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Christopher Robin

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Years after he gave away playing in the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is a harried businessman in post-World War II London, under the pump at work and regretfully neglectful of his adoring wife (Hayley Atwell) and cherubic daughter (Bronte Carmichael). Given the choice between a family weekend in the country and working all weekend at the behest of his stuffy, entitled boss (Mark Gatiss, perfectly cast), Christopher chooses the latter. It’s rather perfect timing, then, for his childhood imaginary (or is he?) friend Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) to re-enter his life, dragging him away on an adventure to find Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and the rest of the gang, who have been missing since Christopher grew up.

If you can imagine a boring and even more obviously manipulative version of Hook filtered through the self-importance of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, you’ve got a fair idea of what Disney’s Christopher Robin tastes like. This is what happens when someone at Disney sees Paul King’s wonderful Paddington films, panics, and rushes something into production that can compete in the same cultural space, tapping Marc Forster, whose credits include the superficially similar Finding Neverland, to head up the project (Tellingly, a live action Winnie the Pooh project was announced in 2015 – a year after the first Paddington charmed all comers).

The result is a bizarre chimera of a film, by turns twee, self-serious, often depressing, and – occasionally, mind you – charming, but not as charming as it thinks it is. The whole thing feels like the product of a thousand bad decisions, which is frustrating because the more obvious choice is always easily found by turning 180 degrees. Starting with a long, grey, downbeat prelude in which Christopher Robin abandons his childhood friends and drifts into anonymous adulthood? Wrong choice – you’ve just lost the kids in the audience. Descending into an awkward and unearned farcical chase sequence for the climax? Wrong choice – you’ve just lost the adults. Dropping in a frankly frightening sequence wherein it’s implied that Pooh has been sleeping in a misty netherworld version of the Hundred Acre Woods for decades waiting, Cthulhu-like, to be called once more into being? Wrong choice – this is no place for existential horror.

Everyone does their best to keep the wheels turning, but it’s a thankless task for stalwarts like McGregor and Atwell, who mug as hard as they can. Atwell in particular is ill-used, but then perhaps she’s better off than poor Ewan, who gets the bulk of the screen time and is clearly uncomfortable acting opposite the film’s menagerie of CGI creatures (Post-Jar Jar Stress Disorder, perhaps?).

The non-human characters fare better – it is never not delightful to hear Jim Cummings as Pooh and Tigger, and whoever cast doleful Brad Garrett as Eeyore deserves a raise. But that’s about the kindest thing you can say about the whole shebang.

Christopher Robin feels like a rush job – a cynical attempt to latch onto a tone and a form that has proven successful elsewhere, but with no understanding of how and why it has worked before. If we’re going to compare Paddington again – and really, Christopher Robin invites us to – those films, like the best children’s fiction, work because although they appear simple, they are immaculately, precisely constructed works of imagination, with every element carefully considered and moving in concert to produce a sense of wonder and joy. Christopher Robin can’t even decide on the “reality” of its cast of moth-eaten toys and woodland creatures in the context of its own narrative. It asks us to give ourselves over to it, but offers no reason to do so. Instead we get the usual platitudes about staying young on the inside, the importance of family over work, play instead of duty – which are all fine ideals up to a point, but have been better and more agreeably presented in older, better films. Here, all that comes packaged in a dull and insipid story – which is an ironic and damning indictment. For a film about toys coming to life, Christopher Robin is surprisingly lifeless.

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Mark Joffe: Working Class Director

Veteran Australian director Mark Joffe (Cosi, The Man Who Sued God) was hand-picked by Jimmy Barnes to direct the documentary Working Class Boy. With the film now smashing the Australian box office, we caught up with the filmmaker to discuss how it all came together.
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You Were Never Really Here

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of the FBI, the Marines, and horrific childhood abuses, works as an unlicensed private investigator who specialises in retrieving girls who have been sold into sex slavery. Hired to find and rescue Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of Senator Votto (Alex Mannette), he soon finds that he is in over his head, and it isn’t long before the bodies start piling up.

Based on that precis you could be forgiving for dismissing Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novel as a fairly straight forward and somewhat derivative genre exercise. That would be a mistake. You Were Never Really Here wears its influences on its sleeve – a hefty dose of Taxi Driver, a touch of David Mamet’s underrated Spartan, and a wholesale sampling from the work of crime writer Andrew Vachss. Ramsay takes the skeleton of an action movie and uses it as a scaffold on which to build a bleak and confronting portrait of trauma and loss. It’s a thriller that doesn’t thrill – it brutalises.

Masterfully, it does so not by showing us the act of violence so much as the lead up and the aftermath. Actual moments of conflict are rare. Instead, Ramsay forces us to dwell on the consequences: pooled blood, scarred bodies, a spectacle lens holed by a bullet, broken furniture – and broken people.

Chief among them is, of course, our man Joe, a man so marked by a life of pain and horror that he can only dish it back out again in a way that hopefully brings some redress to the awful, fallen world the film depicts. In between jobs he dotes on his aged mother, with whom he lives, and contemplates suicide. Intermittent flashbacks hint at terrible experiences throughout his life – a violent childhood, military and law enforcement service marked by atrocity – but the film astutely refuses to make his drives and personal philosophy explicit, leaving the audience to make their own inferences.

What is explicit is his capacity for dealing out damage, with a ball peen hammer his weapon of choice. Viewers might take some vicarious satisfaction as he deploys it on a motley array of pimps and pedos, but Joe doesn’t – he is seemingly capable of feeling anything but pain and sorrow, an oak slab of a man weathered by age and torture. Phoenix is quite mesmerising in the role, bulked up and hollow-eyed, sporting a greying beard and a hunched posture. He cuts an iconic figure, but also a pitiful one; Joe might be the hero of the story, inasmuch as it can be said to have one, but he’s not a role model. Nobody in their right mind would want to be him. Hell, Joe doesn’t even want to be Joe – he’d rather be nothing, but he’ll settle for being invisible.

Invisibility, as the title slyly alludes to, is a big theme here. Joe wants to go unnoticed, presenting as a homeless man when in public, presumably in order to be easily ignored by he civilian world. He takes pains to put himself at several removes from his clients, and is paranoid that the teenage son of one of the contacts he uses to arrange jobs might know where he lives. The subculture he moves through, a demimonde of perverts and predators, is similarly hidden from the waking world. Ramsay shoots this milieu obliquely, her camera peering around corners and through windows, cutting away quickly as though afraid to be caught peeping, heightening the paranoia – we;re seeing secret, confronting things we shouldn’t be seeing, and we’re in trouble if we get caught. We’re afraid to see and w’re afraid to be seen, and its that shield of fear that allows this horrors to flourish behind closed doors, and within the corridors of power.

There’s a conspiracy of course, but it’s lightly sketched. The film isn’t interested in the mechanics of corruption and perversion, it just wants us to know that such things exist. Ultimately, Joe can’t end the systemic abuses he fights no matter how many skulls he shatters with his hammer, but he can save individual victims – not only from those who prey upon them but, crucially, from being scarred to the point of becoming someone like him. He pursues his grim trade not just to punish the wicked and not just to rescue the weak, but to hopefully break the generational cycle of abuse and violence. He doesn’t always succeed; this point is driven home in film’s final movements, which take what could have been framed as a moment of victory and catharsis and instead turn it into one of dawning horror. That feeling stays with you long after the credits roll. You Were Never Really Here leaves a mark, as intended.

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Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

Review, Television, This Week 2 Comments

Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Caught in a compromising position with the prom queen, high school track star Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is promptly shipped off to God’s Promise, a gay conversion camp by her fundamentalist Christian guardians. There she is forced to try and pray away the gay, alternatively being lectured by the icy, authoritarian Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle channeling Louise Fletcher), cajoled by well-meaning, self-loathing “former” homosexual Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), and forced to engage in group therapy, wrongheaded self-analysis, and nonsensical activities like “Blessercize” in order to purge herself of her sinful thoughts.

Adapted from the 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an institutional coming of age tale that sees our heroine join a small cadre of resisters, including snarky stoner amputee Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), the product of polyamorous parents, and Native American winkte or “two-spirit” Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who has been banished to God’s Promise to protect his politician father’s reputation. Other patients, like Cameron’s sports-mad roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) and the fragile Mark (Owen Campbell), do their level best to cleave to the program’s tenets, to varying degrees of success.

Miseducation hits a lot of familiar narrative beats and a lot of the emotional material is familiar to anyone who has been a teenager (or seen a movie about them), but by locating its drama in a gay conversion facility and drilling down deep into that single issue, everything has a heightened, immediate, and tragic quality that it might otherwise lack. We’ve seen a ragtag group of kids butt heads with authority figures before, but we’ve rarely seen them do so because those in power are quite literally telling them that something in the core of their being is broken and wrong. In its depiction of the old freedom vs control battle, Miseducation never attains the archetypal power of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – an obvious point of comparison – but it’s certainly closer in spirit and intent to that film than, say, the more simplistic ruminations of The Breakfast Club. Still, there are times when the heart on the film’s sleeve is a little too prominent, and scenes that should resonate strongly land too heavily.

A wicked, arch streak of humour and some excellent performances help us over these rough patches, though. Moretz’s Cameron is perhaps a little too passive as a protagonist, but her watchful, guarded demeanour here makes her a perfect witness to the action, while both Goodluck and Lane deliver vibrant, indelible turns.

Despite a few stumbles and some overly familiar story turns, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an astute, occasionally trenchant drama, one whose themes give it a power and relevancy that exceed its more rote plot machinations.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

30 years after he won the Grand Prix Motorcycle World Championship in 1987 and became a household name comes this feature length look at the life and times of Wayne Gardner, motorcyclist and, well, motorcyclist.

Seriously, by the light of director Jeremy Sims’ Wayne, there isn’t too much more to Gardner. By the man’s own account (he is interviewed extensively throughout the film), he was a hyper-competitive kid in working class Wollongong who went on to become a hyper-competitive bike racer and then a hyper-competitive world champion. End of story. Setbacks are downplayed, and unsuccessful side missions – such as Gardner’s abortive car racing career – don’t rate much of a mention, if any. Gardner wins because he is a winner.

While that may be engaging for those who have an interest in the sport of motorcycle racing, it’s thin gruel for those who want something a bit more complex. Unfortunately, Gardner proves to be not much for self-examination, and the other interview subjects, including racing rival Eddie Lawson and Gardner’s longtime girlfriend and now-ex-wife, Donna-Lee Kahlbetzer, don’t offer any additional insight. Any personal failings of Gardner’s you might perceive, which could include a rather ruthless attitude to winning and a sometimes brutally pragmatic approach to team loyalty, are handwaved because he just keeps winning – he wins because he’s good, ergo he’s good because he wins. Nothing else matters. Which is not to say Gardner is a villain, but there are times here where he’s framed as a kind of larrikin saint in a flame-retardant suit.

If Wayne fails to dig into its subject’s character, psyche and motivations to any real degree, it does succeed at putting him in his historical context, tying him firmly to the 1988 “Celebration of a Nation” Australian Bicentennial, when it seemed (at the time at least) that the country was coming of age, and all things Aussie – or at least straight, white, culturally mainstream Aussie – were being funded, forefronted, and draped in as much green and gold bunting as could be found. It’s interesting to speculate if Gardner’s world championship would have had such a cultural impact if it had come at any other time.

But Wayne doesn’t speculate – it races through the key points of Gardner’s life like it was trying to beat the clock, coming in at a tight 98 minutes in the end, and having spent them in the most economical way possible. The occasional bit of formal flair aside  – the decision to use Japanese-style animation to narrativise certain events is an interesting one – this is a pretty straightforward, rather hagiographic biography that’ll please fans but won’t do much for newcomers.

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Jeremy Sims: On the Cycle of Life With Wayne

Actor and director Jeremy Sims (Last Train to Freo, Last Cab to Darwin) didn't consider himself "a motorcycle guy" when he was tapped to direct a documentary on racing great Wayne Gardner - which is what made him perfect for the job.