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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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The Babysitter

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Following on from her turn in the Australian psychological thriller Bad Girl, Samara Weaving is once again hiding evil intent under a welcoming, not to mention sexually alluring, facade in the Netlfix original horror comedy, The Babysitter.

Weaving is Bee, teenage babysitter and object of both affection and desire to her 12 year old charge, Cole (Judah Lewis). And why not? For one thing, she looks like Samara Weaving, positioned as a very American kind of adolescent sex dream via director McG’s exceedingly male-gazey camera, all short shorts, perfect teeth and honey-coloured hair.  For another, she’s the kind of “cool girl” who can go answer for answer at sci-fi trivia games and quote along to a cult movie like Billy Jack (screenwriter Brian Duffield might be indulging in a little wish fulfillment here, bless him).

But she’s eeeevil, and plans to use Cole as a blood sacrifice in a magic ritual, along with the help of her hunky and hot high school coven (Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Andrew Bachelor, Hana Mae Lee). And so we’re off on a horrific Home Alone riff (the film even openly acknowledges the debt via dialogue at one point), with Cole trying to stay out of the cult’s clutches as the body count rises and the claret is spilled with gusto.

The Babysitter sits right at the crossroads of Passable and Problematic – if McG’s lens leering at Weaving and her co-stars is a dealbreaker for you, it’s best to steer clear (to be fair, Amell spends most of the film shirtless – a concession for those whose tastes run to beefcake). There’s some business about Cole undergoing a rite de passage, but it never hits home enough to give the proceedings any real emotional heft. We do get some fun gore gags, though, from one hapless character taking a fire poker through the eye socket, to another straight up exploding in a welter of gore.

McG has never been the most restrained of directors, and even here he doesn’t trust the guileless material to connect with the audience, peppering the already OTT story with jarring freeze-frames and to-the-audience captions  – think Zombieland, but not as sly. Still, he handles the action well, which is the main KPI in something like this.

The Babysitter is not going to set anyone’s world on fire, but strong, engaging performances, a brisk pace, and a cheerfully perverse, juvenile attitude to boobs and blood means there’s definitely an audience who will groove to its undeniable but still limited charms.

 
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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.

 
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Taboo Season 1

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Ugliness is an integral part of the aesthetic in Taboo. The take on early 19th century London it presents is not a pleasant one, all mud, blood, offal, corruption, and horror. Even its characters are a parade of grotesques, looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Mervyn Peake novel.

It’s a fascinating world we’re thrust into, though: the tail end of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, at the dawn of modern corporate dominance in the form of the British East India Company, the powerful merchant concern who are our villains here. Our “hero”, for want of a better term, is Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, long thought dead in some African hellhole and greatly upsetting the apple cart when he returns to London to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father.

Part of his inheritance is a vital spit of land on the Canadian/US border, which will be of strategic import in coming negotiations. The East India Company, largely represented by Jonathan Pryce’s conniving chairman, are of the opinion that the world would be a better place if James wasn’t in it, but they haven’t reckoned with the kind of man who has returned from Africa: tattooed, scarred, and a rumoured cannibal. But is James’ pragmatic savagery any match for the monolithic Company?

Taboo is OTT in the best and most gloriously Gothic sense of the word, offering up a feast of brutality and sensuality as our enigmatic hero, cutting a menacing figure in his stovepipe hat and long coat, negotiates high society and low in his quest for allies and advantage. He’s more at home in the gutters, it seems, winning Stephen Graham’s criminal Atticus to his cause, but is just as formidable cutting a deal with American spy Dr Dumbarton (Michael Delaney), or getting up in the grill of Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), upper class husband to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Is there incestuous desire between James and Zilpha? Of course there is, because Taboo throws every Gothic and Victorian literature trope into the blender and then spills it all out on the screen, like the result of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole going on an absinthe bender together. What elevates it is a modern political sensibility that approaches topics such as class, race, colonialism, and corporate malfeasance with an astute eye – while still allowing space for the odd disemboweling.

At the centre of it all is Hardy, giving a performance as magnetic as any other in his career as the opaque and ruthless James. He’s ostensibly our point of view character, but for much of the series he remains as much a mystery to the viewer as he is to the rest of the cast of characters – Hardy’s sheer watchability carries us through, though, even if we’re left as witnesses rather than participants in the drama.

A grim romp with plenty of secrets, lies, violence and the odd grand guignol sequence, Taboo is an enjoyably idiosyncratic drama –  call it Peaky Blinders: The Early Years, or Boardwalk Empire 1814 if you need a quick shorthand. Such glib descriptions do it something of a disservice, though; while the ingredients might be familiar, in combination they result in a fresh flavour that is unlike anything else we’ve yet seen in the increasingly popular “adult historical melodrama” genre.

 
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Dead Hands Dig Deep

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In the annals of shock rock, Edwin Borsheim, lead singer of Californian extreme metal band Kettle Cadaver, is a relatively unknown commodity. Now, thanks to the work of young Australian filmmaker, Jai Love, he is immortal. Whether that’s for the best is an exercise left to the viewer – suffice to say, once encountered, Borsheim is difficult to forget.

Combining to-camera interviews with archival concert footage, Dead Hands Dig Deep is a portrait of the artist as a young psychopath. A profoundly damaged man from an almost indescribably abusive background, Borsheim used his work with Kettle Cadaver to process and express his issues – which means, in this case, on stage self-mutilation of the most extreme kind, exhorting his fans to commit suicide, violence and, in one memorable case, sexual congress with a dead coyote. One concert got shut down after just 26 seconds, which is surely some kind of record.

However, that was back in the ’90s. When we meet the Borsheim of today, his band scattered, he’s a lonely, alienated figure, holed up in his desert compound, surrounded by grotesque memorabilia and horrifying artifacts (skeletons, animal parts, homemade weapons and torture implements) and largely abandoned by the world. Interviews with friend and former bandmates hammer home the impression that Borsheim’s insistence of always going to the most extreme lengths possible in his life, art and violence have left him with no travelling companions, even in the often shocking world of extreme metal. His current existence, alone in his hand-built house of horrors with only the effigy of ex-wife, Christian Death’s Eva O, for company, is a singularly sad yet strangely noble one; with the world holding no place for him, he has built a world of his own, and if no one would want to share it with him, then so be it.

There’s a lot to shock the audience here, and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to Dead Hands Dig Deep by the promise of extreme, outre imagery, but this is, at heart, a humane and sympathetic film. Edwin Borsheim is probably not a person you’d want ’round for dinner, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the depth of his pain and his clear inability to express it in any more socially acceptable form. Dead Hands Dig Deep could have been a shallow freak show; instead, it’s a perceptive look at a man in constant psychological crisis trying to make sense of what must be a torturous existence.

Slamdance is releasing Dead Hands Dig Deep on iTunes from September 15, 2017

 
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Ozark

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If you ever wondered how Narcos’s Pablo Escobar gets his money laundered, Netflix is back with a show for you. Ozark, created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (who worked together recently as writer and producer on The Accountant, respectively), is Netflix’s latest original drama, and shows a side of drug smuggling rarely portrayed on screen: the banking.

Jason Bateman plays financial planner Marty Byrd, who goes into business with a cartel to launder money. After his business partner is caught stealing money, Marty and his family have to move to the Ozarks (the same region that served as the setting for Winter’s Bone), a rural area in the middle of America, to launder an incredible amount of money for the cartel or risk death. What they find is not a pristine lakeside community, but rather an area filled with problems that further risk their lives.

It’s Breaking Bad with a financial planner and set on a lake, and fans of the series will find it rewarding, but Ozark does not exceed expectations. The cast is fantastic and the show will hook you in, but it is not a groundbreaking show in its genre.

Jason Bateman’s Marty is a departure from his deadpan/straight man comedy shtick that has helped him become such a likeable presence on screen. Along with his recent turn in Joel Edgerton’s masterful The Gift, Ozark is clearly a way to diversify and break out, and this is reinforced by Bateman directing and executive producing on the series. Despite one “Buddy” bit of dialogue reminiscent of Michael Bluth, Bateman convincingly plays Marty with a new degree of intensity.

Laura Linney also stars as Wendy, a matriarch secretly just as strong-willed and determined as her husband Marty, or any of the influencers in the lakeside area. Linney gives emotional heft to many of the series’ key turning points, reminding the audience that a family is at the center of this laundering scheme. Linney is able to convey the desperation of a woman on the edge in scenes where her character is forced to keep it together for her family and her life.

Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner play Marty and Wendy’s children, Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. The family dynamic is more central to the storyline than in other dramas, which allows the young actors to explore the ways that the (in this case extreme) actions of their parents would affect children at these ages.

Julia Gardner steals scenes as Ruth Langmore, a kleptomaniacal Ozark native that becomes a major player in Marty’s life. Jason Butler Harner plays Roy Petty, a manipulative and borderline sociopathic FBI agent tracking down the family from a motel room. Petty prioritises ending the drug cartel over his relationships, including one with another FBI agent, to a criminal fault, pointing to the moral that there are no innocents in this world.

The plot weaves elements from storylines into one another in a sophisticated way not seen in many other dramas. New challenges arise naturally out of existing circumstances rather than out of the blue, which further complicates the web of hatred and employment in the series.

Tropes of the crime drama, like competing gangs and FBI agents, take an Ozark-twist. “Redneck” drug dealers trade in opium while selling their poppy flowers in the farmer’s market and a pastor, played by Michael Mosley, preaches on the lake from his boat.

Ozark is a quiet drama set in a violent world, and while it’s not Breaking Bad, for those who like well-thought out criminal dramas, Ozark delivers. Between an all-star cast and an interesting set-up, located in an intriguing and relatively unknown environment, this new Netflix show is a great option for crime-show-lovers to binge.

 
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PLANS

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Diana Popovska and Peter William-Jamieson’s Australian web-series PLANS, premiered on YouTube this week. The Sydney shot series is intended to represent diverse queer stories on screen, and the first episode gives us a glimpse into what those stories will be.

The audience is introduced to a group of friends on Zia’s (Rahel Romahn) first day in Sydney. The group feels familiar to many ensemble series, which makes it approachable, but the characters in PLANS are unique and under-represented onscreen.

With such a large group of people and the short time frame necessary for an online series, some of the characters are lost in the mix and not entirely fleshed out in this premiere episode. It would be nice to get a little bit more sense of who these people are beyond their names and their love lives.

That being said, it is a good thing to want to see more of characters. The ensemble is interesting and the first episode a good introduction that scratches the surface on their lives.

Jay’s (Peter William-Jamieson) storyline, in particular, stands out as one that is bold and new. Various interest groups have called out against the cliché in film and television that kills off queer characters, termed: “Bury Your Gays.” It’s a trope that GLAAD, an LGBTQ media organisation, have denounced, especially because it usually serves as a superfluous way to advance straight characters’ storylines, according to their Where We Are on TV 2016-2017 report.

In Jay’s case, we find him grappling with an already deceased partner, a storyline that is usually ignored in traditional media. Rather than killing off a gay character for a straight person’s storyline, we see how a gay man is grieving with loss. This story, alongside other queer narratives, is where PLANS shines. By bringing attention to queer people in groundbreaking ways, it can bring in audiences that crave representation on screen.

The soundtrack (ALPHAMAMMA, Annabel Weston, Bree Tranter, Edward R., Enola Gay, Haiku, Inti Ray, IV League, Justine Eltakchi, Kat Vinter, Leanne Russo, Leura, Little Hart, Lyall Moloney, Majora, Malo Zima, Moon Holiday, Nic Cassey, Rainbow Chan, Twin Caverns, Violet Swells, Yuuca, and Zane Francis) is as enjoyable as the narrative and, while some of the lines are delivered in an awkward manner, the majority of the writing and acting is natural, particularly the food fight and scenes between Alice (Katie Robertson) and Koby (Johnny Emery). The passion that was obviously put into the web series will no doubt push it to increase in quality as word, and viewership, increases.

PLANS is a perfect example of the benefits of online media as a way to showcase diverse stories. Queer characters do not regularly star in every series, and an independent online production is one of the best ways for filmmakers to explore these characters and reach an international audience that craves representation.

All up there’ll be seven episodes, with new episodes released every Sunday. We’ll certainly be, um, making plans to tune in to find out how it all pans out.

Check out the first episode right here:

 
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Okja

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Eleven years ago, Bong Joon-ho released The Host, a monster movie about a deformed amphibian emerging from the deep to wreak havoc in the heart of Seoul. Okja, the story of a genetically modified but sympathetic ‘super-pig’ created by an evil, greedy multinational corporation, is very much the mirror image of that movie, right down to the final shot, which echoes almost exactly that of The Host in conception and symbolism.

Bong, though unconcerned with adherence to any one genre, specialises in intrusions of the random and terrifying into ordinary lives, and the desperate attempts of the individuals involved to reclaim some semblance of normality, against a swirling and confused social backdrop.

Appreciably more global and less insular in vision than Bong’s other work, Okja boasts an eclectic international cast, and structurally combines an assured first half in Korea with a screwball parody of the United States. The film is at its best when it’s the story of a girl and her pig.

The performance by 13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun is heartfelt and beguiling, and the super-pig is utterly convincing, both in its detail and the way it physically inhabits spaces. It helps to have the great cinematographer Darius Khondji capture the character of Seoul in the early chase scenes, particularly the close quarters of an underground mall and a heist on the Han River (is this another reference to The Host?). As various factions fight to claim Okja, Bong navigates his way through difficult tonal shifts, buoyed by a handful of distinctive moments (mostly involving Ahn interacting with the pig). Interestingly, Bong opts for a brighter colour scheme than his often sombre previous work, perhaps suggesting the grotesquery of capitalism as pageant.

The key problem of the film is that it’s too cerebral to be truly thrilling, yet lacks the depth to resonate as a think-piece (the environmental parable that Bong gestures towards doesn’t really bear thinking about too closely). Dialogue and performances tend towards the mannered – Jake Gyllenhaal is the worst offender, going irritatingly over the top – while secondary characters are not fully rounded, especially the activists from the Animal Liberation Front. And the abruptness of the climax brings the film lurching to a halt.

Okja reaches for great heights and doesn’t always get there. But major films with this kind of imagination and inventiveness are rare enough that you grant Bong his indulgences.

 
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A Fighting Season

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Cinematographer Oden Roberts makes his directorial debut with this low key but closely observed drama which puts the focus firmly on the business side of the military-industrial complex.

It is 2007 and America is ramping up its involvement in Iraq, necessitating more feet to fill the boots that will soon be on the ground. Our field of play here is an Army recruiting office, where two very different soldiers are tasked with convincing largely young, impoverished, and uneducated people to find out if they can be all they can be. Sergeant Harris (Lew Temple) is a veteran of the recruiting office, a cynic who knows how to work the recruiting system to maximise his results. Sergeant Mason (Clayne Crawford) has recently returned from combat deployment and has first hand knowledge at what these young people are getting sent into. Conflict is, of course, inevitable.

Has there ever been a film that looks at the coalface of marketing the military before? Our characters’ remit here is to sell the idea of a life in the Army to a never-ending parade of young hopefuls, and the techniques they use will be familiar to anyone who has put in time in a commission-based sales role – or, indeed, seen Glengarry Glen Ross. Of course, the motivating force being applied isn’t the carrot of a fat bonus, but the stick of overseas deployment – something Mason relishes, but Harris, a rear echelon lifer, is mortified by. Thus, to save his comfortable position (and his own skin) Harris uses every trick in the book to hit his recruiting targets, while Mason, himself suffering PTSD, becomes increasingly disgusted with the whole operation.

The film, made on an incredibly low budget, lives in the interplay between the two, and thanks to strong performances, it works a treat. A Fighting Season‘s area of inquiry is the morality of marketing the military, and the dubious snake oil tactics used to entice the vulnerable to sign up for a hitch. It’s a workplace drama, in effect, but never lets you forget the stakes are literally life and death. This is a strong debut and a fascinating look at an under-represented facet of the military machine.

 
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Beyond Our Ken

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From the outside, Kenja Communications doesn’t look like a religious cult. Its founder is Ken Dyers, who looks more like a bloke you’d see at the local pub than some kind of spiritual guru. His wife and co-founder Jan Hamilton is a plummy wannabe actress. Their “disciples” are average looking Aussies.

But in this measured, intelligently presented and finely crafted documentary by Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, the layers are peeled back on Kenja to reveal a singularly creepy and unsettling institution. Dyers and Hamilton are interviewed at length and they quickly showcase themselves as primping, spotlight-craving oddballs peddling a curious practice called “energy conversion” and holding crappy looking stage shows that seem to exist solely to appease the very theatrical Jan Hamilton.

But when former members of Kenja are interviewed, things get decidedly darker, with allegations of mental and physical abuse, and questions raised about the organisation’s finances. But this is no witch hunt: the filmmakers maintain an even handed tone throughout, and give equal time to all parties. It’s ultimately Dyers and Hamilton who bring themselves undone, and Dyers’ final outburst – a screamed, defensive litany of anger and accusations – is highly unsettling and near-damning. It’s absorbing stuff, and the interest extends to a series of bonus interviews.