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Lupin the Third: The First

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Home, Home Entertainment, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

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.

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King Otto

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In July 2004, the struggling Greek National Football team, considered a write-off by the international football community, and 300-1 outsiders of all of Europe, pulled off one of the unlikeliest triumphs in sport and became the victors of the European Football Championship.

How did a team which had never won a single match or even scored one goal, in a major tournament, become the conquerors of Europe?

These are the true events chronicled in King Otto, which tells the story of fierce German football player, coach and tactician, ‘King’ Otto Rehhagel, who led the Greek Football team to the biggest prize in European Soccer, defying all expectations.

Profiling the controversial – and strict Rehhagel, who in his career played and coached in more than 1000 matches and is now a celebrated figure in Greece; King Otto recalls the disbelief – and the long climb – of a leader and a team, which had been viewed as outsiders throughout their careers.

Rehhagel left his native homeland to an environment to which he had little connection to, could not speak the language and relied entirely on a Greek translator to coach.

Despite this, his strategy helped defeat some of the biggest sides in Europe, such as the home team Portugal (twice) and France, who were then considered to be at the peak of their powers, and the favourites to win the European Championship – earning the respect of Greek disciples everywhere.

Rehhagel’s mysterious tactics are never fully detailed. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, not speaking the language, nor adhering to history and tradition, may have actually worked as a combination towards this glorious triumph.

Although brief, King Otto does give a sense of what this moment in time was like for fans of the Greek team around the world, and how a man, who, despite receiving little respect from his new country, or the media, united a nation, giving Greek devotees and diaspora a new-found belief and optimism.

This is one that avid football fans and casual sporting spectators should enjoy.

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King Otto

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If you follow soccer (can we please just call it football?), then you would have long since understood that team managers are now stars in their own right. They are also increasingly global/mobile, and they go wherever they get offered a good job.

This quirky but very likable documentary from Christopher Andre Marks is about one famous manager. Well, he might not be so famous as such, outside the sport, but what he achieved was indeed the stuff of legend.

Otto Rehhagel had already shown himself to be the sort of manager who could turn teams around. More than that, like the famous English manager Brian Clough, Rehhagel showed he could take a side languishing at the bottom of the ladder and inspire them to win championships. It is one thing to do this with a club side, but to do it with a national team is something else again.

Around 2003/4, Rehhagel got the offer to manage the Greek national side. Despite not speaking any Greek or even knowing much about his eventually-adopted country, he set off. This film tells the story of how he got the Greek team to achieve the impossible – to win the 2004 European Cup, performing above any reasonable expectation.

The documentary is straightforward in film terms. It relies on the events themselves to carry the narrative. It also features a lot of ‘King Otto’ himself interviewed on a sort of throne sitting alone and chatting to camera. One’s liking for the film might depend a bit on whether you can warm to this affable but overconfident German. As the cliché goes, he has a lot to be modest about and he knows it.

There are other talking heads – composed mostly of the team’s players– who all line up to heap superlatives on their favourite coach. Perhaps because these glory days were so many decades ago, there isn’t that much actual soccer on display and precious little footage of Rehhagel actually coaching or relating to the players. We could have done with more of that. However, the film does eventually pick up pace towards the end when it takes us through the final stages of the Cup.

Otto’s tactics are certainly not popular with the other teams – especially the European giants like hosts France. However, these views are not given much consideration in this perhaps understandably biased account. In following the arc of many a fictional sporting drama – the underdog who rises – the film is sure to pluck at a few heartstrings. It is emotional stuff, and it will be as enshrined like its lead player in the annals of Greek history.

 

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Cruella

family film, Home, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Seeing Disney announce another live-action remake of a classic IP is like seeing a beloved celebrity trending on social media: as soon as it catches the eye, there’s a sinking feeling that something horrible has just occurred. What started out as a potentially interesting attempt at postmodern self-reflection on the studio’s part has become soured by the presence of recent duds (Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King) and even the better ones haven’t crossed the threshold into ‘vital’ territory as of yet. But if there is any goodwill left out there for these re-dos, if it can be condensed into one last burst of optimism that something will go right, then it should be directed towards Cruella, because the Haus of Maus might actually be onto something here.

Cruella is cut from the same cloth as Maleficent in its character-redefining mission statement, with Emma Stone delivering the best Eva Green performance she never gave as an anti-hero Cruella, but dyed with surprisingly darker colours.

Cruella’s backstory may have its sticking points (the reworking of the dalmatians struts right up to the edge of desperation), but in pitting Cruella’s Vivienne Westwood-isms against Emma Thompson as the deliciously narcissistic Baroness, the depiction of fashion-punk revenge is as garish and well-frocked as it is murky and psychological.

Just as the actors have been well-picked (including another show-stealing turn from Paul Walter Hauser), those behind the camera are also ideal. Director Craig Gillespie gets to deconstruct the image of a pop culture villain as he did with I, Tonya, writer Tony McNamara gets to poke at the obscenity of the rich upper class a la The Favourite and The Great, and co-writer Dana Fox breaks out the same sense of pointed but ultimately light-hearted subversion that made Isn’t It Romantic watchable.

Add to that the kind of costume design that outright demands academic attention, and imagery that cross-breeds Baz Luhrmann and Derek Jarman like they’re peanut butter and chocolate, and it’s just enough to override the insidious soundtrack.

Admittedly, Disney banking on the punk rock aesthetic is bound to raise eyebrows in a ‘Kendall-Jenner-selling-Pepsi’ kind of way, and there’s a definite Dumbo-esque feeling of Emmanuel Goldstein chicanery involved. But it’s a testament to the skills of everyone in attendance that even that becomes a non-issue before too long. Even with the slightly-overlong running time and the aforementioned soundtrack salad, this represents a major turning point for the Disney remakes.

Cruella contains an aesthetic wholly of its own design, rather than just the same Chanel suit being altered ad infinitum, and while the story still has its recognisable elements (it shares a story credit with The Devil Wears Prada and it shows), the bespoke balance of light and darkness is rocked with such utmost confidence and poise that it looks absolutely fabulous. Kind of like Cruella’s hair.

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A Quiet Place Part II

Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A Quiet Place was one of 2018’s more impressive genre flicks, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was impressive because it showcased the rock-solid filmmaking chops of actor/director John Krasinski (aka Jim from The Office). Secondly, the film managed to get a modern cinema audience – that slack-jawed cadre of mouth-breathing noise machines – to shut their gobs for 90 entire minutes and drink in the well-crafted, suspenseful yarn on screen.

Audiences loved it. Critics (mostly) loved it and a sequel was pretty much guaranteed. A Quiet Place Part II was actually scheduled for release early in 2020 but that whole global pandemic situation put the kibosh on that release date something severe. Good news? It’s now coming out for real. The better news? It’s pretty bloody good!

A Quiet Place Part II, aside from an opening flashback, takes place moments after the first film ends. The surviving members of the Abbott family – Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and newborn baby – need to find a new home. Like the first film, what follows is less a fully-fledged story and more a series of suspenseful sequences set in a post apocalypse beset by monsters that hunt using sound. We end up meeting a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy) and the world is expanded somewhat, but it’s basically business as usual.

Performances are uniformly good, with Emily Blunt great as usual and Cillian Murphy giving a gruff American take that feels almost like Joel from The Last of Us. Millicent Simmonds also has more to work with this time, now that she’s written less suicidally stupid, however poor bloody Noah Jupe is now doubly stupid to make up for it.

Ultimately, it’s Krasinski’s taut direction here that is the true star, as time and time again he shuffles the elements and delivers new, clever set pieces. It’s not particularly deep, but it’s utterly engaging, and once again the popcorn butter moistened noise holes of Johnny Audience Member are silenced for a blissful 97 minutes. That fact alone makes A Quiet Place Part II a worthy reason to nip out to the movies.

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Biomutant

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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, there’s just something deeply satisfying about scavenging for scrap in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. The Fallout games know this, The Last of Us duology do too. Hell, any number of open world titles like Horizon Zero Dawn could tell you the same. Oh, and let us not forget Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden! Crikey, even your humble word janitor has had a crack at exploring the concept in a literary context.

Biomutant, from small indie development team Experiment 101, have added fresh wrinkles to the formula, some of which work really well, but the game as a whole has serious caveats.

Biomutant is an open world RPG adventure set in a post apocalypse where humanity has long since popped its clogs. The world now teems with adorable rodent-looking things that lob about in cute outfits and batter the shit out of one another using furry martial arts.

Your user-generated character is on a mission to save or destroy the Tree of Life, unite or exterminate multiple mammalian tribes and fight four enormous monsters.

All sounds pretty promising, right? Add to that gorgeous and unique visual design, staggering enemy variety and evocative music and it would seem the entire package is a belter.

This impression won’t last long, however. Alas, Biomutant makes a lot of dud choices. They were made, almost certainly, for budgetary reasons, which is understandable, but it doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.

First up, there’s no voice acting to speak of. All the characters speak in gibberish and a plummy Pom narrator – who sounds like a mixture of bargain basement Stephen Fry by way of a slumming David Attenborough – translates for you. Aside from the fact that the intrusive narrator is a tonal mismatch for what’s happening on screen, this means you’re always kept at arm’s length. You’re being told a story rather than living through it and it’s a real immersion-killer.

Add to this insanely repetitive mission design, endlessly reused assets and floaty combat, and you’ve got an overall package that fails more than it succeeds. Despite this, however, those who enjoy post-apocalyptic RPGs will find stuff to like. The open world is enormous and frequently hauntingly quiet, offering ruins to explore, scrap to scavenge and loot to equip or break down.

Plus, the crafting system is genuinely excellent, once you get your head around it, offering a huge number of weapon and armour options. It’s a pity that this variety doesn’t carry over to missions or story beats.

As it stands right now, Biomutant is a bit of a mess. Aside from the problems listed above, the PS4/PS5 version crashes with bewildering regularity. The script is tepid, the quest design unimaginative and the sense of repetition acute. And yet for all of that, those of you who enjoy scavenging for scrap in ruined worlds may find nuggets of gold in this overly ambitious pile of debris.

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The Meddler (El Metido)

Australian, Documentary, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

German Cabrera is a stringer for T13 News, a local TV news station in Guatemala City. He cruises the streets of his city at night, camera and police scanner in tow. Compulsively filming, he is a fixture at every violent crime scene, compiling shooting horrors to edit into his nightly news packages.

He is a watcher, Thomas Wolfe’s God’s Lonely Man, violence is his landscape and he’s always filming. Always peering into the dark spaces and alleyways with his camera light illuminating everything from bodies in the aftermath of gang killings and shootouts, to street fights, curb side arguments and even minor squabbles between couples. German, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is an all-seeing eye, his camera an extension of him.

German feels that if he can capture the violence on the streets and put it on display via the news, that it will raise the public’s awareness and in some way, spur them on to collectively find a way out of it.

The protagonist’s narration is ever present, musing on the violence that grips the city and his heartfelt reasons for leaving the security of his home and young family, in order to scour the neighbourhoods in a quest to film death, darkness and misdeeds to shake the citizens out of their complacency. His camera seems to intimidate anyone he points it at, so he uses it like a shield, at times almost like a weapon. He races with ambulances to reach crime scenes first, sometimes he’s there late, in time to witness the police-tape strewn aftermath: crowds of rubberneckers jostling for a glance at a body, blood splattered perpetrators in the backs of police vehicles, the awful screams of grieving family members and broken bodies lying where they died minutes before.

Seeing German ‘clock on’ for this nightly descent into hell brought to mind Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead,  where Nicolas Cage’s EMT Frank Pierce walks on a razor’s edge of sanity as he endures night after night of this kind of catalogue of horrors.

German has access like that of a journalist but he’s not strictly a reporter, neither is he a police officer, yet he works with them as well, sharing information and letting them know that he’s happy to depict the good work they do, not showing “any of the bad stuff”.

One day, German receives word that his father has been arrested in Nicaragua on suspicion of molesting a young girl. German believes his father to be innocent and vigilante-style, travels there to conduct his own investigation, with his camera in tow. It’s this portion of the film that allows us to see German out of his element, struggling to do what he believes is right but being hampered at every step.

Made across a seven-year period by co-directors Alex Roberts and Daniel Leclair and beautifully photographed by Daniel Leclair and Darren Hauck, The Meddler is a confronting and haunting journey into the violence that grips much of Central America, letting us see it through the eyes of a person who feels a strong and vital sense of moral duty for his fellow citizens and for his family, longing for the way things were, before the violence descended on the city.

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Martin Eden

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Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same name, but ‘transplanted’ from California to Italy. The time setting is also altered, but it’s updated in an intriguingly ambiguous way that  leaves us with no idea which decades are involved. It’s one of many unusual stylistic devices, most of which work very nicely.

The titular Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a ruggedly handsome seaman and force of nature, who’s handy with his fists and short on self-control. (Marinelli is terrific in the role.) After punching out a bullying security guard, he meets – and falls instantly in love with – the well-off Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy). Partly to earn her favour, he resolves to become a writer, the only problem being that his natural talent is stymied by a lack of education. From that point on, he reads insatiably, goes at his writing – both poetry and prose – like a man possessed, and takes on  horrible jobs while seeking to establish himself.

What follows is compelling and often gritty, and very easy on the eye, though just occasionally it looks and sounds incongruously like a TV ad. As the extremely intense and politically outspoken Eden moves into different social circles, he meets a variety of people, captivating some and alienating others with his pithiness. (“The guy with a full belly doesn’t believe in hunger.”) Along the way, there is exploration – both implicit and explicit – of some interesting ideas about compromise, principle, artistic integrity and most of all, the clash between individualism and collective action. If that sounds like a lot to cram into one film, be assured that the result never seems over-stuffed or preachy.

A rattling good yarn with an unusual combination of drama and intelligence.

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Two of Us

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Love is love, as they say. However, it is still the case that disapproval of same sex relationships can blight many a union, especially for people of a certain generation. It can also be worse when one of the lovers has internalised a societal shame about their sexual preference. This delicate and haunting French film [released as Deux in France] deals with the themes of both lesbian love and ageism.

Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine or Mado (Martine Chevallier) have been a couple for decades. After a period of travelling, they have come back to Paris in later life. They have adjacent apartments so that they can keep up the fiction that they are just neighbours. This suits Mado more than Nina as she is the one who cannot come out to her grown up family. Her son Frederick and his wife Anne (the ubiquitous Lea Drucker) visit regularly. They hardly know Nina and think nothing of what is happening in plain sight. When Mado suffers a misadventure, things have to change, and all the characters are set on a course that will redefine their lives and relationships.

Director Filippo Meneghetti keeps the focus very much on the lead couple’s bond, but he has solid support playing to advance the plot and brings various dilemmas to life. Several scenes in the film artfully contrive to explore the poignancy and tragic sense of waste in these lives that could have been so different. Much of this hinges on mis/communication. Meneghetti never judges his characters, and overall, he goes for the slow burn over the shock element. We also get the sense that Mado and Nina’s love is real and important to them.

Chevallier has perhaps the more difficult role, in that she has to do most of her acting with her eyes. It’s Sukowa’s film though, and she in once again both strong and watchable. The tri-lingual German actress (initially brought to fame by Fassbinder) clearly relishes carrying the movie. Recently she played the moral philosopher Hannah Arendt in the film of that name, but here, she is both more domestic and decisive. Nina has her convictions and she is willing to act on them come what may. The film has been compared to Michael Haneke’s Amour. It is not quite as subtle and profound as that, but it is a tender and effective piece of cinema all the same.

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Lapsis

Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Sometimes, the more mundane a film is, the more surreal it becomes. The feature debut of documentarian Noah Hutton (Crude Independence, In Silico) takes place in an alternate present where Ray (Dean Imperial) attempts to cover his kid brother Jamie’s (Babe Howard) medical bills by taking the job of a cabler, running miles of cable through a forest to connect newfangled Quantum computers.

This is science fiction in the same way as Shane Carruth’s Primer or the more grounded episodes of Black Mirror, in that the technology is ultimately a means to look deeper into human consciousness than anything mechanical. Over the course of many conversations (some of which enter Black Christmas remake levels of on-the-nose), Hutton and his collection of capable actors dish out plenty of snipes about the Amazon/Uber/general gig economy business model, how that extends into other areas like healthcare, even a sly jab at multi-level marketing in how the ‘cabler’ profession is structured.

Snipes land more times than not, using a lot of the flying-over-heads technical detail not for world-building, but just to further how ridiculous this scenario is as something ‘normal’; where automation putting human jobs at risk only further highlights how dehumanising the work is to begin with. Cabler technology regularly tells employees to “challenge your status quo”, and Ray tries to argue that working hardest means reaping the most rewards, which ignores that the advantage is with those who set the pace for everyone else.

As polished as Lapsis is for such a low budget feature, there is a high possibility that it will rub some audiences the wrong way. Hutton treats narrative in a similar way that Yorgos Lanthimos does – the plot will only make sense if you pay attention to every small detail. The smaller the detail, the more important it will become later. There’s also the finale to account for, which makes Imperial’s Tony-Soprano-esque visage seem like deliberate foreshadowing, not to mention being far less of an exclamation point than the production frames it to be.

All the same, the kind of blue-collar sci-fi that Lapsis represents is in such short supply, and yet in such conversely high relevance to the modern era, that even its misgivings feel minor compared to how much it gets right. A power-to-the-worker manifesto, a plain-faced dystopian satire, and  masterclass in using minimal budget for maximum effect.

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