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Weiner

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Two years after he was forced to resign from Congress following a sexting scandal, politician Anthony Weiner attempted to revive his career by throwing his hat into the New York City mayoral race. Weiner made the bold choice of inviting a film crew to document what he hopes will be his redemption, and it all seemed to be going swimmingly until… oops, he did it again.

A young woman, Sydney Leathers, revealed to the media that she’d had a long-running online sexual relationship with Weiner long after he said his transgressions had stopped. With his campaign up against it and his personal life under incredible scrutiny, Weiner made the decision to let filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg continue to shoot. The result is never less that fascinating.

Weiner plays out like a Greek tragedy – a story of a hero (in the Classical sense of the word) brought down by a fatal, inescapable internal flaw. Make no mistake, Anthony Weiner is an incredible politician, and it’s easy to see his career arc taking him to the White House, if you excise all the horrible things he’s done. He’s passionate, driven, intelligent, articulate, charismatic… and he has no apprehension of the kind of damage he’s doing to the people around him, not just by philandering, but by insisting on continuing to work in the public eye after he’s caught out.

Which brings us to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife. A confidante of Hillary Clinton, Abedin is a political animal just like her husband, standing by him when he admits his wrongdoing (just like her mentor did, in point of fact – the parallels to the Clintons are inescapable, and in fact Bill officiated at the Weiner-Abedin wedding). However, as the film progresses and Weiner’s campaign implodes, the camera frequently seeks out Abedin standing in the background while Weiner keeps the wheels spinning on centre stage. More than any full-blown argument or confrontation we see between the two – and there are plenty – her beaten expression when she thinks she’s not being observed is heartbreaking. It also adds complexity to the proceedings; it’s one thing to derive schadenfreude from seeing a crusader with feet of clay get hoist on his own petard, but it’s quite another to see his family get caught in the splash zone. Interestingly, Weiner and Abedin are still married.

We’re also forced to ask ourselves whether all this media muckraking was really in the public interest at all. The film  never lets Weiner himself off the hook, but it does make us consider the sheer debilitating weight of the media scrutiny he and his family were under, and examine our assumed role as moral arbiters in the broader culture. Is there a line between the personal and the professional, the private and the public anymore? Weiner courts the media as a politician, and even invites it into his inner circle in the form of the documentary film crew, but does he then still get to demarcate certain parts of his life as off limits, or is everything up for grabs? What sins are forgivable in the the media panopticon, and what must be atoned for forever?

There are, of course, not pat answers. Weiner is a great film, taking a complex and balanced look at a scenario that could have been depicted as one long, rolling punchline. As a portrait of a flawed individual and an unblinking look at the intersection between the media and the political machine, it’s a triumph.

 
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REVIEW: Jason Bourne

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It’s been nearly ten years since Matt Damon punched, kicked, stabbed, and shot his way through a Bourne movie, and in the latest installment, Jason Bourne (which sounds almost like a statement of intent), he certainly makes up for lost time, opening the film by knocking a guy out cold, and then never letting up from there. With Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips, United 91) once again at the helm, Jason Bourne locks instantly into its predecessors’ shaky-cam-induced sense of urgency, while boasting a wholly contemporary subtext, with references to Edward Snowden, personal privacy, and the insidious possibilities of the internet as frequent as the car chases and gun play. With brutish forcefulness, Greengrass and Damon seem to be stating in no uncertain terms that they’re back because the time is right for a Jason Bourne movie, and not because the pay cheque was too irresistible.

As Jason Bourne opens, Matt Damon’s once amnesiac former government operative is still on the run, and now making his living as a bareknuckle fighter. But when he is contacted by his friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – who is now working for a WikiLeaks-style group of hacker activists – with more details about his foggy past, Bourne is once again drawn into the world of the CIA and its various sub-agencies, and on the run for his life. This time, his chief adversaries are Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA director, Robert Dewey; Vincent Cassel’s unnamed assassin; and Alicia Vikander’s CIA tech agent, Heather Lee; all of whom are tied in with a pioneering software entrepreneur played by Riz Ahmed. As with all of the previous Bourne films, the stakes are high, the action is full-tilt, and Matt Damon grounds it all with his renowned soulfulness and likeability.

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So yes, Jason Bourne is, well, very much a Jason Bourne movie. It connects with the previous films (though little is made of the events of the excellent Jeremy Renner-starring spin-off, The Bourne Legacy) while still striking out in new directions, and is peppered with highlights. Oscar winner, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), is teriffic as a very millennial brand of CIA agent, her icy exterior occasionally cracking to reveal the nervy rookie underneath; Tommy Lee Jones puts a different spin on his famed cantankerous schtick; and the film’s constant nods to today’s hi-tech world and its inherent dangers are intelligently and seamlessly woven into the narrative.

But despite the thrilling action sequences, Jason Bourne lacks a little punch. The absence of ship-jumping screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (who worked on the scripts for all of the other films, and directed The Bourne Legacy), is keenly felt, and the sharp pithiness that he injected into his dialogue (as well as his keen facility for narrative immediacy) isn’t replicated by Greengrass and the series’ regular editor, Christopher Rouse, who makes his screenwriting debut here. Vincent Cassel, meanwhile, isn’t given nearly enough to do with his bad guy role, and wasting an actor of his enviable gifts is borderline criminal. But as a continuation of a truly superior action franchise, Jason Bourne is a rock-solid success: it might not soar, but it certainly flies.

 
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REVIEW: The Killing Joke

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The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot graphic novel written by beardy wordsmith, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta) and impeccably drawn by Brian Bolland (2000AD, Judge Dredd). Despite the fact that it’s almost three decades old, The Killing Joke remains one of the most iconic, memorable, and controversial comics ever printed by DC. The story focuses on Batman’s attempt to try and connect with The Joker, to make him stop his escalating madness before either or both of them are dead. The Joker, meanwhile, has something very different in mind: to prove to Batman that everyone is just “one bad day” away from chaos and insanity.

It’s a dense, dark read, featuring Moore’s signature heavy, layered dialogue, and containing truly disturbing sequences, including implied sexual violence and the crippling of a major Batman character. It’s also very static, with a lot of talk and not much action, so when the animated movie was announced, it seemed a baffling choice for adaptation.

The good news is that the end result is a quality animated movie. A large part of the credit needs to go to Mark Hamill, whose turn as The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham Asylum games is followed up here with his best performance to date. Hamill positively relishes Moore’s dark, pun-heavy monologues, and digs into them with gusto. He’s so good, in fact, that Kevin Conroy’s Batman can’t help but feel a little bland by comparison. The rest of the voice cast comprises Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and they both provide solid performances.

The Killing Joke is at its best when it’s a straight adaptation. Unfortunately, because the graphic novel is quite short, an additional 15-minute Batgirl-heavy prologue is added, and while it’s nice to see Batgirl in action, it smacks a little of filler. The prologue also features an attempt to recontextualise the relationship between Batman and Batgirl that will no doubt prove polarising, to say the least. That said, Batgirl offers a brief ray of sunshine in a story that takes place over a very dark night.

Presentation-wise, the animation is fine, but the art style never really captures Bolland’s intricate, mesmerising lines. The story is well executed, but like a lot of Moore’s work, it reads better on the page. In terms of the much-touted “R rating” (which translates as MA in Australia), the film is quite disturbing and violent, but nothing terribly envelope pushing. Ultimately, The Killing Joke is a solid, if unspectacular, adaptation of the source material. It’s worth watching for Mark Hamill’s performance alone, and a new way to experience one of comic history’s most enduring and infamous stories.

The Killing Joke will screen on July 24 only at cinemas around Australia. Check online to find a theatre near you.

 
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Hitchcock/Truffaut

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Hitchcock/Truffaut sounds like one of those quaint film titles where two people meet – as in Frost/Nixon, for example – and the odd juxtaposition provides the rationale of the film. In a superficial sense, this film has some of that dynamic. This one, however, is a feature length documentary about two iconic filmmakers. Francois Truffaut was part of the “New Wave” in French cinema in the 1960s. Via publications like Cahiers Du Cinema, he and fellow travellers such as Jean Luc Godard set out their manifesto and their canon of greats to follow. They resurrected a certain interpretation of the Hollywood western (Howard Hawks and John Ford mainly) and, of course, they worshipped Alfred Hitchcock.

When Truffaut was only in his mid-twenties, he wrote a scholarly book about Hitchcock’s films. By the time that Truffaut had made a couple of promising films himself (including his important calling card, The 400 Blows), he invited Hitch into the long filmed interview that is the substance of this film. The occasion was filmed in black and white with the two men sitting around a big table. Most of it is conducted in English. It is clear that Truffaut is somewhat in the position of the acolyte, but Hitch takes his questions seriously, and you can also tell that he is enjoying sparring with such an intelligent interlocutor.

Quite appropriately, this documentary is directed by a film critic too. Kent Jones is a well-known writer about film. He has also gained access to a number of contemporary filmmakers, who each bring their own thoughts to the question of Hitchcock’s style and how it influenced cinema and their work. Jones has been careful to balance French and American views as befits the topic. It is a pretty impressive list of contemporary directors, with Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader from the American side, and Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas from France. Each one of these directors could be the subject an interesting documentary themselves.

That said, Hitchcock/Truffaut may not have the widest appeal, although Jones clearly loves his topic, and is in a perfect position to understand it. The film has played successfully on the festival circuit. In the end, it is really talking heads. In regard to the famous interview, there is not much that you can do with the way it is filmed. There is no chance, for example, to have each of them apart reflecting on what the meeting was like. Still, for students of cinema and storytelling technique, there are nice dissections of famous sets ups and sequences from Hitch’s classics. It is not a put down to say that this is delightful viewing, but mostly for those of us who are invested in the cineaste world.

 
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Love And Friendship

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Based on Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan, this is a moderately successful adaptation, but one which somehow combines a breathless pace with intermittent flatness and staginess. We’re introduced immediately to a ridiculously large number of characters, replete with information overload via explanatory captions…albeit witty ones: one girl’s optimistic suitor is summed up as “her unintended.”

This story is all about social ambition, connivance, and trickery. At the centre of the Machiavellian maelstrom is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a particularly grasping and acquisitive character, whom we are apparently invited to find amusing and more or less likeable. Lady Susan is especially insensitive and spiteful to her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and has sent her away – hopefully permanently – while she herself leaves London and descends on wealthy rural in-laws with a view to negotiating a new marriage and a fortune. “Unfortunately”, Frederica turns up, and is pursued by the lively but amiable buffoon, Sir James Martin (a funny Tom Bennett). Lady Susan herself has designs on handsome young Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). And so it goes on.

Love And Friendship does improve a bit, and certainly passes muster at the level of chocolate-boxy escapism. But most of the pleasure here is verbal rather than visual, inevitably so when dialogue is lifted pretty faithfully from the great Jane Austen. A husband is dismissed as “too old to be governable, too young to die”, while Lady Susan reacts to the news that a friend will be leaving England for Connecticut with the words, “You could be scalped!” Mildly diverting.

 
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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.