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REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse

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Continuing the current trend of stacked-to-the-top superhero movies jam-packed full of characters and driven by snaking, complex narratives, X-Men: Apocalypse is an even bigger affair than the series’ previous entry, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, which incorporated time travel and ingeniously melded the two strands of the X-Men franchise. Topping that massive but finely calibrated epic would be a big ask, and while director, Bryan Singer, doesn’t quite get there with X-Men: Apocalypse, he does deliver another fine chapter in the continuing X-Men saga, achieving the same mix of action, character, social comment, and mythology that has made these superhero movies so popular…and so good.

Set in the eighties – several years after the cataclysmic events of X-Men: Days Of Future Past revealed the existence of super-powered mutants to the world at large – X-Men: Apocalypse kicks off with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) seemingly at peace at his School For Gifted Youngsters…but don’t worry, trouble is brewing. The hugely powerful Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in Poland; Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is more conflicted than ever; Quicksilver (Evan Peters) wants to connect with his absentee father – the aforementioned Magneto; and a group of young mutants (Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops, and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler) are coming to terms with their burgeoning powers. Oh, and another thing: the world’s first mutant – the all-powerful Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) – has awoken from a centuries-long sleep, and he’s not happy. In fact, he’s so unhappy that he wants to destroy the entire world, and then rebuild it from the ground up.

Yes, there’s a lot going on here, but Bryan Singer’s control of the narrative never wavers. The audience always knows who the characters are, what their motivations are, and why they are where they are. That may sound simple and obvious, but it’s a tenet that many character-heavy blockbusters miss, often partially, and sometimes absolutely. All of the characters have a grounding emotional and narrative arc (some more substantial than others, obviously), and the story intelligently builds upon the many possibilities established in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. There are moments of finely placed humour (Evan Peters steals his scenes again as the cocky Quicksilver), while the coming-of-age antics of Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler offer a lot in the way of relatability and charm. The eighties are referenced amusingly too: check out Professor Xavier’s Sonny Crockett-style get-up, some great music cues, and a cool cameo from one of The Breakfast Club. But the much touted reference to eighties kitsch icon, Dazzler – Marvel’s mutant pop star of the era – has ended up on the cutting room floor…booooo! Visually, the film is also one of the most comic book-faithful yet of all the superhero movies. The fearsome, admittedly cartoonish Apocalypse looks as if he’s jumped right off the page, while his fearsome sidekick, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), sports the most fetishised, sexualised, and, well, risqué, costume of any female superhero yet.

The real core of the film, however, remains the noble, decent Xavier’s fight for the souls and minds of both Magneto and Mystique, who constantly teeter on the line between good and evil. The performances of McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence (and, in fact, the cast as a whole) are all excellent, and – in what must be one of the most talky, intellectually involved superhero flicks yet – given plenty of room to move in a number of emotionally charged scenes. And, as hinted in the film’s trailer, there is another essential ingredient of the X-Men universe here too: Hugh Jackman does indeed make a brief – but very, very good – cameo as Wolverine in a scene that will be a real thrill for comic book die-hards.

Tonally spot-on despite mixing the heavy with the light, and a sliver of goofiness with a real cerebral bent, X-Men: Apocalypse is just like all of the previous best entries in the X-Men series: a blockbuster with heart, soul, and brains.

 
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Review: Is This The Real World

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The independently made debut feature from Melbourne-based writer/director, Martin McKenna, Is This The Real World is a goddamn corker. In the vein of Animal Kingdom, Muriel’s Wedding, and Lantana, Is This The Real World is an upsettingly close and unfiltered look at Australian life: our family dynamics, our adolescent relationships, and our experience with education and authority.

The narrative follows small-town Victorian high school student, Mark Blazey (Sean Keenan from Puberty Blues and Glitch), an intelligent teen who has just tossed away a scholarship to a private school and now finds himself at the local public high school, much to the dismay of his single mum, Anna (Susie Porter), who is struggling with a young daughter, Marlie (Elise MacDougall), and an older son, Jimmy (Matt Colwell aka Australian rap-star, 360), who is on a path back to jail. When Mark falls for Kim (Charlotte Best from Home And Away and Puberty Blues), he tries to escape the various life forces pulling at him. It’s a typically impulsive move, made worse by the fact that Kim’s father (Greg Stone) is Mark’s new high school headmaster.

The performances are all-around exceptional, particularly that of star-on-the-rise, Sean Keenan, who takes you on the not all-together comfortable journey into the mind of a 17-year-old with his piercingly authentic portrayal. Props also have to be given to Susie Porter, who does a stellar job as Anna, a mother on the verge of a huge breakdown with a life full of regrets, and a family situation that she cannot control. Porter brings a delicate intensity to the role, the kind where you can’t be sure if she’s about to hug someone or fly into a rage. Her raw and unpredictable vulnerability is in large part credit to the strength of the script, as McKenna handles his characters with the finesse of an old screenwriting veteran.

While the performances and writing/direction are undeniably the bedrock of the film, the potency of Is This The Real World comes from its artfully nuanced layers. Ellery Ryan’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, where rather than adding filters or artificial elements, he draws out and emphasises what is real – and at times too real – in the film’s chilly coastal setting. The soundtrack is yet another glazing that gives the film a great deal of impact and flavour. Sound is arguably the forgotten hero of cinema (think what a Tarantino or Wes Anderson film would be without their scores), and sound designer, Paul Pirola (Wolf Creek 2, The Taking Of Pelham 123), does a truly killer job of adding depth to the film, particularly during its dialogue-free sequences – he knows when to use sound and when to use silence with great accuracy.

This is a big win for McKenna’s first effort, and will surely be a tough act to follow for the promising filmmaker. Is This The Real World comes at you with all kinds of beautiful detail; somehow equal parts simple and complicated, it will deeply affect anyone who grew up in Australia – and probably even those who didn’t.

 

 
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Deadpool (DVD, Blu-ray Review)

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It’s been just three months since Deadpool was released in cinemas to become the unlikeliest comic book success story since Guardians Of The Galaxy. Point of fact: Deadpool was actually a more lucrative venture than both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice! So how does the film stack up a quarter of a year later? It’s still a whole lot of fun, despite a pretty generic plot and a tofu-bland villain. A big part of that fun comes from Ryan Reynolds’ career defining performance, and a knowing, clever script. Plus the ultra-violence. Ya gotta have the ultra-violence!

In terms of the digital release, however, it’s all about the extra features, and on that front, Deadpool does not disappoint. Included is the obligatory gag reel, which features a few isolated chuckles, but is hardly unmissable. Then there’s 20 plus minutes of deleted and extended scenes (presented both with and without commentary). There’s solid stuff here, including a great sequence called “Cancer World Tour”, which adds more depth to the relationship between Wade and Vanessa (the heart of the film). Pacing wise, you can see why it was cut, but it’s worth checking out for completists or folks who just want more Morena Baccarin.

Over 80 minutes of short “From Comic To Screen…To Screen” documentaries give an insight into the film’s long and often painful development process and, of course, there’s an audio commentary from Ryan Reynolds and the other principals. Rounding out the package is “Deadpool’s Fun Sack”, which basically collects the movie’s glorious and clever marketing clips, internet videos, and general fourth wall-breaking malarky. Deadpool’s digital and DVD/Blu-ray release won’t convert those who are immune to the appeal of the merc with a mouth, but for those of us who aren’t dead on the inside, it’s a good-sized package that may find a perfect fit inside you.

Deadpool is available on Digital from May 11. Get it here on iTunes. Deadpool is available on Blu-ray and DVD from May 25.

 
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Review: Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story)

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Andy Whitfield was best known for his role as the titular character in the TV series, Spartacus: Blood And Sand. As Spartacus, Whitfield established a character of indomitable spirit and courage, a man who would stop at nothing to conquer the gladiatorial arena. Here, as himself, we see that Whitfield was just as fierce, and just as determined, to fight and stand victorious. Directed by Oscar winner, Lilibet Foster, Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story) chronicles the harrowing journey of the young actor after being diagnosed with cancer. It is powerful, heartbreaking, and deeply inspiring.

Granted virtually unfettered access, Foster situates us as a fly on the wall for much of the film, while video logs and interviews fill in the details. We are privy to intensely personal and private moments. From the calls that inform Andy and his loving wife, Vashti, of the continued spreading of the disease, and the seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy, to an impromptu trip to India to experiment with alternative forms of treatment, the struggle that we witness is staggeringly intimate.

It’s this struggle, however, that prompts Andy to truly embrace the phrase tattooed on his forearm, and the source of the film’s title: “Be Here Now.” It may seem like just another clichéd sentiment about living for the moment, but Andy and Vashti embody it. It is something that, perhaps, can help us comprehend the couple’s extraordinary ability to roll with the punches and continue fighting. And so, after following their incredible journey, when the inevitable comes, we’re left not merely lamenting the loss of an exceptionally talented and affectionate man, but also inspired; inspired to live life to its fullest and take the challenges that come our way in our stride. Be Here Now is incredibly moving and a piece of work that deserves to be seen by all because this is a disease that affects all.

Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story) is now playing nationally in cinemas thanks to the cinema on demand platform, TUGG. Everyday Australians with a passion for a movie topic are able to hold their own screening of the movie, and then sell tickets via their social media networks and reap 5% of the box office. People simply need to request a screening at TUGG