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Cuckold (The Sydney Film Festival)

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Smanga (played by Cuckold’s director and writer, Charlie Vundla) has been living at the bottom of a bottle ever since his wife left him for another man. After losing his job as assistant professor at a prestigious South African university, he invites an old school friend, Jon (Louis Roux), to live with him in the hopes that Jon’s positive outlook will somehow rub off on him. When his wife, Laura (Terry Pheto), returns, Jon continues to live with the couple, and an unusual threesome blossoms.

And whilst Cuckold is ostensibly about a polyamorous relationship of sorts, the narrative is focused squarely on Smanga. Which is a problem, as Smanga is so deeply unlikeable that it’s hard to feel anything close to sympathy for him. When we first meet him, he punctuates his alcoholic stupor by firing off rounds into the bush, hiring callgirls, and watching aggressive porn on the internet. Rarely does he come across as someone that Laura would marry, let alone return to. Equally, Vundla’s flat performance doesn’t warm us to Smanga. We learn nothing about Jon and Laura that isn’t there to service the plot and place the film’s protagonist on a pedestal. We never get an understanding of why either of them would ever jump at the chance of being in a threesome with someone so utterly self-centred.

Vundla attacks his own film with a scattershot approach that sees story threads being picked up and dropped on a whim. Take for example, the films’ Breaking Bad moment when Smanga and Jon decide to deal marijuana to help pay the bills. It’s a subplot that infuriatingly goes nowhere and is completely forgotten about upon Laura’s return. There is, however, a small moment of restraint in the film’s closing moments that suggests that more focus from the director will reap better results. The film screens at The Sydney Film Festival as part of this year’s festival focus on South African cinema.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

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A Fish (The Sydney Film Festival)

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A university professor (Jang-Hoon Lee) runs out on his class when evidence about the whereabouts of his missing wife (So-Eun Choi) surfaces. Meeting with a private detective (Sun-Bim Kim), who takes a less than professional glee out of his client’s dilemma, he sets off for an island where the professor’s wife is now reportedly a shaman. When the professor arrives at his wife’s new home, he becomes reluctantly involved in a watery ritual that harks back to Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, and soon he finds himself struggling to make sense of his betrothed’s new life. Elsewhere, two men enjoying some male bonding over a session of fishing experience an existential crisis after a recently caught fish begins to beg for its life. This is A Fish, and it’s okay to be confused right now.

The feature length debut of South Korean director and writer Hong-Min Park is a confident and complicated piece that will certainly reward with repeat viewings. At first glance, A Fish tackles themes of loss and acceptance, and how grief can consume us. In one key scene, the professor breaks down into a childlike tantrum, begging for inclusion in his wife’s new life. Elsewhere, in the second, and admittedly weaker, story thread, the idea of belief and identity is brought to the forefront as the two fisherman struggle to remember what brought them to fish in the first place.

You’re invited to unpack what’s going on, and in doing so, the film washes over you, keeping you fully engaged whilst ensuring that you always stay at arm’s length. The director publicly sidestepped questions about the meaning of his film when it played at other festivals. And it’s understandable; exposing too much of the film’s secrets takes away the power of the mystery that the filmmaker has laid out.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

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It’s So Easy And Other Lies

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The average music documentary tends to focus on its subjects’ struggle for fame, battling with some kind of demon – drugs, women, alcohol, all of the above – and should the person in question still be alive, there’ll be a slap on the back for them for doing so well in overcoming everything. It’s So Easy And Other Lies tries to do something different. Based around the life of Guns’N’Roses bassist, Duff McKagan, the documentary goes through a quick drive-by of his drug and alcohol addiction in order to focus on the long journey to recovery. The documentary wants you to know that he is fine, and aside from a few wobbles, he is going to continue to be fine.

The film is narrated by McKagan as he reads extracts from his autobiography in front of a live studio audience accompanied by acoustic versions of various songs from his career. This spoken word show is broken up with interviews with McKagan’s friends and family (Gunners frontman, Axl Rose, is notably absent), archival concert footage, and various styles of animation. It’s McKagan’s own particular Montage Of Heck.

With all these different styles of narration competing for attention, it’s difficult to get into the groove of It’s So Easy And Other Lies. But if you can keep up, it’s a surprisingly uplifting experience. McKagan comes across as someone who is truly happy to have been given a second shot at life. Or indeed a third shot, as is pointed out during one of the film’s interviews. And who are we to take that away from him? That said, this is very much a lightweight affair, and despite its positivity about life and love, it’s hard to shake the idea that this is really just an extended advert for McKagan’s book.

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Daughter Of God

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Keanu Reeves plays grumpy detective, Scott Galban, who is searching for the person who killed his partner. But the dead cop has skeletons in his closet, and with his department wishing that everything would go away, Galban focuses his attention on Isabel (Ana de Armas), a kindergarten teacher who can see angels and may hold the key to the whole mystery.

Despite what the credits of Daughter Of God state, it was not directed by Declan Dale. It was in fact written and directed by Gee Malik Linton. Unfortunately, behind the scenes politics led to Linton leaving, and the film’s producers with final say, editing the film – moving the original focus from de Armas to Reeves – and releasing it as Exposed. And whilst the Australian release goes under Linton’s original title, this is still Dale’s Joint.

Not knowing this piece of production history doesn’t make watching Daughter Of God any easier. There are interesting ideas at play, but the way that they’re presented is frustrating. There’s the feeling that this was a Magnolia affair, where various disparate characters drift in and out of each other’s lives. But the film has no rhythm to it, with scenes ending suddenly and nonsensically. Nothing connects, and nothing flows. When Isabel and Galban eventually cross paths – as a result of a horrifically violent act – there’s no emotion behind their conclusions. Just an empty feeling that we’re missing out on something.

That’s not to say Linton’s version of the film would have been perfect or even above criticism. Whilst de Armas is particularly touching, Reeves appears to have no emotional investment. Yet still, there’s very little going for Daughter Of God that makes it worth watching for anyone beyond Keanu Reeves completists.

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Echoes Of War

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As a feature length debut, a low budget western set after The American Civil War is a pretty bold move, but it’s one that Aussie director, Kane Senes, has refused to shirk from. Confederate soldier, Wade (James Badge Dale), has returned to his deceased sister’s homestead a changed man. Suffering from what nowadays would be considered PTSD, he’s troubled to find his sister’s husband, Seamus (Ethan Embry), and children living a meagre existence surviving off scraps. To add to his woes, the neighbouring McCluskey family, led by William Forsythe’s patriarch, have taken to stealing their livestock. Disappointed in his brother-in-law’s pacifism, Wade takes it upon himself to make amends.

Not all of the film’s heroes are clear cut. At first sight, Wade’s infallible sense of justice makes him seem like the right kind of white knight to protect his family. Unfortunately for them, the ferocity of his vengeance causes more harm than good. It’s his niece, Abigail (Maika Monroe, the lead from the acclaimed cult horror flick, It Follows), who takes up the reins once she’s caught between her uncle and her love for the youngest McCluskey boy (Aussie, Rhys Wakefield). As the film progresses, she, like her middle-aged counterpart (Beth Broderick) in the McCluskey family, is a woman under fire from the chest beating and machismo doled out by those around her.

Reminiscent of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Echoes Of War is a deliberately paced drama that’s wrought with emotion and conflict –  not only between the two families, but also closer to home as Wade lashes out at Seamus’ religion and supposed cowardice. Filled with terrific performances and driven by a poetic script, Echoes Of War is a superb debut by Senes, and promises great things to come.

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The Driftless Area

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The Driftless Area starts with bartender, Pierre (Anton Yelchin), standing by the side of the road hitching a ride from the suspicious looking Shane (John Hawkes). There’s a fight, and Pierre escapes, leaving an unconscious Shane face down in his pickup truck. As opening scenes go, it’s perfectly performed and hints of subtle laughs and Coen Brothers-style drama to come.

Unfortunately, this feature film debut from Zachary Sluser fails to recapture the magic of that opening, which ends up feeling like it came from a different film entirely. The rest of the tale is narrated by Pierre’s friend, Carrie (Alia Shawkat), who paints his life as a mixture of boredom and never really trying hard at anything. When Pierre finally meets Stella (Zooey Deschanel), he opens up to her in a way that he never could before. Stella has her own secrets though, and we learn early on that she could potentially be the spirit of a woman who died in a house fire, using Pierre to get revenge on her “killer.”

Despite having the potential for an interestingly spiritual indie film, The Driftless Area drags its heels, and its languid pacing and mumbled dialogue is uninvolving. Elsewhere, Frank Langella is underused as an all-knowing hermit who also acts as a caretaker for Stella. No secret is made of the fact that Shane is the one who started the house fire, but even so, when he confesses to new lover, Jean (Aubrey Plaza), it never feels like his admission of guilt means anything. It’s actually the simple retelling from Stella’s point of view that gives this thread its emotion. Overall, The Driftless Area looks beautiful, and its mix of magic realism and noir sensibilities are tantalising, but it’s such a cold film that it’s hard to embrace it.

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REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

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Following the original and not all together terrible Now You See Me, new cast members, Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Radcliffe, join Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Morgan Freeman for a second, stupidly entertaining adventure in Now You See Me 2. Set one year after they outwitted the FBI and won the public’s adulation, The Four Horsemen finally resurface for a comeback performance, where they find themselves on the receiving end of trickery. Now with their lives at risk in an international high-stakes game of cat and mouse, they’re determined to expose a ruthless tech magnate, Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), who has blackmailed the illusionists into pulling off their most impossible heist yet.

The success of the original, which took in a whopping $300 million worldwide, seemed incentive enough for The Horseman to return, with the sequel helmed by Jon M. Chu (Step Up, Justin Bieber: Believe), who takes over from original director, Louis Leterrier. Though his previous credits are nothing to write home about, Chu has solid expertise in directing movement, which he here fuses with technology and cutting-edge design to deliver on the big, bold, and innovative screen magic that the studio was undoubtedly looking for. Because of the intensely choreographed magical feats and stunts, Chu’s dance-direction history really works in his favour; it is, at times, a bit like watching a dance performance.

Going into this film, you would suspect that the writing is terrible – and it is, but in a really good way. Penned by Ed Solomon (who co-wrote the first film with Peter Chiarelli), Now You See Me 2 leans into the fact that the content overall is a little bit cringe-worthy, making a lot of jokes at their own expense throughout. It’s annoyingly endearing, and totally gets you on board. That being said, there are questionable reveals about the characters and their history together. No spoilers, but these insertions are just unnecessary and frustrating, and the film would have been better without them.

What really makes Now You See Me 2 worthwhile though is the cast. Eisenberg gives a layered and nuanced performance as the highly egotistical and slightly awkward Daniel Atlas. Eisenberg really knows how to use his body, gestures, and facial expressions to communicate things that his character isn’t actually saying. Franco and Harrelson are still the fall guys, used mainly for comic relief – though they are both given a chance this time around to add a bit of maturity to their characters. Harrelson is hilarious, and a welcomed tension-cutter to balance out the more intense figures. The real standouts, however, are Ruffalo and new kid on the block, Lizzy Caplan. Replacing original “girl Horseman”, Isla Fisher, Caplan oozes confidence from the very first frame as Lula, over-shadowing her skilled co-stars with her sassy and commanding screen presence. Ruffalo is always on point; his performance is critical to the film, as his penchant for subtle misdirection keeps you guessing against the otherwise predictable plot at every touch point.

Now You See Me 2 is every bit as larger-than-life and stupid as you would expect it to be – but it totally owns it, and that’s what a makes it clever. It asks you to suspend your disbelief way too much, but also makes fun of the fact that it does so. It has all the subtly of a rabid chimp, but it really is arrestingly entertaining from beginning to end. Now You See Me 2 is full of showmanship, charisma and a touch of heart. Not a bad way to spend 129 mins.



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REVIEW: Money Monster

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Hollywood used to make films like Money Monster quite a bit, but now they’re getting much farther and fewer between. “We were really lucky it got picked up,” director, Jodie Foster, said at Monday night’s Australian premiere in Sydney. “Why these mid-range movies are very rare now is because they aren’t franchises; they are original content, original stories, and they are really about characters and emotions.” And she’s right. The story is original, and more than that, it is refreshing to watch an action drama that’s not part of some six-installment production schedule.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a cheesy, bombastic TV personality whose popular financial network show has made him the money wiz of Wall Street. But after he hawks a high tech stock that mysteriously crashes, an irate investor (Jack O’Connell) takes Gates, his crew, and his ace director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) hostage live on air. Unfolding in real time, Gates and Fenn must find a way to keep themselves alive while simultaneously uncovering the truth behind a tangle of big money lies.

Money Monster moves very quickly, so you really have to pay attention, and that might have something to do with the film being shot in real time. It’s rapid, even slightly schizophrenic in parts, where you’re having to shift gears as much as the characters to catch and respond to each character inflection; it’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of scenario.

While the script is strong, the real strength of Money Monster is in the cast. Clooney is certainly predictable but no less lovable or charismatic, delivering a tight performance as a narcissistic hedonist forced to confront his choices in a very public pressure cooker. Roberts is simply stellar. It’s always great to see her in a non-romantically charged role, as she’s given open highway to really let rip in exploring more of her range. Her performance is even more impressive when you consider that for 90% of the film, she is acting in isolation. Her character, Patty, is mostly in the control room throughout the film, while Clooney is on set, and while most of her dialogue is with him, they are never actually in the same room; she’s in his ear as the director of the show. While Clooney and Roberts are a pretty safe bet, the real breakthrough of the film is emerging English talent, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, 71), delivering an authentic portrayal of a working class Queens local, struggling to live in a rigged economy. His character, Kyle Budwell, is a nervous ball of rage, and is exhilarating to watch.

There are sticky moments, and some sub-plots that seem a bit hackneyed, but they are forgivable largely due to the success of the cast and the fact that Foster openly indulges in the fact that Money Monster is a mainstream genre film. And while that’s certainly true, it’s also an intelligent movie that is technically sophisticated, that demands something a bit more from the audience, and in fact, asks the audience to work a bit harder.

There are high-level themes at play here: Wall Street corruption, our technology dependence and saturation, the dangers of info-tainment journalism, and the effect of all of the above on the larger global community. They’re heavy hitting ideas no doubt, but Foster handles them with the perfect level of insight. All things considered, Money Monster is a far more rewarding experience than your typical “things go bang” genre pic, and a credit to the killer cast and production team under Foster’s steady and playful direction.

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As those north of the equator begin to celebrate their summer, it seems only appropriate that in Australia we’re now seeing the release of the Christmas themed horror flick, Krampus. For those not up on their European mythology, Krampus is the antithesis of Father Christmas: a goat demon who punishes children who have misbehaved at Christmas.

Director Michael Dougherty, who worked on the script of X-Men: Apocalypse, unleashes the monstrous being on an unsuspecting white collar family after the youngest son decides that life would be so much easier if his relatives just disappeared. Come Christmas eve and the family, including dad Tom (Adam Scott) and mum Sarah (Toni Collette), are under attack from violent gingerbread men, bloodthirsty snowmen, and masked elves. Festive cheer is well and truly out of the question for the family, but those willing to give Krampus a chance will be treated to an effective, and funny, yuletide schlocker.

Despite its laughs, Krampus is remarkably mean-spirited enough to make you sit up and take notice. Don’t be fooled by the presence of children either. Anyone and everyone are fair game to the machinations of the titular monster. Also enjoyable is the large number of practical effects that Krampus uses. We’re bombarded so often with CGI, and it’s refreshing to see a film do something different in order to realise its gory potential. There is, however, a downside to the festivities. Krampus takes too long to get started, with the film establishing relationships and family foibles that ultimately mean nothing once Krampus comes down the chimney. There’s just not enough room to tell everyone’s story and some, like Conchata Ferrell’s Aunt Dorothy, are left to languish as one-dimensional characters. Not a Christmas classic, but a fun-filled horror nonetheless.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

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The Stanford Prison Experiment recalls the incredible true story of Professor Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 psychology experiment, which saw a group of men take on the role of prison guards and prisoners (the experiment was also the inspiration for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s brilliant 2001 film, The Experiment, and the 2010 Adrien Brody-starrer of the same name). Planned to go on for a fortnight, the experiment lasted only six days, with both groups settling into their roles too easily.

Paced like a thriller, the film starts off jovially enough with Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) interviewing his new guinea pigs. Telling them that they have been given their roles based on personality tests – in reality a coin flip – Zimbardo and his colleagues set the men to work in their false prison. Perhaps what’s so breathtaking about the film is how the audience becomes a participant in the experiment. Like the “prisoners”, we are not afforded the luxury of knowing what time of day it is. As the guards begin to abuse their authority and the prisoners become submissive or emotional, the gut punch comes when a single title card comes up to remind you that you had only just lived through the first day.

Performances are stellar, with Crudup a highlight as a man standing defiantly by his theories whilst his microcosm begins to crumble. He’s never made out to be the bad man, but he’s never absolved of his sins either. As the men are interviewed afterwards, the thing that appears to shock the “guards” the most is how quickly they started to display their power. Indeed, as the film progresses, director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, stops us thinking of these characters as playing roles. Like them, we see them only as the “guards” and the “prisoners”; the abusers and the abused. With issues like Manus Island regularly making the news, it’s difficult not to draw a clear line from this film to what’s happening now. And perhaps what makes the film even more terrifying is its potency.