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Them

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Moving house is, it has to be said, one of the most gruelling pains in the arse that human beings knowingly submit themselves to. Unpacking, moving furniture, trying to find that one box with the thingo in it – absolute bloody nightmare. How much worse is it then for an African American family, the Emorys, as they move into the (then) all-white neighbourhood of Compton? In 19-freaking-53!

Such is the premise of racially charged horror yarn, Them (not to be confused with the 1950s giant ant flick of the same name), a Jordan Peele-esque allegorical genre work that is, at times, shockingly effective.

Not only do the Emorys have to deal with racism and bigotry at the hands of their pasty neighbours, they also have to face a supernatural threat that appears to have taken a liking to their family of four.

Them is, at times, hard work for those not ready for an intense ride. The unrelenting sense of dismay and eeriness rarely lets up and moments of light are few. The performances are uniformly excellent – particularly from leads Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas – but it’s about as subtle as a swift kick to the goolies. And perhaps that’s okay, what we’re dealing with here is a story entrenched in exploring hideous social dynamics that occurred not all that long ago. Still, it’s not an easy watch.

The episodes are stylish and beautifully executed, with some sequences that will stick with you (an occurrence in episode four is still haunting your humble word janitor) and even though there’s an undeniable love of melodrama, it rarely becomes overwrought or unintentionally camp.

Them is, quite simply, a weaponised anxiety machine primed to deliver effective, if occasionally samey, bleak chills over ten episodes. For horror fans who like their genre yarns dripping with social commentary, and genuinely disturbing horror, Them is a worthy destination for those with the constitution to handle it.

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Blithe Spirit

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Playwright Noel Coward charmed audiences in the 1940s with his elegant wit and word play. But he is not old enough to be truly classic and too recent to feel contemporary. Anyone approaching Coward’s work today has a choice to make, try to ‘update’ him, or go for loving period recreation. TV director Edward Hall (best known for shows such as Downton Abbey) goes very much for the latter. And this turns out to be the film’s main appeal in a way, which is to damn it with faint praise.

The film certainly does look lovely, the clothes and hairstyles are spot on and the Sussex mansion where the main action takes place is a masterpiece of 1930s design. The problem though, is that the material hasn’t aged quite as well as the décor.

The main idea – of a slightly madcap story in which a desperate writer is tormented by the ghost of his ex-wife, has to be done in a certain way, or the contrivances begin to show. Hall has one more ace up his sleeve, though – an excellent cast who relish the script.

As with any such comedy, the plot is both full of intricate mishaps and generally, in the service of tormenting the protagonists. The lead is tormented from the start. Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is struggling to finish his overdue screenplay for a bossy movie mogul. Having another elegant cocktail isn’t going to get that script written but Charles and his young wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) want to enjoy their new marriage and they have a giddy round of social obligations to fit in also.

When, for a laugh, the couple host a séance led by a slightly shonky psychic called Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), they inadvertently unleash the capricious ghost Elvira (Leslie Mann), who is Charles’ recently-deceased first wife.

This is touted as Dame Judi Dench’s funniest role in years. Actually, you could equally argue that – great thespian though she is – her part is underwritten. Her Madame Arcati is an odd creation, at times a moth-eaten figure of fun and at others a potion-brewing witch out of Macbeth. A further problem is that her character is being gently mocked. It is not that we don’t care whether she is a real medium or not (really, she is there to facilitate the plot), it is that the satirical target has shrunk over the years. No one knows what a theosophist is anymore and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The more pressing issue perhaps is the play’s sexual politics. The idea of a decent but put-upon chap outwitted and then tormented by ‘his’ women might have seemed vaguely daring then. Today, the whole premise is dated.

Weighing against that is the energy and comedic timing of the players, with Isla Fisher in particular showing her natural ability as a comic actor. She is a lot of fun to watch and she steals a lot of the scenes she is in.

The film is never a bore (the worst thing to be in Coward’s upper crust circles) and for that we must be thankful. Still, it never quite flies either. Hail to thee blithe spirit, but bird thou still isn’t.

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The Mauritanian

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Mainstream films about real-life gross miscarriages of justice – especially American ones – have a tendency to end up contriving some sort of tribute to the essential decency of the system. Not this one. It’s scathing, it’s extremely powerful in places, and it never cops out.

The titular Mauritanian here is Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a young man who is arrested by the local police in November 2001 (2 months after 9/11). Before you know it, he’s in Guantanamo Bay. The action shifts briefly at various points to Washington D.C., Albuquerque, New Orleans, even Afghanistan… But the ‘guts’ of the story unfolds in the hellish Cuban prison. It starts off rather understated – wry, even – but be assured that it becomes deeply disturbing: the stuff that nightmares are made of. Waking ones, in the case of Slahi himself.

Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s defense attorney, and Benedict Cumberbatch is Stuart Couch, his chief (military) prosecutor. The allegation is that Slahi was one of the organisers, and the chief recruiter, for 9/11. Allegation, that is, as opposed to charge – because he was NEVER charged with a crime. This is in spite of being imprisoned for many years, and interrogated for three of those years for eighteen hours a day.

Rahim is excellent in the role and everyone else is fine too, but what you’ll probably remember more vividly will be the depictions of the savage abuse – or “special measures”, to use the official euphemism – which he suffered at the hands of his captors. That said, the more subtle detail about Hollander’s dogged struggle to get access to unredacted records is quite interesting in itself, and so are the interactions between her and the deeply scarred, tough and inevitably wary Slahi.

Recommended.

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Climate of the Hunter

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As horror films go, Climate of the Hunter is a sumptuously surreal offering by Mickey Reece and fellow screenwriter John Selvidge.

Tucked away in a cabin in the middle of the woods, sisters Alma and Elizabeth eagerly anticipate the arrival of their long-time friend Wesley. In his presence, the world eerily churns as the sisters feel varying degrees of attraction and revulsion toward him. What emerges is a tightly-woven and visually rich film bound to titillate those drawn to art house horror, and entice others along the way.

Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) is recently divorced and hiding out with her battered spirit and disillusionment. Her sister Elizabeth (Mary Buss) is a workaholic lawyer from Washington D.C., who is lavishly dressed for the part of high-flown spectator of Alma’s misfortune. Both broody and short-tempered, Wesley (Ben Hall) provides a much needed distraction and soon becomes an object of intense fascination and eventual suspicion. Essentially, is he a vampire?

Over a series of bizarrely prepared dinners, the contents of which are briskly announced by an external female voice, their discussion moves from the quotidian to the metaphysical. Wesley finds himself a great orator, and continually dabbles in philosophical quandaries and poetic effusions. Initially, both sisters are transfixed; yet as his stay wears on, Alma becomes suspicious of other-worldly dimensions and frets over Elizabeth’s deepening affection.

Ultimately, Climate of the Hunter is niche film, but the foray into suspenseful vampiric melodrama could promise more. Mickey Reece is known for the impenetrable; foisting together on-screen symbolic explosions and using melodramatic and turgidly philosophical dialogue. Yet the intrigue at the heart of his latest film, steeped in an absurdist Hitchcockian atmosphere, tethers the audience more closely. It marks a more approachable work, and indulges in a visual and dialectical bravado that might just win over the perplexed.

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I Care a Lot

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Organised crime has certain expectations wrapped around it in the world of popular culture. The tailored suits, the coded conversations, the deals that can’t be refused, the simultaneous alliances and priming for betrayal; in fiction, most audiences know the classic formula when they see it. And it’s not that it doesn’t reflect a certain degree of reality, even today; just that its presence in the modern day is something different. A little more sophisticated. And in some respects, more insidious than even the grizzliest of gangland conflicts.

The latest feature from writer/director J Blakeson (The 5th Wave) explores this within the world of aged care, specifically through the scope of professional legal guardian Marla (Rosamund Pike) and her wheelings and dealings. At once reminiscent of her iconic role in Gone Girl, and yet going even further into sadistic trickery and mind games, Pike serves as the face of aged care as an extension of capitalism. A method of squeezing those last few drops out of its dying population, subverting the human want for care – to care for others in order to game the legal system, reducing flesh and blood into liquid assets.

In typical confidence trickster fashion, the thrill comes from not only seeing Marla at work in her grotesque profession, but also in the possibility that she might have met her match. And when she brings Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest as all things wizened and simmering) into her ‘care’, something’s different from her usual stable of wards. A certain detail that doesn’t fit, a particular asset that seems out of place, and a mysterious figure (Peter Dinklage) with a great amount of concern for her current position.

It plays into the traditional organised crime model, but in its bending of tropes, I Care a Lot highlights how this newer breed of criminal has even colder blood running through their veins. Along with the bigger signifiers of the genre as art aesthetic, one of the main pillars in organised crime on film is that of family. The close-knit unit that looks out for one another, that respect those that sit at the same table, and that turns grifting into a generational business.

Marla doesn’t have that. Her entire area of expertise is predicated on the absence of such respect, of such acknowledgement, and that all that accumulated knowledge and insight into the world is more worthless than priceless. Everyone’s either a digit to be added to a larger sum, or a calculator that pushes those numbers together and squeezes.

I Care A Lot opens with Marla directly addressing the audience on how kindness and looking out for anyone other than No. 1 is a fool’s errand. Audiences may feel the urge to argue against such things, but let’s face it, that argument is only in its morality, not its efficacy. It succeeds as chilled and wicked thriller because the only thing colder than its outlook is its reflection in our reality.

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The Witch of Kings Cross

Australian, Documentary, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Socialite artist Rosaleen Norton shattered 1950s Australian conversative customs with her scandalous paintings that combined explicit nudity with the occult.

Her story has been unveiled by director Sonia Bible through a painstaking seven-year process. Bible self-financed the majority of the film, uncovering rarely seen artwork banned at the time for its subversive content.

Although Norton’s paintings caused consternation within Australia, her undeniable artistic talent was shamefully ignored. The documentary explores the philosophical themes present in her work, such as Carl Jung, as well as worshipping the Pagan God Pan. The tragedy, however, concerns how all cultural institutions refused to showcase any of her work, largely on account of her orgiastic parties and rambunctious lifestyle that drew the ire of newspapers and the wider community.

Given the paucity of resources and information available on the artist, director Sonia Bible films recreated footage in rich black and white that manifests the vivid imagination of Norton. It is also accompanied by choregraphed dance sequences in slow motion, whereby the actors give compelling physical performances that offer insight into Norton’s enigmatic mind.

Understandably, the limited primary knowledge available gives little alternative but to utilise these recreated scenes. Though, at times, it feels like the documentary leans too heavily on filmic flourishes, that it loses a sense of focus. It is also clear that these narrative scenes are filmed in modern-day Australia, with a black and white filter added over the top, which does not always capture the essence of a stultifying 1950s Australia.

At the same time, Norton’s unwavering conviction to follow her creative passions, often at the expense of others, invokes a femme fatale quality about her. A line-up of close acquaintances and art historians supplement the sense of danger Norton elicited in Sydney at the time, describing in detail her fetishes and interests, as well as the broader reactions to her public persona.

The Witch of Kings Cross is a unique story that looks and feels rough but ultimately reveals a fascinating gem of Australian post-war history that was previously consigned to the dustbin of history.

Head to the website for more information.

 

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Greenland

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It’s been some time since we’ve seen a decent, large-scale disaster flick. They accounted for some of the highest grossing films of the ‘90s and director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, ID4, The Day After Tomorrow) single-handedly tried his best to keep them alive – however, these days filmmakers seem less interested in the catastrophic event and more so in the post-apocalyptic world that follows.

Hence why Greenland feels rather fresh in its timing, and even more relevant given the fear and uncertainty that COVID triggered. Having witnessed actual footage of people fighting over toilet paper and protesting health protocol with machine guns, seeing them react very similarly on screen makes the whole thing way more terrifying.

And sure, we’ve also seen this premise before (twice in the same year with Armageddon and Deep Impact), but, given the fact that in 2021 an asteroid the size of the Sydney Opera House came within close proximity, it doesn’t feel as far-reached as many computer or alien-based threats.

Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin lead the film as John and Allison Garrity, a married couple on the rocks, reluctantly living together for the sake of their son. Around them, people are fixated on an asteroid referred to as Clarke, which is hurtling towards Earth but according to the media is supposed to disintegrate before it enters our atmosphere. Everyone quickly realises that’s not the case and with the world-ending impact now imminent, the Garritys (and most of America) race towards a super-secret bunker in a highly classified location… which isn’t revealed until about halfway through the film, even though it’s right there in the title.

Thankfully, that’s about as dumb as this gets. Sure, it’s a tad too long, the score by David Buckley is super cheesy and the two leads are borderline overacting most of the time, but somehow it all feels intentional and therefore tolerable.

Director Ric Roman Waugh, responsible for the impressive prison flick Shotcaller, again demonstrates a real knack for keeping the stakes high but not at the expense of personal connections. He smartly dodges many disaster film clichés, such as spending too long on epic landscape destruction, and he doesn’t dwell on the loss of minor characters unless it’s warranted.

Here, the action set pieces always feel localised and therefore there’s real emotional stakes. Even as the family split up, we’re aware of what’s going on around them and where they are in relation to one another. In that sense, this is more of a road trip flick than a global catastrophe, and that’s probably why it works.

That said, many clichés still remain, such as random strangers coughing up important information when they need it, the kid’s medical condition causing most of the trouble they encounter, and the fact that Butler’s character – a construction engineer – can impressively fight multiple people at once. However, if you don’t overthink it too much then the parts that make sense easily outweigh those that don’t.

In any other year, this would be a mid-tier blockbuster, but given the scarcity of similar-scale films, this one delivers – especially when the other releases we did get were so underwhelming (*cough* Wonder Woman 1984).

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The Rental

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The Rental is the debut feature film directed by actor Dave Franco (he also co-wrote the screenplay with indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg), a thriller/horror about two couples who book a weekend getaway, which turns into an Airbnb nightmare.

The film delivers a tense, albeit predictable, relationship drama, taking place in the eerie location of a stranger’s home, also exploring privacy issues that derive from the home’s hidden cameras, instilling feelings of dread in the viewer.

It’s essentially a psychological thriller with a sliver of violence and horror, exploiting the idea of stalking to the extreme, as a stealthy serial killer adds panic to the lives of our main characters Charlie (Dan Stevens), Mina (Sheila Vand), Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who uncover secrets about one another that lead to further mental anguish.

For some horror fans, the film may prove disappointing due to the deliberate pacing and the lack of gore. For others, they will be impressed by the stunning cinematography by Christian Sprenger (Atlanta), compelling performances from all the cast, the dark psychological aspects explored and an enigmatic ending, which leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

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One Night in Miami…

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Oscar-winning actress Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) makes her directorial debut with a politically charged adaptation of a stage-play in One Night in Miami… She fictionalises a single night whereby Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassisus Clay and Sam Cook gather in a hotel room circa 1964, amidst the height of racial prejudice within America.

The film spends its early stages establishing how these four characters are navigating career crossroads in a society beset with racism. On the one hand, these vignettes gently ease into the story, establishing contrasting personalities, while offering a playful and hopeful mood that softens the intensity of their plight. They also function to humanise the characters, as the film showcases Clay’s witty repartee with his boxing team, while Cook jokes backstage about “bombing” at his gig at the Copacabana. This, in turn, allows them to exist without being defined by their struggles.

Although the approach feels potentially wayward as it jumps from scene to scene, it is sharply brought into focus through a dramatic shift that narrows in on a single night. All four civil rights luminaries are brought together at a hotel room to celebrate Clay’s surprise win against Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion.

While all characters are bound by the same cause, ideological tensions fizzle to the top as the weight of their collective and individual responsibilities become overbearing. On the one hand, the self-serious Malcolm X castigates Cook for pursuing a music career built on commercial success, rather than staying true to the cause. However, similar to Cook, Jim Brown prematurely retires from football in favour of an acting career, exemplifying their beliefs that financial independence is the only way to achieve “true freedom.”

The performances all round are exceptional, with understated deliveries that ensure the real-life figures are never caricatured. Eli Goree as Clay displays trademark quick-witted charm mixed with bombast as he leaps onto hotel room beds. Yet, the spiritual re-birth into the nation of Islam lingers for Clay with quieter moments of praying that foreshadow his political activism as Muhammad Ali. Not only this, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown has a reserved demeanour whose anger is repressed underneath lacerating remarks, such as “you’re acting in private the way you are on camera” when disparaging Malcolm X’s obstinance.

One Night in Miami is a terrifically deft piece of cinema whose limited scope gets widened with larger-than-life characters that not only represent their individual burdens, but also carry with them the historical weight of their actions.

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The Stand

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Of the 61 novels Stephen King has written to date, few have had the indelible impact of The Stand. Even if prefer the precision horror of The Shining or the epic monster mash of It, it’s undeniable that The Stand has had a hugely wide-ranging impact on storytelling and storytellers.

It’s strange, then, that until recently the only adaptation of the work was the amiable, but lacking, 1994 miniseries that was frankly dated as buggery back then and these days looks like a Tim and Eric parody. That all changes with the new version of The Stand, created by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars, New Mutants) and Benjamin Cavell, which delivers a bold new version of the classic good versus evil tale.

Humanity is cactus! We’ve died off by the billions, because of a nasty bloody super flu called Captain Trips. The naturally immune survivors, roughly 1% of the old population, now lob about America trying to rebuild or, in some cases, prey on the others. Eventually two sides begin to form. There are the nicer folks, who are drawn to 108-year-old Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) and the deadset mongrels who bend the knee to Randall Flagg aka the ‘Dark Man’ (Alexander Skârsgard).

So, the stage is set for the final stand, where the forces of good battle the forces of evil for the soul of what’s left of humanity. Sound simple enough? Well, kinda. See, this time around, the story is told in a non-linear fashion, which may put off constant readers and newbies alike. The first episode, in particular, jumps around in time like an enraged pomeranian, and if you’re not paying attention you may find yourself a bit lost.

Our recommendation is, persevere. Yes, it takes some getting used to, but this is a slick, engaging telling of a classic yarn, with uniformly excellent performances and enough shocks and jolts to keep you engaged. It’s not the completely faithful adaptation some King fans may have wanted, but it’s a riveting mix of horror, drama and fantasy that offers a decent escape from the real life bullshit that’s beginning to feel like one of Stephen King’s more demented works.

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