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Goat: Straight Outta Sundance

One of the most controversial films at Sundance, the in-your-face Goat – starring Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer, and directed by Andrew Neel – digs into the dark subject of US college fraternity house hazing and bullying.
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London Has Fallen

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If you thought that 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen was the end point when it comes to xenophobic wish fulfilment, then think again. The loopy, goofy sequel, London Has Fallen, takes everything that was inappropriate about that smash hit, and magnifies it to even more garish extremes. The result is, well, not quite a guilty pleasure, but it’s certainly a guilty something, inadvertently painting a broad-stroke picture of American arrogance that gives the film far more import than it deserves. The action sequences are stunningly orchestrated, but there’s a sadism and sense of superiority here that is occasionally hilarious in its bold political incorrectness, but also undeniably sour in its mean spiritedness.

After saving the life of US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) in Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service hard-man, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), is now eyeing off a career change so he can avoid being killed and be a good husband and father to his wife, Leah (Radha Mitchell), and their unborn child. But when the British Prime Minister dies, Banning accompanies President Asher to London, where hell soon breaks volcanically loose. With vengeance minded Middle Eastern arms dealer, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul ), pulling the strings in retaliation for the US drone bombing that killed his on-the-way-to-the-altar daughter and all of her wedding guests, London is soon under attack, with terrorists jumping up out of nowhere to kill off the visiting world’s leaders, and anyone else who might be in the way. But the man that they really want is President Benjamin Asher, who they plan to behead live online. Their problem? Mike Banning is a barn-storming, Bruce Willis-style badass, and he has other ideas about how things are going to pan out.

With insensitivity the order of the day, London Has Fallen merely uses the wholesale destruction of the English capitol (where all of the free world’s leaders – thankfully, Australia is not represented, obviously not really deemed a major player by the US – get gruesomely assassinated) as a curtain raiser for the big show – namely, the survival of the US President. It’s hard to imagine any American citizen making jokes straight after 9/11, but that’s exactly what happens here; as London burns and its population bleeds (and a cast of acting heavyweights – including Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, and Colin Salmon – is criminally under used), the tough talking Mike Banning and the too-good-to-be-true President Asher set off on something akin to a boys’ own adventure, mowing down terrorists (Banning blasts more bad guys in London Has Fallen than Clint Eastwood did Nazis in Where Eagles Dare) and cracking jokes about their driving skills. Admittedly, Mike Banning is an hilariously balls-to-the-wall character, for whom even taking a drink of water is an act of war. “I don’t know about you,” he growls to President Asher in a rare moment of post-violence repose, “but I’m thirsty as FUCK!” Banning’s full-tilt machismo is gut-bustingly over-the-top, but its cruel and xenophobic edges (“Why don’t you fuck off back to Fuckheadistan,” he seethes before dispatching a bad guy) cut a little too deep, no matter how many scenes show him being all doe-eyed with his pregnant missus.

Disturbingly, London Has Fallen constructs a number of buffers to sneakily allow this kind of rampaging trash talking into the film’s deliriously hyper-aggressive mix. Crucially, the villain here is not a Muslim fundamentalist terrorist, but rather an angry arms dealer with an axe to grind who supplies Muslim fundamentalist terrorists with weapons, setting up a kind of apolitical playground that uses current real world terrorist horrors to make the metaphorical swings go higher and the slides dip steeper. It’s a cynical cloaking device, as is – at the risk of defamation – the hiring of Iranian-born Babak Najafi (Sebbe, Easy Money II: Hard To Kill) to direct. While his skills as an action point-man are beyond reproach, you can’t help but wonder if the film’s producers thought that having a Middle Eastern-born filmmaker at the helm might smooth over the cracks wrought by the borderline offensive antics in which the film so gleefully indulges.

While it starts off as a taut, straight-from-the-headlines thriller, London Has Fallen eventually devolves into a giddy, cartoonish fantasy, where the world’s complex problems can be solved with a punch to the face and a follow-up wisecrack. It’s as unashamedly gung-ho as wrong-headed 1980s actioners like Invasion USA, Rambo III, and Red Dawn, but without the benefit of the softening passage of time. When you feel yourself enjoying the propulsive, excitingly staged London Has Fallen, it’s decidedly more difficult to feel good about it.

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Great Australian Directorial Debuts

With Simon Stone making an auspicious behind-the-camera debut with this week’s The Daughter, here’s 12 other highly impressive first films from some of Australia’s best directors.
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10 Cloverfield Lane

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Cloverfield was an appealing, albeit slightly forgettable, found footage monster romp from 2008. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, it showcased Reeves’ talent for staging elaborate but coherent set pieces, and Abrams’ love of mystery box filmmaking and keeping audiences guessing.

10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, is a small scale, mostly single-location thriller set in a doomsday bunker, produced, again, by J.J. Abrams, and directed by first timer, Dan Trachtenberg. So what’s the connection between the two films? Is this a sequel or a prequel or another story set in the same universe? Quite honestly, it’s probably better if we don’t tell you the answer to that question, as 10 Cloverfield Lane’s best moments have nothing to do with Cloverfield.

The elegant, almost Hitchcockian, premise has Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waking up after a bad car accident in a small underground bunker. She’s occupying the space with her apparent jailer, Howard (John Goodman), and pleasant-seeming young man, Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.). Howard tells her that the world above has been rendered uninhabitable by an “attack” from forces unknown. Emmet confirms this, but Michelle is unsure what has truly happened and who to believe.

The next ninety or so minutes showcase mounting tension, solid character moments, and a pleasingly pacey story that belies the lack of location changes. All three actors are on the top of their respective games, with Goodman providing a particularly effective turn as the paranoid but fascinating Howard, and Winstead proving that she has genuine acting chops. The story culminates in what is an almost perfect ending…but then it keeps going. It’s like watching a wonderful Twilight Zone episode with a staggering conclusion dribble on for another interminable ten minutes of schlock. It’s a pity that such an unexpectedly effective thriller is so profoundly undone by a tonally disparate denouement. If, however, you can forgive its dud final note, there’s a lot of fun to be had with 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Dan Trachtenberg is clearly a director to watch, especially if given a project that isn’t part of a pre-existing property.

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This isn’t one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s more ambitious projects, but it is one of his (intermittently) funniest. There’s very little political satire or iconoclasm, though, to be fair, the opportunity for that diminished once he became a known public figure with Borat and Bruno, and thus incapable of such effective disguise.

In Grimsby, Baron Cohen plays Carl “Nobby” Butcher, a father of nine, a chronic boozer, and a somehow quite likeable football hooligan. Nobby lives in the godforsaken northern fishing town of Grimsby (“Twin City To Chernobyl”), and has not seen his beloved younger brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), for 28 years. Sebastian, for his part, has become a ruthlessly efficient assassin in MI6’s Black Ops division, and the scene that first shows him in full James Bond mode is a manic exercise in visual excess and breathless pace. Events conspire, largely through a horrific debacle at a London charity summit, to reunite the two siblings and place them in various very dangerous situations.

The action (and there’s rather a lot of it, courtesy of genre specialist, Louis Leterrier, who has helmed the likes of The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Clash Of The Titans, and Now You See Me) unfolds not only in England, but also in South Africa and Chile. The slapstick elements are predictably tedious, but some of the sick jokes are funny…and surely few jokes could “out-sick” the likes of, “I’m gettin’ stiffer than a pedo at Legoland.” AIDS and blocked toilets are grist for the comic mill here too, and on a more subtle but equally contentious level, so are working class stereotypes. Grimsby is a lot of fun in its determinedly tasteless way. And it’s safe to say that you’ll never forget what will no doubt be referred to from now on as The Elephant Scene…as much as you might wish to.