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Benjamin

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Though best known for playing Danny Tanner on the TV sitcom Full House and hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos (remember that one?), Bob Saget’s creative tendencies on the whole veer into far darker territory. His stand-up comedy is coarse and full of F-bombs, and he famously parodied himself to shocking effect on TV’s Entourage. Saget also has a sideline career as a director, with titles like Dirty Work with fellow comic Norm MacDonald and the full-tilt piss-take Farce Of The Penguins. Benjamin is his most ambitious film yet, and like his very career itself, it walks a fine line between sentiment and outrageous political incorrectness. Driven on by the script from Joshua Turek (making his feature debut after a host of shorts), Saget doesn’t hold back on this comedy about a bizarre case of family fracture.

When the harried, anxious Ed (Saget) discovers drug paraphernalia belonging to his quiet, near somnambulant teenage son Benjamin (Mark Burkholder), he does what any parent would do: he stages an intervention, and invites over seemingly everybody he knows. There’s his cocky brother Rick (Kevin Pollak); his best friend, also Ed (Rob Corddry); his personal assistant come lover Jeanette (Mary Lynn Rajskub); his daughter Amber (Clara Mamet) and her two boy pals; his ex-wife Marley (Peri Gilpin); and two distant relatives (Cheri Oteri, Dave Foley) who proceed to lift all of his removable possessions as soon as they arrive. Once in place, the intervention soon takes second place to the bizarre interactions between this truly strange collection of characters.

With its single location, heavy reliance on dialogue over action, and uninhibited ensemble cast, Benjamin feels curiously like an adaptation of a stage play that never was. Its insularity, however, is exploded by the inherent kookiness of the script and the inventive performances of the cast, all of whom are more than happy to “go there.” Featuring quite possibly the (intentionally) worst man-on-man fight scene ever filmed and an amusingly loose approach to subjects like drugs, cross-dressing, infidelity, and family relationships, the very funny (and often very wrong) Benjamin is another appropriately original entry in the career of Bob Saget.

 
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Bloodline

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Evan (Seann William Scott) is a school counsellor, specialising in at risk teens. An upfront montage highlights the frustration and rigid routine of his job. He reaches out to his students, but they, for various reasons, can’t quite accept help. Believing that their parents lie at the heart of their problems, Evan does what any good counsellor would do and – checks notes – kills them in the dead of night.

He may have a different name and career, but Bloodline’s protagonist is essentially Dexter, the role made famous by Michael C Hall in Showtime’s hit series. Evan researches his victim’s crimes, kidnaps them and gets them to figuratively spill their guts before he literally does. At home, Evan’s wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga) is none the wiser and doesn’t question Evan’s night-time disappearances too much; just so long as he helps look after their newborn son.

Writer and director Henry Jacobson shakes things up for our sympathetic killer in the shape of Evan’s mother, Marie (Dale Dickey). Marie appears to have a strong hold over her son and is not against ignoring her daughter in law’s requests. It’s this three way dynamic that gives the film its dramatic conflict. Sort of.

Bloodline is a De Palma-esque thriller that is visually stunning to say the least; all split screens and red and blue lighting. Jacobson and his team have certainly pulled out all the stops to make a confronting and, at times, beautifully violent film. It’s just gorgeous enough to forgive the wheel spinning that comes in the second half of the film.

With Evan’s extracurricular activities looking like they’re about to be exposed, there’s never a suitable amount of tension. Additionally, whilst Marie and Lauren clearly don’t like each other, for the most part it doesn’t really go anywhere. That is until a last minute twist is all but signposted by Marie in the final sprint to the end. It’s a bit like fast food really. The ending satisfies to some extent, but you’ll likely be wanting something more.

That said, aside from its visuals and camera tricks, Bloodline does serve up a great performance by Scott. Channelling his inner Patrick Bateman – albeit a lower middle class version – the actor convincingly looks like he wants to care for you or stab you in the belly with zero remorse. Coupled with a gripping turn by Dickey, his performance suggests that everything could have worked out for Norman Bates if he just talked about his feelings once in a while.

Wearing its influences on its sleeve, Bloodline is an entertaining 90 minutes that doesn’t outstay its welcome and is a strong feature length debut for its director.

 
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The Trip to Greece

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“Where shall we go next?” “Oh, Greece is nice this time of year”. “Yes, let’s go there.” Is this the conversation that pertains in the planning meetings for Michael Winterbottom’s now extensive series starring two comedians going on a trip?

Whatever prompts their choices or governs their schedule (and of course they won’t be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future), this series has gathered some loyal fans.

Once again, we have Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves and bantering and bumbling along in enviable locations. They have the grace not to play themselves as too perfect, but this too is becoming part of the shtick. Steve is a bit vain and self-aggrandising (but he has shown a broader range as an actor and screen writer in real life than Brydon), but prone to flirting and taking offence at imagined slights. Rob is more the family man; more stable perhaps, and his job is to gently needle his friend. This time there is a major drama for one of them but somehow the gravity of this can’t be treated too head on for fear of spoiling the whole concoction.

Both of the performers are killer mimics, of course, and the greatest pleasures here, as in the others, is when they riff on a theme or a celebrity and do whole conversations in character. Some of the voices they adopt would be better known to English audiences perhaps (Brydon’s version of playwright Alan Bennett is eerily perfect) but the ideas of the impromptu sketches are always funny in their own terms.

This time, there is a running gag that they are following in Odysseus’s footsteps and so there is room to do a kind of Horrible Histories piss take on mythical heroes’ travails. But this never really had much legs. Also, usually there is more concentration upon the food which is traditionally a mix of gourmet restaurants and perfect local eateries. This time, we scarcely catch the waiter’s description of the little plated marvels. An obligatory foreign waitress provides some opportunities for self-conscious flirtation.

It doesn’t seem to matter in one way, as it was never really about the food any more than it was about the views or the travel details. Then what IS it about? Well, that is both the mystery and the problem. The chemistry between them made it easy watching, and the banter often contained absolute gems. They have still got some of that, of course, and diehard fans will get something out of this repast.

 
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Seberg

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In May 1968, when this true story begins, the American actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) was about as big and acclaimed as it gets in France – to where she’d relocated – and famous enough back in the States. She was also committed to helping facilitate social change, and distinctly left-wing.

At the outset, Seberg temporarily leaves Paris – and her husband – to audition for Paint Your Wagon. En route, she meets black activist Hakim Jama (Anthony Mackie), with whom she has a fling in LA and who she assists financially and otherwise. As Jama wryly but accurately observes, “We have to wave a gun to get attention. You get your hair cut and you’re on the cover of Life Magazine.” Seberg is also seen publicly demonstrating her support for the Black Panther Party. This is not, needless to say, a stance calculated to endear her to the FBI – who set about a sustained campaign of bugging and other surveillance, intrusion, manipulation, dirty tricks and (in Seberg’s own accurate one-word summation) “persecution”. Seberg is brave and resolute, but – as you would – she becomes increasingly affected and distressed by this nightmarish ongoing experience.

Hollywood doesn’t have an especially impressive track record when it comes to dealing with this kind of subject matter. So, it’s something of a pleasant surprise to report that Seberg is intelligently scripted and keeps relatively – if not rigorously – close to the facts. It’s also quite engrossing, and Kirsten Stewart is excellent in a demanding role.

 
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The Peanut Butter Falcon

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Disability is a tricky subject to tackle in any regard, even more so in the realms of fiction. The long-running cliché of abled-actors-taking-on-disabled-roles-almost-guaranteed-industry-award-winners is a cliché for a reason, epitomising the still-recurring treatment of those with a disability in the popular consciousness.

For the longest time, characters with disability populated middle-of-the-road weepies that, rather than try and speak truth to the experience and what it’s like to live within it, exist primarily to give abled audiences an open chance for cheap ‘inspiration’, a moment to reconsider their own lives through the most voyeuristic lens there is.

There will always be some that break away from the pack, though. Mary And Max would be one. Last year’s Kairos is another. And this film joins that shortlist.

Written around the filmmakers’ own relationship with budding actor Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is as much southern-fried contemplation as it is reworking of classic American fiction. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’ script plays around with age-old Mark Twainian tropes, making for a remarkable recontextualisation.

Gottsagen’s aspiring wrestler captures the pure innocence of Huck, while Shia LaBeouf takes time away from multimedia plagiarism and existence as a living meme to give a surprisingly strong performance as a loner fisherman, whose quick-thinking echoes Tom Sawyer’s street-smarts.

And along with adept performances from Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and even rapper Yelawolf in the supporting cast, the main trio is closed out with Dakota Johnson as Zack’s carer, the Widow Douglas of the story, whose concern comes not from piety but from being part of the abled consensus.

Of course, this being one-to-one allegory would’ve been too easy, and the film’s reworking of the classic tale of vagabonds and their friction against what can charitably be called ‘civilization’, shows incredibly clarity. It takes the original themes of struggling to fit in with society and refocuses it through Gottsagen and LaBeouf characters, showing how the lives of the disabled and the wage slaves represent a sizeable amount of modern-day alienation.

In LaBeouf’s Tyler, the struggle to work and live can be sabotaged by those who think a shared suffering is reason enough to continue inflicting it on others, as shown through John Hawkes’ Duncan. And in Zack, it’s how even the most well-meaning of people can still be part of the same system that demeans and ultimate infantilises the disabled.

Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor may refrain from using the word ‘retard’, but that doesn’t make her any less guilty of holding Zack back as much as those who use it in earnest, an unfortunately common notion that rarely gets brought up in the larger conversation.

It’s a parable on the outsider, with a lot of healthy rumination of disability in the mix, but like the best efforts, it doesn’t make a big show of ‘daring to talk about it’. The Peanut Butter Falcon appeals for empathy and the humanity that exists in all, regardless of health, wealth or racial label, and rather than just telling everyone it’s doing so, it makes a greater impact by showing it.

 
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A Guide to Second Date Sex

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Earlier this year, Aussie audiences were greeted with the film Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age drama that took a weirdly specific and under-represented demographic within that genre and, through an uncanny understanding of human emotionality, crafted a story that gave viewers of all ages something to relate to. While A Guide To Second Date Sex may not be focused on the same ideas of social isolation and growing up, it is also a film that takes a weirdly specific and under-represented aspect of its own sub-genre, this time with rom-coms, and turns it into something that is sure to give audiences all kinds of cringe.

Of course, that might make the film out to be far more painful than it actually is. It definitely gets squirmy, but unlike a lot of mainstream cringe comedy out there, it’s less from being uncomfortable at what’s being said and more because it’s difficult to figure out what one is even supposed to say in the first place.

Indeed, for Alexandra Roach’s Laura and George MacKay’s Ryan, both back in the dating game after a tough break-up, the story largely consists of them drowning in their self-consciousness, working only on the advice of the varyingly uninformed on how this is ‘supposed to’ work out.

First dates are a common rom-com scenario. Second dates, not so much. A situation where you have previous experience with the other person, but not enough of it to be clear on what their intentions are.

Born from writer/director Rachel Hirons’ stage play of the same name, most of the story takes place in Ryan’s apartment, the close-up framing putting the audience in the same awkward proximity as the main characters. There are very few cuts to be found, save for the transitions between their first date and their current position, meaning that we get to see all of the struggling to find appropriate glasses for port, the last-minute grooming, and the bonding over what they think Jennifer Aniston smells like, all in close-enough-to-real-time.

It makes for a refreshingly relatable offering, built more on genuine human interaction as opposed to working through clichés. But where it gets interesting is when the apartment gets a bit more crowded and one of the exes gets involved.

Artificially raising the tension in this matter is when the clichés could have started flooding in… but instead, it’s couched in the same confusion over what the right social cues are.

Basically, it compares real life with the fabricated reality found in most rom-coms, and the result is much like what preceded it: Cringe that gives way to crippling fits of laughter. Those who have a taste for rom-coms, or just those who like relating to people in films, for better and for worse, should definitely check this one out.

 
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Downhill

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Is it too much to expect remakes to be as good, or at least as notable, as the original? In the age of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and even Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, there’s more reason to think so than one would expect. But then, the typical feelings come rushing in, and when attached to a film with a title that’s basically a kick-me sign for pull-quote-seeking critics, it can feel all too obvious to even point out. So, before getting into the remake issues here, let’s dive into the everything-else-that-is-wrong issues with this thing.

An ostensible black comedy, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back) never manage to find the right tonal lane to make the main premise work to their advantage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus far exceeds the material she’s given (which given the plot’s mild resemblance to Seinfeld’s ‘The Fire’, that might be because she’s technically done it already), but she’s the only one who manages to sell the crumbling mood of the core marital friction.

Otherwise, it’s Will Ferrell on his Daddy’s Home kick once again, their sons who look about as psyched to be here as we are, and Mirando Otto as the kind of European caricature that might fill some audiences with the urge to chew through their armrests. It’s difficult to take seriously, and even more difficult to find funny. Especially when the humour is largely derived from talking too loud, talking for too long, not talking loud or long enough, and social cringe that only highlights the discomfort, rather than the social norms that create it in the first place.

It’s a pretty tired affair all on its own, but as a remake of 2014’s Force Majeure, its flaws only grow even deeper. Any resemblance of psychological edge that existed in the original has been essentially babyproofed, lest the actors catch themselves on an actual point to what they’re saying or doing, and whatever genuinely interesting ideas it presented are replaced with middle-aged ennui that is as bland as anything. Both because the dialogue is just that weak, and the characters spouting it are lacking in tangible empathy or even humanity.

The only person here who looks more out of place than Louis-Dreyfus is Jesse Armstrong in the writer’s room, as his work with Mitchell & Webb, Chris Morris and even his stint on Black Mirror show that he can balance dark comedy with an even darker examination of the human animal. But instead, he and everyone else’s talents are wasted on a project that epitomises the worst case scenario for an American remake of a European film: A grating, gentrified mess that reflects Ugly Americanisms, both as a production and as cinematic narrative.

Maybe it’ll convince some audiences to check out the original, but with how much this has hacked it to pieces, all without adding anything of its own worth to the mix, it wouldn’t be surprising if it completely turned people away from ever looking at Force Majeure. And that, quite frankly, is the worst thing that a remake can do.

 
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Motherless Brooklyn

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Is there anything as satisfying as a well-made movie? Lovers of big, densely-plotted, period gangster films will want to settle back for this one. The film, based on the 1999 book by Jonathan Lethem (who co-wrote the screenplay with director/actor Edward Norton), tells the classic American story of city development, crime and politics bundled together.  In fact, Motherless Brooklyn is something of a one man show for Edward Norton who not only directs here with great flair but gives one of his most complex screen portrayals.

The action takes place in 1950s New York, the city is growing and there’s huge money to be made in planning the transport corridors and building and redesigning (or obliterating) neighbourhoods. In this drama, there is one patriarch cum megalomaniac whose decisions seem to count most and to whom more and more power accrues. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin at his bellicose best) is already wealthy but mere money no longer interests him; now his more refined lust is power for power’s sake. Every residents’ organisation or individual citizen who gets in his way is regarded as a mere fly to swat.

At the other end of the scale is the humble private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton). Lionel is as organic to the city as Randolph. He was brought up an orphan and his mentor Frank Minna (a wonderful turn from Bruce Willis) nicknamed him ‘motherless Brooklyn’. Lionel has Tourette Syndrome but when he is not barking out repetitive nonsense, his mind is like a steel trap and he remembers everything that he hears. Norton makes much of Lionel’s verbal tics and mannerisms from the get-go, in a way that seems almost showy or excessively mannered, but such is the actor’s commitment to the portrayal that we come to love Lionel and find in his flaws all the more reason to root for him.

The film is densely plotted in a sort of ‘let’s lose everyone’, Maltese Falcon kind of way. This sometimes requires actors to devote whole scenes to expository dialogue about who is double crossing whom, but it is a very small flaw. The reliance on the Marlow-esque hard boiled dialogue/narration is another genre staple which could be over relied upon, but which is mostly sharp and literate and not too intrusive or contrived here.

Motherless Brooklyn is beautifully shot (great work from British DOP Dick Pope) and the period recreation is smoothly done, from the classic cars to the interiors and the great clothes. There is also a great jazz score from Daniel Pemberton and a complex role for the riveting Gugu Mbatha-Raw. All the elements combine to an accumulative effect. Like Randolph’s grand constructions, the film is built to last.

Every now and then a film comes along where the care and craft combine to give it an instantly recognisable solidity and watchability. LA Confidential might be a point of comparison. Polanski’s Chinatown is perhaps the granddaddy of them all. This one is a worthy addition to that pantheon.

 
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A Hidden Life

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There are some things in life you can’t rush, like ageing a single malt or a Terrence Malick film. Of course, both are an acquired taste. Malick broke into the American film world with Badlands back in 1973 and, though he has written and filmed nearly twenty stories since, his filmography has been both drawn out and patchy. Not that he would care, this most ‘European’ of American directors never seems to listen to anyone when he is on a quest to film things his way. His films can also feel terribly long and demand a lot from audiences. Be warned this one is no different.

It tells the story a German man trying to pull away from the second world war madness. Franz’s (August Diehl) father died in the trenches in WW1 and so he has an understandable detestation of war. When he sees his country lurching into the collective madness of Nazism, he resolves to flee with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) to the rural life. Things go well for a while and he and Fani find the heavy labour of farming both rewarding and absorbing.

Alas, Franz has to join up. Eventually he is back in the village and, this time he is determined to stay away from active service. Unfortunately, the villagers regard him as a traitor and do nothing to shield him from the jackboots brigades that come to haul him off to jail as an objector. Fani is left to look after their three little girls but at least she has her sister to share the farm work.

Malick’s deliberately stylised touches are in evidence throughout. There are the strangely low-level prowling camera angles mixed with beautiful wide vistas that set Franz up against the sky like a poster hero. Then there are oddly oblique interactions with the people around him, the muttering and side long glances from the villagers, and the deep and meaningfuls with his devoted wife. In many ways, Franz remains an enigma. He is engaged in a Lutheresque conversation with God and his conscience, and that implies a sense of purpose more important than earthly existence.

Even his choices and motives are open to question though. One character suggests that God judges not so much by a person’s actions, as by what is in their heart. So why doesn’t Franz just play along till the national madness blows over, thereby saving himself and his family all this heartache? Of course, there would be no film then, at least not the three tortuous hours that Malick devotes to his plight.

Malick is widely read in philosophy and (see for example 2011’s The Tree of Life), and he is clearly obsessed with the ineffable beauty and mystery of life. That this can never be explained doesn’t foreclose his sense of wonder or inflicting it on us. Whether the audience will forgive his getting lost in all this burdensome rapture, is itself another kind of mystery.

 
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Hostage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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