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Braven

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Take no prisoners thriller Braven is directed by stunt veteran Lin Oeding. More significantly, it stars Jason Momoa, the 6’3″ Hawaiian-American who came to prominence in Stargate: Atlantis and  Game of Thrones before emerging in the DC Universe as Aquaman.

Here, Momoa plays loyal family man, Joe Braven, devoted son and husband forced to defend his home and family, demonstrating that he’s the wrong man to mess around with.

His propensity for violence is waiting to be triggered, so we’re to believe; a fuse not helped by his difficult father (Stephen Lang), suffering from PTSD and a drinking problem.

The old school Road House style violence is illustrated in one singular sequence, where without any talk, Braven steps in and beats four men half to death after they bash Papa Braven to a pulp for mistaking a girl at a bar for his wife.

Following that, Momoa, his daughter Charlotte (Sasha Rossof)  and his now, suddenly mentally stable father find themselves battling a home invasion by a drug cartel, led by top character actor Garrett Dillahunt as Kassen.

The film proceeds as a largely by-the-numbers thriller, as the goons come after Momoa and his father while the two slowly, violently and unbelievably pick them off one by one.

While showcasing Momoa’s well known tough guy skills, logic is often absent in Braven. But if you’re after cheap thrills and arbitrary close-ups of violence such as an arrow shot into a face, then you’ve found your fix.

 
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The Post

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Steven Spielberg’s none-more-timely real life political drama The Post posits Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee as the dogged avatar of a principled free press, the Nixon Administration as, well, the Nixon Administration, and puts Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham, socialite-turned-publisher of the eponymous Washington Post, in the hot seat as an untested woman who must balance the ethics of journalism against the more pragmatic requirements of running a news organ that is both beholden to risk-adverse stakeholders and liable for legal prosecution if it does what we the audience all know to be The Right Thing.

Of course, Streep and Hanks do end up doing The Right Thing, as history tells us, but in this case it’s the journey, not the destination, plus the resonance with contemporary issues in this current dark age of “fake news”, “bias”, Fox & Friends, military adventurism, and so on. The distance between The Post‘s 1972 setting and the current year does not seem particularly large at times.

Except, perhaps, when you look at the gender politics of the time, which are an eye-opener. The Post takes place at a point when men still withdrew to the drawing room for some post-dinner-party real talk while their wives gossiped and swapped recipes and make up tips. It’s a milieu that Streep’s Washington society matron is effortlessly comfortable in. She’s less confident when it comes to making her mark as the big dog at the newspaper following her husband’s suicide – especially when she and her editor, Hanks’ Bradlee, must decide what to do with The Pentagon Papers, a damning Department of Defence report on the rolling disaster that was the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Publishing is clearly in the public interest and could put the Post – then a relatively small paper – in the big leagues. However, a court injunction against the New York Times over their prior publication of the material, and the nervousness of the Post‘s board in the lead-up to a stock market float, make the decision less straight forward.

The Post‘s obvious precedent is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men and, indeed, Spielberg’s effort serves as a kind of prequel thereof (Tom Hanks is playing the same real life character that Jason Robards played, if you’re keeping score). The Berg’s classical, restrained Serious Movie style is even a decent match for Pakula’s, although when All the President’s Men was made it was a contemporary drama, while The Post has the burnished patina of a historical drama (compare Spielberg’s recent Bridge of Spies).

However, what really rings as nostalgic is the film’s faith in a robust and forthright fourth estate. While much is made of how the paper is beholden to its board of directors and their economic concerns, it essentially functions as rousing tribute to clear-eyed, ethical journalism – quite the jarring anomaly in a time when even the most irreproachable reporting is frequently and publicly dismissed as corrupt, biased, and broken. Spielberg’s film is clearly meant to be a paean to the free press, but seen through the cynical lens of the current age, it occasionally feels simplistic, even naive.

Still, The Post remains a rock solid, gripping drama, thanks to Spielberg’s steady hand on the tiller and strong performances both from the principals (although Hanks occasionally drifts towards pantomime) and an excellent supporting cast that includes  Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, and Matthew Rhys. When we look back on Spielberg’s career this will probably be considered a minor work, but minor ‘Berg is still worth your time.

Special Features on the Blu-ray release include a number of insightful featurettes:

LAYOUT: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post
EDITORIAL: The Cast and Characters of The Post
THE STYLE SECTION: Recreating an Era
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT: Music for The Post

 
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Chasing the Dragon

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Structurally a riff on Scarface set in the Hong Kong of the 1960s and 1970s, Chasing the Dragon is a slick crime thriller that sees Chinese superstar Donnie Yen, currently enjoying newfound prominence in the West thanks to his turn in Rogue One, as Crippled Ho, a refugee from mainland (that is: Communist) China who battles his way to the top of the rackets.

For fans of Hong Kong action cinema, Chasing the Dragon has a pretty fine pedigree. It’s a remake of 1991’s well-regarded To Be the Best for one thing; for another, it boasts Andy Lau in a major supporting role as ambitious and genially corrupt cop Lee Rock, a figure he previously played in the eponymous duology directed by Lawrence Ah Mon. And for a third, co-director Wong Jing is pretty much Hong Kong’s answer to Roger Corman, a gleefully B grade peddler of exploitation and genre fare from way back, whose works as actor, writer, producer, and director span everything from action comedy Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, to sexploitation flick Naked Killer, to the Chow Yun Fat-starring God of Gamblers, to notorious Triad series Young and Dangerous.

Chasing the Dragon is never so transgressive as some of Wong’s wilder work, but it’s a good time nonetheless. It’s actually surprisingly light for the most part, for all that it deals with drug-dealing, corruption, ruthless ambition, and so on. The film never really interrogates the actions of Ho and his patron, Rock, instead framing them as modern day folk heroes helping the Chinese hold their own against outside influences – chief among them the corrupt and arrogant British officers of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. Ho and his cronies, a fiercely loyal squad of efficient thugs, might be down for a spot of brutal violence at a moment’s notice, but at least they’re not the long arm of British Imperialism – a common theme in Hong Kong cinema that’s become all the more prominent in recent years.

And fair enough – colonialism is there to be fought in any case, and Wong and his co-director, Jason Kwan, get points for smuggling in a bit of regime criticism simply by dint of having Ho be a refugee – he has to be running away from something fairly awful, right? That subtle stab aside, the film’s critical eye remains firmly outward focused, and these are the nicest and most honourable heroin dealers and murderers you’re likely to meet.

It’s a fun ride, though, slickly produced and punctuated with superb action sequences – there’s a mid-point chase/fight sequence through Kowloon’s famous Walled City slum that is one for the books – a bit of business that would serve well as the climax for most action films. The recreation of late ’70s HK is pretty great, definitely leaning towards the more excessive elements of costuming and design to sell the vibe, but effective nonetheless. The performances are solid, as you’d expect for veterans like Yen and Lau; the former in particular is convincing as Ho, who goes from gregarious low level grinder to first among brothers to ruthless – but still heroic! – kingpin over the course of the film. Of the supporting cast, veteran character actor Kent Cheng deserves a shout out for his turn as Rock’s sly police partner, Piggy, equally open to corruption but happy to take a 2IC position enforcing Rock’s will.

Chasing the Dragon is no instant classic, but it’s a solidly entertaining, dependably violent run through the usual “rise-of-a-bad-guy” tropes delivered with some tasty Cantonese seasoning. Anyone only familiar with Yen’s work in the West is especially encouraged to track this one down.

 
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God of War

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In the year 1557, Japanese pirates have taken control of the Chinese coast. With the Chinese General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) failing to successfully repel the invaders, fellow General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) is offered command and sets about training his own local army to achieve the task that China’s general infantry cannot.

God of War is another in China’s long and growing list of medieval war films, replete with rival armies, sword fights, patriotic exclamations and an impressive quantity of impassioned shouting. It feels very much like its own genre with its own conventions and stereotypes, and to a large degree God of War fits very comfortably into that niche. While it does tend to drag a little in its first half, it more than makes up for it in its second before wrapping everything up into an excellent action-packed climax. Fans of genre have a lot to enjoy here. Indeed, the promise of a Sammo Hung pole fight and a soldier-versus-samurai finale should prove irresistible.

Fair warning: Sammo Hung, a popular veteran of Hong Kong action cinema, only appears during the film’s opening act. He does make a strong impression, however, and gets a couple of opportunities to showcase his immense martial arts talent. As the relatively ineffective General Yu, he is soon replaced by the innovative but awkward General Qi: an inspiration to those with whom he fights, but a relative embarrassment in the high-level environment of court politics. Vincent Zhao is likeable and earnest as Qi, but the screenplay does not afford him much depth or complexity. He is simply required to be inspiring and heroic, two qualities he ably displays.

Much more nuanced and interesting is Yasuaki Kurata as the Japanese commander Kumasawa. He is a samurai, appointed by a lord back in Japan, and commands a mixed army of samurai, ronin and straight-forward pirates. He cuts a supremely dignified figure, carefully planning strategy to defeat the Chinese forces and recognising their change under Qi’s inventive leadership. Where the script fails to illuminate his character, he subtly implies depth through stillness and a steely gaze. Kurata is more than fifty years into his screen career; his experience and presence make him God of War’s strongest asset by far.

As Qi finds, trains and leads his new army, and as Kumasawa begins to understand the renewed threat facing his pirate forces, the film moves closer and closer towards a fantastic one-on-one showdown. While that is absolutely the best sequence of the entire film, the lead-up is almost as great. The action splits between a desperate back-and-forth battle through the streets of a Chinese city, with Qi hunting down Kumasawa’s lead retinue, and a desperate siege of Qi’s own headquarters, which affords his wife (played excellently by Regina Wan) a chance to show off some martial arts skills of her own.

God of War takes a while to start moving, and stereotypes abound through its two hours, but once it picks up it runs with its China-versus-Japan premise to a fabulous conclusion. Genre fans will be in for a treat; other viewers might need a little patience to get to the good stuff.

 
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mother!

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A woman’s face is wreathed in flame.

In a charred and desolate room, a man (Javier Bardem) places a rough-cut white jewel on a golden stand. Magically, the room begins to heal itself, spreading out from the stone – smoke damage fades, cracked and peeling paint runs smooth, broken furniture becomes whole.

Alone on a double bed, a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens. “Baby?” she calls.

How telling. So too is the next thing we hear her say, when her husband (Bardem) surprises her on the porch of their rambling and beautiful country home: “You frightened me.”

mother! (small m, exclamation point) begins enigmatically, as you might expect from the little we’ve been able to glean from the marketing materials thus far. It’s a mystery, we’ve been told. Allusions have been made to classic horror – Rosemary’s Baby in particular. The promotional posters are cryptic, bloody, and disturbing.

The grainy film stock and handheld camera work employed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique reinforce the notion that we might be looking at writer and director Darren Aronofsky’s ode to the highbrow horrors of the ’60s and ’70s, and our introduction to the scenario is infused with a subtle sense of menace and foreboding. Bardem’s character – no names are ever given –  is a poet, struggling with writer’s block. His much younger wife (Lawrence) is devoted to him and determined to fix up the beautiful but somewhat dilapidated house they share. Their relative contentment is broken by the appearance of a traveler (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The poet invites the pair to stay, but the woman is disturbed by the intrusion.

As it transpires, the interlopers have arrived under false pretenses – the man is a fan of the poet and, dying, wished to meet him before the end. His wife, a sensuous creature, blunt and fond of drink, inserts herself into the household as though she owns it. The poet is glad of the attention and determined to be a good host, but the woman grows more discomfited. Who are these people? Why is her husband so enamoured of their attention? Why are they so familiar with each other? Why does she feel so alienated?

When the penny drops will vary from viewer to viewer. For us, it’s when Harris’ character’s bickering sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) turn up, arguing over their inheritance, and one murders the other before fleeing. mother! is not a return to the psychological horrors of Black Swan, folks, but to the metaphysical ruminations of Noah! Aronofsky’s latest is nothing less than an allegorical retelling of all the better bits of the Old and New Testaments. And not the familiar, watered down King James version, but the crazy, apocrypha-riddled proto-Judaic stuff – how else could we get away with having Asherah, Yahweh’s consort, as our point of view character? The titular mother goddess, shoved aside by the patriarchal Abrahamic religions, is finally getting her due on the big screen. That’s sure to play well in the red states.

Yes, Aronofsky has cast Lawrence, his real-life girlfriend as the wife of God – which is an incredible and strangely admirable act of hubris, when you think about it. It’s a short leap to consider Bardem’s god-figure as a stand in for Aronofsky himself, obsessed with the act of creation, hopelessly susceptible to flattery and fawning, and more than a little dismissive of his husbandly duties. How could he not be? His house is soon thronging with people, friends and family of Adam and Eve (again never named, but we’re through the looking glass here) who have come for Abel’s wake, and who are all singing the poet’s praises, each in their own way.

A demand for passion ensues and is answered, and the woman is now pregnant. Her calling realised, her belly swells – surely this new life will heal the growing rift between them. Meanwhile, all this attention has gotten the poet’s creative juices flowing, and he’s begun to write again. Soon, more fans are arriving at the house, petitioning him for attention.

“I’ll get started on the apocalypse,” Lawrence’s character intones.

It all spins queasily, crazily out of control (and let us not forget that Aronofsky alluded to the possibility of early Middle Eastern monotheism being a mushroom cult in Noah) quite quickly, as the film stops pretending to pay lip service to narrative and psychological realism and cleaves only to its own systems of allegory and metaphor. Before long Stephen McHattie crops up as a raving zealot, and Kristen Wiig is – the Pharisees? The Catholic Church? At one point she’s executing people in the kitchen with a pistol, and by that stage we’re so steeped in spectacle, symbol, and oblique event after confounding, naggingly intriguing event, that it all becomes difficult to parse, at least on first taste. We do know where we’re going, though, as the gyre widens and mere anarchy is loosed upon the house. But are we pursuing an end or a new beginning?

It’s great.

It really is, and it’s great in a way that you know will divide audiences and send them barreling towards opposite ends of the opinion spectrum – it’s not a work that invites middling responses. Some will be angered by the irreducibly religious elements. Some will be scornful of Aronofsky’s pretension at mounting such a work (and make no mistake, art like this requires a certain level of pretension). Some will be annoyed at the seemingly countless unfathomable visual and narrative symbols and motifs (what’s the tonic that Lawrence’s character keeps taking for her pains? What’s with the toad? Is there a satan?). Some will claim they saw it all coming, and it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is (and frankly, screw those guys).

But some will love it. We certainly do. It’s a dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art, and easily the most ambitious film to come out of a major studio since… well, let’s just say it: since Kubrick died. It’s the most interesting and intellectually rigorous religious film since The Last Temptation of Christ, and easily the best film of Aronofsky’s career. The closest analogues that come to mind are Jodorowsky’s earlier works, especially The Holy Mountain, but it’s going to take time and several viewings to figure out if that’s a worthy comparison – that it comes to mind at all speaks volumes, though.

No matter what you think, or think you might think, about mother!, it certainly demands and deserves your attention. Go and see it. You haven’t seen anything like it since… well, you just haven’t seen anything like it.

mother! is out on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital now.

 
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Beyond Skyline

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Seriously, who doesn’t want to see Frank Grillo (the better Purge movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) team up with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid and, bizarrely, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to fight an alien invasion? Cinema has clearly been building to this moment. Draw the curtains across every screen – we’re done.

But in case you need more: Beyond Skyline follows on from the little-loved 2010 sci-fi dud Skyline, but jettisons almost every possible element thereof except for the basic premise, instead building a whole new and much better story, which should make connoisseurs of imaginative and cheerfully cheap B-movies absolutely giddy.

In the shell of a nut, Earth is invaded by a fleet of alien ships that hypnotise the population by use of weird blue lights before sucking them up into the air for nefarious purposes. Hard-drinking LA cop Mark Corley (Grillo at his grizzled best) finds himself going toe to toe with the invaders, teaming up with a rag-tag group of survivors, including transit worker Audrey (Aussie Bojana Novakovic) and homeless veteran Sarge (Antonio Fargas – yes, Huggy Bear), whose blindness makes him immune to the aliens’ hypnosis beams.

Of course, a square jaw, a service sidearm and a drinking problem aren’t much against a full-scaled extraterrestrial incursion, and our plucky heroes soon find themselves in the bowels of an alien mother ship, where they bump into a couple of leftovers from the original film: Elaine (Samantha Jean, taking over from Scottie Thompson in the first film), who is about to give birth after the aliens have accelerated her pregnancy, and her boyfriend Jarrod, formerly played by Eric Balfour, and now a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

That seems worth repeating: a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

A few quick action and effects sequences later and the ship has crashed in the jungles of Laos, where Corley and Audrey team up with a motley band of former drug runners, including the aforementioned Uwais, Ruhian, and Aussie Callan Mulvey, who are preparing to launch a counter strike from a hidden base in an abandoned jungle temple. Can this unlikely band of heroes take the fight to the invaders? Will the newborn Rose (Elaine and Jarrod’s baby), her DNA mysteriously messed with by the aliens, prove, to be the key to the future? Will Iko and Yahan machete  hordes of aliens to death? Is Frank Grillo an underappreciated god of action cinema?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Beyond Skyline is an almost mathematically perfect example of a great B movie. It never takes itself too seriously, yet it makes perfect sense within the confines of its own reality, cleaving to its internal logic and never fudging things for effect.

And frankly, it doesn’t need to: it’s designed to deliver maximum bang-for-buck. In a brisk 106 minutes you get an alien invasion, numerous gunfights, giant alien mecha wrecking stuff (yep, they just throw in some giant robots, and it makes perfect sense), Bojana Novakovic as a kind of K-Mart Sarah Connor (after she could do chin-ups), Frank Grillo murderlising dozens of aliens with a weird kind of talon-weapon he’s picked up along the way, and Uwais and Ruhian doing much the same with their blistering martial arts prowess.

It’s just so much fun, and done on a squillionth of the budget of comparable box office-busting fare – Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps? To be fair, Beyond Skyline lacks Marvel film’s self-deprecating wit, but the action scenes are certainly of comparable quality, with Skyline ahead on points in the vital Fighting Aliens with Penkat Silat category. Debut director Liam O’Donnell’s special effects background means he certainly knows how to get the most out of his obviously limited budget, and while you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a cheap movie, you know that every single dollar is up there on the screen.

Beyond Skyline is skipping theatrical distribution in Australia and heading straight to home release, which is a shame – it’d be a hell of a film to watch with an engaged and enthusiastic audience on the big screen. Nonetheless, fans of fast and frenetic sci-fi action should definitely make the effort to get in front of it – it’s an instant classic of the genre.

 
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Eat Locals

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Young ne’er-do-well Sebastian (Billy Cook) fronts up in a quiet English country town for what he thinks will be a saucy rendezvous with the cougarish Vanessa (Eve Myles). Instead, he founds himself the unwilling guest of the council of elder vampires who secretly rule the British night. Every 50 years the group – which includes Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who), and Vincent Regan (Atlantis) – gets together to hash out territorial disputes and induct new blood into their ranks – hence Sebastian’s presence. This get complicated when an SAS squad, led by a determined and somewhat demented protest (Mackenzie Crook) raid their farmhouse meeting place, determined to put the vampires on ice.

Eat Locals is the directorial debut of actor Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Gemma Bovary), and he’s roped in a bunch of old pals to help him out – fellow Guy Ritchie alumni Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Nicholas Rowe all make appearances in this brisk horror comedy. It’s clear that Eat Locals wants to be able to stand alongside the likes of An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Dog Soldiers, but it’s hampered by a somewhat hammy script and a budget that simply cannot encompass the ambitions of Flemyng and his screenwriter, Danny King (Wild Bill). Dodgy effects work is one thing, but when you find yourself noticing the poor cinematography in exterior sequences, something is seriously awry.

The proceedings are buoyed by a game cast, brisk pacing, and the odd stand out action beat. Plus, any movie where a granny vampire lets loose with a machine gun to the strains of The Damned has its heart in the right place. Still, the hit rate of jokes is maybe 50% and the whole thing never quite manages to rise to its obvious potential. If you’re in a forgiving mood you’ll have fun, but don’t expect miracles.

 
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The Walking Dead: The Complete Seventh Season

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As the 100th episode of The Walking Dead looms for the Season 8 premiere, we have a look back at Season 7, the most critically divisive since the “are they ever going to leave this bloody farm?” shenanigans of Season 2.

After the eye-rolling finale of season 6, where the showrunners decided to hold off on the identity of who got clobbered by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) because it was “fun”, Season 7’s premiere episode “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” had an uphill climb. We needed a satisfying answer to the question “who carked it?” but also a meaningful letter of intent, to try and understand what the seventh season would be about.

While the show delivered big time on the first question – killing two beloved characters, one of whom had been with us since the beginning – the second query was mostly ignored, and fans noticed. Some five million (!) viewers left The Walking Dead in the first half of the season (7A) and reviews ranged from weary to scathing. Ironically the Greg Nicotero-directed first episode is a fantastic piece of shocking, intense horror – beautifully executed – however the half season that followed felt rather listless.

Watching Rick (Andrew Lincoln) react to tragedy can be effective in small doses, however eight whole episodes of it felt a tad indulgent. That’s not to say it was all lousy, “The Well” and “Sing Me a Song” were both solid, and “The Cell” was striking and unusual, and has permanently installed that bloody “Easy Street” song in my head.

The second half of the season, 7B, was a big improvement. From the get-go with “Rock in the Road” one could feel the transition to a more proactive stance, as our heroes decide it’s time to fight back. Of course as we found with the strong climax, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” – the all out war scenario has been held over until Season 8, making 7B the march to war. Some may debate the wisdom of this, but it does mean the new season can hit the ground running.

In terms of rewatching, Season 7 is solid, albeit unspectacular. The premiere and finale are both thoroughly entertaining, and there’s solid character work all the way through, but the pace has definitely slowed and that needs to be addressed. In terms of blu-ray extras the usual bag of not terribly exciting deleted scenes (most of which were better left on the editing room floor), making of documentaries, featurettes and audio commentaries round out a solid package.

Sadly the audience-anticipated “F takes” with Negan in full sweary mode aren’t included on the blu-ray, which is a bummer for fans of the comic, who want to see the big man loose those “fuckity fucks” with his typical charming alacrity.

Ultimately The Walking Dead: The Complete Seventh Season is a solid blu-ray but not necessarily a must-have. It showcases this red-headed stepchild of a season with crisp quality and generous extras, but is unlikely to change your stance if you didn’t dig on the rather protracted action the first time around.

 
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Batman/Superman Anthology 9-Film Blu-Ray Set

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Released for the Christmas of 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman was not only part of the wave of genuine blockbusters which swept Hollywood during that decade, but was also the film which ushered in the modern superhero genre, and remains one of the finest examples of this style of filmmaking. Tim Burton’s 1989 game-changer Batman, meanwhile, repurposed DC Comics’ most complex anti-hero for a new generation, and proved that a comic book movie could be epic, dark, and unusual.

With Superman and Batman’s recent return – and first ever live action cinema team-up – to the big screen in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and their upcoming regroup in Justice League, Warners treat fans of The Man Of Steel and The Dark Knight to a nine-film Blu-ray set including all of the Christopher Reeve Superman films (as well as 2006’s ill-fated Brandon Routh-starring Superman Returns, which connects in with them) and all of the pre-Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films, starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney.

Christopher Reeve as Superman.

The jewel amongst these Superman releases is without doubt Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Filming of the first two Superman movies took place simultaneously, but after the first film was released (despite its critical and commercial success), Donner found himself unceremoniously booted from the project and replaced by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), who dumped a great deal of the footage that Donner had already shot, and demanded extensive re-writes to the screenplay. A clear labour of love, the Richard Donner cut is the result of painstaking research in locating all the missing footage, special effects plates, music cues and shooting scripts and re-assembling them in the manner that Donner had originally envisioned.

The result is a film that is a little more serious and a lot more in tone with the first film than the Superman II that was eventually released to theatres in 1980. The quality of the Superman movies declined rapidly with the release of Superman III in 1983, which was little more than a vehicle for then hot co-star Richard Pryor, while Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) had the shoddy appearance of a Saturday morning kiddie show, despite the very welcome return of Gene Hackman as Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor.

With Bryan Singer’s 2006 reinvigoration of the franchise with Superman Returns, the director was very specific about wanting his film to follow on from the Christopher Reeve flicks, so its inclusion in this box set is appropriate, but still a little odd. The film is a heartfelt, at times quite beautiful, take on the Superman franchise, and leading man Brandon Routh makes for a perfect Man Of Steel. Disappointingly, 1984’s Supergirl, a quaint romantic fantasy which never really managed to kick into top gear (despite a strong turn from Helen Slater as Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El), is not included here, even though it is stitched into the canon of this era of Superman, with Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen appearing across the films.

Michael Keaton as Batman.

Whereas the Christopher Reeve-era Superman films are bright, colourful, and poppy, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) perfectly captured the mysterious noir atmosphere of the early comic books, and features Jack Nicholson’s delirious Joker up against Michael Keaton’s slightly neurotic Bruce Wayne/Batman. Bringing in Danny De Vito as a repulsive Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s sensuous, latex clad Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992) was pure Tim Burton – a dark, sumptuous adult fantasy that had many young children leaving the cinema in tears.

With both Keaton and Burton departing the series, Joel Schumacher took over the directing chores for the next two films. While Burton’s films were unique from each other, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) were essentially two versions of the same film, gaudy slabs of neon eye candy which progressively mocked the character and his world. The revolving door of Bat actors continued with Val Kilmer and George Clooney being stuffed into the rubber suit, although the films were sadly becoming more about selling toys and McDonald’s happy meals than with any form of genuine storytelling or character development (Clooney didn’t even bother to try and change his voice for his scenes as Batman).

While the films in this luxurious box set differ wildly in quality – ranging from overcooked turkey (Batman & Robin) to essential modern classics (Batman, Superman: The Movie) – they present a fascinating cinematic picture of two of popular culture’s most enduring and fascinating characters.

 
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The Devil’s Candy

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Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones was a darkly comic horror that took a teenager’s obsession and entitlement to the extreme. In The Devil’s Candy, the Tasmanian director tackles those long time bedfellows of Satanism and Metal Music.

Ethan Embry plays Jesse, a Metallica loving artist moving into a new home with his punky daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), and straight-laced wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Soon after settling in, the large figure of Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) turns up at their front door. Ray used to live in their home and wants to move back in, whether they want him to or not. This is the perfect setup for a home invasion film, but Byrne refuses to let the film settle on this routine premise. First there’s the little matter of the demonic voices Ray can hear speaking to him through his radio; the same voices that Jesse has begun to hear too; the voices which centre on the men’s obsessions of varying morality. Jesse wants to be taken seriously as an artist, whilst Ray will do whatever it takes to make the voices stop.

This is a down and dirty film that relies on unease and tension for a large part of its narrative, with Ray taking a disturbing interest in young Zooey. As the two men become more and more intrinsically linked, Byrne lets the tension simmer before exploding into a violent finale lit by the literal fires of hell. Whilst Ray isn’t your average satanic antagonist – he’s shown to be a bumbling whiner on more than one occasion – the danger he conceals is never in doubt, due to Byrne’s skilful direction and the film’s ominous throbbing score.

 The Devil’s Candy is a short, sharp shock of terror that knows well enough to keep its audience in the dark even as the sun rises in its final shot.