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Lords of Chaos

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Black metal is one of the most puzzling and antisocial music genres to exist on the face of this planet. Seemingly designed to be as harsh, tuneless and borderline unlistenable as possible, it makes one wonder ‘who in the name of the Dark Lord Satan would create this screeching noise and why?’ Lords of Chaos does its best to answer that question, and manages to be pretty bloody entertaining along the way.

Lords of Chaos is the true(ish) story of Euronymous (Rory Culkin) a twitchy but ambitious young man who forms a band called Mayhem in Norway in the 1980s. The band soon garners a reputation for being the darkest of the dark, particularly after the original lead singer blows his head off with a shotgun; and Euro uses this notoriety to open his own record store and start his own music label. Enter Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) a former Scorpions-loving poser now death-obsessed madman, who forms an uneasy and competitive friendship with Euronymous that begins with admiration, mutates into jealousy and ends in bloodshed. Plus a shitload of churches are going to get burned down before the credits roll on this bad boy.

Despite the grim subject matter, Lords of Chaos is actually quite fun for most of its runtime. Culkin’s wry, knowing voiceover gives some of the grimmer moments levity, and the interplay between the characters trying to outdo one another by being darker-than-thou is frequently hilarious. The self-proclaimed Black Circle are, essentially, a pack of cocky little pricks, but director Jonas Akerlund doesn’t attempt to lionise these long-haired doom groupies but rather lets their story play out with little judgement, just observation. Of course things do get quite nasty, particularly in the third act, which is to be expected. This isn’t a happy story and Euronymous warns us from the jump that “this will end badly.”

Performance-wise it’s pretty much a two-hander between Culkin and Cohen, both of whom manage to be at turns sympathetic and just plain pathetic. Sky Ferreira also shines as Ann-Marit, photographer and sometime groupie, giving empathy and depth to a role that could have played as thin and thankless in lesser hands.

Ultimately, Lords of Chaos is a bit of a niche proposition, taking a look into a world that most people neither know nor particularly care about. However, if you can get past that barrier to entry, there’s an intriguing and well observed exploration of a genre and subculture that is strangely insular and perversely fascinating. If that sounds like your jam then you and Lords of Chaos will get along like a church on fire.

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Stan & Ollie

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Laurel and Hardy were Hollywood comic stars – a double act – who started in the silent film era and were famous and popular throughout the 1930s. This might be an unnecessary little bio snapshot, but we have to think carefully about who would even know their names or their work today. Perhaps everyone would still know who Charlie Chaplin was, but is this still true of Buster Keaton? Or Harold Lloyd, or this pair? It was a very long time ago.

Present day funnymen Steve Coogan (The Trip, Philomena) and John C. Reilly play the comedians in this bittersweet drama based on a book about the era. Director Jon S Baird (who made Filth, which could hardly be more contrasting to this film), goes for gentle pacing and character study.

The film takes place mostly in the 1950s, decades after the comic pair’s heyday in Hollywood. Somewhat marooned by fashion, they are reduced to doing a nostalgia tour of Britain and Ireland. There, they are put into the tender clutches of empresario Bernard Delfont (a wonderfully oily-but-ruthless performance by Rufus Jones). The hotels he books them into are not exactly what they are used to but then they are not exactly packing the small regional theatres and, as he reminds them, their food doesn’t pay for itself. To add to all of this, their wives Lucille Hardy (the wonderful Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) are coming over from America. Ida is Russian and no nonsense, Lucille worries about Oliver’s heart problems and the fact that the workaholic (and part alcoholic) Stan might drive him into an early grave. However, the heart of the film is the ‘love story’ between the two performers. They have their falling-outs, but really, they not only can’t work alone, they have this lifelong bromance that both cherish till the end.

The film recreates snatches of the perfect slapstick that made them so famous, but it only uses it by way of illustration. In fact, most of the film concerns their tribulations on tour and their arguments and reconciliations. It is all about the behind the scenes aspects of performers’ lives.

Perhaps it is wise not to try and make it a comedy in its own terms, but what we are left with is something that audiences might not expect or easily relate to. Though the emotional moments are touching and largely earned, the film feels – like the pair in later life – like a lot of talent in search of a still-appreciative audience. The love of the bygone era isn’t the only thing that drives it, but it probably wouldn’t work if you cannot access that sentiment, which kindles nostalgia in all of us.

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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.

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Vox Lux

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The ‘Prelude’ – as it’s called onscreen – to this film is memorable and jarring, to put it mildly. It’s 1999, and fourteen-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her classmates have just assembled in their schoolroom for the first lesson of term when – SPOILER ALERT! – one of their number bursts in and proceeds to go on a shooting rampage. Celeste is shot, but survives, and goes on to write a song which catapults her to teen pop stardom.

The plot thickens considerably from there on in. We jump a few years from scene to scene, and over time Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become a musical megastar of an immeasurably more flamboyant and ‘decadent’ variety. She’s also a mother, and her daughter Albertine is played by – as you may have guessed – Raffey Cassidy. There are further tumultuous events, violent and otherwise, but it would be best to reveal no more.

There are a couple of flaws in this movie: the (grand) finale is cheesy and predictable, and Celeste’s sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) hardly seems to age a day. But it seems almost churlish to mention them in view of the film’s many strengths: the naturalistic acting, especially the virtuoso performance by an almost unrecognisable Portman (who actually both looks and sounds more like Fran Drescher)… the glorious thunderous soundtrack by Scott Walker… the droll and literate script, with its often savagely witty dialogue… the plethora of ideas… the moments of heart-stopping drama… the striking visual images…

Vox Lux somehow manages to be simultaneously moving, cynical and facetious. It’s definitely a must-see.

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Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Three generations of women convene at the lakeside residence of Rose Muller (Piper Laurie) to spend the weekend catching up. Rose’s daughter Patty (Brooke Adams), along with Patty’s daughter Allison (Emily Baldoni), both arrive to spend quality family time together. Allison is facing the breakdown of her marriage and her mother Patty attempts to hammer advice home. Fights escalate, long kept secrets and petty grudges come to the fore and across the weekend, the trio hammers out their issues.

The story then flashes back to 1960, to tell the story of a much younger Rose (Shannon Collis) and her torrid love affair with Louise Baxter (Emily Goss). Louise reinvigorated Rose and instilled her with a defiant sense of her own worth and of the possibilities that could await her as an independent woman in the world. This romantic relationship then informs events that unfold in the present day.

Director Melanie Mayron (an actor who started on Thirtysomething and is currently starring in TV’s Jane the Virgin) interprets the painfully rote script by Jan Miller Corran and Katherine Cortez in an utterly mechanical way. It’s a shame really, considering it was apparently inspired by a true story.

While the earnestness of the filmmakers’ intentions are front and center, it tips over into outright cringe-worthy cliché at many points. Structurally (and emotionally) it wants to be The Notebook meets Carol but it just feels bloodless and way too televisual in its pacing and cinematography.

Alternately, it can’t really succeed by leaning into any kind of Douglas Sirk-style melodrama because the dialogue is just so damn flat; it plays like a lifetime movie of the week in tone and feel. When a script is this leaden and by the numbers, a director’s vision could help, but little can be done to save it. The poor actors do their best (Days of Heaven & Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Brooke Adams clearly struggles with the clunkiest dialogue imaginable) but it’s ultimately just stilted and artificial.

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Cold Pursuit

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

For a little over a decade, Liam Neeson has been enjoying a bombastic career rejuvenation thanks to a jump-starter performance in Pierre Morel’s Taken. However, his ubiquity has reached a memetic breaking point of late. Whether intentionally, like the Jimmy Kimmel mock trailer for Taken 4, or unintentionally, like with the actual Taken sequels, he’s become a walking self-parody. And with every year, there comes yet another action thriller where Neeson is called on to play the hero who gets dragged into events because a family member is in trouble.

Thankfully, with Cold Pursuit, that’s really where the similarities end as far as what audiences have come to expect from a modern Neeson flick.

Instead, we find the main man in more darkly comedic territory with the snow-capped, small town setting the stage for a violent turf war between drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman) and Native American kingpin White Bull (Tom Jackson). It hits a healthy midway point between the idiosyncratic quirkiness of a Coen Brothers effort like Fargo, and the cathartic blend of mirth and murder of Martin McDonagh with In Bruges or the more recent Three Billboards.

Cold Pursuit manages to hit drama, pitch-black comedy and hard-hitting action in all the right doses, allowing each element to breathe without negating the effects of the others. Neeson’s wheelhouse of gritty, low-flash action holds true here, as the fight scenes can get gory and brutal. But that never gets in the way of the bigger jokes, like Viking’s demand for loyalty that reaches legit self-parody at times or how, for once, Neeson isn’t playing someone with an actual past in gunplay. Potential nepotism and reading habits are about as close to the Taken character’s particular set of skills as it gets here, and yet he still sells it like a champion.

Now, this is one of those weird Americanised remakes where the director of the original, here being Hans Petter Moland, is retelling their own story. The main difference between the two, aside from shifting from Norway to the Northwestern United States, is the culture at the heart of the turf war. Neeson’s Nelson, who pushes literal snow for a living; Viking, who pushes figurative snow for a living; and White Bull, who is pained to see what has happened to the snow that his people used to call home. It touches on some Wind River-esque territory regarding Native/Caucasian relations in America, aided by a very McDonagh approach to racial tensions as comedy, and it adds a surprisingly clever layer that makes the blood-soaked goofiness on display feel like it has a greater purpose than just visceral reaction. The result is easily the best thing Liam Neeson has starred in since Taken, maybe even better.

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Escape Room

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Horror movies can work spectacularly well when confined to a limited number of locations. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, to Vincenzo Natali’s Cube and, of course, homegrown James Wan’s Saw – not to mention about a million others of varying quality – limited locations can often lead to genuinely clever, imaginative stories.

So, as silly as it may sound, the premise of Escape Room is actually a pretty tidy one. Six strangers are invited to participate in a fancy escape room challenge that promises a prize of $10,000 for those who can complete it. They soon realise, however, this is no ordinary group activity and the stakes are life or death.

It’s a promising start for a genre yarn and the early minutes of Escape Room, comprising the first few rooms, are very enjoyable indeed, featuring clever puzzles and decent tension. See, although the characters are fairly thinly-sketched archetypes – the shy science nerd, Zoey (Taylor Russell), the wounded veteran, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the affable father figure, Mike (Tyler Labine) – they all react to their situation using logic and reason, even when they’re shitscared. This is a nice change from the directionally-challenged teens who populate many horror films and actually makes you interested and engaged in who will survive.

Unfortunately, the script cannot support the neat conceit, and somewhere a little over the halfway point the story takes a sharp left turn into Dickhead Junction and never finds its way home. It’s a pity too, because director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) does good work here framing the diabolically clever puzzle rooms, with an upside down dive bar location where the floor drops away a piece at a time being a highlight.

Performance-wise the cast are mostly fine, with Deborah Ann Woll and Tyler Labine doing their usual schtick and Russell providing an appealing enough wide eyed earnest protagonist, however the film simply doesn’t know when, or how, to end and offers a baffling array of epilogues and cack-handed twists that simply don’t work.

Sadly, the biggest puzzle of Escape Room is why they didn’t spend a little more developing such a promising idea.

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Tina (Eva Melander) is a Swedish border control officer with an almost preternatural ability to smell people’s emotional states, making her extremely effective at seeking out illicit carriers of contraband.

Her almost Neanderthal appearance (protruding teeth, heavy brow, bristled hair and thick set nose) and a lifetime of rejection and stares, makes her withdrawn and cautious of people’s intentions. She keeps to herself, living in a cabin in the woods where her only company is her feckless live-in boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who seems to love his show dogs more than her.  Her only other relationship is with her elderly father (Sten Ljunggren) who she visits often, though he suffers from dementia and struggles to remember her at times.

One day, while working at her border control station, Tina encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff) whose luggage she searches. Vore looks almost identical in appearance to Tina, same features, same teeth, though with a charismatic swagger and intensity that Tina struggles to shake off. Who is he? Where did he come from? Tina can’t ‘detect’ anything about Vore, he’s mysterious and intoxicating to her but she feels something dark and dangerous about him.

While in Vore’s presence, her sixth sense is inexplicably muted, and she’s forced to rely solely on her more ‘human’ frailties: her emotions. Driven to investigate her own murky past, and Vore’s, Tina begins to uncover disturbing revelations about Vore and her childhood and the unanswered questions begin to pile up.

Iranian-born, Denmark-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi has crafted one of the most singular and genre-defying films to come along the pike in a great while. Based on a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Border (original title: Gräns) is a mind-bending melange of romance, Nordic dark noir and fantasy-horror. It’s almost social realist in its style yet interweaves moments of fantasy with a seamless ease.

Lindqvist co-wrote the script with Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf and it’s a filmic experience unlike anything in recent memory.

Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff’s performances are equal parts subtle nuance and searing, primeval intensity, delivered from under layers of prosthetic appliances. It’s in their characters that the film’s truly haunting edges are revealed and even then, it’s hard to isolate precisely what’s going on in its engine-room; to narrow-down precisely what buttons it’s pushing while you’re watching it. The sheer left-field sideswipe of letting several genres bleed into each other, it creates an unsettling, hypnotic and chilling experience that defies description and prediction. An absolute cracker.

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The Combination Redemption

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Back in 2009, The Combination came hard out of the blocks, painting a grim but highly energised picture of the tough day-to-day lives of teenage Lebanese-Australians. Written by first-timer, George Basha, and directed by veteran character actor, David Field, the film bounced and jumped with a rare sense of authenticity, and showed a side of Australia never before seen on film. It kick-started a major controversy when the strongly performing film was absurdly yanked from cinemas during its first days due to a minor incident of audience violence, effectively cruelling its chances of leaping into breakout success territory.

The Combination closed out with the tragic death of its deeply conflicted adolescent leading character, Charlie (Firass Dirani in his wonderful star-making turn), at the hands of a ruthless drug dealer. In this surprise sequel, the original film’s supporting character of John (George Basha) – Charlie’s brother, a hardman now on the straight and narrow – is pushed into centre stage, giving The Combination Redemption a much different feel. John is a figure in constant crisis: he’s ripped apart by guilt over his brother’s death; he’s an Arabic Christian dating the Muslim Amira (Abbey Aziz); he’s on the wrong side of a crew of bumbling but still dangerous White Pride lunatics; and the appearance of Charlie’s friend, Mo (Rahel Romahn), has put him in the crosshairs of a flamboyant criminal (Johnny Nasser). Beset by trouble on every side, John desperately tries to keep a calm head, but even a decent man has a breaking point.

Whereas The Combination threatened to constantly boil over, The Combination Redemption sizzles away at a dangerous temperature from beginning to end. But that feels wholly right: the film is wired in to the horrors at the heart of the nation. Though recalling Romper Stomper with its frightening visions of white-is-right machismo, the film is equally powerful in its depiction of racism amongst minorities, as John is spurned by Amira’s family solely because of his religion. The Combination Redemption highlights the ugly fact that bigotry and xenophobia exist everywhere, even though we might not like to admit it; it’s a sad message powerfully told. But this is no soapbox piece – like Two Hands or The Hard Word, The Combination Redemption is also a top-tier crime movie, boasting gunplay, chase sequences, a volatile sense of threat, fist fights, and tightly choreographed moments of mayhem.

Boasting strong performances (Basha is superb, while the wonderful Geoff Morell slyly steals all of his scenes as a decidedly odd mobster’s henchman), salty, off-the-streets dialogue (Fs and Cs abound), a richly evoked sense of place (its depiction of Sydney’s south-west and its dead-end boys doomed to short lives of violence and hopelessness is heartbreaking), and a from-the-gut dispatch about what’s going wrong in this country, The Combination Redemption is a deeply human film that nevertheless has no problem whatsoever getting right up in your face.

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The Cry

Australian, Home, Review, Television, This Week Leave a Comment

Compelling four-part television drama mini-series The Cry will shock and enthral viewers.

Based on the novel by Australian author Helen FitzGerald, viewers will be on the edge of their seat watching this drama unfold. Over six-million people tuned into watch the show when it premiered on BBC One last year. The popular series also attracted 10 million plus plays via BBCs i-player.

The British-Australian co-production was filmed across the two continents (Glasgow and Melbourne) and features a strong cast – including Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake, Safe Harbour), Asher Keddie, Alex Dimitriades and Jenna Coleman (Dr Who, Victoria) – each delivering powerful and convincingly-played emotive performances.

Adapted by Jacquelin Perske (Love My Way, Seven Types of Ambiguity), The Cry follows the lives of a young couple, Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie). Joanna and Alistair travel with their baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother, and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter against his Australian ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie). Almost as soon as they arrive in rural Victoria, every parent’s worst nightmare is brought to life when their four-month old baby boy Noah goes missing. The already fragile relationship between the young couple quickly disintegrates as the public scrutiny intensifies and the mystery deepens.

There are echoes of little Madeleine McCann and Azaria Chamberlain disappearances and while the abduction of baby Noah is the catalyst and what drives this story, it’s the characters that provide the intrigue. The lines of truth and manipulation are blurred in this plot-twisting drama where everyone is a suspect.

Viewers will slowly despise Leslie’s character, who is smug, patronising and a completely unhelpful new father. “He earns the money; he wears the earplugs” Joanna justifies, explaining why Alistair never wakes to help with Noah’s night-time feedings.

Keddie is brilliant as the ex-wife to Leslie but it’s Coleman who excels, unravelling before our eyes. The English actress does not hide her feelings of loss, anger or confusion. She’s completely relatable as a struggling mother and viewers will feel her pain during the flight to Australia scene as she repetitively walks up and down the aisle trying to quieten her screaming baby and ignore the look of distain from fellow passengers. This intelligent drama provides a harsh view of motherhood at its most harrowing.

The Cry will not be relaxing Sunday night viewing, but audiences will find it grippingly addictive.