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Below

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

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

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

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

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

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Lizzie

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The fascination with the true case of Lizzie Borden, involving the violent hatchet murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, has persisted throughout the years to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the violent nature of the crime, or the fact that Lizzie, while almost certainly guilty, was acquitted of the murder and no one else ever charged. Regardless, it’s rich material for the right storyteller and with Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, we have the tale reimagined as a slowburn, simmering queer romance.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is a smart young woman, frustrated by her lack of agency in society and very dubious of her father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and his ongoing fiscal mismanagement of her inheritance. Lizzie is a bit too forthright for her own good, and finds herself alone and mostly friendless. That is, until the arrival of Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), whose gentle manner and innate kindness have the pair bonding and then becoming faltering but passionate lovers.

Lizzie works best as a romance, with the forbidden love between Lizzie and Bridget providing an extremely engaging throughline. Slightly less deft is the handling of Andrew, stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) all of whom are so cartoonishly evil you’ll be yearning for them to cop a hatchet to the bonce within the first fifteen minutes. While it’s fine to have an unpleasant antagonist or two in your tale, their complete lack of literally any redeeming qualities means there’s very little room for character development or nuance, which leads to some awkward pacing issues particularly in the second act. The always-welcome Kim Dickens fares better as Lizzie’s slightly more sensible and practical sister, Emma, who seems to sense her sister’s growing rage and tries to calm it.

Director Craig William Macneill’s direction is deliberate and may, for some audience members, be just a little too slow for its own good. However, the central performances from Sevigny and Stewart anchor the piece and the eventual reenactment of the bloody crime is certainly visceral and effective.

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Angel of Mine

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There are few things worse than a parent losing their child. One of them would be letting a deceptive hope creep in that maybe, just maybe, the child isn’t lost after all.

Dealing with a tragic situation is already too much for a lot of people to take, as the psychological strain of death that can truly mess with the mind. But throw in the possibility that all that pain and heartache might have been misplaced and… well, you get films like this.

A remake of the 2008 French film Mark Of An Angel, with the only major change being the framing of the narrative climax and who is directly involved, it plays out as a character study of Noomi Rapace’s Lizzie, a divorced mother who has been left traumatised by the death of her daughter, and who starts obsessing over a child in the neighbourhood that she believes is her.

Thrillers of this nature benefit from plot ambiguity, keeping the audience in stasis while the two potential outcomes whirl around the story: Is this actually her daughter, or has she lost her mind from the grief?

In the hands of writers Luke Davies, who has experience with displaced families through his work on Lion, and David Regal, best known for his work in late-‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons, that ambiguity feels somewhat misplaced.

Lizzie herself isn’t given the most sympathetic of frames, even with her emotional baggage. This isn’t helped by Rapace’s performance, which is a little too dead-eyed to give the audience a chance to consider her actually being right.

But as the story plays out, its position both as a stand-alone film and as a remake starts to become clearer. Director Kim Farrant (Strangerland), even when the scripting lets her down, shows staggering empathy for the position Lizzie is in, along with that of Yvonne Strahovski as the child’s mother.

On one hand, having an adult basically stalking your child will never not be cause for alarm. But on the other, it’s a nightmare-come-to-life scenario to be so wracked with sorrow for the loss of one’s own flesh and blood that some hope, any hope, is worth clinging to. And this is all without getting into Australia’s dark heart, with children being separated from their families, a history which is still irritatingly debated to this day.

This is definitely rough around the edges, and the weakest of Luke Davies’ most recent efforts (also Beautiful Boy) dealing with familial strains, but overall, it just manages to work.

The performances may not be as strong as they needed to be, but the film’s sense of mood and unending sense of dread fill in the blanks, and the intent at its core regarding maternal instincts feels like it’s tapping into something real. More than a little unsettling, but real.

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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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Hostage

Australian, Home, Review, This Week 2 Comments

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.

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1917

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World War One took place over a hundred years ago and these days it feels like a battle from a bygone era, almost as fantastic and bizarre as the sword and shield blues of medieval times. The trenches teeming with rats and disease, the soldiers facing the threat of newly industrialised weaponry and the sheer appalling scale of it all make for rich and vivid cinematic territory. In 1917, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) takes full visual advantage of the setting, delivering one of his most beautiful films to date, however, he isn’t quite as successful in exploring some of the weightier themes.

1917 is the simple tale of two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) who are given the unenviable mission to deliver a message regarding a German ambush. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers stand to lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. The pair set off almost immediately and the following 119 minutes or so take place in a single continuous shot (with a handful of cheats) that tracks their mission from start to finish.

Because the mission takes place in (mostly) real time, there’s not a lot of room for lengthy nuanced discussion. That’s not to say that 1917 is an action film, but it’s certainly not ponderous, moving through eerily abandoned trenches, ruined villages and no man’s land in a flowing, often dreamlike fashion. The result is a very stagey film, that feels more like a poet’s impression of war rather than a realistic portrayal, quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it works, and the one-shot technique often comes across more like a clever gimmick, rather than a choice that adds import to the slender script.

Chapman and MacKay are both perfectly fine as the main soldiers, and are backed up by cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, but there’s something distancing about the piece overall. It feels more like an extended video game cutscene, beautiful but contrived, rather than a war film that will live in your soul forever. To put it bluntly, it’s good but it’s no Gallipoli.

That said, props to Sam Mendes for stepping outside of his recent Bond film comfort zone and tackling an ambitious project like this. The film serves as both movie and tribute to Mendes’ grandfather (who fought in the war) and in that it succeeds. However, it’s just too artificial and removed from the grittier realities of war and devoid of character development to attain the status of war movie classic. A triumph of style, and a beautiful looking film, it’s just a pity it didn’t have more to say.

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Jumanji: The Next Level

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As gaming becomes a dominant cultural force, especially for the next generation, it is fascinating to see movies adapting gaming concepts into their own narratives in order to appeal to younger audiences. 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprise smash hit for Sony, and now we get the fast-tracked sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, which is pretty much the same film with added characters.

As per the previous instalment, the real highlight is Karen Gillan, who is well overdue for her own franchise, but it’s the new characters that bring us the most interesting moments, including Danny De Vito’s retiree still holding a grudge with his former business partner played by Danny Glover. When the two of them are transported into the Jumanji game universe and portrayed by The Rock and Kevin Hart respectively, there’s a lot of fun to be had (apart from The Rock’s iffy Jersey accent admittedly). Awkwafina’s appearance in the latter half of the film is also fun, as her hammy performance style suits the OTT scenario.

Fun is the key word here, with no expense spared in terms of effects and casting (you may choose to analyse the depiction of masculinity as fragile, femininity as powerful, diversity casting or the future possibilities of augmented reality – but you’ll likely lose all 3 of your lives for trying). Ultimately, Jumanji: The Next Level is quickly forgotten cinematic spectacle, but with Cats bound to bomb, JoJo Rabbit a great trailer in search of a good film, and Star Wars receiving negative reviews, it is also the clear front runner for your Boxing Day box office buck. No doubt, #3 is already in the works, and the incorporation of gaming concepts into future cinema and streaming will continue to be the hot topic of discussion in every Hollywood board room.

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Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

Australian, Home, Review, This Week 2 Comments

Crypt of Tears opens with Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in colonial British Palestine freeing a young Bedouin woman (Izabella Yena) unjustly captive in a Jerusalem prison. A journey of exotic intrigue follows, slipping out sexy little pocket pistols in opportune moments (and there’s many) as she zigzags her way across Jerusalem, London, Melbourne and the deserts of Negev, uncovering a ten-year war mystery complete with a missing emerald, ancient curses, double murder and the suspicious disappearance of a Bedouin family tribe.

Essie Davis not so much reprises the role of Phryne Fisher but embodies it, and half the thrill of watching our stylish jazz age sleuth is her character’s natural inclinations to take death-defying risks. On the silver screen, it’s magnified ten-fold to the delight of audience members.

Nathan Page, from the original series, is Detective Inspector Robinson and now Phryne’s estranged love interest who reluctantly bands with her to solve the case and suspend the romantic tension throughout. Recurring cast members, Miriam Margolyes and Ashley Cummings return with Daniel Lapaine, Jacqueline McKenzie and Rupert Penry-Jones joining the cast as toffy-nosed British aristocrats entangling themselves in the thrill-a-minute crime caper. John Waters also makes an appearance as a cheeky professor.

As a classic whodunit with exotic locations, exquisite sets, comical camels and actors in lavish costumes working to an occasional slapstick script, Crypt of Tears is the perfect follow-up to a fun and much-loved series.

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Dolittle

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With the world having just recovered from the disturbing hyper-sexualised feline imagery seen in Cats, there is a collective sigh of relief at the impressive visuals exhibited in CGI adventure-film Dolittle.

Unfortunately, that might be where the excitement stops for parents who endure this superficial retelling.

In an unexpected turn from director Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker responsible for heavy dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, Dolittle offers a closer to the source material adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of children’s novels.

Robert Downey Jr. takes the mantle of the titular physician who can walk, talk, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

When first on-screen, the audience is greeted by a dishevelled Dolittle rocking a mop of hair and beard so intense that he looks somewhere between a prehistoric caveman and an inner city barista.

Turning his back on humankind following a great tragedy, Dolittle finds solace in isolation. He retreats from the world by locking the doors of Dolittle manor; a picturesque animal sanctuary filled with gadgets, gizmos and giraffes.

Through Dolittle’s eyes, people pose the greatest threat to animals, with the gifted doctor taking umbrage with hunting, sharing his indignation with reformed-hunter and newly appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett), and forming a close-knit bond with a slew of animals which he can communicate with.

Forced into solving the case of the poisoned Queen of England (Jessie Buckley in a lifeless role), Downey Jr. and the menagerie of animals must trail the high seas and rescue an antidote from the mysterious Eden Tree; an artefact located somewhere in the ocean.

The gang faces many threats during their swashbuckling ship-trip, the likes of which include facing a gold tooth tiger with familial issues (Ralph Fiennes), the return of a jealous rival (Michael Sheen), and a rugged pirate with a score to settle (Antonio Banderas). Dolittle’s adventure may take place on the ocean, but (wait for it) the real journey starts from within, as Dolittle begins to connect back to humanity.

The camera momentarily shivers when transitioning from animal to English, making for a modestly smooth, albeit absurd, language changeover. Downey Jr. goes all-in on the horseplay. He wobbles through the film displaying a range of emotions that verges on space-headed to bittersweet. The retired Iron Man does all this while attempting to impersonate a Scottish accent; aiming for Mrs Doubtfire but winds up being a shakier British accent than the one he displayed in Sherlock Holmes.

The film’s high concept approach to storytelling remains considerate to the families that will be spending their holidays in the cinema. Gaghan risks not over-stirring the pot and uses the antics of these peculiar creatures – the likes including an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), a sock wearing ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a dude-bro polar bear (John Cena), a no-nonsense parrot (Emma Thompson), and a spectacles-wearing pooch (Tom Holland) – to create a stream of mild chuckles throughout the film’s 100-minute length.

Alas, the spectacle required to keep Dolittle afloat is never fully realised. Gaghan proves unwilling to go over-the-top in the stakes department; a sign of a studio lacking confidence in a product whose ongoing release pushbacks now finds it setting sail into the doldrums of January cinema-going. The message of compassion at the centre of the film never fully forms. Instead, RDJ channels sad eyes through his emotive baby-blues before being interrupted by an animal making an unimaginative joke about doing animal things.

The VFX team do an impeccable job bringing the animals to life; however, the film’s lowbrow sense of humour reduces the elegance of the visuals. Outside of the occasional crack of laughter, probably delivered through a cringe-inducing pun that will have every father in the cinema reciting it back to his kids at home, Dolittle will do little for the adults in the room. That said, littlies should take to the variety of bumbling creatures and their monkey-business.

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The Aspern Papers

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The Aspern Papers provides as much gaudy drama as it does poorly-executed American accents.

Suffice to say, the retelling of The Aspern Papers – a 19th-century novella by Henry James based on the romances of Percy Shelley – stumbles on almost every level outside of production design. (Though it would be hard to make a palazzo resting on the edge of the Venetian canals look unappealing.)

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers takes the mantle of Morton Vint; a mysterious and hectoring author looking to acquire the secret letters belonging to the wealthy former lover, Juliana Bordereau (the always impressive Vanessa Redgrave), of a prodigious deceased poet. Vint takes residence in Bordereau’s picturesque palazzo under the guise of an alias. Here, the slimy author manipulates Miss Tina (Joely Richardson delivering the film’s best performance), Juliana’s reclusive niece who is belittled to the point of being docile, to assist with his pursuit.

What unfolds in The Aspern Papers is a woefully melodramatic and ill-conceived tale of obsession that fails to boil past a simmer. Flashbacks bear a striking resemblance to the salacious romance novels of yesteryear, with the film hellbent on achieving sensual flair over compelling motif. The grand effect detracting from dramatic beats (and there are a lot of them) to the point of hokum.

Rhys-Meyers goes over-the-top in a role that requires panache and composure. He narrates the film as though he were auditioning for the title role in Dexter. It is a treatment that director Julien Landais could have developed further, but instead chose to depict Rhys-Meyers as a devilishly handsome sleuth with the inability to keep the top part of his shirt buttoned-up.

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