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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

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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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Paradise Hills

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An idyllic island paradise, abound in glorious sunlight and azure waters… it sounds like the perfect place to receive psychological treatment. But in the case of young-adult sci-fi flick Paradise Hills, it proves to be hell on earth for the young women forced to take up occupancy.

According to the world depicted in Paradise Hills, there is nothing more threatening to society than a free-thinking woman. It is so scary in-fact, that young women are dispatched by their affluent families to a Mediterranean-esque ‘centre of emotional healing,’ run by a beguiling Milla Jovovich and her subservient and mostly silent male staff, so they may be ‘reformed’ into decorous women.

While everything seems perfect on the island, the manicured landscapes and decorative food being every influencer’s holiday #goals, something nefarious lingers beneath the beautiful surface.

The latest ‘patient’ enlisted to the island is Uma (Emma Roberts); a rebellious young woman pressured by her family to marry into a wealthy household – an act that Uma rejects. Uma’s longing for independence, being able to marry a man of lower social stratification who she loves, is considered an illness by a society that expects women to be obedient and ornamental. Uma remains defiant, if not dead, and leads an escape from the island with a fellow group of women who are seen as imperfect by their families: their exiling because of mental illness, queerness, and being zaftig in appearance.

Paradise Hills uses the constructs of science fiction as a metaphor for female oppression; applying fantastical elements to highlight the harmful societal expectations placed on women.

Director Alice Waddington allows striking visuals to denote this societal pressure. The first time feature filmmaker constructs a hyper-stylised beautiful-nightmare which brings out the horrors of female submission through iridescent lighting, pastel colour schemes, and avant-garde clothing: ranging from Victorian-era finery to delicate bedwear constructed out of tulle and chiffon.

Waddington succeeds in creating a compelling narrative throughline via production design, yet neglects to give a profound treatment to the script. The conspicuously written dialogue (by screenwriters Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw (Daniel Isn’t Real)), told with petulant grit, finds Paradise Hills bear greater semblance to a work on The CW Network than a feature film. The acting becomes impacted as a result of cliché writing, with the talented cast – including Roberts, Jovovich, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald and Eiza González – forced into overbearing performances.

Horror elements that occur towards the tail end of Paradise Hills prove under-whelming; lacking the pizazz needed to viscerally convey the message of oppression baked into the film.

The past decade has seen the rise and fall of the young-adult parable, with adaptations of Twilight, Hunger Games, and to some degree the Divergent films (RIP part 4), finding their audiences. Paradise Hills, not based on IP, comes LONG after the popularity of this genre and tries to spin some sci-fi originality into an overly trodden theme of youth free-will.

Undeniably, there are some interesting (and important) aspects captured in Paradise Hills’ wondrous production design, but unfortunately not enough is done by Waddington to keep contrived dialogue – synonymous with the worst of recent YA films – at bay from this island.

 

 
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A Vigilante

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By design, Australian writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson rarely provides a moment free from unease with her powerful rumination on domestic violence, A Vigilante.

Sadie (Olivia Wilde) uses her combative abilities to help women and children escape from abusive households. In her wake, Sadie encounters victims of varying backgrounds; an effect which highlights the rampant prevalence of domestic violence amongst society.

Reliving her own harrowing trauma with blood-curdling intensity, Sadie offers her services as both a means to cope with her own loss, brought to her by the hands of her abusive ex-partner (Morgan Spector), and an offer of salvation to others.

While not always able to reach the dramatic high notes needed to fulfil such a challenging role, there is no denying Wilde’s deep-seated commitment to the lead role. She proves herself a compassionate actor that is deeply invested in the film’s vision of inspiring outreach.

With A Vigilante, Daggar-Nickson allows the subtext of the film – the bravery of speaking out amidst living in abusive surroundings – to act as a beacon of support to people who are victims of domestic violence. Every effort is made not to trivialise the experiences of the characters.

As a filmmaker, Daggar-Nickson does not allow genre to restrict her vision, blending the fabrics of drama, horror, and revenge-thriller to heighten the characters’ sense of isolation and fear. The third act of the film turns to horror-thriller sensibilities, offering the viewer, as effective as a film can depict such an atrocity, a confronting glimpse into the traumatic experiences endured by too many.

Daggar-Nickson turns every frame into an opportunity to establish mood. The bleak, natural lighting and muted colour-scheme baked into the cinematography imbuing a distressful, authentic vibe. She demonstrates an absorbing sense of poeticism – correlating the imposing and immovable force of trucks with abusers – and a piercing point-of-view that ought to command attention from Hollywood.

The graphic depiction of violence in A Vigilante is affecting. It will likely be troublesome for many viewers. Violence is applied two-fold: (a) denoting how abuse is used to control, and (b) highlighting the leniency of law in preventing it.

A Vigilante is a hard watch, but an important one, delivering career-defining work by both Daggar-Nickson and Wilde.

 
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Daniel Isn’t Real

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Imaginary friends and horror movies go together like beer and pizza, wine and cheese or pingers and threesomes, they’re just a great match. You can trace an arc through genre history, from The Exorcist (1973) to The Shining (1980) to more modern gear like The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014), and more examples that we simply don’t have the time and space to get into. Something about the notion of a child having a relationship with someone or something only they can see is inherently fascinating, and more than a little creepy. Daniel Isn’t Real, from the wonderfully named director Adam Egypt Mortimer, brings a fresh take to the idea, and delivers an effective, thrilling horror movie to boot.

Daniel Isn’t Real focuses on Luke (Miles Robbins), a pleasant but troubled young man, who is finding the stress of college and helping care for his mentally ill mum, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterton) is all a bit too much. Just when he reaches what appears to be his breaking point, his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) steps back into the picture, all grown up and ready to help Luke be all that he can be. But after a honeymoon period where Daniel helps Luke with relationships and standing up for himself, his suggestions become demands, and he begins to get possessive and violent.

The film succeeds on two levels. Firstly, the script is a cracker, digging into a rich vein exploring mental illness, masculine identity and the idea of artistic inspiration as a kind of madness. Secondly, the performances from everyone, but particularly Robbins and Schwarzenegger (and yes, that’s Arnie’s kid), are very good indeed. Luke’s dorky twitchiness pairs beautifully with Daniel’s almost sensual arrogance, making their relationship the black beating heart of the flick. Mary Stuart Masterton also brings the goods as Luke’s mum, portraying a character who is fascinatingly bowed but unbroken by the demons of her mind. Ironically, the dissection of real world themes is so deftly handled, it’s almost a pity when the horror arrives in earnest, although that too is skillfully executed, if occasionally a tad familiar.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a low budget horror flick with a lot on its mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always utterly compelling, it’s a reminder that genre films don’t need to be empty-headed regurgitations and that supernatural themes can resonate with more grounded concepts. If that sounds like your jam, check it out and bring some friends, both real and imaginary.

 
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Daughter of the Wolf

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There are endless ways to tell a compelling story in an icy environment. A common element is tension, and this is often what keeps us coming back for more. David Hackl’s (Saw V, Into the Grizzly Maze) Daughter of the Wolf is no such film.

It follows Clair Hamilton (former MMA superstar Gina Carano), an ex-military specialist whose son is being held hostage. She must use her father’s (Richard Dreyfuss) inheritance for a ransom to get her son back, before it’s too late…

The story, while familiar, could have been executed really well. Unfortunately, it just comes off as underwritten, with little personality, and reeks of a generic rush job.

Visually, it is quite stagnant, the desaturated colours making it look lifeless. The editing is at times unintentionally comical and doesn’t allow the audience to take the narrative seriously.

The film is a slow burn but there are multiple jarring tonal shifts that take you out of the experience. The script also suffers from repetitive and melodramatic writing. This isn’t helped by some over the top, hammy performances.

Apart from that… Gina Carano does a decent job with the material – her character has little substance and while there are flashbacks that give the audience insight into her past, they don’t help us invest in her struggle. Supporting player Brendan Fahr  (Wynnona Earp) has good moments and on-screen chemistry with Carano but unfortunately, this is underutilised.

The film uses wolves as symbolism and while the ambition is admirable, it just comes off as confused and goofy. These scenes feel forced and cause the narrative momentum to stop. The ending of the film is also a head-scratcher.

Daughter of the Wolf could have been an outstanding film in the right hands. As it is, it feels like a project that was simply a paycheck.

 
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Once Upon a Time in London

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If you like burly men with brylcreemed hair shouting at each other in ‘Laahdan’ accents and continually reminding you that, despite their nefarious ways, they’re simply gentlemen who look after the people what lives here, then you are in for a treat with Once Upon a Time in London.

Starting in the 1930s and set over the course of three decades, director Simon Rumley recounts the real lives of two of the biggest names in old London town: Jack Comer and his protégé Billy Hill. Comer (Terry Stone, who also co-writes the screenplay) was a hardnosed racketeer who, if the film is anything to go by, was a big believer in putting the boot to someone who overstepped the line. Which would appear to be everyone in London apparently.

Hill (Leo Gregory) was a wiseguy who knew what side his bread was buttered in any given situation. He practically woos Comer over with a fan letter he sends during an extended period in prison. Soon, the two men are working together, but it’s not long before allegiances get in the way of business.

On the surface, Once Upon a Time in London looks suitably glossy, giving its best against the likes of Brian Helgeland’s Legend. Particularly in the early part of the film where it evokes the Woodbine tinged era where the death penalty loomed heavy over the criminal class, meaning it was better to be done for maiming a person than killing them outright.

Taking a break from the violence, there’s a surprisingly sweet little moment where everyone, regardless of where they are on the criminal food chain, is shown to be brought together by the end of the Second World War. And it’s fair to say that both Stone and Gregory certainly look the part as a pair of miserable desperados.

However, the film’s issues outweigh the strengths. The screenplay never gets its hook into an actual narrative that serves either character. We just bounce back and forth between them yelling at each other and yelling at their girlfriends, wives and colleagues. Also, strangely for a film that spans as many years as it does, there’s minimal attempt to make the cast look like the age they’re supposed to be portraying. When Comer is called up for duty during the war, it’s hard to suspend disbelief that the 40-something Stone is in his late 20s. And whilst no one has to look exactly like their real-life counterpart – Roland Manookian, for example, resembles a young Udo Kier rather than Mad Dog Frankie Fraser – it seems a strange creative decision to have the pinnacle of British thuggery, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, barely look like brothers, let alone twins. Mild complaints, maybe, but when they all dogpile on each other it distracts.

And what really frustrates is that Rumley manages to let a more interesting narrative thread slip out of his fingers before the opening credits have finished. Comer was a man proud of his Jewish heritage. So, when noted fascist, Oswald Mosley, came onto the scene, Comer rallied up the troops to take him on at one of his Blackshirt demonstrations. Unfortunately, the film merely shows Comer giving an impassioned speech about taking down Mosley before the credits start and we forget all about it for the rest of the runtime.

A shame because that’s your film there; a veritable army of despicable morals up against a motley crew of hardnosed crims. It could be lean, mean and biting. Literally, everything that Once Upon a Time in London isn’t.