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Stranger Than Love

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When art teacher, Lucy (Alison Brie), finally commits to an affair with the school’s gym teacher, Clint (Colin Hanks), he immediately falls through a hole that opens up in her living room floor. Not a sinkhole, but a perfectly round hole that leaves Clint floating in a dark state of limbo, but still able to communicate.

When we’re introduced to Lucy, she’s the pixie girl trope brought into sharp relief, lusted upon by every male in her town, from her students to the police. She deals with their persistent lasciviousness with a stoicism that generates passive aggression from her so-called friends. This sudden appearance of a hole in her house appears the be the straw that breaks her, long before questions are raised about Clint’s “disappearance.” Her anxiety leads her to Rydell (Justin Chatwin), an out of towner looking for Clint to pay up on a debt. It’s apparent that the two are made for each other and so now, we have the triangle necessary for a romance, albeit with one of its participants floating in an ethereal hole.

As romantic comedies go, Stranger Than Love runs alongside films such as Stranger Than Fiction and The Cobbler in terms of magic realism. When news of the hole in Lucy’s home becomes public, the townsfolk use it as an excuse to hold a BBQ in her front garden and discuss its symbolism. And this is where screenwriter, Steve Adams (Envy), just seems to be using the quirky plot to air his thoughts on fidelity, poetry, and societal pressures, without really providing any cohesion, and occasionally forgetting about Lucy, his protagonist, altogether. By no means a surreal masterpiece, Stranger Than Love gets by on the performances of its leads, who paper over its exceedingly light plot.

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Lila And Eve

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When her son is killed in a drive-by, single mum, Lila (Viola Davis), finds her entire life ripped apart. Receiving no comfort in the support group that she attends, she finds solace in the arms of Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who has lost her daughter to violence. Eve is willing to give voice to all of Lila’s frustrations regarding the investigation of her son’s death, so it comes as no surprise when the suggestion is made that they investigate it themselves. What starts out as a simple search for clues escalates into a murder spree, and the two women find themselves pursued by criminals and police alike.

Directed by Charles Stone III (Drumline), Lila And Eve is problematic in light of recent gun crimes in America and movements such as Black Lives Matter. Take, for example, the moment when a mother laments the death of her sons – killed by Lila – only to be stripped of both her grief and motherhood because her boys dealt drugs. It feels like we’re being preached to about who is allowed to be affected by violence on the streets. Perhaps the film’s twist, in which the truth of Eve’s background is revealed, is supposed to justify the politics of the hour preceding it, but if so, it doesn’t gel. Largely because Eve’s big reveal is signposted from the minute that she walks on screen; once you’ve solved her mystery, the rest of the film’s faults are laid bare.

It’s Viola Davis who stays on top throughout, giving Lila enough grounding that you do feel some semblance of pity for her come the film’s dénouement. But she isn’t able to carry the film by herself, and Lila And Eve tumbles off the rails long before the end credits roll.

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Two brothers on the road to revenge find themselves trapped in a cannibalistic town in this apocalyptic thriller from debutante, Chris Von Hoffman. Drifter wears its inspiration on its sleeve; literally everywhere that you look, there’s a tip of the hat to a film or TV show whose influences have been channelled into the project. If it’s not the opening that sparks up memories of From Dusk Till Dawn, it’s the heavy debt paid to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all wrapped up in Mad Max’s favourite road warrior gear. That’s a long way of saying that for a low budget affair, this is a slick looking film.

Drifter showcases the talents of a confident director, happy to play with time, speed and style. When one of the brothers is surrounded by a pack of chanting cannibals, the use of sound cranks up the tension to a suitably anxious level, with the shouts of humans boiled down to the guttural barks of animals. To repeat, this is slick looking.

But with so much attention focused on the style of the film, the narrative comes second, and this tale of revenge and people eaters doesn’t have enough meat in the gravy. Admittedly, this is an exploitative flick to rile up the blood, but with little known about our heroes – played well by Drew Harwood and Aria Emory (who also co-wrote the film) – the whole thing comes across as a cold exercise in violence, led by James McCabe as a vicious Joker-esque villain. But despite the obvious flaws, Drifter is a strong feature that will appeal to fans of its influences, and that highlights Chris Von Hoffman as a talent to keep an eye on.

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Outlaws And Angels

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When lawman, Josiah (Luke Wilson), opens up Outlaws And Angels with a stilted monologue about violence, thoughts turn to the idea that this will be an introspective western about man’s inhumanity to man. But once the opening credits have finished, which see innocent people being blown away by armed bank robbers, it’s apparent that writer and director, JT Mollner, is actually offering up a sleazy slice of exploitation.

Chad Michael Murray (Agent Carter) plays gang leader, Henry, a self-styled gentleman thief who will uphold a lady’s virtue at the hands of an abusive husband, before brutally killing her for being a witness to his crimes. When he and his posse invade the home of a deeply religious family, he applies this same twisted logic to their wellbeing, with mom and pop (Teri Polo and Ben Browder) and their two daughters under a constant threat of violence. For eldest daughter, Florence (Francesca Eastwood, the daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher), the whole nasty episode appears to awaken something in her, and soon she’s joining forces with Henry to brutalise her family.

This a vicious portrayal of The Wild West, a punk reinterpretation of Sergio Leone’s work where morality is even less clear cut. And yes, Outlaws And Angels feels an awful lot like a spiritual sibling to Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, revelling in its viciousness to the detriment of its narrative. It’s a point underlined by two gratuitously overlong scenes of sexual violence, one threatened and one actualised. In fact, the whole thing is too long, and something of this calibre deserves to be inflicted – in a good way – upon its unsuspecting audience with a quick, sharp shock. Ultimately, Outlaws And Angels will leave a nasty taste in most mouths, even those who can embrace its predatory qualities.

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These days, when you see the words “A Rob Zombie Film”, you pretty much know what you’re in for. Zombie’s directorial efforts have carved out a seedy niche that combines grindhouse cinema, foul-mouthed rednecks, and colourfully dressed psychopaths cavorting to sludgy tunes by the man himself and classic cuts from the 1970s. From The House Of 1000 Corpses to the Halloween remake to the 2013 homage to Kubrick, devil worship and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie’s bum, The Lords Of Salem, Zombie’s films are nothing if not recognisable.

31 tells the tale of a group of carnival workers, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) who are driving between engagements on Halloween morning and having a fun old time doing so. Naturally, this halcyon period doesn’t last long, and before you can say, “Hey, let’s investigate those creepy scarecrows on the road ahead”, the gang are kidnapped and taken to a massive, labyrinthine building.

Once there, a magnificently wigged Malcolm McDowell (playing a character named Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, no less) informs the carnies that they’re now playing a game called “31”, in which they must survive for twelve hours in a bizarre, winding maze as homicidal clowns stalk and kill them.

The clowns range from the Nazi-rhetoric spouting little person, Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), to chainsaw wielding nutjobs, Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury), to the genuinely creepy, Doom-Head (Richard Brake). The majority of the film plays out like a weird pastiche of The Running Man and Battle Royale with splattery slatherings of Zombie’s own The Devil’s Rejects for good measure. It’s bloody and noisy and super stylish, and features some surprisingly solid performances, especially from cult fave, Meg Foster, who gets to be an unexpected bad arse for once.

31 is essentially the perfect Halloween night movie experience. It’s designed to be seen with a group of likeminded sickos, probably under the influence of booze and/or mild hallucinogens, and should be enjoyed on that level. There’s no hidden subtext here or deep thematic discourse. 31 is a balls-to-the-wall splatterfest that will be screening for one night only at locations of all over Australia. If that sounds like your jam, then you’d be a clown to miss out.

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Ostensibly, Race is the story of American athlete, Jesse Owens’ road to victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We see the young Owens (Stephan James) going to college, experiencing shocking racism, and being taken under the wing of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Race, however, is more than lashings of inspirational speeches and can-do spirit. It also serves as a behind the scenes glimpse at the machinations that go into putting on a sporting event in such a political hotbed that was Germany just before WW2.

Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, the Olympics committee president who makes deals with Goebbels to tone down the national socialism and swastikas if the Germans want a chance of hosting the games. Goebbels does, and Snyder is one of the first to see the façade whilst walking through the backstreets of the city. Jesse’s placing at the Olympics sparks off a series of debates around the question of whether he should not go in protest of the country’s policies. Jesse is shown to be a reluctant spokesperson, who just wants to prove his worth against others in his field.

There’s so much to unpack that it feels like Race pushes things aside that could do with more exploration, such as Jesse’s decision to compete, to make way for superfluous moments such as Jesse’s dalliance with another woman whilst away from the mother of his child. Kudos for showing that the sportsman could be tempted, but it doesn’t add anything to the whole. Maybe a storyline like this would fare better in Race: The Miniseries.

Perhaps the bravest moment comes in the film’s final scene, after Jesse has been carried aloft as a hero, where Hollywood’s desire for a happy ending doesn’t get in the way of the sobering reality. He may have won gold, but Jesse Owens still had a long way to go in America.

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Independence Day: Resurgence

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The original Independence Day came out in 1996 and was a massive box office hit. Director, Roland Emmerich, provided an old fashioned disaster flick about aliens blowing the shit out of Earth’s postcardiest landmarks and the scrappy band of humans who fought back with punching, wisecracks, and computer viruses. Because none of us are safe from weaponised nostalgia, the clumsily-titled sequel that no one asked for, Independence Day: Resurgence, glides into cinemas this week and the result is pretty ordinary.

Since the aliens were bested 20 years ago, Earth has entered a new golden age of technology, peace, and prosperity, but you know that’s about to end. Most of the survivors of the original return, with ex-president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) plagued by hideous nightmares of the aliens’ impending revenge; David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) enjoying his celebrity status and prestige position as an expert on extraterrestrial affairs; and Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) waking up from a 20-year coma ready to chew the scenery at every turn.

Notably absent is Steven Hiller (Will Smith), who has died rather ignominiously in an off-screen alien tech test flight, possibly after reading the script. Replacing him is poor substitute, Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher), Steven’s stepson and professional scowler. Add to this Dylan’s frenemy, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), and his former first daughter fiancée, Patricia Whitmore (a horribly miscast Maika Monroe), plus countless others, and you’ve got an overstuffed and underdeveloped cast spread too thinly to provide anything other than expositional dialogue and occasional deaths of people that you’ll actually recognise.

Of course, this would all be moot if the alien invasion itself was a jaw dropping spectacle, but sadly, Emmerich’s techniques seem to have evolved very little in the last two decades. There are a couple of noteworthy moments (some of the sequences set inside the massive alien mother ship are memorable, and the Alien Queen looks kinda cool if derivative), but mostly the action feels weirdly flat and cheap, with lots of callbacks to the original without anything new to say other than, “What if we made the ship bigger?” or “Hey, let’s smash London Bridge!”

A couple of potentially interesting concepts are raised – societies living under the ships from the first invasion, the psychic link between the aliens and humans – but these are swiftly abandoned in favour of baffling subplots like Judd Hirsch driving a busload of wide-eyed orphaned kids into war zones, and various attempts at humour that fall flatter than the cities crushed by the mother ship. Most damning of all is the ending, which reveals that the whole film is essentially a soft reboot for a potential new franchise (a feat also tried and mercifully failed by 2015’s Terminator Genisys). Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t a terrible film, but for a B-movie experience that emphasises big dumb fun, it needed to be a lot less dumb or much more fun. As it stands now, it’s an ordinary sequel to a story that probably should have stayed where it belongs: back in the 90s.

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The Conjuring 2

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Considering the moderate success of The Conjuring – a throwback to ‘70s multiplex ghost stories – it comes as no surprise that James Wan and his team would return to the well for this overlong sequel that sees button downed ghostbusters, Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), cross the threshold of a London council house. There they find the Hodgson family, protected by mother, Peggy (Frances O’Conner), who are being harassed by the spirit of an old man who refuses to move on.

If you caught the British mini-series, Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall, or are aware of the real life case that it was based on, then a lot of what transpires will be familiar to you, albeit with a lot theatrics and the Warrens brought firmly into the foreground. In reality, the Warrens spent very little time in the home, making The Conjuring 2 the supernatural equivalent of U-571, where the US were shown to play a large part in the capture of The Enigma Code. Though in a film which sees demonic nuns fly through oil paintings and where everyone speaks like Eliza Doolittle, it’s probably best to leave fact checking at the door.

Director, James Wan, plays to his strengths in a film that generates a number of shocks and not-so-pleasant surprises. Unfortunately, The Conjuring 2 suffers from a flabby middle that slows down proceedings. There is almost always a time and place for exposition and allowing your characters time to breathe, but if that means watching Patrick Wilson impersonate Elvis for several minutes, then that’s something that The Conjuring 2 can do without. Whilst it might not have the same focus as the original, the film is at its best when it’s dragging a cold dead finger across your spine in preparation of another big scare.

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Zero Days

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We know that cyberspace is now a battleground hotly contested by both nation states and insurgent groups, but how much do we really know about it? After watching this detailed documentary from Alex Gibey, who gave as the excellent Scientology expose,  Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, you’ll know a lot more than you did, and none of it will make you happy.

The thesis for Zero Days is essentially that our increasing reliance on ubiquitous information technology makes us vulnerable in previously unimaginable ways, both as individuals and as nations. Its test case is the Stuxnet computer virus, which was was originally deployed by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. As in any good techno-thriller, the malware exceeded its remit and infected a huge number of systems around the world. Zero Days traces the history of the Stuxnet virus and the battle against it, along the way laying bare a hidden technological arms race where borders don’t matter, defence is almost impossible, and collateral damage is largely unpredictable due to the amorphous and interconnected nature of modern communications.

It’s riveting, terrifying stuff. It’s also heavy going; Gibney by necessity employs a lot of talking heads who drop a lot of jargon on the viewer, and close attention is needed to parse what is happening and keep up with the narrative. For all that, it;s a propulsive film, a real-world thriller that keeps the viewer firmly engrossed as the terrifying implications of what is not only possible but currently being done pile up. What we’re talking about here is nothing so benign as ransomware or identity theft, but informational weapons capable of real world effects – such as crippling a nuclear reactor, for example.

What’s especially compelling is what Gibney’s subjects don’t say; at several points his interviewees clam up, refusing to speak further on certain avenues of inquiry, and it’s then that you know that we’re dealing with the real stuff. Gibney goes so far as to employ an actor to deliver testimony that his sources refused to say on camera, as he did in his earlier film, Client 9, adding an extra frisson of espionage flavour to the proceedings. If nothing else, the film illustrates how much we are living in a post-science fiction world, and isn’t it a telling coincidence that the names Gibney and Gibson (as in William) are so similar?

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REVIEW: Keeping Up With The Joneses

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For the first time in eleven years, Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) find themselves facing a challenge that all parents eventually face: the empty nest. With their kids away for the first time at summer camp, the Gaffneys angle to reignite their dampened flames of romance. This proves easier said than done when Karen is distracted by the sudden arrival of their new neighbours, the Joneses (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), whose stunning looks and overall savoir faire are only matched by their air of mystery.

Where to even start?

Greg Mottola…what – are – you – doing?! Have you just given up on life? Is this Hollywood apathy, or are we being Punk’d? Mottola directed Super Bad (2007), Adventureland (2009) and three episodes of Arrested Development (2003-2004), all solid hallmarks in the modern comedy canon, and now he’s followed those up with the remarkably rotten Keeping Up With The Joneses. It just makes no sense. Though the direction is uncharacteristically lazy for Mottola, it’s not entirely his fault. It has the stink of at least 40 production executives all over it, and a screenplay by writer/producer, Michael LeSieur, that should never have made it past the first meeting.

The film is just…bad. There’s no other way to put it. The writing, the direction, the acting; and not bad in a “we reached for something and missed” kind of way, but bad in a “let’s get our money and get outta here” kind of way. It somehow manages to make Zach Galifianakis un-funny and Isla Fisher boring, not to mention its completely wasteful use of Jon Hamm and typically frustrating over-sexualisation of Gal Gadot. Keeping Up With The Joneses is definitely not worth keeping up with.