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Murder At Yellowstone City

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Like jazz, rock’n’roll and junk food, the western is a distinctly and singularly American creation. Some of its finest practitioners, however, have been from well and truly outside the USA, with Europeans like Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), Sergio Leone (a whole host of 1960s gun-slinging masterpieces), Fritz Lang (Rancho Notorious), Michael Curtiz (Dodge City) and many, many more bringing their own internationalist sensibilities to this most traditional and deeply American of film genres. And while there have been many Australian westerns (check out our feature on Meat Pie Westerns), not too many Australian directors have made the cinematic journey into The Wild West, outside of the likes of Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) and Fred Schepisi (Barbarosa).

Now mounting up to join that rarefied group is talented local Richard Gray, who made his name in Australia with 2010’s Summer Coda and 2013’s Blinder before heading overseas and establishing himself as a reliable helmer of thrillers and adventures like Sugar Mountain, Broken Ghost, The Lookalike and Robert The Bruce. While he doesn’t turn the western genre inside out or dump it on its head, Gray brings a welcome freshness to The Old West with Murder At Yellowstone City, a moody character piece effectively rolled together with a compelling mystery and a thrilling guns-drawn confrontation piece.

In 1880s Montana, the tiny, sadly creaking town of Yellowstone City is on a downward slide after its mine closed and its denizens gave up the ghost when it came to striking gold. But when a dynamite charge from wildman prospector Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan) unearths a rich new seam, things are looking up for Yellowstone City. The next day, however, Dunnigan has a bullet in his back, and the town is sent into a bloodletting frenzy. Suspicions instantly land on African-American newcomer Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa), who comes under the protection of the town’s preacher (Thomas Jane) and his wife (Anna Camp). Sheriff Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne), meanwhile, wants to make sure that justice is seen to be done so he can restore order – and hope – to Yellowstone City.

Strongly scripted by Eric Belgau (who also penned Gray’s Robert The Bruce), Murder At Yellowstone City is a great exercise in slow-burn tension, as Gray gradually peels back the layers on his fascinating cast of characters, all of whom react to the film’s growing body count in a wide variety of ways. Almost playing out – in a cannily ironic flourish – like a classic “locked room mystery” on the open range, Murder At Yellowstone City effectively throws out red herrings galore and keeps audiences guessing, but not at the expense of its gritty, barren setting and dark sense of moodiness. Excellently performed across the board, and with a bevy of rich female characters to boot, Murder At Yellowstone City is a thoughtful exploration of the western genre from a keenly intelligent Australian director.

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Foxhole

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Directed (+ produced, written, scored and edited) by Jack Fessenden (Stray Bullets, son of Beck Underwood and Larry Fessenden, the latter producing here), this independent movie spans several decades in pursuit of that often chased theme: the effect of war on the human psyche. Here, this is done through three, essentially, short films and a core cast who appear in each story.

Starting in the American Civil War, Black Union soldier Jackson (Motell Gyn Foster) is seriously injured and searching for help. Stumbling across a trench of fellow Union members, sanctuary looks to be wished for and gifted. However, Jackson’s arrival is met with suspicion. The men have been tasked with digging a trench, and carrying Jackson to the nearest hospital would be suicide, says one. Another eyes up Jackson’s skin colour and figures him to be a slave and Confederate sympathiser. The light in this hostility is Wilson, played by James Le Gros, the voice of reason who echoes in each of Fessenden’s tales.

If there’s a chance to save a fellow human, shouldn’t it be taken, he and the film asks.

The next story is set in World War 1 and is arguably the strongest in terms of cinematography (by Collin Brazie). Commanding Officer, Morton (Alex Hurt) finds himself up against his own men when a German soldier literally falls into their trench. Morton, clearly impacted by the violence and noise he’s already witnessed, sees the German as a symbol of everything he hates. Refusing to take the man prisoner as his platoon suggest, Morton seeks bloody retribution. Like before, the men wrestle with the morals and consequences of their actions.

The film’s final third sees Fessenden flex his action muscles as a group of soldiers in Afghanistan are ambushed. Trapped in a broken-down Humvee, they must decide between standing their ground or face uncertain death in the piercing sun. Adding to their dilemma is Wilson (Le Gros again), their medic now turned injured patient. To leave him behind would make it easier to escape, but then he is a fellow soldier who has presumably cared for them all at some point.

Shot in a way that belies its modicum budget, Foxhole wants to focus on the doubts borne out of the predicaments in which these men find themselves. After all, it’s easy to decide what to do when you’re watching from the comfort of your own home and are not shellshocked.

This isn’t the valiant war movies of the silver screen that fly the flag at a moment’s notice. WWI Wilson might plead the virtues of ‘representing the United States of America’, but that doesn’t stop his past and future incarnations from being allowed to be scared and having the potential to make the wrong decision.

The film could be tighter in places. The resolution of our brave WW1 soldiers has the feel of the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, but not in a good way. And yes, the dialogue can be a little on the nose at times. However, Fessenden and his troupe of actors make for an engaging film which focuses acutely on the individual and their plight.

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There Are No Saints

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There Are No Saints has had a tumultuous journey since production began almost a decade ago. Initially written and directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) under the banner of The Jesuit, and starring a pre-Star Wars Oscar Isaac, the film went through several changes before filming completed in 2014.

By then, while Schrader’s script remained, he had been moved to an executive producer credit, with a number of the roles farmed out to new actors. For those who already know all this, There Are No Saints is certainly going to pique their interest as to what became of this action thriller.

Directed by Alfonso Pineda Ulloa, the film stars Jose Maria Yazpik (Narcos) as Neto, a brutal hitman recently released from prison after a murder conviction is overturned. Back in society, Neto, known as the Jesuit to his enemies, has decided to hang up his spurs in pursuit of a quieter life. His former partner, Nadia (Paz Vega), now living with property developer/gangster Vincent (Neal McDonough), reluctantly allows Neto visitation rights to his son. That decision leads to things becoming demonstrably worse for Neto as, overwhelmed with jealousy that he is back in Nadia’s life, Vincent kills her before absconding with their young boy.

This is essentially a tale of revenge that in the final act, it could be argued, shares some DNA with Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. With the help of a strip club bartender, Inez (Shannyn Sossamon), Neto blazes a violent and bloody path to reclaim his son.

When the violence kicks in, the director ensures you hear and see every snapped bone and bullet penetrating flesh. This is not the slickly produced chaos of the John Wick movies, however. When Neto steps into the ring, the scenes have all the visceral rage of a Robert De Niro trademarked curb stomping. At times, it can feel oppressive, as if the film is going out of its way to be nihilistic, with girlfriends being shot just to make the bad guys give up information of Vincent’s whereabouts.

However, that appears to be the true theme of the film with Neto shown to have not really changed in the ways he probably hopes he had. Like the men he’s up against, Neto has resigned himself to a life of bloodshed and growling. Violence begets violence, There Are No Saints shouts, and so it shall be for eternity. Come the film’s final scene, the audience is left to wonder if anyone has learnt anything from the whole bloody massacre.

Given the film’s protracted production, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there has been further tinkering behind the scenes since they called cut. A non-diegetic radio show fills in the blanks of Neto’s past in the opening, suggesting there used to be scenes that offered a show-not-tell approach. Equally, Tim Roth pops up for a couple of scenes in a cameo which ends with him literally say goodbye to the movie. His relationship with Neto, at the beginning, suggests a stronger bond than what’s presented on screen. It would be interesting to see how much the final product reflects Schrader’s, and then Ulloa’s, vision.

As an exploration of how someone can never escape their sins – which feels like the original intention given the film’s opening bible quote – then the film is somewhat wanting in that department.  However, it garners more success as a pulpy exploitation flick, where men are exploitative, and women are there too. A curiosity of a film, There Are No Saints’ lack of morality is certainly not going to be everyone’s idea of a night in.

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Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop

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This is a fun detective romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The title gives the viewer a ‘clue’ as to what to expect; Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop, sounds more like a Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated adventure. It does have a lavish British feel, complete with sprawling estates, butlers, and Range Rovers parked out front. Yet, the promise of an intriguing mystery being worked out by a skilful investigator, is not what’s on offer. Writing detective mysteries can be a tricky thing to master, and this movie proves that. And yet, there is appeal in this light venture into the world of sleuthing.

We are introduced to Elizabeth Willoughby as a pre-teen, who has lost her parents and is now under the care of family friend, Robert Windsor, an American, ex-marine who becomes her guardian. Elizabeth is a ferocious reader, and Robert helps to bring her out of her book worm life with his tutoring in the arts of self-defence, chess, and – jogging? After a brief introduction of the young Elizabeth, we fast-forward to re-engage with her as university lecturer, Miss Willoughby (Nathalie Cox), an assertive, and altogether wholesome woman with a winning smile. Her unwavering guardian, Robert (Kelsey Grammer) has become an elderly statesman-like figure who has remained at the estate as Miss Willoughby’s only constant companion.

An old family friend, Helen Deakin, a bookshop owner, comes to Miss Willoughby, distraught from visions and hauntings she is experiencing of her long-departed father. His ghost appears at random times, and a poltergeist moves objects, sending Helen into an emotional turmoil, which certainly interferes with her customer service! And so it is, that Miss Willoughby volunteers to look into it, putting on her detective hat, to find out if poor Helen is being haunted, or perhaps there’s a logical explanation to it all.

There is a book club that Helen hosts, and the argumentative book club members add to the possibilities that not all is what it seems. But then again, apparitions are hard to fake – aren’t they? Robert exchanges investigative ideas with Willoughby in the classic Holmes/Watson paradigm, but he also acts as an anchor for Willoughby, as she deals with the possibility that Helen is experiencing real paranormal events. As the story progresses, we see Willoughby slowly find the clues that lead to her discovery, of the truth.

Despite the best efforts to make this a true detective tale, albeit light-on approach, it doesn’t deliver enough clues for the audience to piece together anything of substance. And it’s too unclear why anyone would bother tormenting Helen, with seemingly nothing of worth to gain from it all. The elements that go into any detective story are motifs of exceptional observation, well-placed clues, and often, a dark and foreboding scene or two. Yet none of these are on display to give it that distinctive detective flavour.

The acting by Nathalie Cox is solid, despite the poor whodunnit script, and Kelsey Grammer brings weight to an otherwise wanting detective romp. If you are looking for a light movie on a Sunday afternoon, complete with cobble-tone towns and English estates, then this is for you. But if you want something a little more intense, with a well-developed plot and plenty of real detective work, then catch any episode of Scooby Doo.

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The Tracker

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Dolph Lundgren plays Aiden Hakansson, a mysterious foreigner whose wife and child were kidnapped and murdered during a family trip to Italy. Fast forward 10 years and Aiden is lured back to the seaside town of Taranto when a cryptic phone call from a local detective promises him a new lead in his family’s cold case.

Lundgren has made a steady career out of direct-to-video fare since the ’90s, a handful of which have been helmed by The Tracker director Giorgio Serafini. This isn’t the first time out of the gate for either of them, and yet there’s an amateurish feel to the film that overpowers the usual low stakes popcorn entertainment that the genre is known for.

The opening scene where 10 year old Aiden goes hunting with his father for the first time, learning the art of tracking alongside his philosophical huntsman dad is unyieldingly cheesy, but sets up an interesting enough premise: Aiden’s “very particular set of skills” that should aid him in his hunt for retribution. And yet after witnessing the kidnapping of his beloved family, Aiden proceeds to head back to the States for the next decade, and when he finally does return, it’s through his connections with the local police department that the cracks in his case are broken open. Perhaps there’s a deeper history to Aiden’s tracking skills that warrant the title of the film, but it’s not a history we’re privy to.

In fact, other than a single flashback to his boyhood hunting days and the nightmare abduction of his wife and daughter, we know nothing about Aiden except that he has a horror-movie-villain-esque propensity for Army Surplus raincoats as outerwear.

The saving grace of the film is the score by Sandro Di Stefano; an epic, soaring soundtrack that creates more tension and holds far more emotion than anything happening on screen.

It’s well proven that Lundgren has the ability to excel in this exact type of role, but The Tracker has him doing all the heavy lifting, and even his towering 6’5” frame struggles under the weight of its muddled lack of narrative.

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Stardust

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Gabriel Range’s inert biopic of rock icon David Bowie starts with what can only be called a disclaimer: What you are about to see is (mostly) fictional. Thank heavens for that, because if the film had any real grain of truth to it, the audience would be left thinking that Bowie was perhaps the most boring man on the planet who ever achieved rock superstardom.

The year is 1971 and Bowie (Johnny Flynn) is trying to publicise his less than successful album The Man Who Sold the World. With the spectre of his early success with Space Oddity hovering over him, Bowie is at a crossroads. His label, Mercury Records, decide to send him to the States to promote the album, which is sinking there. However, due to a general lack of interest in the album and a star they see on the decline, they fail to gain any of the proper paperwork which will allow Bowie to perform, and instead saddle him with the struggling publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) for an interview tour. The problem is that Oberman no longer has the pull he once had in the industry and Bowie himself is self-sabotaging what little press he is given.

Billed as a film that documents the trip across America which inspired Bowie to take on the mantle of Ziggy Stardust, there is little in the movie that actually suggests the journey was responsible for his shift into the greatest chameleon rock has ever known. The questions posed to him during the failed press junket hint that Bowie is uncomfortable discussing himself or his music, but that discomfort is layered with personal tragedy that appears to be the impetus for the musician’s reticence. In a series of flashbacks, we see Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns (Derek Moran) slowly slip into a schizophrenic state – one that Bowie believes is eventually coming for him as well. Promoting an album that delves into the fractured mind is wearing on Bowie, especially as he is given virtually no support from his label, nor from his wife Angie (Jena Malone) back in England.

Bowie’s estate prohibited the filmmakers from using any of his music and this fact immediately hampered the production. Whenever the audience sees Bowie perform, he’s playing someone else’s music. There’s no sense of “Bowie” to Bowie – and although Johnny Flynn is an accomplished musician in his own right, he barely manages to capture Bowie’s intonation and style. Flynn is too good for the part, with the film’s writers Range and Christopher Bell giving him little to do except act stressed and occasionally preen. Marc Maron as Oberman is more convincing, delivering a solid performance that allows for at least some audience empathy for both men. Oberman is on the skids, but his boundless enthusiasm and general good humour in the face of near ruin is neatly captured by Maron.

Perhaps Bowie will always be some kind of cipher in the history of rock because of his constant changes of style and musical direction. However, he was also one of the most eloquent rock stars to ever be interviewed. Thousands of hours of real-life footage show that he knew exactly when to speak and when to stay silent. Flynn’s version of Bowie doesn’t line up with that man at all. In the end, what the audience is left with is a Bowie that couldn’t articulate himself and one that couldn’t perform either. It’s disappointing fare for fans and is likely to make them feel like they’ve been presented with a shadow of a shadow instead of a depiction of one of the most fascinating figures in pop culture.

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Dangerous

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A sociopathic ex-con’s attempts to reintegrate into society come to a screeching halt when he receives word of his younger brother Sean’s untimely death.

Breaking his parole with a trip to his brother’s remote island home for the funeral, Dylan Forrester (Scott Eastwood) follows the advice of his therapist (Mel Gibson), in an effort to reconnect with his estranged family.

As tensions rise between the household of grieving guests, a handful of suspicious strangers arrive on the scene, and the past Dylan’s been trying to escape, catches up with him in the worst possible way.

Production designer turned director David Hackl (Saw V, Daughter of the Wolf) puts his years of working in the horror industry to good use, with a combination of close shots and slow building tension that culminates in a tense, gritty little thriller with unexpected bursts of humour.

The “sociopath with no fear” gimmick is a little on the nose — anyone holding out hope for a portrayal of mental illness with any kind of nuance should look elsewhere.

Forrester’s diagnosis is a mostly unnecessary twist to the narrative, but it does allow for him to make frequent phone calls to his psychologist, asking for guidance mid-firefight.

Gibson’s eccentric, borderline-alcoholic therapist spouts entirely unhelpful platitudes as Eastwood takes out his attackers with unfeeling efficiency, and while the two are never physically in the same room, the dynamic is effective.

The “rag-tag band of survivors under siege” plot is well-worn, but has a familiar, B-grade action movie charm to it that Eastwood plays with aplomb. As Dylan Forrester, he stabs, punches, and quips his way through the armed assailants in a way that vaguely echoes John McClane. This might have something to do with the fact that writer Chris Borrelli originally intended the role to be played by none other than Bruce Willis, when the script was originally sold back in 2015 under the title Wake. Production fell through, and the idea was shelved for a few years before being revived by Hackl and Eastwood, but the Die Hard-esque, “one man against an onslaught of infiltrators” vibes remain.

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One Shot

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For his latest feature, director James Nunn (Tower Block) appears to have woken up one morning and decided to make life a bit difficult for himself. One Shot is a simple of tale of USA vs terrorists that is elevated somewhat by Nunn letting the story unfold – action and all – in one continuous shot, like a gun filled Russian Ark. Admittedly, that 2002 film was filmed ‘live’ in one take, while One Shot is several long takes edited to give the appearance of being one take, but the director’s commitment to the bit is impressive.

Having arrived on a CIA black site island – which looks every bit like the part of England where it was filmed – CIA analyst Zoe (Ashley Greene, Twilight series) and her guide, Navy SEAL Jake (Scott Adkins, Doctor Strange), are tasked with retrieving information from detainee, Mansur (Waleed Elgadi).

Zoe’s intel says that there’s a dirty bomb about to go off somewhere in Washington and Mansur is supposedly the man to help solve that mystery, much to the chagrin of the island’s site manager (Ryan Phillipe). Two problems with that. Firstly, Mansur claims he’s been a victim of mistaken identity that has led to him being incarcerated. Secondly, a group of Jihadists have turned up demanding Mansur for themselves and have no problem slaughtering anyone that gets in their way on the island.

As the story advances, One Shot’s camera drifts between Jake and his band of brothers circling the wagons, and leader of the terrorists Hakim Charef (Jess Liaudin), as he rallies up the troops for another onslaught. Does either thread warrant being shown in one long take ala Birdman? To be upfront about it, no.

Nunn’s goal of immersing his audience into the fray is evident. However, as we follow Adkins breaking one neck after another, you become aware of how unnecessary it is that we’re perched on his shoulder like Salacious Crumb.

It all becomes a bit exhausting and not in a good way. The fight scenes are well choreographed, but you can’t help wondering how much more of an impact they would make if they had been traditionally edited.

With that said, perhaps the film’s strongest scene comes features Hakim, as he uses his influence over one of his wet-behind-the-ears soldiers. Showering him in praise, Hakim walks him to the stronghold where Jake and Zoe are standing their ground. Unable to leave their side, we watch as the young man slowly and emotionally realises that he’s being set up to be a suicide bomber. Given the overall bombastic tone of One Shot, there is a subtlety here that makes it stand out from everything else. It could genuinely work as a short film on its own.

While intriguing in its approach, One Shot is an action movie that sings from the same hymn sheet as many that have come before it. If you can accept that then you’re still liable to have a good time.

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Playing God

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The movie begins with some sort of tribal ritual being conducted inside a hut made of wooden sticks, and we see a wise old medicine man opposite a white guy who’s looking queasy. He drinks a potion, declares ‘This was not the spiritual awakening I was searching for…’ before violently throwing up.

Cut to some aerial, then ground, footage of a pretty busker who strikes up a conversation with an appreciative (large-tipping) passer-by, before her guitar is stolen. The guy presses some 100s into her hands. She heads home to her luxe apartment.

Some rapid editing establishes she is part of a duo (fraternal twins), who operate as experienced grifters, complete with a range of identities and elaborate con rackets. Luke Benward plays Micah, the hard-nosed mastermind. Hannah Kasulka plays Rachel, his expert accomplice. Pretty soon, the pair gain intelligence on their next big mark – the rich, lost white guy from the brief prologue, Alan Tudyk as billionaire tech giant Ben.

They reject the prospective subject at first, but when a different scam goes south, they decide to rethink things in the face of a ‘come up with $20 thou within a ten-day deadline’ imperative (the old ‘ticking clock’ trope). ‘I don’t trust you, but I love you, so I guess it’s time to swing big,’ Rachel resolves.

Recently bereaved, their wealthy target is grieving, angry and permanently drunk. His spiritual quest for answers has so far drawn up blanks. Our shifty con artists peg him as the solution to their urgent money problems. Dragging in their former mentor for this one last job, they reunite with Frank (Michael McKean) for the scam of a lifetime after convincing Ben they can arrange a meeting with God, face-to-face.

Characters are a bit one-note: Frank is wise. Bro is a cynic. Sis is softer, more wistful, but doesn’t have any friends – only marks. They’re all profoundly broken. How are they going to pull off an impossible con?

Slickly filmed and skillfully edited, with lots of sweeping aerial footage of glam locations, Playing God makes good use of the often glittering Houston, Texas setting.

Writer/director Scott Brignac’s storyline feels formulaic, but well-wrought, even if the stakes fail to fully convince and the situations feel a little too slick. It all seems to progress like clockwork. Nevertheless, a couple of built-in twists and reveals keep us engaged while the emotional elements keep us invested until the final grace note.

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Flashback

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The life of Fred Fitzell (Dylan O’Brien) is, on the surface, an unremarkable one. He’s got a steady 9 to 5 in data entry, he married his high-school sweetheart Karen and together they spend their time discussing the minutia of everyday realities, such as which shade of red to paint the bathroom.

It’s steady, calm and predictable. Safe. That is until Fred finds out that his mother’s illness has progressed past the point of a cure; now, any time he sees her could be the last. The news is doubly heartbreaking given Fred’s mother no longer has any recollection of who he is, the deterioration of her memory making a true goodbye feel hopeless.

As Fred deals with his own memories of childhood, his mind keeps flashing back to thoughts of Cindy (Maika Monroe), a girl who vanished in high school after a psychedelic street drug called Mercury started doing the rounds. Tracing increasingly unreliable memories back to his old high school, Fred tries to uncover the mystery of what exactly happened to Cindy and how it all connects to the horrific visions that have begun to haunt his daily life.

At the core of the film, writer/director Christopher MacBride (The Conspiracy) offers up an intriguing deconstruction of the concept of linear time as a prison. Unfortunately, that premise is really all that the screenplay offers. Rather than exploring the implications of Mercury as a drug that can break the constraints of reality, MacBride takes us on a journey of dull office meetings and looming high school deadlines, interspersed with enough chaotic jump cuts that the film warrants an epilepsy warning.

There’s a fog of disconnection hanging over Fred, long before he’s even aware of the existence of Mercury, which feels like wasted potential given the energy O’Brien brings to the rare scenes in which he’s allowed to truly play out his emotions. He’s gloomy and detached as an office drone and equally as gloomy and detached as a high schooler, the only real difference being his teen self’s unfortunate hair.

The same can be said of the supporting cast. It’s difficult to understand the pull Fred feels toward this group of dead-eyed misfits. Even Cindy, supposedly the mysterious, unattainable one, is given little to do beyond sit in corners and look wistful.

We do catch occasional glimpses of the psychological thriller this could have been: one particular scene with Fred menacingly swinging his baseball bat at an intruder, who may or may not be a figment of his own imagination, is masterfully shot using a mix of security camera footage and flashes of Fred’s own waking terrors, bringing a moment of true tension to the jumbled mess of shock and disassociation we’ve seen throughout.

The score, composed by Pilotpriest, succeeds in creating a dark, unsettling atmosphere, but while Flashback does its best to be a high concept film questioning the effects of free will on reality, its ambition is sadly lost in the dreamlike haze of its chaotic narrative.

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