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A Simple Favour

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In the wake of David Fincher’s Gone Girl back in 2014, a particular niche within the cinematic realm made itself more pronounced. One that explicitly involved women taking the role of captive, but was implicitly about inner feminine strength in all its varying forms. 2016’s The Girl On The Train followed in its wake, and it seems that director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, Ghostbusters) has set up to contribute another story in the same mystery-thriller vein. And quite frankly, it’s one that only further shows that there’s life in this sub-genre yet.

Anna Kendrick’s mommy blogger Stephanie isn’t so much bubbly as she is submerged in a carbonated maelstrom, serving as our lead and occasional font of giggly tension-relief. There are elements of Single White Female to be found in how much she initially copes with Blake Lively’s Emily, and watching her performance, it’s difficult to argue with. Lively’s level of sheer confidence and almost-superhuman poise radiates out of her in every frame, bolstered by how femininity itself is presented through her character. She’s self-assertive, clever, wanting to see women take a less passive stance with their surroundings, and unwaveringly caring for her son. But as the story deepens and more of the dark feminine peeks through the cracks, we get a continuation of similar themes in the genre regarding how women are ‘supposed to act’ and how certain behaviours are actively discouraged, along with how that very restrictive mindset can lead to its own variety of problems.

It’s a midway point between the battle of wits in Gone Girl and the look at how toxic masculinity affects the women engulfed in it from Girl On The Train.

That’s when the film is at its peak, which unfortunately isn’t always consistent. Feig’s primary background in comedy ends up coming to the fore at awkward moments, ultimately cutting into the tension of the main mystery. His brand of genre alchemy isn’t as strong here. But even with that set back, his approach to this brand of thriller shows that he’s got potential with this style.

Feig’s actor directing makes the frequent bouts of deception and gaslighting resonate, the eclectic French pop soundtrack harkens to some of the genre influences in the story, and given his reputation for female-led productions, this still fits nicely with his storytelling sensibilities.

Kendrick, Lively and Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as the latter’s husband, interacting and parsing each other for truth, shows amazing synergy between the acting talent.

This isn’t a perfect thriller, as its handling of tone tends to slip more times than it should ever need to, but as a depiction of femininity in both its brighter and darker forms, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more interesting examples of the last few years. It’s classy in its aesthetic, crisp in its framing and delivery, and confrontational yet seductive in its mood. Do yourself a simple favour and check this one out.

 
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Searching

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In 2014, Timur Bekmambetov helped produce a film called Unfriended. While both critics and audiences took note of its unique computer screenshot style, at a time when the Paranormal Activity wave of found footage horror was nearing its end, there was a definite feeling that this was an idea that could be expanded upon. Bekmambetov himself not only produced Unfriended’s sequel as well as directing a similar Twitch-esque production, Profile, earlier this year, but has also put his name to this particular feature; one that takes every seed of promise that Unfriended hinted at and, guided by writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian, allows them to fully blossom.

The approach to storytelling, where we are shown everything in the narrative through computer screens, allows for a lot of breathing room despite the constricted framing. While keeping the audience largely anchored to the perspective John Cho’s David, we are given a rather all-encompassing view of the world around the disappearance of David’s daughter Margot (Michelle La). Most of it is deliberately focused on, like the live news casts reporting on the events and the social media reactions to them, while some of it is added texture in the background, like how David’s email is full of people thinking he is the one responsible and telling him so in varyingly vitriolic fashion. It’s the kind of intricacy and attention to detail that not only makes for a very involved movie-going experience – with how tight the tension is kept throughout the entire film – but one that warrants repeated viewings just to pick out more of the smaller details.

Of course, repeated viewings require the first viewing to be worth the time, and considering the subject matter, this absolutely delivers on that. The script shows an eerie understanding of the way we use social media, from how it connects people continents-apart to each other to how that very connection can make us think we know far more about complete strangers than we actually do. Not only that, it delves into how what is said online and what is said offline is rarely a complete overlap. Even what isn’t said can tell a lot about a person. That physical vs. digital distance can make certain things easier to express, whether it’s grief, dissatisfaction, or just a need to connect with someone. For better and for worse, some things are far easier to do from behind a keyboard.

But beyond being an effective primer for how social media has transformed human socialisation, it’s also a look at relationships, both in and out of cyberspace, and how they are rarely as simple as they appear on the surface. Or even from a great distance.

This thriller takes a relatively familiar premise and, through a highly creative production style and outstanding performances from Cho, Debra Messing as Detective Vick and Michelle La as Margot, speaks uncomfortable but necessary truths about the Internet age in a way that forces the audience to pay attention. Because some footage needs to be found.

 
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The Spy Who Dumped Me

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Ever been in a conversation where neither you nor the other person have anything better to do with your time? You’re just chatting to fill up air, maybe telling a few jokes, because just the act of socialising is enough to occupy yourselves? Well, imagine being stuck in a confined space for nearly two hours, not actually doing any of the talking, but just watching other people talk. All while a whole slew of things are going on that should take precedent, but no-one seems too concerned about any of it. And now stop imagining because that’s all this movie amounts to.

With every joke that gets uttered by our admittedly-bankable cast, there follows a sinking feeling that writers Susanna Fogel (Life Partners) and David Iserson (United State Of Tara, New Girl) are working off of a rather antiquated rulebook. It’s the kind of humour where, despite how madcap the proceedings appear at first, it’s far easier than it should be to outright guess the punchline ahead of time. Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon are definitely trying to make this material work, and credit to them that their chemistry feels this on-point, but when you get to the point of using “guess what happened to the magician; he disappeared”, the salvage crew has their work cut out for them. Then again, McKinnon’s rather Vegemite delivery (you either love it or you want to immediately spit it back out) can make some of these one-liners feel even more off-side.

But more so than the quality of the jokes themselves, it’s how they clang rather noisily against the bigger plot that raises the bigger problem. Throughout the film, we keep getting this ostensible world-shaking plot about a mysterious package and all of these gun-toting parties who are after it… only to be interrupted by several minutes of our leads just riffing in supposed dead air. Considering said dead air can take place during a car chase, a number of shoot-outs, even a moment where Kunis and McKinnon finds themselves being tortured for information, it seems like no real direction has been made as far as story goes. Hell, the closest we actually get to coherent narrative basically amounts to a MacGuffin plot, and a scarcely-explained MacGuffin at that, meaning that sitting through a lot of this weak humour doesn’t even get us anywhere worthwhile.

Justin Theroux and Sam Heughan may do more than adequately in selling the action scenes, but it’s not nearly enough to ultimately excuse the trudge it takes to get to them.

Between Paul Feig’s Spy, Daley and Goldstein’s Game Night and even the recently-released Tag, there’s enough evidence that being able to combine raunchy comedy with legitimate action thrills is both possible and potentially entertaining. Such a shame then that this film, with only token showings of feminine solidarity under its belt, is unable to pull off the same trick. It’s too half-baked in tone, too tone-deaf in its jokes, and too jokey in its half-baked plotting for that to happen.

 
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Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

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Time has a way of changing the things we think we know to be true. Close friends can become complete strangers, traditions can become faded memories, and children can become parents to their own children. No one is immune to its effects, not even those like Maquia who live for hundreds of years while always maintaining their physical youth. What was once a peaceful existence with her people, the Iolph, is turned upside-down when she is both separated from her kind after an empire attacks their land and when she finds an orphaned baby, Ariel, that she takes under her care.

Under the first-time direction of prolific screenwriter Mari Okada and with the visual chops of animation studio P.A. Works, the story of Maquia and her odyssey into motherhood is both intimate and monumental. The sheer jaw-dropping finesse put into the animation, not to mention the consistently tear-jerking score by Kenji Kawai, shows Okada to be more than capable of bringing her own stories vibrantly to life. It carries all the bombast and grandeur of a high fantasy story, depicting warring empires and majestic battles between knights and dragons, but within the details of the story are scenarios that should sound most familiar. Learning what it means to be an adult, to be a parent, to be an individual person irrespective of one’s familial or cultural background, and whether any of those three are as easy to grasp as one might think, even for those with literal centuries of experience.

To say nothing of Okada’s writing, which employs a near-lyrical quality throughout to espouse on many questions usually evocative of a coming-of-age story. Using very little true exposition, we are shown living, breathing characters from the free-spirited Leilia to the protective and scared adult that young Ariel grows into; to the epitome of all things feminine, maternal and powerful that is Maquia herself. At the heart of this story, one that spans decades and shows the audience just how much can change in such a relatively short amount of time, is one of how the connections we make shape the tapestry that is our lives. And none more so than the bond between a parent and a child.

Being able to pass on one’s own knowledge and experiences to a younger generation is one of the larger signifiers of what makes a person an ‘adult’, and try as we might to give that generation a good head-start, there will always be that worry that we aren’t doing it right; that we aren’t doing enough to protect our young. That we should be the ones doing the protecting, not them. The story of Maquia and Ariel is one of the passage of time, the fears of growing up and outliving those around us, but more than anything else, it is a story about the strength that lies within the mother. The tapestry of time is powerful, and the woven threads within are strong. But the will of a mother to protect, nurture and raise her child is even stronger.

 
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Kodachrome

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In the age of digital technology, it can be easy to take said technology for granted. Photos that used to take the right mixture of chemicals and patience to process can now be taken and shared with millions with the press of a button. Music no longer requires a group of musicians working together; nowadays, anyone with a laptop and the right programs can do it on their own. Even film has become as easy as point, shoot and upload. But with all that data, all that clutter, all that ease of use, the reliability of tangible product can be lost.

This line of thinking, one most recently popularised by the retro-adoring hipsters, takes on a decidedly less pretentious tone in the hands of director Mark Raso and writer Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You). Taking on a stranger-than-fiction story about the end of a once-dependable type of film stock as its bedrock, Kodachrome depicts the incredibly rocky relationship between struggling record executive Matt and his dying photographer father Ben, played by Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris respectively.

Their comparable levels of surliness make for rather tense conversations, particularly with Sudeikis, who just oozes contempt for his deadbeat dad out of every syllable he utters.

Harris’ Hunter-S-Thompson-by-way-of-American-Recordings-era-Johnny-Cash demeanour shows a man who knows the way of the world, fully aware that he is an irritant within that world, and that he doesn’t have much time left in it. Add to this Elizabeth Olsen’s Zooey as the frequently ignored voice of reason, and you have a highly uncomfortable road trip… but in a good way.

Tropper’s dialogue has an effect akin to a sledgehammer to the stomach, as a lot of the conversations are peppered with moments where the bluntness and harshness makes for serious impact. Whether it’s showing how much the characters hate each other or how much they love each other, that impact almost takes on a physical sensation in how cold and heart-tugging it can get. It’s balanced out beautifully, meaning that when we get to the point of sheer pathos and we see why more antiquated methods are used in photography and music, it lands perfectly.

It’s all an ode to how connection to the physical, rather than ephemeral or even digital, is what truly matters. When you have to put in that much effort to get something done, like driving cross-country just to get to a single photo development shop, it makes you appreciate what that something holds. Like how food tastes better when you make it from scratch, rather than defrosting it; the effort makes the connection.

As both a dysfunctional family road trip film and a look into the way we preserve our memories and experiences, Kodachrome serves as a (forgive the pun) snapshot of why the older methods were as dependable as they were.

 
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So, You Want to be a Film Critic?

Currently screening on ABC, the brilliant series Employable Me features young people with a disability seeking employment. One of its subjects, Cain Noble-Davies, aspires to be a film critic, and we gave him an opportunity to intern with us, which he writes about here.  
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The Mercy

Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Within moments of The Mercy’s gadget market beginnings, it becomes clear that there is a definite fascination with what we perceive as “truth”. As liberating as the truth can be, it is also a particularly cruel force. So cruel that many people will do anything they can to avoid facing it, preferring their own fantasies to placate that nagging worry in the backs of their minds. Many a filmmaker have made bank on the idea of the fantasy versus stone-cold reality, like the cinematic illusions of Christopher Nolan or the dreamwalking of David Lynch. Under the eye of director James Marsh (Man On Wire, The Theory Of Everything) and in the hands of writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects), there is no such trickery. Whatever illusions or dreams they cast for the audience exist solely in the head of a man who thought he could do what no-one else had done before.

As lively as Colin Firth is in the main role, showing his aptitude for that oh-so-British stiff upper lip, his is not the role of the comedic foil. Instead, his role is one of soul-crushing tragedy. Where films like USSR’s Race Of The Century turned this real-life story into one of societal critique, this aims closer to the personal and hubristic to show someone in an increasingly impossible situation. A situation where our lead has no-one to truly blame but himself, failing to see just how far his ambitions had pushed him until almost everything he had depended on his success. It takes the familiar underdog tone of quite a few biopics of late and highlights a rather depressing truth: sometimes, the underdog never even gets past its leash.

Well, “failing to see” might be a bit harsh. Considering how much he puts of himself and his livelihood into this venture around the world, maybe he’s just looking for an escape. Maybe he’s just trying to make his mark in a world where every point on the map has already been plotted. Or maybe he’s just someone who got in way over his head and ended up having to pay the price for it. Whatever the ultimate reason, the film doesn’t cast aspersions on Donald Crowhurst.

Through Burns’ down-to-earth scripting, Marsh’s familiarity with bringing the real world to the big screen, Éric Gautier’s queasy camera work and anxious string sections courtesy of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario), we are given a door into the man’s head. One full of self-doubt, regret, increasing pressure and a reluctance to admit that everything has gone wrong. The reality behind every frame on the screen manifests as not only an uncompromising look at how our own expectations can spell our doom, but also a refreshingly honest diversion from the usual wispiness that hovers over a lot of modern biopics. It refrains from romanticising Crowhurst’s mission, instead showing an admission that the hopeless dreamer archetype that Hollywood loves to fetishise has a dark underbelly. The title is a lie; the truth has no mercy.

 
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Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

The Maze Runner films exist in a rather strange section of the YA adaptation niche set up by the trailblazing Hunger Games series. A veritable turducken of post-apocalyptic story tropes (natural disasters, private governmental control, zombies, humanity-threatening epidemic), it started out as a surprisingly poignant parable on what it means to go from a child to an adult.

While this conclusion to that same story doesn’t carry the same deftness of theme, it also doesn’t carry the wonky juggling act that its follow-up The Scorch Trials was stuck with. Things are already looking up with how this wasn’t turned into yet another two-part finale like Harry Potter, Twilight and the now-stillborn Divergent series, and it only gets better from there.

Leading man Dylan O’Brien may fall into the background at times, but he’s bolstered by how everyone around him is on their A-game. From Ki Hong Lee selling the virtual hell he’s stuck in, to Thomas Brodie-Sangster giving the film incredibly dramatic moments, to Kaya Scodelario managing to salvage questionable character decisions from Scorch Trials and turning them into a product of complexity rather than idiocy.

Through them, the immediately tense action scenes hit that much harder, allowing the audience to bask in the chaos going on around them. Some of the bigger moments do hinge on extremely good luck on the part of the characters, with someone showing up just in the nick of time to make things work.

However, between the highly memorable and effective set pieces like the tunnel full of Cranks and the urban hellfire of a finale, along with the pleasantly smooth pacing, those contrivances don’t linger long enough to be a major drawback.

As a conclusion to the story of the Gladers and their fight against the evil corporation WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department, a name that never stops being silly), it wraps up the franchise’s aspirations as thinly-veiled allegory for the responsibilities of adulthood.

But this is something more than that. This film is the final breath of life for an entire sub-genre, the last entry from the film franchises that spawned in the wake of Hunger Games back in 2012. Rather than preparing its audience for life post-adolescence, this seems to prepare us for life post-post-apocalyptic teenage fantasy.

While most of the world is officially burnt out on this latest wave of book adaptations, it seems like the main lessons of that wave concerning how the next generation must be the guardians of tomorrow have been listened to.

One of the bigger recurring trends of last year’s cinematic crop was how children/teenagers are often more adult than the actual adults (It, Jasper Jones, The Book Of Henry, The Glass Castle, etc.) With this film’s grounded but hopeful denouement, it looks like whatever may come next, we are more prepared for it than ever.

 
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Sam Rockwell: To The Moon and Back

With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri winning acclaim wherever it plays, seasoned character actor Sam Rockwell discusses what it takes to play a bad guy on screen, his upcoming projects and sharing his own fan theories about recent blockbusters.
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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

With nostalgia basically being its own industry nowadays, and the quest to find good video game movies proving less and less fruitful with each passing year, this film already feels like it’s climbing an uphill battle purely by existing. However, it seems that everyone involved was more than prepared for that challenge, and the results are genuinely surprising in a number of areas.

The acting is genuinely impressive. Our main four not only channel that sense of out-of-body wish fulfillment inherent to the premise, they actually come across like they are avatars controlled by teenagers. Whether it’s Dwayne Johnson marveling at how chiseled his own body is or a self-obsessed Valley Girl in the body of Jack Black, they all wield their status as fictional characters in-universe to great comedic effect. Same goes for Nick Jonas with a surprisingly solid performance, and Bobby Cannavale being genuinely intimidating as the main villain.

As an update to a kitschy ‘90s flick, the cavalcade of writers attached to this take an expected but highly effective route. Not only do they manage to explain the update from board game to video game in a quick but legible fashion, they also bring some real gamer knowledge to the proceedings. It maintains the basic framework of a video game, with levels, character abilities and objectives, and injects them into cinematic form in a remarkably smooth fashion. From the inclusion of cut scenes to puzzle-solving, even down to gags relating to the cast’s specific strengths and weaknesses, it feels like we’re watching a video game being played out… and yet, the urge to just leave the cinema and play the game for yourself never comes up.

This is because, along with effectively translating video game storytelling into a spectator-only medium, it also highlights what escapism is capable of. Escapist media (films, video games, novels, music, etc.) allows people to have experiences that would be near-impossible to have otherwise. It’s quite thrilling to watch action stars doing stunts while hanging off a helicopter, but most would be hesitant to try it for themselves. Things like character arcs and closure and growth aren’t things that likely to happen to someone over the course of only two hours. And yet, when you’re absorbed in a good piece of fiction, you get to have those experiences without risk of personal injury or embarrassment.

As our leads traverse through the jungle, we see how fantastical environments can be very effective teaching tools, allowing the characters the opportunity to bond and grow while acting out that fantasy. They are the audience, and we end up experiencing all the fun and drama and kitsch right alongside them.

This film manages to be insane amounts of fun and yet never feels like you need to switch off to enjoy it, boasting an incredible cast, a consistently funny script and very immersive visuals. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle takes two difficult tasks (being a follow-up to a nostalgic ‘classic’ and a film set mainly within a video game) and pull them off so breezily that you start to wonder why so many others struggle with even one of them.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle