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Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

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Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
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How Heavy This Hammer

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Imagine Tony Soprano had no affiliation with the mob; instead of spending time amidst criminals and criminal-related activity, he was addicted to computer games.

Fat, lazy, selfish, childish and at times unnecessarily violent, these are the same characteristics of Erwin, the very unlikeable protagonist conceptualised by Canadian director Kazik Radwanski and actor Erwin Van Cotthem.

On first impressions Erwin may seem like your typical family man; middle-aged and overweight, living with his wife (Kate Ashley) and two children. He has a respectable job and enjoys playing rugby and having a beer with his mates. However, most nights or whenever else he can find the time, Erwin sits alone playing a fantasy game on his computer – he’s addicted.

It’s clearly impacting his personal life, and Erwin soon starts to neglect his responsibilities. He’s physically exhausted from playing all night, often falling asleep at family outings, but also detaches himself mentally from the real world. Erwin becomes isolated and frustrated with the people closest to him and eventually decides to move to his own place.

So he settles into a new life, free to drink and play computer games as much he wants, which is great… for a while at least. However, Erwin soon realises the situation he created for himself is also a lonely one – and in the end the real question is whether or not he’s too lazy and selfish to do anything about it.

Just as Erwin gazes blankly at his computer screen, Radwinski and Cotthem evoke the same behaviour from viewers, who can’t help but be mesmerised by this miserable creature – partly fascinated by his antics but also terrified that it’s not far from reality for many people these days.

Radwanski uses an intense operatic score to depict these key sequences, switching between the actual gameplay and a close-up of Erwin’s face. The music is used effectively as both a representation of the character’s obsession but also ironically, to illustrate the insignificance of his actions.

The ambiguous ending will have audiences divided but that shouldn’t detract from the performances within. Van Cotthem makes you love to hate him and Kazik Radwanski seems to be cementing himself as a master of character studies, clearly one of Canada’s most exciting new talents.

All in all, it’s a quiet-achieving gem that will definitely make you evaluate your own relationship with technology. For that, it’s definitely worth a watch.

 
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Sheilas

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Sheilas‘ premise is simple: tell four unjustly obscure stories of great women from Australian history.

Sheilas‘ execution is brilliant: coming off the success of Growing Up Gracefully, sibling creators Hannah and Eliza Reilly undertake four quick, comedic commando raids into the past, banging out the stories of WWII commando Nancy Wake (Cecelia Morrow), Olympic swimming legend Fanny Durack (Nikki Britton), pub-occupying feminist Merle Thornton (Brenna Harding), and bushranging Indigenous single mum May Ann Bugg (Megan Lilly Wilding, a comedy shotgun of prodigious talent) in ribald, risque, take-no-prisoners style.

It’s simply great stuff, easily surpassing its three-way remit of a) celebrating some amazing women, b) dropping a little history on the audience, and c) being brutally, laugh-out-loud funny the whole time. The jokes come at a machine-gun clip, and whether the scripted gags are funnier than the on-the-record historical events and quotes (Nancy Wake was wild, guys!) is in the eye of the beholder. The show makes a merit of its budgetary constraints in true self-deprecating Australian style, with dodgy props (see: Captain Thunderbolt’s horse) and deadpan line deliveries, along with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, carrying the day.

It is, in the shell of a nut, a nigh-perfect dose of Aussie comedy. We need a second season yesterday.

Head to the official Sheilas site for more

 
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Birthmarked

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Most memorably cinematically distilled in the 1983 comedy classic, Trading Places, the concept of – or rather, questions around – “nature versus nurture” have long fascinated big and small thinkers alike. Is a person’s character primarily formed by what they’re born with, or is it the experiences that one goes through during life that makes a person what they truly are? That query is right at the heart of the quirky and engaging comedy drama, Birthmarked, which doesn’t come up with any definitive answers, and in the process, perhaps proves that there actually aren’t any nailed-down answers to be found. From co-writer, Marc Tulin, and co-writer/director, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais (who crafted the little seen 2013 thriller, Whitewash, starring Thomas Haden Church), it’s an enjoyably unusual rummage through a big bag of old but always valid ideas.

Eccentric married scientists, Catherine and Ben (played with typical perfectly nuanced abandon by the always on-point Toni Collette and Matthew Goode), are so hung up on the question of nature versus nurture that – under the guidance of the even more eccentric bigwig scientist, Gertz (Ben Wheatley fave, Michael Smiley) – they opt to turn their own family home into a petri dish. Along with their own baby-on-the-way, they also adopt two children from diverse backgrounds, and then set about raising them in a manner directly defiant to the circumstances of their birth: the child of the two scientists is brought up to love and focus on art, the progeny of two less-than-intelligent parents is pushed toward the academic, and the son of two people with serious anger management issues is prodded in the direction of pacifism.

To say that the “experiment” doesn’t go as planned would be an understatement, with the general instability of this oddball family having the greatest influence on the lives of its children. The continuing roll of eccentricities (not to mention the arch narration, 1970s setting, top notch soundtrack, and unashamed intellectualism) make comparisons to Wes Anderson starkly obvious, but Birthmarked remains a thoroughly original charmer, always showing a genuine warmth towards its characters. Smartly written and superbly performed, it cannily shows that the only thing predictable about families is how unpredictable they are.

Exclusively Available to Buy or Rent on Digital Platforms

 
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The Second

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Sexy mystery thrillers (if that is a genre) are a hard thing to pull off. This Australian feature from first-time helmer Mairi Cameron (from a script by Stephen Lance) tries hard to keep the well-known elements fresh. In the end, it is the experienced and attractive cast that more or less brings the ship home.

It mostly takes pace in and around a giant isolated mansion somewhere in the semi-outback. A novelist (Rachael Blake) is having difficulty following up her first bestseller. She goes to this house as a sort of writer’s retreat to pen the sequel – the ‘second’ which the title refers to.

Perhaps unwisely she takes along her publisher (the redoubtable Vince Colosimo) with whom she appears to be having a fling. He soon makes himself at home by the pool while she bashes away at the keyboard. Their little tryst is quickly disturbed, however, by the arrival of a brash and brazen childhood friend of the writer (the ageless Susie Porter).

The three protagonists – it is an oddity of the approach that we never learn their actual names – circle around each other as various plot twists and double-crosses pile up. The problem is that the more you pile them up, the more teetering the tower becomes, and our focus is drawn from any actual identification with the characters to the sheer anticipation of it all crashing down. Sure enough, a genre cascade of near-absurdities does eventually occur and in a way that is likely to leave the viewer baffled.

This is all deliberate on behalf of the filmmakers, of course, but whether the audience will go along with it depends a lot on their appetite for this sort of plotting and scripting. The film also wants to get intertextual by lobbing in a load of elements from films that play on the idea of the threatening local psycho terrorising the city slickers.

The Second does have its pleasures – and it is being fast-tracked to streaming platform Stan, who helped produce – so maybe it will fare well on the content-hungry small screen.

 
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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.

 
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Luke Cage Season 2

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Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.

Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.

That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.

Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.

Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.

That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.

It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.

Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.

 

 
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Short Distance

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With the internet, social media apps and video calls, technology is certainly making it feel like the world is getting smaller. For those who are in long distance relationships, however, it can feel like the complete opposite. Marking his feature length debut, filmmaker Nic Barker explores the effects of a long distance relationship in this romantic drama.

Over the course of its brisk 60 minutes, Short Distance follows three couples whose relationship DNA has been altered by geography. Sensing his Queensland girlfriend is set to leave him, Max (Christopher Kay) sets up a romantic weekend when she comes to visit Melbourne. Meanwhile, Belinda (Gabrielle Savrone) seeks something hot and heavy when her partner’s constant travelling for work leaves her cold. Finally, and in perhaps one of the strongest tales in this trilogy, a young couple, played by Calista Fooks and Sam Macdonald, count down the hours until one of them must leave for greener pastures of employment in Perth. All of the tales will resonate with someone, but this last scenario manages to capture that bitter sweetness of two people plastering on brave faces when all they want to do is cry. Yeah, it gets emotional, people.

There’s a softness to Barker’s direction which does not mean he isn’t trying. Rather, it gives the film a dreamlike quality that adds to the suggestion that some of our lovers are sleepwalking through the motions in the hopes of maintaining the status quo. Waxing lyrical about trust, honesty and commitment, Barker’s screenplay is strong and shows off his background in short films; his short, Pint, having received a fair amount of praise.

Boiled down to their narrative bones, the three tales perhaps wouldn’t work indivually as features. However, mixed together and connected by a handful of characters, Short Distance successfully captures a snapshot of modern romance.

Watch Short Distance here for free.

 
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Cold November

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A coming of age story centered on the traditions of deer hunting, Cold November is an indie drama that centres on Flo (Bijou Abbas), an apple-cheeked 12 year old girl who is keen as mustard to get out into the woods and bag her first buck.

Writer and director Karl Jacobs flips our gender expectations with his tale. Flo’s woodcraft mentors are her mother Amanda (Anna Klemp), aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), and grandmother Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding), with Jacobs himself in the relatively minor role of Flo’s uncle Craig. It’s an interesting spin on the hoary “rite of manhood” narrative, with the central hunting trip – explicitly an almost ritualised family tradition) – this is a strongly matriarchal clan, and the women are as eager for deer season as any man.

Narratively, Cold November is fairly straight forward and doesn’t bother to import needless drama from outside its concerns to spice things up. It doesn’t glorify slaughter, not does it condemn killing for food – these elements are presented as facts of life for Flo and co., and participating in these activities are a given for the tween. There’s a stillness and simplicity to the proceedings; we spend a lot of time sitting quietly in a deer blind, waiting for something to happen, while life goes on.

One of the key strengths of Cold November is that it isn’t gender blind – these aren’t just generic male characters who are gender-lifted – the women here deal with explicitly female issues, whether it be the pressures of being a single mother, or the untimely arrival of a first period (an element of the films overall “cycle of life” motif).

That’s not the only blood we get, either. Jacobs refuses to pull any punches when it comes to the mechanics of hunting, and the film’s key scene concerns Flo killing and field-dressing a deer on her own – a scene that may well disturb some viewers. It’s a commendable bit of verisimilitude.

Contrasting this is the shadow of a family trauma that overshadows the hunt, the effects of which are presented in an almost magical realist manner as Flo dreams of a recently dead relative. It’s an odd fit alongside the film’s predominantly realistic tone – not an unwelcome one, but certainly an unusual choice.

Ultimately, Cold November is a quiet, meditative film that gently but deliberately upends many of the accepted narrative conventions about gender, nature, life and death. There’s probably not a huge audience for it in Australia, but the audience it does find will appreciate it.

 
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Thicker Than Water

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With over 15 years in the music business, singer-songwriter Pete Murray takes his first steps into acting with Thicker Than Water, a grim melodrama from director Dominic Crisci.

Written by Ellie Popov, the film sees Murray playing D, a former drug addict returning home to face up to his family and his past. Whilst the Queensland singer will be the drawcard for many, the centre of the film is Ludmiller (Popov again), D’s sister who has been holding down the fort whilst D has been in rehab. Her other brothers are stoked about D crossing back over the threshold, but for Ludmiller his arrival means reliving some tough memories and having to double down as matriarch of the household.

If it’s possible that you can imagine a slightly less aggressive Animal Kingdom, than you’re pretty close to pitching whereabouts on the spectrum Thicker Than Water sits in terms of drama. Contrasting with the sunny backdrop of Queensland, Crisci and Popov delve into a seedy underworld which resurfaces upon D’s return. In a particularly vicious turn, Brad McMurray brings in the spite as Nic, a former acquaintance of D’s, who appears to have taken a leaf out of Ghost Dog’s book and can be found reciting samurai stories to his foot soldiers.

Where Thicker Than Water lets itself down is its apparent rush to the finish line. The brevity of the film’s runtime robs it of space to allow its characters to breathe. There are so many characters introduced in such short a time that it acts as a barrier to being able to immerse yourself in the plot.

And whilst performances are admittedly a mixed bag, Murray certainly gives it a fair swing; managing to navigate his character away from any of the clichés that tag along with the onscreen junkie. It’s Popov that climbs to the top of the hill stretching Ludmiller’s stress levels till you can almost hear them snap. They say you can’t choose your family, but taking Thicker Than Water as evidence, you might just wish you could.