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REVIEW: 31

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These days, when you see the words “A Rob Zombie Film”, you pretty much know what you’re in for. Zombie’s directorial efforts have carved out a seedy niche that combines grindhouse cinema, foul-mouthed rednecks, and colourfully dressed psychopaths cavorting to sludgy tunes by the man himself and classic cuts from the 1970s. From The House Of 1000 Corpses to the Halloween remake to the 2013 homage to Kubrick, devil worship and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie’s bum, The Lords Of Salem, Zombie’s films are nothing if not recognisable.

31 tells the tale of a group of carnival workers, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) who are driving between engagements on Halloween morning and having a fun old time doing so. Naturally, this halcyon period doesn’t last long, and before you can say, “Hey, let’s investigate those creepy scarecrows on the road ahead”, the gang are kidnapped and taken to a massive, labyrinthine building.

Once there, a magnificently wigged Malcolm McDowell (playing a character named Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, no less) informs the carnies that they’re now playing a game called “31”, in which they must survive for twelve hours in a bizarre, winding maze as homicidal clowns stalk and kill them.

The clowns range from the Nazi-rhetoric spouting little person, Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), to chainsaw wielding nutjobs, Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), to the genuinely creepy, Doom-Head (Richard Brake). The majority of the film plays out like a weird pastiche of The Running Man and Battle Royale with splattery slatherings of Zombie’s own The Devil’s Rejects for good measure. It’s bloody and noisy and super stylish, and features some surprisingly solid performances, especially from cult fave, Meg Foster, who gets to be an unexpected bad arse for once.

31 is essentially the perfect Halloween night movie experience. It’s designed to be seen with a group of likeminded sickos, probably under the influence of booze and/or mild hallucinogens, and should be enjoyed on that level. There’s no hidden subtext here or deep thematic discourse. 31 is a balls-to-the-wall splatterfest that will be screening for one night only at locations of all over Australia. If that sounds like your jam, then you’d be a clown to miss out.

 
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Zero Days

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We know that cyberspace is now a battleground hotly contested by both nation states and insurgent groups, but how much do we really know about it? After watching this detailed documentary from Alex Gibey, who gave as the excellent Scientology expose,  Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, you’ll know a lot more than you did, and none of it will make you happy.

The thesis for Zero Days is essentially that our increasing reliance on ubiquitous information technology makes us vulnerable in previously unimaginable ways, both as individuals and as nations. Its test case is the Stuxnet computer virus, which was was originally deployed by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. As in any good techno-thriller, the malware exceeded its remit and infected a huge number of systems around the world. Zero Days traces the history of the Stuxnet virus and the battle against it, along the way laying bare a hidden technological arms race where borders don’t matter, defence is almost impossible, and collateral damage is largely unpredictable due to the amorphous and interconnected nature of modern communications.

It’s riveting, terrifying stuff. It’s also heavy going; Gibney by necessity employs a lot of talking heads who drop a lot of jargon on the viewer, and close attention is needed to parse what is happening and keep up with the narrative. For all that, it;s a propulsive film, a real-world thriller that keeps the viewer firmly engrossed as the terrifying implications of what is not only possible but currently being done pile up. What we’re talking about here is nothing so benign as ransomware or identity theft, but informational weapons capable of real world effects – such as crippling a nuclear reactor, for example.

What’s especially compelling is what Gibney’s subjects don’t say; at several points his interviewees clam up, refusing to speak further on certain avenues of inquiry, and it’s then that you know that we’re dealing with the real stuff. Gibney goes so far as to employ an actor to deliver testimony that his sources refused to say on camera, as he did in his earlier film, Client 9, adding an extra frisson of espionage flavour to the proceedings. If nothing else, the film illustrates how much we are living in a post-science fiction world, and isn’t it a telling coincidence that the names Gibney and Gibson (as in William) are so similar?

 
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REVIEW: Keeping Up With The Joneses

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For the first time in eleven years, Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) find themselves facing a challenge that all parents eventually face: the empty nest. With their kids away for the first time at summer camp, the Gaffneys angle to reignite their dampened flames of romance. This proves easier said than done when Karen is distracted by the sudden arrival of their new neighbours, the Joneses (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), whose stunning looks and overall savoir faire are only matched by their air of mystery.

Where to even start?

Greg Mottola…what – are – you – doing?! Have you just given up on life? Is this Hollywood apathy, or are we being Punk’d? Mottola directed Super Bad (2007), Adventureland (2009) and three episodes of Arrested Development (2003-2004), all solid hallmarks in the modern comedy canon, and now he’s followed those up with the remarkably rotten Keeping Up With The Joneses. It just makes no sense. Though the direction is uncharacteristically lazy for Mottola, it’s not entirely his fault. It has the stink of at least 40 production executives all over it, and a screenplay by writer/producer, Michael LeSieur, that should never have made it past the first meeting.

The film is just…bad. There’s no other way to put it. The writing, the direction, the acting; and not bad in a “we reached for something and missed” kind of way, but bad in a “let’s get our money and get outta here” kind of way. It somehow manages to make Zach Galifianakis un-funny and Isla Fisher boring, not to mention its completely wasteful use of Jon Hamm and typically frustrating over-sexualisation of Gal Gadot. Keeping Up With The Joneses is definitely not worth keeping up with.

 
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REVIEW: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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With 2012’s Jack Reacher, producer/star, Tom Cruise, threw down what looked like the beginning of an exciting new action franchise. Yanked from the pages of the popular novels of Lee Child, the titular action man – a highly skilled former Army investigator turned adventure-prone drifter – was a compelling creation, spiked by a perverse sense of humour and defined by a singular ability to put foot to arse. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the film itself was equally kinky and violent, boasting Werner Herzog as a villain who’d eaten his own fingers in a POW camp, and a swathe of inventive, bone-crunching action scenes. In short, the stage was set and lit for an enjoyably old-school series of grunt-and-thump belters.

For the sequel, however, power-player, Cruise, has slotted Edward Zwick into the director’s chair, and opted to soften and humanise fists-first lone wolf, Jack Reacher. The results are disappointing, to say the very least. A thoughtful director with credits like Glory, Courage Under Fire, Defiance, and the Cruise-starring The Last Samurai, Zwick is all wrong for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. His direction of the action is pedestrian and run-of-the-mill, and his script (penned with regular collaborator, Marshall Herskovitz) takes a direct detour away from what made Jack Reacher such an interesting protagonist in the first place. The ruthlessness and bitter gallows humour is gone, replaced by a mawkish plotline in which Reacher agonises over whether plucky teenager, Samantha (played with engaging sass by newcomer, Danika Yarosh), could actually be his daughter. If this maudlin narrative side-swipe wasn’t bad enough, its unfolding and ultimate resolution make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The main narrative through-line is equally exasperating, as Reacher comes to the aid of Major Susan Turner (an impressively physical Cobie Smulders), a hard-nosed senior officer whom he’s only communicated with via phone. Reacher’s readiness to put his life on the line for a woman who is essentially a stranger is a major stretch, even for the action genre, while the ruckus that they find themselves caught up in (involving the US military’s re-sale of guns in The Middle East) would barely sustain an episode of NCIS. Villain-wise, there’s nothing to rival the great Werner Herzog here, with Reacher up against a few military bigwigs and a sneering, cliched assassin (Patrick Heusinger) who looks like he should be modelling Calvin Klein underwear.

The film’s placement of a strong female character right in the middle of the action, meanwhile, is admirable, but is so laboured that you can almost hear Zwick and Herskovitz ticking off points on The Bechdel Test along the way. Most hypocritically, they have Turner and Reacher engage in a gender-politics-set-to when he sidelines her in the action to look after the teenage-girl-that-might-be-his-daughter just because she’s a woman, but then have Turner conveniently sit out the film’s mano a mano action climax despite her previously established butt-kicking skills.

It’s just one of the many things that marks Jack Reacher: Never Go Back as such a soft-boiled disappointment. The film never feels true to itself, and indeed, Tom Cruise might have been wise not to go back to playing Jack Reacher at all. After such a ham-fisted, disingenuous effort as Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, this potentially promising action franchise has taken one right between the eyes.

 
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REVIEW: Ouija: Origin Of Evil

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Ouija: Origin Of Evil is the prequel to the critically lambasted but fiscally lucrative 2014 horror flick, Ouija, itself based on the Hasbro board game that is said to allow the living to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

The film is set nearly fifty years ago, in 1967, which is fitting because that was probably the last time any vaguely sentient human being could possibly find an Ouija Board scary. The story actually gets off to a decent start with Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) conducting a séance for a grieving widower and his greedy daughter. Cleverly, once the séance concludes, we find out that the whole thing is a sham, with Alice’s daughters, teenage Paulina (Annalise Basso) and child, Doris (Lulu Wilson), assisting in the charade. Sadly, this is the last time that the film is even vaguely surprising.

What follows is a slow, protracted slog through the horror genre’s most overused tropes and predictable cliches, including loud noises, strange whispers and, of course, creepy possessed children. It all vaguely ties to the titular Ouija Board, but the central mystery of why it’s all happening feels like it started life in a different, more original horror movie.

That’s not to say that Ouija: Origin Of Evil is without its moments. Director, Mike Flanagan, excels at achieving a lot with a little, as seen in both Absentia and Oculus, and there are moments here, particularly in the third act, when you catch brief glimpses of inspiration. Scenes where Doris communicates with what she thinks is her dead father and tries to see into the spirit world are undeniably evocative and executed with style. The rest of the time, however, the movie is an exercise in pedestrian storytelling with minimal tension, and feels a bit like The Conjuring lite. Younger audiences or people who haven’t seen a horror movie in the last fifty years may get some thrills from these ghostly shenanigans, but the rest of us will find these evil origins mostly forgettable.

 
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REVIEW: The Neon Demon

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Having polarised the masses with Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn shows no sign of signing up for the mainstream any time soon with The Neon Demon. Ostensibly, this is the tale of a wide-eyed country girl who goes to LA to seek her fortune as a model, with Elle Fanning playing Jesse, the 16-year-old lamb to the city’s slaughter. This is the stuff of cautionary legends found the world over, as the innocence of youth is commodified and brutalised. However, it’s how Refn throws the tale up – sometimes literally – onto the screen that makes the film worthy of pursuit.

Bedaubed in glitter and fake blood, languishing on a sofa, Jesse’s first modelling shoot sets up the aesthetic for the film, with Refn painting his scenes in shades of neon and violence. The only act of moral guidance comes when makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), tries to steer Jesse away from the users and abusers of the fashion world, including Keanu Reeves as a sleazy and sexually violent landlord.

Jesse’s ascension in the modelling world is almost neck-breaking, and whilst her contemporaries wail and gnash their teeth, a meditative calm washes over our protagonist. Does she have full control of her destiny, or does something lurk in the darkness goading her on? The Neon Demon is in some ways a horror film, but what supernatural forces, if any, guide and fuel the actions of those on screen are as covert as a whisper. As in all of his films, Refn has no interest in holding his audience’s hand. And this, coupled with the cold and deliberately stilted performances from his leads, will be off putting, whilst fitting in perfectly with the film’s cool, emotionless world.

Frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, The Neon Demon’s violence, misogyny and, yes, necrophilia will ensure that it is one of the most talked about films of 2016.

 
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REVIEW: Boys In The Trees

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It’s Halloween 1997 somewhere in suburban Australia, and it’s also the last night of high school for Corey (Toby Wallace), Jango (Justin Holborow), and their skater gang, The Gromits. Childhood is over and adult life beckons. But for Corey, there is some unfinished business to deal with from his past. When he encounters Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former childhood friend now victimised by the occasionally cruel Jango, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old time’s sake. But what starts off as a normal walk through empty suburban streets descends into something darker and magical as they tell each other ghost stories, drawing upon their fears of the world around them.

Boys In The Trees is the first time feature for young Melbourne director, Nicholas Verso, and while it’s a bit hit-and-miss in places, overall he’s done a cracking job. There is definitely a sense of nostalgia to Boys In The Trees that continually pokes you in the ribs while whispering, “Yes, you were that lame too when you were seventeen.” Maybe that’s what makes it slightly unbearable in places – not the direction or the acting, but the swift realisation that you are watching your own highly obnoxious teenage self, in HD.

Beyond the typical self-loathing and cringing that generally accompanies any Australian coming-of-age flick, Boys In The Trees does seem somewhat immature. And that’s not a slight at all. Verso’s work, while definitely promising, feels underdeveloped at times throughout the film, which is forgivable for a first feature. While his choices, and those of his young acting crew, are a bit iffy, there are strong glimpses of what they might one day become.

You get the impression that Verso is really trying to make his mark here. The fruit of his efforts result in something quite experimental, whereby he seems to have borrowed or reinvented new styles of narrative structure, editing, and overly cinematic storytelling. Sure, it’s great to test the boundaries and rip up the rulebook, but in the case of Boys In The Trees, Verso may have been just that bit too eager to find his voice, and he ends up getting lost in an eclectic (and at times opposing) set of styles. That said, Boys In The Trees is essentially a winner, and it will be very interesting to see Verso and his team grow into their obvious talent in the future.

 
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REVIEW: Cafe Society

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It could certainly be argued that Woody Allen has been let off too lightly for his alleged personal transgressions. When it comes to his latter-day creative endeavours, on the other hand, perhaps we should cut him some slack. The writer/director is, after all, in his eighties, and cannot reasonably be expected to turn out any more masterpieces.

In any event, he certainly hasn’t done so with Cafe Society. There is nothing disastrously wrong with it, but – apart from one interesting plot development – nor is there anything to be said in its favour. It’s just eminently forgettable and rather dull. Even the meticulous 1930s period detail, which should be a plus, is laid on so lavishly that it becomes a distraction.

The central character is Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young guy from the Bronx who heads to LA in the hope of working in Hollywood, preferably with the help of his uncle, big-shot agent, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). In next to no time, Bobby has fallen madly in love with Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). What follows is predictable and intermittently maudlin, and when it’s supposed to be funny, it isn’t. Many of the standard Allen tropes are ticked off – jazz soundtrack, visual homage to Manhattan, Jewish family banter etc – but they don’t rise above formulaic level. And speaking of ticking things off, the ongoing roll-call of famous names – actors and directors of the era – is galling in a story that purports to criticise the shallow namedropping of Tinseltown. Cafe Society is watchable, but it’s no more than that.

 
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REVIEW: Poi E: The Story Of Our Song

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Written in the ’80s by a Māori linguist and produced by a Māori singer who didn’t speak the language, the pop song, “Poi E”, would not only become the first New Zealand number one to be written in Te Reo Māori, it would be the only New Zealand record to chart for three consecutive decades. Not bad for a song written in a kitchen on an all-nighter.

This uplifting documentary from Tearepa Kahi (Mt. Zion) tells the story of Dalvanius Prime returning to New Zealand after a decade on the road supporting the likes of Tina Turner. Kahi shows a man trying to reconnect with his roots; an endeavour that would lead to his collaboration with linguist, Ngoi Pēwhairangi, herself a champion of the Māori renaissance in the ’70s. At the same time, we meet The Patea Māori Club, the social group who would be the face and voice of “Poi E.”

Dalvanius is shown to be a large hearted man who always ensured that the group were the main focus, and it’s entirely appropriate that Poi E does the same, interviewing the original members who would find themselves flying the flag of Māori pride both at home and abroad. Nana Bub and Auntie Bib, the joyful standouts in the array of talking heads that includes director Taika Waititi (Hunt For The Wilderpeople), are particularly vocal about their part in this historical cultural event. This was a time when the New Zealand charts were dominated by American artists and, of all people, Irish folk warblers, Foster and Allen.

Poi E is a loud celebration of everything that makes the song so popular, and of Māori culture itself. And whilst the film hints at the roadblocks that got in the way of their progress (predominately a lack of funding from the very people who should have been spearheading this kind of thing, like the group and Dalvanius himself), it refuses to be waylaid as it charges towards an emotional finale bursting with pride.

 
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Review: Shin Godzilla

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After the success of the recent American Godzilla film, directed by Star Wars: Rogue One main man Gareth Edwards, Japan’s venerable Toho Studios decided they too would dust off the old Kaiju for a new audience, tapping Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, veterans of the cult anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion, to direct. A new Godzilla movie from the original studio, helmed by two legends of anime? What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. Or perhaps everything goes right, but the object of the exercise is to satirise Japanese bureaucracy in a manner that is largely impenetrable to outside audiences. Shin Godzilla – or Godzilla Resurgence, depending on where you are in the world – commits the cardinal sin of a monster movie: it’s a bore.

This is a reboot, so the broad strokes of the plot should be familiar to almost everyone: a giant reptile comes rampaging out of Tokyo Bay and begins laying waste to Japan; Japan responds, destruction reigns. That’s a versatile frame on which to hang all manner of narrative detail, but Anno and Higuchi have chosen to focus on the politicking and legislative procedure that goes into mounting a response, rather than the response itself. We should be seeing a desperate rearguard action against an unstoppable monster by overwhelmed human forces; instead, most of Shin Godzilla takes place indoors as we sit through a numbing number of meetings, conferences, debates and arguments as various interests try and maneuver around a Prime Minister too scared of potential political fallout to act decisively. Our nominal hero is Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a government functionary who puts together a maverick think tank to try and solve a problem like Godzilla, but in truth there’s not much to differentiate him from the army of suits he’s surrounded by. A few slightly more colourful characters crop up, such as Satomi Ishihara’s (allegedly) American envoy, but the human cast is basically awash.

Our actual monster fares better, when we spend any time with him. The wrinkle here is that this latest Godzilla can mutate to combat environmental changes and threats, going from an aquatic form to a lizard-like, googly-eyed quadruped, to the building-flattening, fire-breathing behemoth we all know and love – except this time with more lasers. There are a couple of decent action sequences when the Japanese SDF throws their might against the beat to little effect, and it’s never not fun to see so much military hardware get creamed, but they’re really too few and far between. The effects work, which combines models, puppets and CGI, is designed to mimic the hand-crafted feel of earlier Toho giant monster epics, which is either a nice tip of the hat or grindingly old-fashioned, depending on your point of view; old fans will be charmed, but it’s hard to imagine an audience reared on a diet of seamless CGI spectacle being too impressed.

Shin Godzilla is a conga line of baffling choices. Why tell this story in this way? Why take the focus off the carnage and put it on the mechanics of government? Who the hell, to put it bluntly, thought this was a good idea? The whole exercise gets a generous mark because, hey, Godzilla, but this is definitely one of the weakest entries in the long-running series. Fans may enjoy those familiar old neural receptors being pinged once more, but don’t expect this effort to make any new converts.