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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.

 
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Domino

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If you’ve had your ear to the ground, then you’ll likely already know about the production troubles that plagued Domino, the first film from Brian De Palma in seven years. Since production began in 2017, rumours of financial difficulties, cast changes and even production being put on hold after the first take have circulated the internet for some time.

De Palma himself, in a move reminiscent of Thomas Alfredson when discussing The Snowman, has shown no remorse when talking about the challenges he faced on set. Well, it’s two years later, Domino has finally hit Australian shores and the question is, was it worth the struggle? The short answer: sort of.

The plot sees Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian, a Danish cop on the hunt for the ISIS member who killed his partner. Having left his partner exposed after borrowing his firearm, Christian appears to carry some of the blame for his death. Joining in his hunt is Alex, a fellow cop played by Waldau’s former GOT co-star Carice van Houten.

Unbeknownst to either of them though, the ISIS member, Ezra (Eriq Ebouaney) is actually in the employment of shady CIA operative Joe (Guy Pearce), who is holding Ezra’s family hostage until he carries out a series of assassinations on other ISIS members.

We follow both Ezra and Christian separately for a large part of Domino. And when we’re not following them, we’re looking over the shoulders of a sleeper cell of terrorists as they plot one violent act after another.

What we’re looking at here is a dense film filled with numerous characters and subplots. So, it’s no surprise that the film comes in at a running time of – checks notes – 89 minutes? No, really, what has the potential to be a behemoth with a labyrinthic plot has been condensed to less than an hour and a half, and it shows.

Plot threads dangle and resolution seems to have been left to the wayside. It’s not a spoiler to say that at one point, Pearce literally walks off-screen never to be seen again. It could be the fault of screenwriter Petter Skavlan (Kon-Tiki), whose dialogue echoes tinny throughout. The more realistic possibility, however, is that Domino was a much longer film that someone somewhere has decided to cut their losses on, shave as much off as they could and still call it a movie; a similar fate that befell Keanu Reeves’ Daughter of God in 2016.

That said, the narrative problems genuinely aren’t an issue for the first half of the film. With a bombastic score that has De Palma’s fingerprints all over it from one note to the next, Domino carefully sets up its stall, giving us insights into the lives of its leading players and setting out the landscape on which they’ll move.

Later on, there’s a stellar rooftop chase between Ezra and Christian that genuinely makes you catch your breath. Then we tip over the halfway mark, and Domino hurtles towards the finish like De Palma’s using roller-skates on a greased-up slide, almost mitigating all its good intentions in one sloppy final act.

In all honesty, if the film hadn’t been so evidently manhandled by its editor, what remains still suggests that Domino is far from being the hidden masterpiece you’d want it to be. Pearce’s pantomime performance jars with the furrowed brow of a tone that’s reflected through the rest of the film, for example. Additionally, it seems a little too soon after the events of the Christchurch shooting to be including a scene where a terrorist attack at an awards show is shown from the shooter’s POV. Yes, the film is technically two years old, and could never have predicted the horror, but it still sticks in the craw considering the superfluous nature of the scene.

Overall, and despite its good intentions, Domino starts off strong but is unable to stick its landing. Embrace it for its bloody-minded approach to recent politics, and you may have yourself a good time. However, it’s impossible to say that this is one of De Palma’s finest.

 
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The Shanghai Job

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Known as S.M.A.R.T Chase in the Chinese market, The Shanghai Job is a British-Chinese co-produced thriller that sees Orlando Bloom shirk off the shackles of popular franchises – see Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of The Rings – in order to reshape himself as bonafide action hero.

Bloom stars as grizzled security agent, Danny Stratton, who has been living at the bottom of a bottle in Shanghai since his last job, a year ago, saw him lose a valuable painting to a gang of professional thieves. For reasons unknown, Danny and his team are given one last chance to redeem their reputation by escorting a valuable artefact from one destination to another. Wouldn’t you Adam and Eve though? The same gang turn up to relieve him of said item, leaving Danny to work quickly to save what’s left of his expiring reputation.

Largely known for his TV work, director Charles Martin (Skins, Being Human) has put together a solid if somewhat silly action piece that sees Bloom charging around barking at people like Jason Statham whilst sporting the bleached hair of a Buffy-era James Marsters. He’s joined in his sprint across the city by a team of fellow security agents, including Full Contact’s Simon Yam. Riffing off the relationships within the Fast and Furious franchise, each member brings their one personality trait to the table that manages to both compliment and aggravate the others in the group. A quick shout out to the dubious Ding Dong (Leo Wu) who spends a large part of the film following a girl using his drone; his cutesy puppy eyes failing to cover the slightly creepy invasion of privacy.

Moving on… Whilst The Shanghai Job is nowhere near to being of the same quality as later instalments of the aforementioned franchise, it does give an indication of the direction the series could be taken should the higher ups wish to pursue it. The acting is definitely a mixed bag, but Bloom seems to be relishing the opportunity to do his own stunts and get his teeth into something a bit grittier.

Perhaps The Shanghai Job’s biggest issue is pacing and an over-reliance on the cliched. Seemingly realising that the S.M.A.R.T. team are running out of breath, screenwriter Kevin Bernhardt (John Rambo) throws in a damsel in distress into the third act which also sees a literal game of catch added to the mix. Presumably because everyone got tired of punching each other.

Derivative of a number of recent actioners, including John Wick, The Shanghai Job is certain to find its niche with a select few. And if all involved are willing to return and embrace the hyper-realistic absurdity of it all, there’s potential for more fun ahead in future installments.

 
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Trading Paint

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In a parallel universe, where all the movies that could have been reside, there lies Quentin Tarantino’s The Vega Brothers. A prequel to both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the movie would have seen John Travolta and Michael Madsen as brothers in crime, Vincent and Vic Vega. Although that project fell by the wayside, Madsen and Travolta do finally share the screen in this is southern deep-fried drama from director, Karzan Kader.

Tapping into the same working-class vein as his previous film Life on the Line, Travolta plays Sam Munroe, a retired dirt car racer who has been shaping his son, Cam (Game of Thrones’ Toby Sebastian) to be the next big thing. Frustrated with a series of losses, Cam bails on his father to join forces with Sam’s nemesis, Linsky (Madsen). Sam disowns his son and decides to get back in the driver’s seat to prove he’s still got it.

Trading Paint is an extremely brisk movie and like Sam’s car, barrels towards the finishing line with a distinct lack of finesse. This can be felt throughout the film due to a number of unusual choices by the director and the screenwriters, Gary Gerani and Craig R. Welch.

Sam and Cam’s fallout and the latter’s betrayal literally happens within the first five minutes of the film, leaving us with whiplash and no real understanding of why Linsky is such a bad guy. There’s probably something there around his wealth and panache for cowboy hats that really gets Sam’s goat, but it’s never explored. We’re told they hate each other and that’s it.

Elsewhere, a flashback informs the audience that due to some reckless driving, Sam got his wife killed in a car accident. However, any remorse he had before the film is quickly dismissed after a picnic with new flame, Becca, played by country music superstar Shania Twain.

Twain, it should be noted, is one of the film’s strengths; managing to do something with the limited character development she’s given.

The most egregious part of the film’s narrative can be found in the race commentators whose sole job is to fill in the gaps or remind the audience of what’s going on. It’s perhaps one of the most flagrant dismissals of Chekhov’s ‘show, don’t tell’ rule seen in a while.

To end on a more positive note, if you’re a petrol head, there’s a chance you’ll get some traction from the race scenes which, whilst hardly Days of Thunder, add some well needed adrenalin to the proceedings.

 
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I Still See You

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Scott Speer’s (The Step-Up series) I Still See You, tells the story of a young girl being chased by a serial killing ghost. As odd as that may sound, the background to the film is surprisingly interesting. A post-apocalyptic event killed millions, leaving behind remnants of themselves, re-enacting a part of their lives. At the beginning, these remnants are dictated by a number of rules; non-sentient, can’t alter their image like a film reel on loop, and they can’t affect the natural world. However, further into the film they learn that the “Laws are Lies”.

The concept of the film is interesting and relatively unique (still a lot of Sixth Sense in there), and, to many, that alone can hold your attention throughout the film. The central idea of these remnants and their appearance at seemingly random intervals is often quite startling and creepy; never knowing if a non-main character is real or a remnant. However, behind the concept, the plot and script in general turns all too convenient. The story is riddled with cliches and too much is left unanswered.

Bella Thorne plays Veronica Calder, the generic edgy, angsty teenager. Richard Harmon (The 100) plays the bad boy new kid, Kirk Lane, who mysteriously arrives from another school and has an odd connection to remnants. Neither actor is school age, and their casting is distracting and inappropriate. Dermot Mulroney appears as August Bittner, the overly friendly high school teacher. who for some reason, has students come over to his house outside of school hours for random chats.

I Still See You has an identity crisis as to what genre it wants to be. Is it a romance? Thriller? Horror? Teen drama? Sci-fi? Mystery? It’s an unfortunately mix of them all, a diluted cocktail that leaves you wishing they had focused on one or two genres rather than all. This lack of focus is supported by the soundtrack, which tries to fit the genre of the individual scene. If the film was more focused, the soundtrack may have actually worked nicely, and when coupled with the excellent cinematography (by Simon Dennis – The Girl With all the Gifts), it may have been the starting blocks for a beautifully atmospheric film.

 
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The Night Eats the World

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

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

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

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

 
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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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

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

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

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

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

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