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Two Heads Creek

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The collective shadow of many essential-and-not-quite-so-essential Australian movies – Wake In Fright, Welcome To Woop Woop, Dimboola, 100 Bloody Acres, Dying Breed, The Cars That Ate Paris – loom large over Two Heads Creek, yet somehow this blood-and-gore laden slab of horror comedy still manages to feel fresh and original. Penned by and starring British actor Jordan Waller (who appeared in TV’s Victoria and the Gary Oldman-starring Darkest Hour, and makes his feature writing debut here) and directed by Jesse O’Brien (who debuted in 2016 with the impressive low budget Aussie sci-fi flick Arrowhead), Two Heads Creek garishly punctures the stereotype of the hard-drinking, meat-eating, xenophobic Aussie, and is far more interested in sly social commentary than it is in unforgettable kill scenes and creating effective tension.

When British butcher and mama’s boy Norman (Jordan Waller) discovers that his Polish mother wasn’t really his mother, he and his partially estranged sister Annabelle (Kathryn Wilder from TV’s Adulting and Frontier, and Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True) – a tough talking wannabe actress and current poster girl for a laxatives company – escape Brexit-bound England and head to far flung Australia in search of their real mother. Their destination is the remote Queensland town of Two Heads Creek, where the only thing on the menu are sausages and cans of Four X…needless to say, the foppish Norman and outspoken Annabelle have a little trouble fitting in. Pretty soon, however, they realise that assimilation is the least of their problems.

Boiling with broad humour, grotesque Aussie caricatures (the wonderfully over-the-top Helen Dallimore steals all of her scenes as a brassy tour guide with a few big secrets; Kevin Harrington skewers his nice guy Aussie image; and Gary Sweet and Kerry Armstrong go at it hammer-and-tongs in smaller but no less forceful roles), and kick-arse female characters (this is very much a post-“woke” affair), Two Heads Creek turns everything up to eleven (including its catchy clutch of vintage tunes by Skyhooks and the one and only Normie Rowe), and only occasionally wobbles under the weight of its own messy madness. It’s profoundly gross (at times maybe a little too gross) and while it moves at a cracking pace, some of its set pieces could have used a minor edit. The film’s energy, however – along with its genuine warmth for its eccentric characters and pointed commentary on our stop-the-boats mentality – more than paper over any minor cracks. Two Heads Creek is a splatter filled satire on Australia’s dark side with plenty of blood, guts and brains, of both the literal and figurative variety.

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In the world of professional boxing, Irish Olympic gold medallist and world titleholder Katie Taylor is as much of a champion outside the ring as she is inside it.

Training as doggedly as any other competitive boxer, Taylor, to the failure of society, is denied the equal treatment with her male contemporaries.

Exploring Taylor’s turbulent career and her fight for equality in a profession dominated by men, Ross Whitaker’s documentary Katie offers a spirited look at the strength of women.

Taylor’s rise from athletically gifted youth to world-class boxing sensation is told with loving candour. It is clear that there are no greater Katie Taylor supporters than her own family. Their deep admiration, seeping through every ounce of the film, is expressed through interviews and archival footage.

Whitaker positions boxing as a wider stand-in for gender inequity. He uses Taylor’s difficulties in accessing equal treatment through promotion and pay, to denote the systemic practices that disadvantage women. The contribution made by Taylor in campaigning for women to compete in boxing at the Olympics, an achievement not rectified until 2012, becomes a troubling example of the pace at which professional sports trails behind the times.

Katie Taylor does not need sympathy, nor does she need her struggle to be romanticised. What she demands is immediate action in the fight to have women be fairly represented in not only positions of power, but in all facets of society.

She will continue to push for this with a sheer determination in hand and an ego left at the door. Unfortunately, she just has to wait for the world to catch up with her.

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Set in Blacktown, Western Sydney, Benefited follows disparate tales of desperate youths living in modern Australia. Binding the tales together is Dity, played by the film’s writer/director Clare McCann, a 20 something who has fallen pregnant to her abusive partner, Ray (Ryan Bown). McCann plays with time as she bounces her audience back and forth to different points in their lives from first kiss to first brutal assault. Elsewhere, 15-year-old thief Will (Cristian Borello) struggles to connect with his half sister and finds solace in drugs and burglary.

This a thoroughly bleak film which doesn’t pull its punches, and with good reason. As proven by the film’s closing text, Benefited wants to paint a picture of domestic violence without the Hollywood lacquer painted over it. Ray doesn’t come into Dity’s life twirling his moustache and looking menacingly at the camera. He woos her after a festival; he defends her against her drunken stepfather. It’s the little things he does after this that are troubling, so slight that you wouldn’t notice. Even being the first to say ‘I love you’ is merely a ploy to control Dity.  It’s the mundanity of the things he does, that McCann writes about, which underlines the domestic terror her protagonist is in.

Elsewhere, perhaps less successfully, McCann tackles the state of Australia’s social benefits system; painting a world of grey cubicles peopled by apathetic office workers. Having managed to give Ray several layers, it’s a shame to see people Dity encounters on the dole as nothing more than pantomime villains, something to push Dity on a downward spiral.

A sad and down spirited film, Benefited might not be Australia’s answer to I, Daniel Blake, but it is the kind of film that can burst a few misconceptions people have about domestic violence.

Available now on Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, Prime Video, Fetch TV

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Zoey Deutch maintained a prolific run in the 2010s, but between the cloying Before I Fall, the aggressively pointless Why Him?, or even her turn in Zombieland: Double Tap which dragged the rest of the production down with her, she’s been in need of room to stretch her legs. And in the most seemingly-unlikely of places, she seems to have found just that with Buffaloed.

The film literally starts with Deutch screaming “Fuck!”, an immediate set up for her underdog hustler Peg (nicknamed Pegger, a fitting moniker for a woman dominating men at their own game). While still showing a level of warmth and sweetness, she is also apt at straight-faced intimidation and street smarts that is quite phenomenal to watch unfold.

Deutch isn’t the only one here who has landed a saving throw, as Jai Courtney’s portrayal of the hilariously pretentious debt collector Wizz shows that he’s definitely balancing out his own collection of dud script picks over the last decade.

Speaking of scripts, the very Wolf Of Wall Street style of predatory finance in this story (with  Brian Sacca featuring in both films), is given a more sideways take on bloodthirsty commerce, embodied through its main character’s actions, with Pegger shown as the china doll in the debt collection bullpen.

With her motto of “Fine is like mediocrity’s dumb cousin”, following Pegger’s arc from childhood, to her stint in prison, to her hiring of fellow sideways hustlers (phone sex operators, spruikers, prosperity evangelists, etc.), is engrossing stuff.

It also carves out its own niche within the larger trend of female-led crime dramas, as it directly asks a question that most of the others seem to dance around: Is it really possible to succeed in this male-dominated business without having to resort to their methods? And as we see with Pegger’s conflicts with her mother Kathy (Judy Greer in prime maternal form), lawyer Graham (Jermaine Fowler), and even herself, the expected fall from success becomes a vivid depiction of just how vicious this industry is. This is aided by the inclusion of real-world numbers, a few fourth-wall breaks, and even Big Short-esque jargon skewering, to make the reality of it all that much more apparent.

While it doesn’t necessarily rise above its competition, Buffaloed shows more than enough of its own flavour, emotion and redemptive acting pedigree to stand alongside them. May this truly mean the start of better things for Deutch and Courtney, as they’ve been deserving of better for a long time now.

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One Man and His Shoes

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Netflix’s Michael Jordan/ Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance covered similar terrain as this documentary by filmmaker Yemi Bamiro. One Man and His Shoes explores the relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike and how together they created a third entity: Michael Jordan the brand.

Nike reaped the benefits of a shrewd decision to forge product sponsorship deals with young college basketball players (including a young Michael Jordan) that would foster a brand loyalty that would (ideally) extend into the player’s NBA career. That led to Michael Jordan as a rookie player, making a deal with Nike that comprised of various royalties and profit participations that were largely uncapped when the deal was made. The insane sales that followed took Nike by surprise and remade Jordan as a sporting icon, not to mention a billionaire. When first released, the original Air Jordan Nikes were quickly banned by the NBA because they weren’t white, so wearing them courtside meant Michael Jordan incurred a fine. The fine was happily covered by Nike, who benefitted massively from the publicity and subsequently sold a million pairs of Air Jordan shoes that year.

On the face of it, the documentary threatens to be a corporate hand job on the virtues of capitalism and the glory of Nike, but it’s undeniably fascinating to learn how a corporation found a way to occupy a significant amount of real estate in popular culture.

The fascinating ‘happy accident’ of Nike marketing executives seeing Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It was instrumental. In that film, Spike Lee portrays Mars Blackmon, a man devoted to his Air Jordan shoes, he even wears them during sex. Nike executives saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and asked Lee to direct a number of distinctive Air Jordan commercials, (with Lee starring alongside Jordan as the character of Mars) leading to a style and artistry in creating the ads that would go on to further cement Nike (and Air Jordans) as more of a cultural icon than a brand.

Nike’s ad campaigns and deliberate under-supply creates a demand that has succeeded in making the shoes a sought-after commodity, a status symbol. Collectors across the globe are interviewed, some with million-dollar collections.

The most compelling part of the documentary is when it calls into question the negative effects of the ‘Cult of Nike’ and in particular the criticisms that have been levelled at Michael Jordan: his disinterest in taking a stand on social and racial issues affecting young black Americans (while he and Nike are happy to take their money) and, in particular, the awful phenomenon of young people being killed solely for their ‘Jordans’.

Overall, it’s an examination of how popular culture can be hijacked and hacked, how humans can be manipulated into associating athletic ability, competitive success, self-worth, desire and esteem – with a shoe.

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Anthology movies: The Adderall of cinema. A chance to essentially watch several films in one sitting, but with a caveat that there’s no guarantee for consistency within. And coming from six French directors, for most of whom this is their directorial debut, there’s also a chance that this could turn into a glorified sizzle reel for their future careers.

Bit of a shame that the film peaks right at the start with ‘The Call Of Death’ and ‘The Beast’, and not just because they are easily the most straight-faced of the bunch. The former plays out like a proto-Black Mirror episode as filtered through Tales From The Crypt (although, admittedly, that last comparison is true for pretty much everything here), acting as allegory for social media while sticking to decidedly lower-fi tech than that would imply. And with ‘The Beast’, we get a simple but effective ‘who’s the real monster’ parable that manages to get a lot done with very little, both in run time and in dialogue. Directors Nathalie Epoque and Fabien Chombart respectively can pat themselves on the back.

For the rest of it, though, it takes a very sudden dip into less-serious territory, from ‘Return Of The Lizardmen’ playing out like a found-footage version of Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with the same level of conspiratorial lunacy; ‘A Hell Of A Bargain’ hinging on awkward puppet work (director Alexis Wawerka has done some makeup work for Uwe Boll in the past and it shows), and ‘The Eye Of Taal’ somehow delivering another anthology within an anthology. It admittedly looks nice in its highly French New Wave stylings, but after what preceded it, it’s not enough to pick things back up.

It probably doesn’t help that we get the bare minimum as far as tying all of these together. Aside from a possible motif involving cell phones, the only thing connecting all of this is the requisite wraparound segment involving Delicatessen’s Jean-Claude Dreyfus telling these stories to a blogger he caught taking selfies in his graveyard. By design, it’s not meant to do much more than be the sinew for the shorts, but even as sinew, it doesn’t leave much of an impression. And that’s without getting into the Urban Gothic-ass conclusion, which is a serious thud.

As a whole, this is basically a third of a good movie, the bulk of which opens the film, and because it lacks a real throughline like Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories or Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it doesn’t leave much of an impact. Individually, it can range from sombre to kitsch triumphant, but rather than the fun kind of kitsch, it just makes for material that not even a sudden appearance from the legendary Linnea Quigley can salvage it. Even the good parts aren’t good enough to override what comes next.

Available now on Prime Video

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Blood Vessel

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We don’t get enough horror movies set on boats. They’re such a great location – isolated, eerie and floating atop the bastard sea – and yet criminally underused in modern cinema. Some notable past examples include Deep Rising (1998), Ghost Ship (2002) and the criminally underrated Triangle (2009). More recently we’ve had, what, 2018’s too-wet-by-half The Meg? Not a sterling record, to be honest. Aussie flick Blood Vessel attempts to perform CPR on the nautical-set-genre flick and the result is fitfully entertaining.

Blood Vessel opens in late 1945, with WWII coming to a close, and a group of disparate characters set adrift at sea aboard a life raft. Just when their food supplies are about to run out they are apparently “saved” by a German minesweeper. However, once aboard, it soon becomes clear that they’d have been better off carking it in the ocean. Everyone on board the rather gothic-looking vessel is dead, save for a little girl who looks terribly hungry and speaks Romanian…

First things first, Blood Vessel’s setup is absolutely stellar. A period piece set aboard a Nazi ship with freaking vampires lobbing about the place? Shut up and take my money! Where the movie goes wrong, however, is in the scripting. The first 20 minutes of the film keeps shooting itself in the foot by having all of the protagonists bicker constantly in lieu of actual tension or character development. Even ignoring the dodgy accents, watching people snipe at one another like fussy toddlers is baffling when they’re literally crawling through an ominous, creepy ghost ship. Once the ship’s not-very-surprising mysteries start to get unravelled things improve, and while the script isn’t much chop, Justin Dix’s direction is assured and takes full advantage of the creepy old boat and its hungry occupants.

Acting wise, it’s a mixed bag, but Russian sniper Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke) and Aussie digger Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Phillips) both give solid performances, even when their dialogue doesn’t match their respective talents. Kudos too should be given to Dix’s company Wicked of Oz for creating the superb prosthetics and special make-up effects that wouldn’t look out of place in a movie with a much higher budget. It’s just a pity that same level of craft and care didn’t go into a better script.

Blood Vessel is a far from perfect film, laboured with a dodgy script and some wooden performances. However, the premise, production values and cool monsters will likely keep most genre fans’ interest afloat and it’s nice to see an Aussie genre flick that swings for the fences, even if it occasionally falls short.

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Echo in the Canyon

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This doco is a music nerd’s heaven, especially if you like Californian rock music from the sixties and seventies. This will appeal to those types who can tell you who played guest percussion on the original recording of this or that track (better still if they were uncredited).

Documentary maker Andrew Slater has not tried to trick it up too much, relying instead on words from the horse’s mouths. The front man/interviewer is Jakob Dylan (yes, the son of Bob and Sara) who is a gentle soul and who knows better than to get in the way of the old farts’ reminiscing. He is also a muso himself, of course, and clearly loves this music as is shown in intercut contemporary concert footage when he and his band recreate (quite faithfully) various songs from the era.

The hook, as it were, is the location Laurel Canyon, a leafy Californian suburb that was home to ‘everyone’ from The Mamas and the Papas to Frank Zappa. This quickly grew into a fertile scene in which anyone could rock up to anyone’s house with a guitar and a few joints and be sure of jamming and writing songs all night. The thread is more or less chronological, beginning with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds who is credited with starting a new sound by fusing old folk songs with rock guitar amplification.

Actually, (Bob) Dylan had also thought of this and he is the absent centre of this universe as he doesn’t appear at all here or get directly cited much. The gender dimension is also uncommented upon. The bands are all hippyish men with the occasional female singer up front. Michelle Phillips, who beguiled (and bedded), so many rockers back then, gets to say her piece here but Joni Mitchell, perhaps the greatest female songwriter/performer of this generation, isn’t mentioned once.

What we do get though, is lots of studio reminiscences and some stories about who liked whose music and some inhouse gossip, some of it spicy, much of it mutually reverential.

There are also lots of shots of the various famous studios and their mixing desks, though there is precious little studio jamming footage.

It is quite a cast list, though. There are about a dozen ‘big names’ from this era here and you get the sense that it was timely to make the film now before people are no longer around or able to contribute. For example, the film features interview footage of Tom Petty (recently deceased) to whom the film is dedicated.

Much is made of the cross fertilisation of styles, and the relationship between British bands and this emerging scene. Interestingly, the one they all revere, and who contributes nice interview sound bites here, is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He professes to have ‘loved’ the Beatles and he kept a close eye on what Lennon and McCartney were doing with their harmonies and their innovative recording techniques. It gets almost Biblical here with a lineage of cascading influences. So, Rubber Soul begat Pet Sounds and Pet Sounds begat Sergeant Pepper’s and hallowed be their names.

Because there isn’t quite enough of the original music, either informally played or in classic concert footage, this can’t quite go down as one of the truly great rockumentaries, but for anyone who formed their musical tastes around these big talents, this is a delightful wallow.

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All Hail the Popcorn King

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There is no writer like Joe R. Lansdale, the man is a genre unto himself. The criminally underrated East Texan wordsmith has been thrilling those in the know since the early 1980s, releasing a staggering number of novels, novellas, short stories and scripts, including The Drive-In, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Bottoms and the Hap and Leonard series. Despite the complete and total adoration of artists and celebrities like Stephen King, Joe Hill, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Bruce Campbell, Don Coscarelli (and many, many more), Joe’s never quite hit mainstream success, occupying a space somewhere in the cult or indie realm. This is a savage injustice, as Lansdale pens some of the most vivid, deranged yet heartfelt yarns ever scribed by (bizarre) human hands, and freshly cooked documentary, All Hail the Popcorn King seeks to correct it.

All Hail the Popcorn King, directed by the wonderfully-named Hansi Oppenheimer, is clearly a low budget labour of love. Fittingly, a large portion of the screen time features Joe on his own self-describing where he came from and why he writes. Lansdale is a natural born storyteller, who can’t help but spin a yarn even when he’s just chatting, and Popcorn King’s best moments have Joe holding court on all manner of subjects including film, Texas, the nature of politics and racism in America. The rest of the doco features famous admirers of Lansdale – like Bruce Campbell and Joe Hill – giving their impressions of the man, with Campbell in particular offering hilarious insight into why you should both admire his writing but “not fuck with [him]” (Joe both knows and teaches martial artists, y’see).

As pleasing as these observations are to long term fans of Lansdale, it would have been great if the documentary had included more material for newbies. Not much time is spent on Joe’s actual written works, and with so many wonderful talents on board, a couple of paragraphs from The Drive-In or Bubba Ho-Tep read by these luminaries would have sold the premise much more effectively. The documentary is also quite clearly made on the cheap, so the sound and visual quality is variable, which may be distracting to some.

That said, All Hail the Popcorn King does effectively convey the love of rabid fans (of which your humble reviewer is certainly one), and the sheer unbridled charm of champion Joe R. Lansdale. Freewheeling, and occasionally undisciplined, it nonetheless offers an insight into a fascinating, unique artist who in a just and decent world would be a beloved household name.

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Slow-motion, skull-cracking violence sets the scene for Below, inspired by Ian Wilding’s award-winning play of the same name. Wilding’s screenplay shifts the action from a mining town to a slightly dystopian outback immigration detention centre run by the evil guards from Newhaven Border Solutions, no doubt privatised out by the Australian Government. Dark web con-artist Dougie (Ryan Corr) finds himself working there to repay a debt to his Scottish stepfather and detention centre guard Terry (an almost unrecognisable Anthony LaPaglia), after an online bribery scam he sets up under the moniker ‘Dreadnought’ goes south.  

Detainees faced with little to no chance of freedom are microchipped and numbered. Self-harm becomes the norm, so to flatten the curve inmates, or their extended family members, are threatened with a trip to ‘the cage’ as punishment. Curve flattened, Terry and his cohorts reinvent the cage as a fight club for their captives. Ever the shyster, Dougie revitalises his Dreadnought persona and offers a live stream of the fights to voyeurs on the dark web. When champion fighter Azad (great work from Phoenix Raei) cops a shiv to the throat, Dougie’s conscience kicks in and he must find a way to help Azad’s orphaned little sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell) escape to a new life of freedom in Australia.

Skilfully directed by Maziar Lahooti on his first feature-length film, Below paints a pitch-black comic portrait around the horrors of Australian immigration detention. At one point Dougie exclaims ‘every day in here is like a holocaust movie’, he wants out, so sets up another pay per view fight, this time between detainee ‘King Ciggy’ (Robert Rabiah) and three double-ended dildo wielding female MMA fighters (Deanna Cooney, Lee-Ann Temnyk, Shimain Osbourne).

Performances are inventive and energetic, with Corr and LaPaglia excellent and Morgana O’Reilly as detainee guard Michelle hilarious. Director of photography Michael McDermott adds another character to the film with his footage of the foreboding detention centre.

Below‘s darkly comic undertones don’t shy away from the nightmare existence of a people locked away in a system designed to break them. Lahooti’s film, while bleak, shines a light on Australia’s moral compass and when those ethics are questioned, we’re left with a glimmer of hope.