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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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The Kleptocrats

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Did you know The Wolf of Wall Street was funded by Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund? The Kleptocrats wants to make sure you never forget. This documentary on the ongoing, messy saga of 1MDB, the scheme that brought down Malaysia’s government and was so corrupt it could have made Hun Sen blush, is cleverly structured like a heist: the yellow titles even mimic Wolf of Wall Street.

The film is the product of years of investigative reporting by a motley crew of journalists, US Department of Justice lawsuits and persistent discontent from the Malaysian population. It must be the first film to lasso together the seemingly disparate worlds of the Hollywood entertainment industry and Southeast Asian crony politics. On the style front, it’s tremendously entertaining, flitting between the Cannes Film Festival and million-dollar Vegas parties (“I thought he was like Malaysian royalty, whatever that means,” drawls one entertainment promoter), and dominated by giddy overhead shots of New York and Kuala Lumpur.

A glance at the careers of directors Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking reveals much of their previous work has been on documenting white-collar crime, from jewellery theft to art fraud. The Kleptocrats glimmers on a surface level of personalities and intertextuality: it doesn’t have a lot of depth or thoroughness on a forensic level. An obvious drawback of that approach is that it privileges the voices of the investigative reporters who pursued and broke the story. The Malaysia material is touristy, with a few talking heads around the edges; virtually the only non-political voice comes from a student driven towards activism, and her presence is so fleeting as to feel like an afterthought. And who is Malaysia’s disgraced former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and what drove him? The film doesn’t offer any answers, even though it scores an interview with his brother, who you’d expect to be able to provide at least a few pointers.

Still, this is a story amply worthy of cinematic treatment, the outrageousness of the conspiracy outdone only by the clichéd way in which it was perpetrated.

 
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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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The Night Eats the World

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The zombie genre has become such an overused cliche that it’s even a cliche to talk about what a cliche it is, so we’ll spare you to the usual spiel. Point is, if you’re going to release a zombie flick in the year of our Dark Lord 2019, you’d better be bringing something fresh, unique and interesting to the table. Happily, The Night Eats the World manages at least a couple of those accolades and is an effective slice of genre filmmaking in its own right.

The Night Eats the World tells the tale of Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), a vaguely misanthropic musician who is reluctantly visiting his ex-girlfriend, Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) to retrieve some audio tapes he left with her. However, when he arrives there is a party in full swing and Sam, unable to get Fanny alone, retreats to a backroom and passes out. During the night chaos reigns and when Sam wakes up the next day, he faces a world that has completely changed, and the surprisingly spry dead are frenziedly feeding on the flesh of the living.

Anyone who has seen 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (1978 or 2004) or even Shaun of the Dead (or about six hundred others) will be familiar with the basic setup here. Where Night sets itself apart is through tone and perspective, which in this case is very French. Sam is a compelling protagonist, who reacts to most situations with an appealing sense of practicality, but he’s also troubled and possibly mentally unstable. This volatile mix adds a unique sense of tension to the proceedings, where we’re never sure how much to trust Sam’s perspective. The zombies, too, feel quite fresh, standing stationary until they see or hear something and then moving nightmarishly fast, similar to the Aussie undead in Cargo, but also completely silent; with nary a groan of a hiss to be heard from them. Combined with very little dialogue throughout the film, this imbues the movie with a curious sonic minimalism which is oddly effective and extremely creepy.

Ultimately, The Night Eats the World plays out like a French indie I Am Legend, with lashings of 28 Days Later-style fast paced action and surprising moments of existential rumination. It’s confidently directed by Dominique Rocher, extremely effectively acted by Anders Danielsen Lie and reminds even the most zombie agnostic why there’s still twitchy, toothy life left in this versatile sub-genre.

 
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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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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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Stay Human

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With the world regularly looking like it’s going down the toilet, how do we stay positive? That – though asked in far more eloquent words – is the question at the centre of this absorbing documentary.

Michael Franti, best known for his lyrical and musical work with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, fronts his own story, exploring what it means to be human, and how we can hold on to it in a complicated and unpredictable reality.

Franti takes the audience on a journey through his songs and creative processes and plays them alongside the inspiring tales of people he’s met throughout his career. These are people such as Robin Lim, a midwife who founded special birthing centres in the Philippines following the devastating effect of typhoons. She pinpoints the pain of living in the modern world as originating in how we are born, with the trauma of being surgically removed from the parent a hurt that takes many years to recover from.

The central fight for staying human is, in Franti’s view, the battle between cynicism and optimism. Steve and Hope Dezember are a couple with an integral role in the film, displaying this optimism and love of life, no matter what the circumstances. The pair’s enduring love is reflected in Hope’s commitment to her partner after he developed a diagnosis of the neurodegenrative disease ALS. The challenges faced by the couple, and their strength in enjoying every part of life, is captured beautifully, and served as a starting point for the film project itself.

A love for the whole world, and how humanity can help treat it better, is reflected in the story of Arief Rabik, a Balinese environmental scientist who has come up with an ingenious way of processing bamboo to reduce deforestation.

Franti also travels to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he meets two young people, Busisiwwe Vazi and Sive Mazinyo, who have inspired their local community through the power of music and education.

Franti’s own difficulties, including troubles with depression and a complicated relationship with his father and history as an adopted child, are movingly addressed. His passion and constant search for inspiring vision is at the beating heart of this powerful documentary, that shows how and why humans can remain engaged with life.

 
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Billionaire Boys Club

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There’s a stinky pall of cruel fate hovering over this retooling of 1989’s based-on-a-true-story TV movie, Billionaire Boys Club (which served as a starring vehicle for “Brat Packer” Judd Nelson). The story is a classic one: ‘80s excess and coke-fuelled youthful promise corrupted by greed and the sweaty-palmed clutch for cash.

Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) lives with his father, Ryan (Judd Nelson), and spends his days on the make, struggling to sell his stock market skills and coax over-cashed, feckless trust-fund brats into investing the money that their parents worked so very hard for. Enter Dean Karny (Taron Edgerton), an old school buddy whose ambition-fuelled trajectory intersects with Joe’s, and the two form an unholy alliance, as they spruik their “paradox philosophy”, a masturbatory exercise in business ethics and moral equivalency, conveniently negating morality and ethics that might serve to hinder money-making opportunities.

Such lunk-headed wisdom soon converts brothers, Scott Biltmore (Ryan Rottman) and Kyle Biltmore (Jeremy Irvine), who sign on board the fledgling BBC, an investment company which allegedly took its enigmatic acronym from “The Bombay Bicycle Club”, though once all the crooked and shady events had unspooled, it was dubbed by the media, “Billionaire Boys Club.”

BBC’s partners soon meet Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks mode), and it’s with Levin’s promise of mountains of investment cash that the young men’s dreams of mammon begin to take shape, and pretty soon it’s cavernous marble and glass apartments, coke lines on glass coffee tables, and pastel polo shirts with popped collars.

Though all is not what it seems, and the hustlers soon become the hustled, which eventually spirals into murderous deeds, orchestrating kidnappings, fraudulent Ponzi schemes and wrestling to the death with crazed, opium-addicted Iranians.

Look, this isn’t a bad film; in fact, it’s a fairly enjoyable cautionary yarn. Taron Egerton is slightly miscast as the conniving “Mean Dean” but he shoulders the part; Elgort offers much the same problem as he did in the catastrophically overrated Baby Driver: he’s a charisma vacuum and presents something of an issue in a story that requires audience connection with the plight of the lead character. Spacey is pretty good as the dodgy Ron Levin, hamming things up and sleazing his way through scenes.

Director James Cox (who previously directed Val Kilmer as porn icon John Holmes in Wonderland) really just copped an unlucky roll of the dice, in that this was the final performance of Kevin Spacey, before his career was immolated by the revelations of his predilection for aggressive sexual harassment. As a result, the film was shelved, and then after the dust settled on Spacey’s behaviour, and kicked into a measly theatrical release in order to honour contractual obligations. The resulting box office gross of $618 had to have been a kick in the teeth for the filmmakers; for Spacey, it’s something of a death knell for his cinematic career.

Overall, the treatment is too tepid to rub shoulders with The Wolf Of Wall Street and too derivative (despite being a true story) to set itself apart from other “impressionable guys getting in over their heads” movies (Oliver Stone’s return to the Wall Street well Money Never Sleeps and Todd Phillips’ War Dogs spring to mind). Okay movie, wrong actor, wrong time.

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.