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REVIEW: Lights Out

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Fear of the dark is one of the most relatable terrors that most of us have experienced at one time or another. It’s the basis for countless horror movies and, done well, still manages to provide tension and goosebumps. Lights Out seeks to capitalise on those fears but only sporadically succeeds in doing so.

All the ingredients are in place to make Lights Out a cracking horror yarn. The story is based on first time feature director, David F. Sandberg’s much-loved (and viewed) 2013 short film of the same name. Aussie horror maestro, James Wan, is on board in a producing capacity, which lends the project some genre cred.

The story involves a family secret that begins to unravel as Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) becomes increasingly concerned that her brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is falling afoul of her mother, Sophie’s (Maria Bello) increasingly erratic behaviour. Said behaviour is much more than mere mental illness, however, and involves a childhood friend of Sophie’s named Diana who is the very definition of a bad influence. Without getting too specific, Diana can only exist in the dark – leading to some extremely clever sequences in which light is used during tense games of cat and mouse between various characters and Diana. The problem is, despite quality actresses like Maria Bello, none of the characters are terribly interesting, representing unconvincing archetypes (the bad girl, the crazy mum, the precocious kid) rather than feeling like fleshed out human beings.

This sense of blandness sadly extends to most of the action between jump scares too, with TV quality, over lit direction killing any genuine sense of atmosphere. Sandberg’s noisy jump scare scenes are a little more effective, with solid jolts along the way, but they’re all a bit familiar, and are unlikely to linger long after the film ends. At a slender 81 minutes, Lights Out certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s good to see a fresh horror property that isn’t a remake, reboot, or sequel. Ultimately, however, the experience is a rather pedestrian one and unlikely to leave you needing to sleep with the lights on.

 
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Drown

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Under a pitch black sky, three inebriated men lie on a deserted beach: Len (Matt Levett) and his mate, Meat (Harry Cook), and their almost comatose acquaintance, Phil (Jack Matthews). Len has reached a crossroads in his life, and something bad is going to happen to Phil, but what it is will not be disclosed straight away. This is the harrowing start of Drown.

Directed by Dean Francis, and co-written with Stephen Davis, this is the tale of Len – proud volunteer lifeguard and even prouder all-Australian bloke. He drinks, he fights, and he likes his men to be men. Aside from a few flashbacks to his rather aggressive childhood, there’s very little given away about Len’s life outside of the lifeguard tower. Anytime we’re not at the beach, Francis bleaches the colour out of Len’s life. All of which emphasises how much this insular world means to him. When Phil enters that world as a newbie lifeguard, Len develops a fixation on him based solely around Phil’s homosexuality.

Drown has a lot to say about sexual identity and masculinity. Len is clearly in denial about the former and overcompensates on the latter, leading to violent outbursts that have plagued him since childhood. His reasons for trying to pick apart Phil are obvious, but not enough to dull his actions. There is, unfortunately, an element of voyeurism in Len’s victimisation of Phil that feels exploitative, and threatens to taint the overall product. Equally, some dialogue clangs when it should ring true; a discussion about foreskins seems oddly out of place in the context of the scene that it’s in. And yet, at a time when “Gay Panic” laws are still prevalent in some states of Australia, Drown’s themes are particularly potent, and will certainly open up a discourse about some people’s fear of male intimacy.

Drown will be screening through August and September in a number of special Q&A events. For all information and venue information, head to the film’s official website.

 
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REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

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It’s an interesting time for Star Trek. With the science fiction franchise celebrating a half-century since beaming into American living rooms via the latest cathode ray tube technology, the little-sci-fi-who-could has amassed an impressive six television series (yes, we are including the animated series) culminating in 523 hours of sci-fi glory with an all-new anthology series from Hannibal showrunner, Bryan Fuller, premiering in 2017. But while hardcore fans might argue that Trek’s rightful place is on the small screen, the franchise in recent years has found new life theatrically thanks to J.J. Abrams, whose reboot of the Star Trek universe in 2011 opened up both the mythology and the relevance of a series heavily steeped in nostalgia.

And that’s where Star Trek Beyond does well in paying tribute to the past fifty years, by deftly questioning its own relevance in today’s cinematic landscape via introspective character arcs that hold their own against the onslaught of visual effects, protracted action sequences, and a ball-tearing soundscape oddly, but effectively headlined by The Beastie Boys classic tune “Sabotage.”

Avoiding spoilers, Star Trek Beyond picks up three years into the crew’s five-year mission of exploring deep space, quickly establishing a burnt out crew going through the motions. But when the Enterprise, heading out from the Federation’s shiny new space station on a search and rescue mission, is attacked and destroyed, Kirk and his team, including a feisty alien castaway by the name of Jaylah, find themselves facing an enemy hell-bent on tearing apart the ideals of the Federation itself.

As with most Star Trek movies, on paper the synopsis seems simple enough, but the beauty of Star Trek has always been its ability to touch on big social themes, and Star Trek Beyond is no exception, tackling the current social and political divides between liberals and conservatives, the theology of terrorism, and, of course, the stalwart Star Trek mantra of acceptance, tolerance, and inevitable change.

Helmed by Justin Lin, whose directorial efforts on Fast And Furious saw that franchise reach new heights, Star Trek Beyond delivers a bold, entertaining spectacle designed to push the rebooted franchise into new territory. But the film isn’t without its flaws, most notably in Idris Elba’s protagonist, Krall, who has all the attributes of being a superb villain, but the actor frustratingly isn’t given the opportunity to truly engage with the role. Thankfully though, Star Trek Beyond has far more wins than losses thanks in part to Simon Pegg’s handling of the script, which is peppered with very funny moments (including the film’s opening scene) and which honours the franchise’s fifty-year milestone with numerous nuanced references to past films and characters, including the now controversial outing of Sulu and a subtle homage to the original cast.

 
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REVIEW: Ghostbusters

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One of the many unfortunate pieces of fallout from the hugely negative response received by the Ghostbusters reboot prior to its release (and, indeed, prior to its actual completion) is that any positive critical response to the film must instantly be framed as a form of defence, likely to lead with something like, “You know what? It’s actually not that bad.” Sometimes it’s near impossible to look at a movie just as a movie, ignoring any outside influence, and this is one of those occasions. In fact, the film itself even references the peal of internet horror that met its announcement, ending with the words, “That’s not that terrible, isn’t it?”, amongst other things.

But considering the rolling wave of remakes and reboots that has come crashing in over the last decade or so, why was the re-engineering of Ghostbusters so utterly maligned? You could write thousands of words about possible sexism and the like, but to cut right to the chase here, the Ghostbusters reboot never looked that bad to begin with. And to all those who cried “rape” (and yes, there were many) over what the new film would do to their childhood memories, where were they when Terminator Genisys and 21 Jump Street were making a mockery out of their source material? Probably standing around like all the guys in The Accused, either ignoring it or egging it on.

Yay for Chris Hemsworth!

Yay for Chris Hemsworth!

Compared to those films and many others, Ghostbusters is a loving, affectionate, and wholly respectful new take on a much loved property, in this case Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original about a quartet of paranormal investigators. To back that up, every major cast member from the original Ghostbusters drops by for a cameo (apart from the apparently retired Rick Moranis and the late Harold Ramis, who is, however, sweetly and amusingly referenced), including the perennially grumpy Bill Murray. And while the tone of the film and the gags might be different (there wasn’t a queefing joke in the original, was there?), director, Paul Feig, and co-writer, Katie Dippold (who previously worked together on The Heat), maintain the loose, freewheeling vibe of the original, along with its loopy supernatural swing.

The four new Ghostbusters – Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon – have a snappy, amusing chemistry, and nearly all of their gags (many of them seemingly improvised) hit the mark with gusto. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile (as their weird, sweet, none-too-bright but strangely self-satisfied receptionist, Kevin), is a true delight, sending himself up with comic aplomb. While their comic repartee gets a little lost in the film’s extended messy, CGI-heavy climax, it’s this group of fine comic performers that so effectively anchor proceedings. They’re the main mix in making the occasionally wobbly but always entertaining Ghostbusters so much fun. And for the many doubters out there, there’s even a post-credits sequel hook, so get ready to once again bombard the comments section of your favourite websites with caps-heavy vitriol…

 
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REVIEW: Demolition

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After losing his wife in a car crash, financier Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) also begins to lose his grip on his life. Fixating on a hospital vending machine that malfunctioned shortly after his wife’s death, Davis writes a rambling letter of complaint to the vending machine company, using it as a way to narrate his loss and confusion. This brings him into the lives of the company’s customer service manager, single mother Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) and her rebellious teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis). As Davis’ increasingly erratic behaviour angers his grieving father-in-law and employer (Chris Cooper) and undermines the foundations of his old life, he begins to see the possibility of a new life with Karen and Chris, but still he wrestles with a question he can’t answer: did he love his wife, or was he just going through the motions?

That’s a fairly rambling precis, but Demolition is a fairly rambling film that follows its central character through an erratic course of grief and self-discovery replete with quirky characters, seemingly unnecessary side-trips, fantasy sequences, an unreliable narrator,  and the odd narrative non-sequitur. It does all come together, mind you, but for a while there, even while it’s enjoyable, it does seem like it’s ticking boxes in the Indie Dramedy Playbook. Comparisons to American Beauty are not uncalled for, especially when Chris Cooper is right there to reinforce them.

What elevates Demolition, though, is the strength of the performances animating it. Gyllenhaal once again demonstrates that he is one of the best actors of his generation, taking Davis on a believable course from numbness and alienation to catharsis. He finds solace in destruction, first taking apart objects that take his fancy – a fridge, light fittings, a computer – then volunteering for a demolition crew before realising that what he really wants to take apart is his life. Naomi Watts does subtler work; Karen is not a manic pixie dream girl dropped into the narrative to show our sad hero a better way of living, but a weary single mum doing her level best to keep treading water and smoking pot to take the edge off what is, even if it’s not explicitly stated, a stressful and unfulfilling existence. The MVP, however, is Judah Lewis as Chris: an angry, surly, foul-mouthed, classic rock loving, sexually confused kid who jumpstarts the film with his every appearance. The relationship between Davis and Chris is poignant and believable, moving from hostility to trust over the course of the film, and is arguably more central to the story than that between Davis and Karen. Lewis carries it with seemingly effortless aplomb.

Ultimately, Demolition is an incredibly humane film. It does not judge its characters, and it refuses to have villains; Chris Cooper’s grieving Master of the Universe could easily have been turned a few degrees to become a bad guy, but instead we’re allowed to see that he’s simply carrying a load of crushing grief as best he can. Even Karen’s boss/boyfriend (CJ Wilson), shown as something of an oaf with a tribal tattoo and, incongruously, a Joy Division t-shirt, is marked as a decent if un-self-aware man. Depicting but not judging life’s walking wounded seems to be director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) raison d’être, and Demolition is another solid entry in that line.

 
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REVIEW: Sing Street

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This film has been touted as “like The Commitments, only with better music”, which even if true would be damning with faint praise. In reality though, it’s even more corny, predictable, and inane than The Commitments, and the music is far worse. That aspect is admittedly a matter of taste, and no doubt open to debate if you liked New Romantic bands and electro-pop the first time round, and think that those halcyon days should be revisited.

The setting is Dublin in 1985, and 15-year-old Connor “Cosmo” Lawler (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is going through a rough patch, as indeed – economically – is most of Ireland. His parents’ marriage is on the rocks, and he’s moved to a Christian Brothers school where bullies and a brutish headmaster prevail. But, in the not-so-grand tradition of pop melodramas ever since the fifties, plucky Connor dreams of escape through music and of winning the heart of a pretty girl (aspiring model, Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton). And so, inspired (if that’s the word) by the likes of Duran Duran, he forms a “futurist” band with a bunch of other kids, and enlists another one to fulfil the dual roles of manager and producer. Connor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor, the only halfway decent actor in the film) eggs him on with platitudinous remarks like, “Rock’n’roll is risk.”

What ensues is leaden, progressively more saccharine, and often unbelievable. Most of the players are miscast, none of the characters are especially well-drawn, and when they’re supposed to be rebellious, they’re less credible still. Avoid at all costs.

 
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Swiss Army Man

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Film critics love it when movies have off-the-wall, absurdist plots like Swiss Army Man. It gives the writer license to make glib, hacky bon mots like, “If you only see one curiously uplifting, farting Harry Potter corpse movie this year… make sure it’s this one!” In the case of Swiss Army Man, however, there is pleasure beyond the premise, and depth that belies the absurdity.

The film opens as Hank (Paul Dano), marooned on a deserted island and desperately alone, prepares to hang himself. Just as he attempts to do so (poorly), a corpse, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), washes up on the beach and begins farting. He farts an awful lot. Propulsively so. Within five minutes of fart-based awkwardness, Hank rides Manny’s bottom-burping body like a human jet ski to escape the island and launch into further adventures.

This all happens before the opening title card, so as you’re watching the movie, you’re thinking, “Sure, that’s funny and weird, but where do they go from here?” Without spoiling what occurs later in the piece, quite a lot happens, and it’s strangely moving and occasionally wonderful. Manny has many useful, supernatural abilities, and as Hank makes his way through the woods, searching for civilisation, he even begins to talk. The conversations between Hank and Manny make up the heart of Swiss Army Man, as Manny’s innocent queries about life, death, love, masturbation, and farts all have a whimsically allegorical quality without becoming overly twee or heavy-handed.

The performances from both leads are superb, which helps lend gravitas to the more bizarre occurrences. Dano, in particular, does some of his finest work, at times sympathetic or just plain pathetic, but always likeable. Radcliffe takes a huge risk with this role, and it pays off: Manny is an inspired performance and an unforgettable character. Helping the tone of farty fairy tale fun are directors, Daniels – Scheinert and Kwan – who keep the pace energetic and the tone buoyant. Swiss Army Man doesn’t so much embrace absurdity as it takes absurdity behind the bike sheds and pashes it for 95 solid minutes. It’s a slight but utterly compelling tale that charms and surprises in equal measure. So when we say the following, understand that we mean it sincerely and without irony: If you only see one curiously uplifting, farting Harry Potter corpse movie this year… make sure it’s Swiss Army Man.

 
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REVIEW: Our Kind Of Traitor

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This thriller kicks off (more or less) in Marrakesh, where youngish married couple, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), are on holiday. Perry meets a charismatic and extroverted tough guy called Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) in a bar, and the plot thickens immediately. Dima, it soon emerges, is the (extremely wealthy) principal money-launderer for the Russian mafia in London, and proceeds to lavishly entertain and bond with Perry. He also has a not-so-small favour to ask of him: take a memory stick back to England with him and deliver it to MI6.

Even at this point, you might have supposed that the somewhat ingenuous Perry – who teaches poetry at a university – might have wondered whether he was entering dangerous territory, and baulked at Dima’s request. But of course he doesn’t do that, or there’d be no story, and so the increasingly dramatic action unfolds in its labyrinthine way across England, France, and Switzerland.

Our Kind Of Traitor is very uneven, and parts of it – especially toward the end – are simultaneously predictable and implausible. There are glaring gaps in the exposition – presumably carried over from John Le Carre’s original novel – and it’s pretty generic spy fare. But, all that said, it’s also very watchable and a rollicking good yarn. There are effectively jarring moments, and it looks great in a travelogue kind of way, making striking use of its famous locations. Ewan McGregor isn’t bad in an atypically vulnerable if heroic role, but the biggest plus is Stellan Skarsgard, who has presence to burn.

 
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Adventures Of A Happy Homeless Man

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In this low budget film from filmmaker, Dicky Tanuwidjaya (The Devil’s 6 Commandments), a documentary crew shadows a homeless man, Rafael aka Bobo The Hobo (Felino Dolloso), as he waxes philosophically, and interacts with people from all walks of life, including politicians, musicians and drug dealers.

On the surface, the sparse plot sees our Happy Homeless Man trying his hand at literally anything that comes his way – from playing rock guitar in a band through to auditioning for a gay drama – all whilst eyeing up opportunities to have sex. But underneath his dreadlocks and IMAX 3D glasses, there’s the inkling that, despite the title’s insistence, Rafael isn’t as happy as he makes out. Talking heads with his ex-wife and friends reveal a man who lost it all and has never tried to get it back. Like David Brent in The Office, there’s a suggestion that the presence of the cameras never allows Rafael to be his true self, but that’s okay with him. Rafael wants everyone, including his ex-wife, to know that everything is going just the way he planned.

Lying to save face or project a certain façade becomes the theme of the film, as the people that Rafael interacts with – and equally frustrates – often turn out to be hiding their true selves, from the cocaine dealer who really deals flour, to the wannabe actress who only helps Rafael when there’s something in it for her. Like a feel-good Bad Boy Bubby, Rafael’s approach to the world, as grating as he can be, reveals something in others which ultimately leads to his own vindication. Whilst a little scattershot in its approach, treated as an anthology with Dolloso as the through-line, Adventures Of A Happy Homeless Man wears its heart on its sleeve and proves itself with a surprisingly emotional finale.

 
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REVIEW: The Legend Of Tarzan

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Like Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Elizabeth Bennet, every generation gets their own Tarzan. And now, after a long line of iterations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic character (who has been played by everyone from Johnny Weissmuller and Ron Ely through to Christopher Lambert, Casper Van Dien and Travis Fimmel) comes The Legend Of Tarzan, a mostly winning combination of traditional storytelling and often very ropey CGI. And while regular Harry Potter helmer, David Yates, exhibits a largely steady hand (despite exhibiting a bizarre predilection for Sergio Leone-level close-ups), the success of the film can be placed squarely upon the shoulders of its Tarzan and Jane, with Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie bringing, respectively, bundles of soulfulness and sass to their roles. Even as things spin occasionally out of control around them, their sizzling chemistry and romantic authenticity provide the film with a much needed emotional anchor.

Bravely shrugging off the stifling weight of the classic “origin tale” format, The Legend Of Tarzan opens with the eponymous boy-raised-in-the-jungles-of-Africa now a man restored to his rightful place as an English aristocrat and answering to his birth name of John Clayton. The Africa where he was raised by apes after the death of his shipwrecked parents is now a strong but distant memory, though Jane – the daughter of an Africa-loving professor – remains very much by his side. But the call of the jungle echoes strongly for them both, and when a plot involving the insidiously colonialist King Leopold of Belgium – who’s plundering The Congo via his ruthless right hand man, Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz, whose now trademark brand of unctuous, oily villainy is in danger of seeing the double Oscar winner sorely and irreparably stereotyped) – provides them with an opportunity to return to their spiritual home, husband and wife are on the first boat to Africa.

Christoph Waltz in The Legend Of Tarzan

Christoph Waltz in The Legend Of Tarzan

Though always entertaining and engaging, The Legend Of Tarzan suffers from a case of cinematic split personality disorder. Tonally, the film is dark, brooding, and serious (but not without moments of levity), commenting intelligently on issues like imperialism, slavery, and environmental impact, and showing (via flashback) Tarzan’s jungle upbringing to be brutal and horrifying. Screenwriters, Craig Brewer (the writer/director of Hustle & Flow and the Footloose remake) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), also further ground the film by weaving real life historical figures through the narrative: King Leopold’s rape of The Congo is infamous, and Waltz’ evil Leon Rom is based upon the monarch’s real life district commissioner in the region, who was actually far worse than his on-screen representation here, allegedly keeping the severed heads of African natives in his flower bed.

And while he functions here as little more than a slow paced sidekick for Tarzan (usually loping into frame out of breath just as the action starts to heat up), Samuel L. Jackson’s George Washington Williams is based upon the real life American Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer on African-American history who was the first to blow the whistle on King Leopold’s abuses in The Congo. It’s heady stuff (Williams deserves his own film!), and though all of this grim history is considerably watered down here, it gives The Legend Of Tarzan an undeniable kick.

Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend Of Tarzan

Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend Of Tarzan

All of this, however, only makes the more fantastical elements of the story – Tarzan being able to commune with all of the jungle’s creatures; his near super-human strength; his ability to cause an apocalyptic jungle stampede at will – feel even more absurd and out of place. Yes, they’re essential elements of the Tarzan legend, but a little more savviness and subtlety around their inclusion would have made for a more cohesive film. Coupled with some truly awful CGI work (the film’s climactic set piece is punctuated with amateur-level visual beats), they trip the film up, but never tilt it toward a fall. The epic sweep of the story, the breakneck pacing, the thrilling location visuals, and the rock-solid turns of the highly engaging Alexander Skarsgard (has any human ever been more impressively striated?) and Margot Robbie (who brings real grit and sweetness to her now ironically cliched definitely-not-a-damsel-in-distress character) keep this impressive cinematic beast running, jumping, and vine-swinging with an assured sense of authority.