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Necromunda: Hired Gun

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The Warhammer 40K universe is one of the most detailed, lore dense and unique settings imaginable. Originally conceived in the 1980s as a tabletop game, it has since branched out into books, comics, audio plays, animations and – most relevant for this yarn – video games.

Its irresistibly weird mix of over-the-top, operatic world building, forever wars, and social commentary seem custom designed for a great video game, yet time and time again, they don’t quite work. This latest title, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a perfect example of the problem, although that’s not to say that it’s without charm.

Necromunda: Hired Gun is set on the planet Necromunda, a dystopian nightmare hellscape that brims with industry, violence and untampered population growth. Into this mix, the player character is thrust, an aloof mercenary who just wants to make some dosh, but before long is exposed to a sprawling gang war and a larger conspiracy.

The plot is pretty standard, and not told in a particularly exciting way, but Hired Gun succeeds in one major fashion: superb, fast-paced, engaging shooting. Slick as a greasy piglet, you’ll wall run to your objective, blow the heads off nearby enemies, grapple-hook to safety and send your cybernetically enhanced mastiff down to polish off the stragglers. This is frenetic, exciting stuff, a bit like 2016’s Doom reboot but with a 40K setting to add extra levels of grime and casual nihilism. When Hired Gun works it works a treat.

The problem? It doesn’t work often enough. Graphical glitches, framerate drops, audio fuckery and even the odd hard crash beset this scrappy title, doing a lot of damage to your good will. And as a result, other ordinarily forgivable flaws like lackluster enemy AI and wonky voice acting become all the more apparent. Which is sad, because honestly, exploring these expansive, fascinating 40K locations, drinking in the atmosphere and just straight up existing in this bull goose loony universe is a treat.

So, here’s our suggestion: don’t buy Necromunda: Hired Gun quite yet. Unless you’re a 40K obsessive, you’re likely to run into problems. Wait a month or two, see if these launch issues are patched out and then revisit the concept. Because underneath the jank, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a grimdark and gory gem that just needs a bit more polishing for it to truly shine.

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Spirit Untamed

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Last seen galloping freely amongst the North American wild in 2002’s remarkable Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, the world’s favourite honey-coloured mustang, Spirit, makes his big return in CG form in Spirit Untamed.

In the film, gone are well-crafted hand-drawn visuals and the existential poeticism of its predecessor. Instead, first-time director Elaine Bogan favours doll-like animation and well-trodden themes of girl-power “you-can-do-it-isms” that rival Barbie in terms of corporate pep.

Rather than keep Matt Damon on the payroll to narrate a profound introspection on the beauty of freedom (that Spirit is lost somewhere in the Cimarron), we have headstrong youngster “Lucky” Prescott (Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) taking the reins as lead. Her story, involving the reconnection with her absent yet over-protective father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), lacks any sense of distinguishable flare.

She travels far and wide with a crew of fellow tween activists on a mission to thwart local bandits (Walton Goggins serving as the film’s intentionally under-developed, old-West big baddie, Hendricks) who have captured Spirit’s herd.

Lucky’s relationship with Spirit follows that of other Dreamworks fare, with a potential reworked title of ‘How to Train your Stallion’ feeling better suited.

When the film does tackle themes of animal liberation, it does so in contempt of court; providing mixed messages around free-range living amidst the backdrop of a rodeo. Youngsters in the crowd may find themselves asking their parents why the other horses don’t dream of the same wide open plain living that Spirit does; a retort parents may struggle to find an answer to.

Yes, if you can look past the film’s ties to the original, there is an empowering and positive energy that will resonate with the littlies for which the film is targeted at. For Spirit purists, this film is worlds apart.

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Heroic Losers

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Argentina’s economic problems of the early 21st century don’t exactly sound like ripe ground for a knock-about heist film, but director, Sebastián Borensztein finds the space in this broad, yet affecting comedy drama.

The title refers to a group of small town friends and neighbours, led by Ricardo Darin’s Fermin, who, in trying to offer hope to their lives, plan to revive an old factory. A quick whip around takes place and eventually about half the required funds are raised. Here is where the bank steps in. After agreeing to deposit all the money, in order to act as a guarantee against a bank loan, Argentina’s Corralito crisis hits. All US dollar accounts are frozen (with peso accounts severely restricted) and the heroic losers are suddenly bereft.

This preamble makes up roughly the first act and events take a shift when it comes to light that a corrupt lawyer, with the help of the bank manager, has made a US dollar withdrawal moments before the government freeze occurs. Added to this is the nugget of information that said lawyer has had an underground safe made on his land not far from the town. Initially reluctant to take part, Fermin agrees to help hatch a plan to steal back the stolen money.

Heroic LosersLa Odisea de los Giles in Argentina – is based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, who also wrote the book (and co-wrote the screenplay) of the Darin-starring The Secret in Their Eyes. The inequality of the country’s politics underpins the whole film, with characters dropping the names of Peron and even Bakunin throughout. This is nicely balanced by a couple of goofy members of the group, who provide most of the giggles.

There’s also time for a little romance when Fermin’s son, Rodrigo (played by Darin’s real life son, Chino) meets the secretary of the dodgy lawyer while he’s ‘undercover’. The ultimate light bulb moment comes from an old VHS copy of a Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn film, How to Steal a Million.

This daring robbery angle may be a reason why it’s been called an Argentinian Ocean’s 11, but that’s fairly wide of the mark in that there’s precious little gloss here. The jollity comes from the personalities of the characters and their collegiality, but there’s a solemn backdrop of corruption and despair pervading each scene. Darin embodies this angst and pent-up rage and he crackles as usual, but there are many earthy, relaxed performances filling the frame.

There’s nothing ground-breaking here and it sometimes comes off as a touch sentimental, but the cast and the earnestness of the subject make for a satisfying watch.

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The Space Between the Lines

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It’s an all too familiar scenario in our current world: a love story stuck in virtual limbo. Two people searching for connection when the world around them feels isolating and empty. Yet when Emmi Rothner (happily married stepmother of three) sends her first email to Leo Leike (dumped, heartbroken and desperately at a loss), love is the furthest thing from her mind. She’s just trying to cancel her subscription to a magazine whose words no longer hold her interest. Thanks to fate and one tiny typo, Emmi’s frustration with the magazine is soon forgotten as easy-going banter and unexpected common interests lead to something deeper than a digital distraction.

Daniel Glattauer’s best-selling 2006 novel finds new life on the screen with Vanessa Jopp at the helm doing a commendable job of translating a story very much made for the page. Emmi and Leo’s relationship develops almost entirely behind a wall of laptops and phone screens, but where a story centred on language and words could easily become static in the wrong hands, the film has its own sense of vibrancy and is beautifully shot.

Nora Tschirner as Emmi and Alexander Fehling as Leo also do an admirable job of emoting to the black mirror of their phone screens; a physical barrier not just between the two would-be lovers, but also an increasing obstacle separating them from their family and friends.

Despite being very much rooted in technology, the story itself feels almost old-fashioned in its innocence of exchanged letters and shared secrets. The will they/won’t they tension is present, but the stakes are never particularly high. This is a journey between two people searching for themselves and finding each other along the way. The 2+ hour run time, however, does put some strain on the attention span. By the halfway point, the classic “this meeting could have been an email” meme is very much turned on its head — some of these emails most definitely could have been meetings.

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This new Kiwi film follows Maori cousins Mata, Makareta and Missy, linked by blood but so far apart… We see the girls grow close during childhood, then being separated in their adult lives.

Mata has been told that her mother is dead and spends her young years in an orphanage. Here, she is stripped of her culture and given a new identity as May Parker.

One day, she is informed that she will spend the summer at her grandparents’ house.

May is an outsider in her own family. They call her Mata, and she insists her name is May Parker. Hearts are broken when the child is taken from her family to live at an orphanage. Her guardian Mrs Parkinson (Sylvia Rands) is racist towards the Maori people, raising the girl in a Western household.

There is an upsetting scene in which Parkinson brushes Mata’s hair. It seems like a motherly activity, except the woman is doing it roughly, leaving Mata teary-eyed. It’s as though she is attempting to disguise Mata’s natural hair, further wiping her heritage.

The narrative flicks expertly between youth and adulthood. Tanea Heke is captivating as the adult Mata. Her troubled facial expressions speak a lot about her character’s trauma. She does not say much, but that is what makes it such a powerful performance. Mata mutters a rhyme to herself, the same one she would repeat throughout childhood. However, when you finally do hear her speak aloud it is almost a shock.

The ubiquitous Rachel House is entertaining as the adult Missy and Briar-Grace Smith (also one of the film’s directors), does a wonderful job as the strong, loving adult Makareta.

The younger cast also deliver emotion, beautifully illustrated when May (played by Ana Scotney) chooses to embrace her true identity, stating that her name is Mata.

The film’s core characters are endearing, bound to keep viewers invested, with a genuine bond between the cousins. The breathtaking landscape, showcasing New Zealand’s endless hills and greenery is a gift for the eyes. Other striking features are the coloured dresses that the girls wear. Mata in green, Missy in red and Makareta in blue, symbolic of their differences.

The film sprinkles warm, light moments in amongst heavier, more heart aching ones. It also embraces New Zealand’s endearing quirkiness and explores how no matter the distance, family will always find each other. In the same way the Maori have ties to their land, they also do to each other.

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Breaking News in Yuba County

Comedy, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Tate Taylor has had a rough time of it as a Hollywood creative. His last two features wound up entirely overshadowed by ulterior factors (Ma and its release burial, Ava and its production history before Taylor was brought in), and his earlier works range from good but basically ignored (Get On Up) to aging like a fine milk down the back of the sofa (The Help). The actor turned director knows how to bring a capital-A cast together for whatever he has planned, but the more that time passes, the more wasteful that practice appears. And in Taylor’s entire filmography to date, no singular film fits the description of ‘wasteful’ better than his latest.

The cast in attendance maintains his eye-catching pedigree, but that turns sour once it sets in, with just how miscast everyone here is. Allison Janney plays a housewife having a mental breakdown, which isn’t tragically hilarious nor hilariously tragic, just awkward to witness; while Regina Hall (and the roadkill strapped to her head) as a determined police officer gives law enforcement the Help treatment. To say nothing of Wanda Sykes still being allowed in films for some reason, Awkwafina as a wannabe-intimidating thug, Juliette Lewis as an amalgamation of everything Ricki Lake has ever done in her career – it’s a mess, meaning that the one saving grace of Taylor’s usual fare, the performances, isn’t to be found here. And it only gets worse from there.

The story here, written by Amanda Idoko in her first feature screenplay, is basically the Karen to end all Karens, with Janney’s Sue Buttons fuelling herself with self-help affirmations as she stirs up a media circus over her ‘missing’ husband. The film tries for a kitschy but pointed tone like a John Waters movie (Polyester and Hairspray in particular spring to mind), but because the satire is so tame and the attempts at camp extremity even more so, it fails to say much of anything worthwhile. Watching Regina Hall talk about how “these white bitches are crazy”, on a loop for an hour and a half, has the exact same effect as watching the film proper, and about as funny to boot.

There’s also a very heavy aroma of the Coen brothers throughout this thing, with the plot held together by characters tripping over each other’s mistakes while the reality of the situation is far simpler (and dumber) than any of them realise. But thanks to Taylor’s direction, this all comes across more like an idiot plot that thinks pointing out its own idiocy is enough to excuse that they couldn’t come up with anything sharper to put on the screen.

Breaking News In Yuba County is a broken film, simultaneously too silly to make any lucid statements and yet too self-serious to be any fun. There might be a modicum of entertainment value here for the sheer trainwreck of it all, but even then, Tate Taylor still has a lot to answer for with this one.

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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The first Conjuring movie felt like a breath of fresh air when it dropped in 2013. Infused with a reverence for genre flicks from the 1970s, it offered an unpretentious, genuinely scary horror yarn buoyed by great performances from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and stellar direction from Aussie legend James Wan.

It was a huge hit. Like huge. So much so, in fact, that it launched not only a solid-but-bloated sequel in 2016, it also spawned a host of spin-offs and prequels. Six of the bloody things, ranging from the tepid to the tolerable. The problem with this approach is that when you finally get to The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, most of the tricks have been done to death, leaving this third main sequel with very few new places to go.

The Conjuring: TDMMDI focuses on Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) who has committed a vicious murder. The twist, however, is that he did so under the malign influence of a demonic possession. Looks like it’s up to the Warrens, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) to get to the bottom of this case and beat back Beelzebub, all while wearing sensible slacks and high-necked blouses respectively.

Honestly, it’s hard to tell if TDMMDI is only sporadically effective because of the direction under Michael Chaves (whose previous film, The Curse of La Llorona, was about as terrifying as tofu) or simply due to the fact that the screenplay doesn’t offer much that we haven’t already seen. There are a few well realised moments, and the cast are all very earnest and effective, but it’s just not particularly engaging.

The Conjuring: TDMMDI feels less like the next big spooky yarn in the series and more like a spin-off of itself. It’s not awful, mind you, and Patrick Wilson doesn’t stop the action to have a bloody sing-a-long this time, but the Satanic panic mumbo jumbo is eye-rolling and most of the beats are extremely predictable.

The Conjuring series still has a few more flicks on the way, but if they want to continue casting the spell of the earlier movies, they’re going to need to conjure up some fresh material.

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Fiery, impassioned activist cinema is becoming less and less of a force in feature filmmaking, finding its place far more regularly in the rarefied and less high profile world of documentary. All of which makes Minamata – the new film from multi-hyphenate Andrew Levitas, an accomplished painter, sculptor, photographer, restauranteur, producer and the writer/director of 2013’s Lullaby, a strong right-to-die drama – feel particularly punchy. It’s also another step in the continuing “indiefication” of Johnny Depp, whose off-screen issues have seen the actor moving away from big studio flicks in favour of lower budget fare like City Of Lies, Goodbye Richard and Waiting For The Barbarians. Here he gives a nicely nuanced, humour-inflected performance as rumpled, battered but quietly heroic real-life 1970s photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, whose socially driven work helped to define the game-changing image-focused Life Magazine.

No standard biopic, Minamata instead focuses on one very specific period in Smith’s life, namely that which produced his last great work, the eponymous political photo essay for Life. In the grips of alcoholism and far from his physical best, Smith travels to the town of Minamata in Japan at the urging of translator Aileen (a moving turn from Minami), who wants him to shed light on the effects that a huge chemical factory is having on the populace. With the factory dumping mercury by the gallon into the ocean, the people of Minamata – who depend on the waterways for fishing and food – have been slowly poisoned, resulting in inter-generational physical disfigurement and illness. Though the bleary, druggy Smith (“Have you got a gun…or some aspirin…or any drugs?” he amusingly asks during one violent hangover) is no traditional hero, he puts his life on the line to get the extraordinary photos that will ultimately reveal the horrors of Minamata to the world.

While his filmmaking is a little sluggish and could have used a bump-up in pace and muscularity, Andrew Levitas’ obvious passion for the subject matter really gives Minamata a sense of urgency. Depp’s scrappy, occasionally under-handed search for the truth echoes James Woods’ mania in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, and the deep, deep physical and mental pain felt by the villagers (and its sensitive visual depiction) is quietly heartbreaking. Ending with nods to the multitude of other man-made environmental disasters and travesties that have shaken the world, Minamata is a powerfully rendered call to action.

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A Family

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

As family is one of the basic units of human association, it is not surprising that it occupies a central space in most cultures. And of course, there have been endless explorations of this institution in art over the centuries. All this ought to give a timeless relevance to director Jayden Stevens’ explorations around the theme. That said, he has gone about it in a very oblique, not to say odd, way. The approach is the point of the film really, and it probably means you will either love it or hate it.

Though the director is Australian, he has chosen to make his film in the Ukraine using Ukrainian actors, none of whom is very polished. Once again, he tries to use this in his favour. After all they are only ‘acting’ themselves in the first place.

The protagonist is Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lugubrious looking dude who bears a passing resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family. He is fond of filming family occasions on his old-fashioned mini video camera, and we start with him filming a Christmas get together. It is no spoiler to say that this quickly turns out to be a con or a spoof, in the sense that he has paid the various ‘relatives’ to pretend to be his family. That is the whole idea of the film really. The rest of the piece then jogs along with this idea, with various iterations of fake family scenarios.

All this could be quite funny (and there are a couple of mordant jokey exchanges) but it would have been a great deal more interesting if the concept had been developed more, or if the film had more of an arc. As it is, it is very grey and monotone in both look and characterisation.

As noted, there is a deliberate quirkiness to all this. There are parallels perhaps with some of the work of Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismaki (the deadpan humour, the affection for the misfits) or even with the ever-cultish Yorgos Lanthimos (the sheer absurdity of the premise, the creepiness of an artificial family a la Dogtooth).

The idea of the distorting longing for family is potentially poignant and, here, occasionally nicely absurdist. The problem is the joke wears thin and no real empathy is possible for the viewer.

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Lupin the Third: The First

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Remember when an action-adventure film would actually deliver a fun, entertaining romp without the existential angst or deadpan violence? Well, thankfully Lupin the Third: The First has landed to remind us of what good old fashion action-adventure movies can be.

The latest big screen adventure of the titular Monkey Punch creation, Lupin the Third: The First marks the first time the franchise has received full CGI treatment, delivering a beautifully rendered world where its cast of rogues feel completely at home within some remarkable action sequences, exotic locales and an impressive English language dub.

For those unfamiliar with Lupin III, pronounced as a solid French Lu-Pon, the Japanese series has been running since 1967 across a number of mediums including print, animation and live action Japanese films. Created by manga artist Kazuhiko Kato aka Monkey Punch, the story follows the illegal machinations of the grandson of famed French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, made famous in a series of French novels by Maurice Leblanc. And while the licensing rights, and subsequent lawsuits to the characters are something of legend in Japanese publishing, The First offers newcomers a relaxed, enjoyable introduction to the franchise’s key cast of characters while managing to pay reverence to long time fans, and the Parisian origins of the series.

Set during the 1960s, The First is at heart a heist film, setting our anti-hero Lupin III against his nemesis Detective Zenigata, a naive young officer with a hidden agenda named Laetitia, and a cult of Nazi zealots, all seeking to possess the fabled Bresson Diary; a heavily booby-trapped mechanical book thought to reveal the location of an ancient Aztec weapon known as The Eclipse.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose credits include the Always: Sunset of Third Street trilogy and Parasyte films, The First plays like an authentic ‘80s action-adventure film, offering fans of the genre a familiar cocktail of Indiana Jones, Connery era James Bond and Spielbergian adventure. All of which is complimented by a strong English dub helmed by professional voice actors Tony Oliver (Lupin III) and Laurie Hymes (Laetitia) who imbue their characters with charm, humour and when necessary a perfectly balanced sense of gravitas.

Visually, Lupin the Third: The First delivers a solid CGI experience; while not completely on par with the likes of The Adventures of Tintin, the final product is none-the-less entirely absorbing, crafting a fun urgency to the many raucous chase scenes while the cataclysmic effects of the film’s ultimate McGuffin, The Eclipse are brilliantly effective.

While it may not have the exposure that a Pixar or Disney film might attract, Lupin the Third: The First certainly deserves a look. It goes without saying that it’s been an exhausting year, and if you’re looking to indulge your nostalgia of more relaxed times, or simply looking to educate your kids on what movies use to feel like, then embrace a little cinematic self-love and take yourself, and the family, to the see Lupin the Third: The First in cinemas.