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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.

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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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