lest shame be brought on their family. Tensions boil over when Anwar (Jalal Masrwa) comes to talk to Suliman face to face and declare his love for Layla, soon after Suliman declares that Layla has already been promised as a wife to another man in the village.

Quietly intense and never tipping over into overwrought drama, Sand Storm’s direction is deft and unobtrusive. The performances are uniformly great, and there’s a potent sense of place, closed in and claustrophobic, putting us in the head space of the central character, Layla. The lack of information and context is both a plus and a minus, depending on how you like to experience films. There is an otherworldliness to its opening minutes, where we’re presented with alien customs and stone-age attitudes towards women. Without voiceovers or opening crawls describing it, the audience is left to witness the ubiquity of these attitudes, and challenged to understand the complicity of all the individuals perpetuating them, both the men and the women.

 
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REVIEW: Golden Years

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Mainstream cinema is hardly bereft of films where groups of the disenfranchised decide to stick it to The Man. What it does tend to have very little of is films where these groups break past the age barrier of middle aged and beyond. Instead, films tend to dismiss the idea that OAPs have enough energy to stick anything to anyone. The Golden Years, directed by John Miller, is a British caper flick that tries to reset the balance and falls short of doing so.

 Bernard Hill (Lord Of The Rings) plays Arthur, a retiree living out his autumn years alongside his wife, Martha (Virginia McKenna). Upon losing his pension and access to free healthcare all in one day, Arthur decides to rob his local bank; an act that he manages to pull off accidently after getting cold feet. With the media and authorities on the lookout for a slick group of thieves, Arthur and Martha wind up using the preconceived notions about pensioners to rob further banks and use the proceeds to help pay off their friends’ debts.

Ostensibly a comedy, in the style of The Ealing Studios romps of yore, Miller and his co-writers make the mistake of trying to inject a heavy dose of Ken Loach social realism into the proceedings that never feel natural. The jokes are jarringly put to one side every time Arthur takes a moment to lament the plight of his generation. This is a gentle comedy with something to say, but it needs a lighter hand to mesh the two ideals. With an ensemble cast that includes Simon Callow, Una Stubbs, and Phil Davis, it’s great to see a variety of veteran actors doing what they do best. Another polish of the script and tighter editing, however, would elevate this to something a little more weighty.

 
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REVIEW: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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Ang Lee certainly likes to shoot for the fences, as they in America, where this Taiwan-born director has made most of his consistently daring and ambitious films. Bumping from genre to genre at will (boasting a resume dotted with films as diverse as Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and Sense And Sensibility), Lee now swings vigorously once again with Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk, a wide-canvas drama literally bulging at the seams with big ideas, taking in issues such as the US military’s presence in The Middle East, the army’s often unfeeling treatment of its young soldiers, the rising prevalence of PTSD in those who serve, the difficulty of soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life, the commodification of war, the exploitation of youth, and the meaning of heroism…and they’re just the first items on Lee’s cinematic shopping list this time out!

The first film ever shot at 120 frames per second (unfortunately, Australian cinemas are not equipped to best take advantage of this burgeoning new technology, which packs more “visual information” into every shot), Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk focuses on the eponymous young soldier, who returns to America a hero after an extraordinary feat of bravery and selflessness in the Iraq War of 2003. Along with his fellow troop members, Billy is set to be celebrated as part of the halftime entertainment at a Dallas Cowboys match, with the young servicemen incongruously incorporated into a performance of the song, “Soldier”, by Destiny’s Child (who do not appear, incidentally, and are distractingly played by doubles instead). Waiting for his big moment on stage, Billy (impressively played by London-born first time actor, Joe Alwyn, certainly a star of the future) flashes back to both his time on the battlefront and the events that led him to join the military, all the while agonising over whether to return to Iraq or shout PTSD in order to remain stateside.

Though he’s provided with more-than-ample thematic opportunities (courtesy of Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel), Ang Lee also opts to reach for the stars technically, often to the film’s detriment. The much touted 120-frames-per-second tech gives the film an odd, plastic-like look, removing all grit from the battle scenes and making everything else look glaringly over-lit. Even more distracting is Lee’s decision to go POV for many of the film’s major emotional scenes, with characters speaking directly to camera as if to another person. Obviously designed to make the experience more “immersive”, they ironically serve more as an alienation device, pointing out the artifice essential to the filmmaking process.

But while the abundance of themes gives Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk something of a weighed-down, bow-legged gait, it’s in the story itself that Lee finds greatest success, evoking the confusion and sadness of a rebellious but big-hearted young man with expert precision. Surrounded by strong players (Kristen Stewart as Billy’s fiery but physically and emotionally damaged sister; Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel as his Barnes-and-Elias-style military superiors; Chris Tucker as the squadron’s entertainment manager; Steve Martin as a wealthy, exploitative a-hole; Makenzie Leigh as Billy’s all-American cheerleader crush), Joe Alwyn makes this soulful soldier’s crisis all too real, relatable, and immediate, and Ang Lee knows exactly when to punch things up and when to dial them back. Forget all the hi-tech hooey – it’s in the finer details that the big and brave Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk really finds its footing.

 
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REVIEW: The Legend Of Ben Hall

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Proving (if any more proof were actually needed) that crowdfunding websites are no longer the singular domain of low budget niche projects (the film started life as an extended short), The Legend Of Ben Hall comes thundering over the cinematic hill in a sweeping, glorious surge worthy of a cash-pumped mainstream epic. It’s an inspiring sight, and while the seams sometimes show via a stilted quality in the acting and writing, this bushranger tale boasts an admirable sense of classicism and an engaging fondness and understanding of its central character. The madness of genre classics like Mad Dog Morgan and The Proposition might be missing, but the concerns of The Legend Of Ben Hall are considerably different: crime here is an act of workmanlike necessity, rather than the result of any feverish need to wreak havoc and rain down chaos.

Anchoring the film is young newcomer, Jack Martin, who cuts a fine figure as Ben Hall, all imposing height, wounded blue eyes, and slow burning charisma. His bushranger is an essentially decent man, avoiding violence and always attempting to complete his take-downs with minimal bloodshed. His principal offsider – Canadian born John “Happy Jack” Gilbert (played with manic but occasionally over the top energy by Jamie Coffa) – however, tends to reach for his irons first, which gets the pair (along with their callow new recruit, John Dunn, sensitively essayed by William Lee) into increasing strife with the law. Infamously plying his trade around NSW towns like Forbes, Bathurst, and Goulburn, Ben Hall’s final stand (okay, does anyone not know what happened to one of our most famous bushrangers? Just in case…spoiler alert!) gives the film an immediate and hotly contemporary edge, showing in no uncertain terms that police over-reaction is certainly not a new phenomenon.

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Though slightly over-long at two-hours-plus, The Legend Of Ben Hall does a fine job of getting inside the head of the eponymous bushranger, playing out like a kangaroo western come psychodrama. Despite the seeming incongruity, it’s a combination that works extremely well, as it did in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, which would appear to be a major influence here. And while there’s a lack of assurance in some of the performances of the largely young and untried cast (thrown into further relief by the far more polished cameos from seasoned players like Callan McAuliffe, Andy McPhee, and Arthur Angel), The Legend Of Ben Hall always feels solid and well handled, with sophomore writer/director, Matthew Holmes (who debuted in 2007 with the low budget drama, Twin Rivers), proving equally adept with drama and action. He’s an exciting talent (his off-screen passion in getting projects off the ground is equally bracing), and with The Legend Of Ben Hall, he’s mounted an impressive feature bold in its sense of ambition and rich with character-driven intimacy.

 
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After The Storm

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Despite its title, most of this story unfolds before a storm (a typhoon, to be precise). But physical events are largely beside the point here, because this is first and foremost a character study, and an examination of human relationships.

The central figure is Shinoya Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a novelist who hasn’t written anything in years and currently has a seedy job as a private investigator – ostensibly as research for his next book. Ryota is a sad and in many ways pathetic figure, who has apparently inherited all the worst traits of his recently deceased father. He’s equal parts jerk and decent well-meaning fool, financially irresponsible and inept, a compulsive gambler, and pitiably self-deluded. On top of that, he seems incapable of behaving appropriately to his son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) or his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), with whom he remains hopelessly and desperately in love. At its worst, Ryota’s behaviour is so excruciatingly awkward – and so contrary to anyone’s best interests, even his own – as to make for uncomfortable viewing.

And then there is Ryota’s mother, Yoshiko (played by Kiki Kilin, who virtually steals the show). She’s a sardonic and “liberated” (her word) widow who can be gently philosophical but is never remotely pretentious. The evolving dynamics between all these people ring true at every stage. After The Storm is gentle and superficially modest, but it’s actually quite a substantial film. It’s touching, subtle, deftly and minutely observed, and – in its own terms – it’s successful.

 
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Your Name

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Taking the star crossed lover theme to extraordinary new heights, Makoto Shinkai’s latest animated feature film, Your Name, has not just dominated the Japanese box office (where it maintained the number one position for nine straight weeks), but has also reinvigorated the anime scene, delivering an original, beautifully conceived idea that has flourished amid the recent torrent of brand recognition franchise flicks.

Stripping the film back to its most basic synopses, Your Name falls into three distinct categories: a quirky body swap comedy, a coming of age teen romance, and an intelligent sci-fi adventure. The beauty of the film, however, is its ability to blend all three into a coherent narrative populated with such endearing characters that every moment of the film’s running time is pure cinematic joy.

At the film’s core are Taki and Mitsuha, two teens living very different lives. Taki is your typical Tokyo student, living with his father and working part time at a local Italian restaurant, while Mitsuha lives in a small rural town where her family are caretakers for the village’s temple. Initially, the pair believe that the dreams that they are having of each other’s lives are simply that – weird dreams – until small clues lead to the realisation that they are actually swapping bodies. At first, the phenomenon leads to genuinely funny moments, as Mitsuha begins laying the groundwork for an unexpected romance with one of Taki’s co-workers, while Taki himself takes innocent liberties with his new found anatomy.

However, one of the side effects of the swap is that neither can remember who the other is, hence the film’s title. Communicating through diary updates on each other’s phones, the pair eventually form a bond that teeters on romantic affection. But as the two decide to “connect” in the real world, a series of events culminate with the passing of a comet that heralds a cataclysm that shatters both Taki and Mitsuha’s understanding of their shared world.

Shinkai has proven with his past films that he understands how to tackle complex narratives while underwriting dramatic fantasy with grounded characters. It’s a skill that has often drawn comparisons to Studio Ghibli’s godfather of anime, Hayao Miyazaki. But Your Name may be the film that stops the comparisons in their tracks, and finally offers the filmmaker recognition not as the new Miyazaki, but simply as Makoto Shinkai, the acclaimed writer, director and animator of Five Centimetres Per Second, Children Who Chase Lost Voices and, fingers crossed, the Oscar winning Your Name.

 
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REVIEW: The Founder

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A few years ago, there was a little meme going round that McDonalds’ “Golden Arches” were more recognisable globally than the Christian cross. It is one of those unknowable factoids, but it was an indicator nonetheless of the terrifying global reach of this rather ordinary food outlet. In this quirky movie from John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks), we get to learn not only about the origin of this symbol, but also about the complicated birth of the global brand. And a pretty good story it is too.

Enter Ray Kroc, a typical 1950s door to door salesman; the purveyor of indefatigable bulldust. We first see Ray hawking around the mid-west with a car full of milk bar machines. Every now and then, he calls from his “office” (a phone booth) to his “secretary”; and occasionally he also calls his long suffering wife, Ethel (the always-good Laura Dern). Ray is not downtrodden, but he’s not exactly scaling the heights either. One day, he tries to sell one of his machines to brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald. This energetic team (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) are rather proud of the fact that they can bang out burgers at a fraction of the time that it takes others. It’s still pretty uninteresting food, but who cares if it comes in fifteen seconds and costs so little? We just know that the future has already been glimpsed.

Ray latches onto the brothers like a limpet, spruiking their idea to all and sundry, and generally annoying the pair, who just want to improve slowly. Ray also makes one other discovery: the expansion of the burger chain is really dependent upon real estate, so he migrates from the food business to acquiring more land to put the “restaurants” on. When the original brothers finally wake up to what Kroc is doing – he now cheekily carries the word “founder” on his business card – they try to get litigious.

All of this might sound slight, or, in another way, just a peon to a certain kind of capitalist entrepreneurship, but Hancock makes more of it than that. The key is the acting. First, there is the solid support playing, but the resurgent Michael Keaton is the one that you watch throughout. Having languished, the now Oscar contender took a giant stride with Birdman. He’s pretty damn good here too. With his pursed mouth and twinkling eyes, he has the right combination of a “cheeky natural” and a natural predator. Playing the ‘self-made’ man who stole the biggest food chain idea from under the noses of its inventors, Keaton is as convincing as a very good salesman.

 
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REVIEW: Like Crazy

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One is not sure if this phrase “like crazy” means the same thing in Italian. In English, it suggests to go at something all out, to be flamboyant and over the top as well as, perhaps, a bit obsessive. This certainly suits the two lead characters in this slightly fanciful but nevertheless affecting Italian comedy-drama about the struggles of two mental patients.

It is mostly set in a large institution. This is meant to be a mental hospital but, this being Italy, it looks more like a Roman Villa cum museum. Inside its ornate walls, several female patients are gently herded by the caring hospital staff. One in particular, Beatrice (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), causes more trouble than most; partly because she does not really understand that she is ill, or that there are reasons why she can’t just go wandering the streets.

When a shy patient, Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), gets admitted, Beatrice decides to take her under her wing. Pretty soon, the two are inseparable and longing for adventure. When they actually escape the institution, they end up heading for a grand location to hang out with the rich aristos that Beatrice feels at home with. All of this sounds like a cross between Ab Fab and Girl Interrupted, but director, Paolo Virzi, has crafted something unique in its own way.

The sheer verve of Bruni-Tedeschi’s presence and performance sweeps you along. She blazes on the screen, and the fact that she seems to be very well aware of the effect that she has on men works well with this character. The other linked story of how Donatella wants to try and reconnect with the son that the state took from her (and farmed out for adoption) also gives Ramazzotti a chance to shine later in the film. That aspect of the story has some slightly implausible touches, but it is moving nonetheless. The film has done well in Italy, and its obvious charms should woo art-house audiences here too.