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Hostage

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A stridently independent filmmaker, in 1983 Frank Shields was out to compete with the bigger cinema releases of the day, when he shot his first dramatic feature film on the smell of an oily rag (he had previously shot the 1974 documentary The Breaker about Breaker Morant, using similarly guerilla filmmaking methods). Ultimately, he managed to do some pretty decent box office with this indie thriller.

The film opens with the teenage Christine Lewis (Kerry Mack) working with a group of carnys at a small NSW South Coast showground. There, she meets Walter Maresch (Ralph Schicha), a Teutonic pretty boy who looks (and acts) like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s younger, less-body sculpted brother. Walter is obsessively fixated on Christine and professes his undying love for her at every opportunity, only to then declare his intent to marry after a few brief dates.

Unsettled by his general whiff of desperation, Christine rebuffs Walter’s proposal. Incapable of exuding any charm whatsoever, Walter threatens to shoot himself if she doesn’t agree to his offer (she doesn’t), so he attempts to make good on his suicide threat, unable to bear the pain of being spurned. Later, Christine sits in a hospital waiting room racked with guilt.

She relents to the pressures of the hospital priest who believes it a mere formality to give ‘a dying man’ his last wish, thus Christine agrees to ‘marry’ the near-death Walter. As fate would have it, Walter inconveniently survives his suicide attempt.

Christine chooses to stay married to him and soon becomes pregnant. Walter becomes even more controlling and unhinged once their young daughter is born and after several mysterious visits by an odd looking stranger with envelopes of cash and plane tickets, Walter relocates Christine and their young daughter to Germany. Once there, it becomes apparent that Walter is a member of a neo-Nazi group, though he seems too unhinged even for them.

Soon Walter forces Christine to participate in bank robberies, like a bizarro Patty Hearst and the surreal nightmare continues, to unspool into even stranger situations from there.

Hostage (aka Savage Attraction in the US) navigates similar territory that later thrillers Sleeping with the Enemy, Not Without My Daughter and Dead Calm would delve deeply into: a young, naïve woman meets an unassuming guy and makes the mistake of trusting him, only to discover that he’s catastrophically toxic, violent and controlling.

Based on Christine Maresch’s biographical account of her own nightmarish marriage, it’s filtered through the prism of Frank Shields’ marketing eye for ‘what the audience wants’ resulting in the addition of the requisite staples of the ‘80s low budget film: ‘splosions, a sprinkling of gore, some fist fights and car hijinks and sex scenes with exploitative nudity. All this nestles uncomfortably up against themes of toxic masculinity and one man’s quest for control over a woman’s body.

Kerry Mack’s uncanny resemblance to actor Michelle Williams imbues Christine with a strange sense of melancholy though her co-star Ralph Schicha doesn’t fare as well, and his thick accent and wobbly command of English dilutes his performance considerably.

Still, the film LOOKS terrific [re-released after a 4k restoration]; Vincent Monton’s handsome lensing holds up and gives the film much needed scope and authenticity.

Hostage impresses more with its weirdly unpredictable story than the performances; even so, the crazy-ass plot that lurches from one insanely compelling development to another is reason enough to revisit this slice of ‘80s Oz cinema.

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1917

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World War One took place over a hundred years ago and these days it feels like a battle from a bygone era, almost as fantastic and bizarre as the sword and shield blues of medieval times. The trenches teeming with rats and disease, the soldiers facing the threat of newly industrialised weaponry and the sheer appalling scale of it all make for rich and vivid cinematic territory. In 1917, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) takes full visual advantage of the setting, delivering one of his most beautiful films to date, however, he isn’t quite as successful in exploring some of the weightier themes.

1917 is the simple tale of two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) who are given the unenviable mission to deliver a message regarding a German ambush. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers stand to lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. The pair set off almost immediately and the following 119 minutes or so take place in a single continuous shot (with a handful of cheats) that tracks their mission from start to finish.

Because the mission takes place in (mostly) real time, there’s not a lot of room for lengthy nuanced discussion. That’s not to say that 1917 is an action film, but it’s certainly not ponderous, moving through eerily abandoned trenches, ruined villages and no man’s land in a flowing, often dreamlike fashion. The result is a very stagey film, that feels more like a poet’s impression of war rather than a realistic portrayal, quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it works, and the one-shot technique often comes across more like a clever gimmick, rather than a choice that adds import to the slender script.

Chapman and MacKay are both perfectly fine as the main soldiers, and are backed up by cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, but there’s something distancing about the piece overall. It feels more like an extended video game cutscene, beautiful but contrived, rather than a war film that will live in your soul forever. To put it bluntly, it’s good but it’s no Gallipoli.

That said, props to Sam Mendes for stepping outside of his recent Bond film comfort zone and tackling an ambitious project like this. The film serves as both movie and tribute to Mendes’ grandfather (who fought in the war) and in that it succeeds. However, it’s just too artificial and removed from the grittier realities of war and devoid of character development to attain the status of war movie classic. A triumph of style, and a beautiful looking film, it’s just a pity it didn’t have more to say.

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Jumanji: The Next Level

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As gaming becomes a dominant cultural force, especially for the next generation, it is fascinating to see movies adapting gaming concepts into their own narratives in order to appeal to younger audiences. 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprise smash hit for Sony, and now we get the fast-tracked sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, which is pretty much the same film with added characters.

As per the previous instalment, the real highlight is Karen Gillan, who is well overdue for her own franchise, but it’s the new characters that bring us the most interesting moments, including Danny De Vito’s retiree still holding a grudge with his former business partner played by Danny Glover. When the two of them are transported into the Jumanji game universe and portrayed by The Rock and Kevin Hart respectively, there’s a lot of fun to be had (apart from The Rock’s iffy Jersey accent admittedly). Awkwafina’s appearance in the latter half of the film is also fun, as her hammy performance style suits the OTT scenario.

Fun is the key word here, with no expense spared in terms of effects and casting (you may choose to analyse the depiction of masculinity as fragile, femininity as powerful, diversity casting or the future possibilities of augmented reality – but you’ll likely lose all 3 of your lives for trying). Ultimately, Jumanji: The Next Level is quickly forgotten cinematic spectacle, but with Cats bound to bomb, JoJo Rabbit a great trailer in search of a good film, and Star Wars receiving negative reviews, it is also the clear front runner for your Boxing Day box office buck. No doubt, #3 is already in the works, and the incorporation of gaming concepts into future cinema and streaming will continue to be the hot topic of discussion in every Hollywood board room.

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Dolittle

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With the world having just recovered from the disturbing hyper-sexualised feline imagery seen in Cats, there is a collective sigh of relief at the impressive visuals exhibited in CGI adventure-film Dolittle.

Unfortunately, that might be where the excitement stops for parents who endure this superficial retelling.

In an unexpected turn from director Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker responsible for heavy dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, Dolittle offers a closer to the source material adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of children’s novels.

Robert Downey Jr. takes the mantle of the titular physician who can walk, talk, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

When first on-screen, the audience is greeted by a dishevelled Dolittle rocking a mop of hair and beard so intense that he looks somewhere between a prehistoric caveman and an inner city barista.

Turning his back on humankind following a great tragedy, Dolittle finds solace in isolation. He retreats from the world by locking the doors of Dolittle manor; a picturesque animal sanctuary filled with gadgets, gizmos and giraffes.

Through Dolittle’s eyes, people pose the greatest threat to animals, with the gifted doctor taking umbrage with hunting, sharing his indignation with reformed-hunter and newly appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett), and forming a close-knit bond with a slew of animals which he can communicate with.

Forced into solving the case of the poisoned Queen of England (Jessie Buckley in a lifeless role), Downey Jr. and the menagerie of animals must trail the high seas and rescue an antidote from the mysterious Eden Tree; an artefact located somewhere in the ocean.

The gang faces many threats during their swashbuckling ship-trip, the likes of which include facing a gold tooth tiger with familial issues (Ralph Fiennes), the return of a jealous rival (Michael Sheen), and a rugged pirate with a score to settle (Antonio Banderas). Dolittle’s adventure may take place on the ocean, but (wait for it) the real journey starts from within, as Dolittle begins to connect back to humanity.

The camera momentarily shivers when transitioning from animal to English, making for a modestly smooth, albeit absurd, language changeover. Downey Jr. goes all-in on the horseplay. He wobbles through the film displaying a range of emotions that verges on space-headed to bittersweet. The retired Iron Man does all this while attempting to impersonate a Scottish accent; aiming for Mrs Doubtfire but winds up being a shakier British accent than the one he displayed in Sherlock Holmes.

The film’s high concept approach to storytelling remains considerate to the families that will be spending their holidays in the cinema. Gaghan risks not over-stirring the pot and uses the antics of these peculiar creatures – the likes including an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), a sock wearing ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a dude-bro polar bear (John Cena), a no-nonsense parrot (Emma Thompson), and a spectacles-wearing pooch (Tom Holland) – to create a stream of mild chuckles throughout the film’s 100-minute length.

Alas, the spectacle required to keep Dolittle afloat is never fully realised. Gaghan proves unwilling to go over-the-top in the stakes department; a sign of a studio lacking confidence in a product whose ongoing release pushbacks now finds it setting sail into the doldrums of January cinema-going. The message of compassion at the centre of the film never fully forms. Instead, RDJ channels sad eyes through his emotive baby-blues before being interrupted by an animal making an unimaginative joke about doing animal things.

The VFX team do an impeccable job bringing the animals to life; however, the film’s lowbrow sense of humour reduces the elegance of the visuals. Outside of the occasional crack of laughter, probably delivered through a cringe-inducing pun that will have every father in the cinema reciting it back to his kids at home, Dolittle will do little for the adults in the room. That said, littlies should take to the variety of bumbling creatures and their monkey-business.

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A Vigilante

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By design, Australian writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson rarely provides a moment free from unease with her powerful rumination on domestic violence, A Vigilante.

Sadie (Olivia Wilde) uses her combative abilities to help women and children escape from abusive households. In her wake, Sadie encounters victims of varying backgrounds; an effect which highlights the rampant prevalence of domestic violence amongst society.

Reliving her own harrowing trauma with blood-curdling intensity, Sadie offers her services as both a means to cope with her own loss, brought to her by the hands of her abusive ex-partner (Morgan Spector), and an offer of salvation to others.

While not always able to reach the dramatic high notes needed to fulfil such a challenging role, there is no denying Wilde’s deep-seated commitment to the lead role. She proves herself a compassionate actor that is deeply invested in the film’s vision of inspiring outreach.

With A Vigilante, Daggar-Nickson allows the subtext of the film – the bravery of speaking out amidst living in abusive surroundings – to act as a beacon of support to people who are victims of domestic violence. Every effort is made not to trivialise the experiences of the characters.

As a filmmaker, Daggar-Nickson does not allow genre to restrict her vision, blending the fabrics of drama, horror, and revenge-thriller to heighten the characters’ sense of isolation and fear. The third act of the film turns to horror-thriller sensibilities, offering the viewer, as effective as a film can depict such an atrocity, a confronting glimpse into the traumatic experiences endured by too many.

Daggar-Nickson turns every frame into an opportunity to establish mood. The bleak, natural lighting and muted colour-scheme baked into the cinematography imbuing a distressful, authentic vibe. She demonstrates an absorbing sense of poeticism – correlating the imposing and immovable force of trucks with abusers – and a piercing point-of-view that ought to command attention from Hollywood.

The graphic depiction of violence in A Vigilante is affecting. It will likely be troublesome for many viewers. Violence is applied two-fold: (a) denoting how abuse is used to control, and (b) highlighting the leniency of law in preventing it.

A Vigilante is a hard watch, but an important one, delivering career-defining work by both Daggar-Nickson and Wilde.

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Lieutenant Jangles

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When you think cop action movies, your mind likely turns to thoughts of transatlantic settings, such as Los Angeles and New York, more than it does Brisbane. However, Lieutenant Jangles, the new comedy from local filmmaking duo; Nic Champeaux & Daniel Cordery, is out to reset your bias.

Set in a cartoonish interpretation of the ’80s – so, like most action movies from that time period, then – the film sees the titular Lieutenant Jangles (Matt Dickie) seeking revenge for the death of his partner, leading to him stumbling into the machinations of the maniacal Baron Von Schmidt (Jack McGirr). As the two men cross swords, there are car chases, bloody violence and peeing contests. No, literally.

Director Champeaux, who also wrote the film, not only manages to capture the aesthetic of ’80s action films, such as Lethal Weapon and Commando, he does so whilst skewering the very idea of what makes a lean, mean action hero. Forget your world-weary John McLane’s, Jangles is a crude, chain-smoking, alcoholic man-child; a walking Aussie stereotype who, unfathomably, appears to be the only thing stopping chaos raging through Brisbane. He’s Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor, but with a more developed sense of justice. You wouldn’t want to share a towel with Jangles, but his oafish ‘charm’, played with brilliant comic timing by Dickie, ensures that you’re not completely put off by him.

Outside of Jangles himself, the film takes pot shots at the entire action genre, dissecting the very tropes they’re built on. From the extreme machoism and xenophobia, to the genre’s distinct lack of strong female characters, encapsulated in the only female in Jangles’ life who is simply known as “The Woman” (Tamara McLaughlin). Deliberately bringing nothing to the table except being a trophy for the protagonist, her dialogue is knowingly centred around not knowing anything except her inexplicable lust for Jangles.

If your love of apery encompasses the likes of Black Dynamite or Danger 5, then Lieutenant Jangles will most definitely float your boat. The film’s humour comes not from word for word re-enactments of iconic scenes ala Scary Movie, but from the characters themselves; some of whom will look extremely familiar in more ways than one. Take for example, Mark (Daniel Cordery), Jangles’ tattooed, handlebar moustached informant, whose bouts of violence are interrupted by his overbearing father’s need to watch a VHS. Cordery certainly does Eric Bana’s performance in Chopper proud.

Admittedly, all humour is subjective and there are only so many dick jokes in the world which you can laugh at – all of which appear to be in Lieutenant Jangles – meaning the film is clearly not going to be for everyone. However, embrace the anarchy and, from the pre-show trailers packaged with the film, through to the killer synth soundtrack, Lieutenant Jangles will leave you with one hell of a dirty smile on your face.

Lieutenant Jangles will be released through American distribution company Scream Team Releasing on streaming platforms, Blu-ray AND a limited VHS run for hardcore collectors, just in time for Christmas 2019!

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The Shanghai Job

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Known as S.M.A.R.T Chase in the Chinese market, The Shanghai Job is a British-Chinese co-produced thriller that sees Orlando Bloom shirk off the shackles of popular franchises – see Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of The Rings – in order to reshape himself as bonafide action hero.

Bloom stars as grizzled security agent, Danny Stratton, who has been living at the bottom of a bottle in Shanghai since his last job, a year ago, saw him lose a valuable painting to a gang of professional thieves. For reasons unknown, Danny and his team are given one last chance to redeem their reputation by escorting a valuable artefact from one destination to another. Wouldn’t you Adam and Eve though? The same gang turn up to relieve him of said item, leaving Danny to work quickly to save what’s left of his expiring reputation.

Largely known for his TV work, director Charles Martin (Skins, Being Human) has put together a solid if somewhat silly action piece that sees Bloom charging around barking at people like Jason Statham whilst sporting the bleached hair of a Buffy-era James Marsters. He’s joined in his sprint across the city by a team of fellow security agents, including Full Contact’s Simon Yam. Riffing off the relationships within the Fast and Furious franchise, each member brings their one personality trait to the table that manages to both compliment and aggravate the others in the group. A quick shout out to the dubious Ding Dong (Leo Wu) who spends a large part of the film following a girl using his drone; his cutesy puppy eyes failing to cover the slightly creepy invasion of privacy.

Moving on… Whilst The Shanghai Job is nowhere near to being of the same quality as later instalments of the aforementioned franchise, it does give an indication of the direction the series could be taken should the higher ups wish to pursue it. The acting is definitely a mixed bag, but Bloom seems to be relishing the opportunity to do his own stunts and get his teeth into something a bit grittier.

Perhaps The Shanghai Job’s biggest issue is pacing and an over-reliance on the cliched. Seemingly realising that the S.M.A.R.T. team are running out of breath, screenwriter Kevin Bernhardt (John Rambo) throws in a damsel in distress into the third act which also sees a literal game of catch added to the mix. Presumably because everyone got tired of punching each other.

Derivative of a number of recent actioners, including John Wick, The Shanghai Job is certain to find its niche with a select few. And if all involved are willing to return and embrace the hyper-realistic absurdity of it all, there’s potential for more fun ahead in future installments.

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Trading Paint

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In a parallel universe, where all the movies that could have been reside, there lies Quentin Tarantino’s The Vega Brothers. A prequel to both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the movie would have seen John Travolta and Michael Madsen as brothers in crime, Vincent and Vic Vega. Although that project fell by the wayside, Madsen and Travolta do finally share the screen in this is southern deep-fried drama from director, Karzan Kader.

Tapping into the same working-class vein as his previous film Life on the Line, Travolta plays Sam Munroe, a retired dirt car racer who has been shaping his son, Cam (Game of Thrones’ Toby Sebastian) to be the next big thing. Frustrated with a series of losses, Cam bails on his father to join forces with Sam’s nemesis, Linsky (Madsen). Sam disowns his son and decides to get back in the driver’s seat to prove he’s still got it.

Trading Paint is an extremely brisk movie and like Sam’s car, barrels towards the finishing line with a distinct lack of finesse. This can be felt throughout the film due to a number of unusual choices by the director and the screenwriters, Gary Gerani and Craig R. Welch.

Sam and Cam’s fallout and the latter’s betrayal literally happens within the first five minutes of the film, leaving us with whiplash and no real understanding of why Linsky is such a bad guy. There’s probably something there around his wealth and panache for cowboy hats that really gets Sam’s goat, but it’s never explored. We’re told they hate each other and that’s it.

Elsewhere, a flashback informs the audience that due to some reckless driving, Sam got his wife killed in a car accident. However, any remorse he had before the film is quickly dismissed after a picnic with new flame, Becca, played by country music superstar Shania Twain.

Twain, it should be noted, is one of the film’s strengths; managing to do something with the limited character development she’s given.

The most egregious part of the film’s narrative can be found in the race commentators whose sole job is to fill in the gaps or remind the audience of what’s going on. It’s perhaps one of the most flagrant dismissals of Chekhov’s ‘show, don’t tell’ rule seen in a while.

To end on a more positive note, if you’re a petrol head, there’s a chance you’ll get some traction from the race scenes which, whilst hardly Days of Thunder, add some well needed adrenalin to the proceedings.

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I Still See You

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Scott Speer’s (The Step-Up series) I Still See You, tells the story of a young girl being chased by a serial killing ghost. As odd as that may sound, the background to the film is surprisingly interesting. A post-apocalyptic event killed millions, leaving behind remnants of themselves, re-enacting a part of their lives. At the beginning, these remnants are dictated by a number of rules; non-sentient, can’t alter their image like a film reel on loop, and they can’t affect the natural world. However, further into the film they learn that the “Laws are Lies”.

The concept of the film is interesting and relatively unique (still a lot of Sixth Sense in there), and, to many, that alone can hold your attention throughout the film. The central idea of these remnants and their appearance at seemingly random intervals is often quite startling and creepy; never knowing if a non-main character is real or a remnant. However, behind the concept, the plot and script in general turns all too convenient. The story is riddled with cliches and too much is left unanswered.

Bella Thorne plays Veronica Calder, the generic edgy, angsty teenager. Richard Harmon (The 100) plays the bad boy new kid, Kirk Lane, who mysteriously arrives from another school and has an odd connection to remnants. Neither actor is school age, and their casting is distracting and inappropriate. Dermot Mulroney appears as August Bittner, the overly friendly high school teacher. who for some reason, has students come over to his house outside of school hours for random chats.

I Still See You has an identity crisis as to what genre it wants to be. Is it a romance? Thriller? Horror? Teen drama? Sci-fi? Mystery? It’s an unfortunately mix of them all, a diluted cocktail that leaves you wishing they had focused on one or two genres rather than all. This lack of focus is supported by the soundtrack, which tries to fit the genre of the individual scene. If the film was more focused, the soundtrack may have actually worked nicely, and when coupled with the excellent cinematography (by Simon Dennis – The Girl With all the Gifts), it may have been the starting blocks for a beautifully atmospheric film.

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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

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