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REVIEW: Mahana

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When New Zealand director, Lee Tamahori, first burst on to the scene with 1994’s Once Were Warriors – his personal and visceral take on modern Maori existence – he scared audiences silly. That stunning debut was one of the most confronting domestic dramas of its era. A long stint in Hollywood making solid actioners (Mulholland Falls, The Edge, Along Came A Spider) followed. Now Tamahori has returned to his homeland to make this involving coming of age story. Perhaps it is the fact that it is set in the 1960s but the film, whilst still exploring the same rough contradictions, seems much gentler.

At the heart of the narrative is teenage Simeon (a very solid performance from newcomer, Akuhata Keefe), who is on the verge of becoming a man, with all the attendant baggage that comes with this in his tight-knit community. Mostly, he has to get out from under the over-stern tutelage of his grandfather, who is the feared (and sometimes hated) patriarch of the Manahan clan. The grandfather is played by Once Were Warriors’ Temuera Morison, who delivers another riveting rendition of a fierce patriarch. He is a man unable to accept the waning of his powers, or the way in which his dependents are outgrowing him.

The female leads are good too. The women in the clan hold it all together and attempt to mollify young Simeon by telling him that his grandfather is actually toughest on those who he thinks will amount to something. That may be cold consolation for all the bullying and humiliation, but it also makes the denouement more earned. Also tied in are narrative strands involving the coming sheep shearing contest between two rival families, which play upon genre conventions of the sports drama. This aspect is not the strongest element of the film though. The support playing – including the many child actors – is of a high standard, and the careful cinematography gets both the rugged beauty of the island and its sense of slight backwardness and isolation. This is a story of time and place, but its themes of authentic identity forged in hardship and tough love give it a timeless quality.

 
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REVIEW: Allied

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There seems to be a recurring problem with modern cinema’s treatment of war-time and/or period romance, and the more you see it, the more frustrating it becomes. Style is important, sure, but at the sake of substance? No. Never. Unforgivable.

There’s been a slew of these films of late, where it becomes less of a throwback to traditional Hollywood cinema, and more of a really long commercial for Prada, Jaguar, and Lucky Strike. It’s exactly what happened with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011), The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016) and now, Robert Zemeckis’ Allied. Though the original screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is skilfully crafted and full of genuine emotional opportunity, Zemeckis’ execution buries it, as the director preferences mastering how it looks over how it plays. It’s kind of like watching a live-action WW2 Snapchat filter for two hours.

Allied is the story of intelligence officer, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), who in 1942 encounters French Resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), in North Africa’s Casablanca on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Reunited in London, their relationship is threatened by the extreme pressures of war, as they both become paranoid about who you can and can’t trust.

Zemeckis’ mistake – of which too many directors are guilty – is treating nostalgia as a purely visual device. In Allied, this means that instead of capturing the genuine cultural and emotionally tense circumstances of Britain during WW2, Zemeckis places more value on getting that all-important sequence featuring Marion Cotillard in a silk Dior negligée. Still, in all fairness, it is a pretty good sequence.

While the film definitely verges on something that Don Draper may have created, it does have glimmers of real heart and purpose; mainly the result of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard knowing how to avoid getting upstaged by their costumes. Pitt has been around the block enough times to know how to hold his own against an over-directed production, but it’s Cotillard who really shines through the haze to offer the audience something to hang on to. Somehow, the two manage to tell a desperate and beautiful love story, contributing small insights into the minds of two people who are viciously trained not to love. And while there is a natural chemistry between the two, it’s ultimately not enough to keep you hooked into caring about their fate.

The film is certainly not a nuanced portrait of life during the war – and maybe it was never intended to be – but it does feel like a big missed opportunity for Zemeckis to have done something more meaningful with the authenticity in the writing. Ultimately, Allied is a very pretty picture that will instantly make you want to start wearing gowns and take up smoking in chic Casablanca bars, but if you’re looking for anything more than a visual trip down Hollywood’s nostalgia lane, you’re plum outta luck.

 
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REVIEW: Outcast: Season One

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Demonic possession is one of the horror genre’s most ubiquitous tropes. Director, William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist, cemented the convention, and it’s been used with shocking regularity ever since. While there’s nothing wrong with homaging the classics (James Wan, for instance, used possession extremely effectively in 2013’s The Conjuring), it does begin to feel a little stale after a while. Creepy kid starts acting weird, cue the swearing and the head spinning, bring in the reluctant priest to save the day, spew a bunch of bile versus bible verses, rinse, repeat. Just as rock always trumps scissors, God always beats Devil, which is reassuring in a fairy tale kind of way, but not terribly imaginative from a storytelling perspective.

Happily, Outcast has come along to freshen up the conventions and offer 2016’s best new series. Based on the comic by The Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, the story revolves around Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) and Reverend John Anderson (Philip Glenister), who live in the small town of Rome, West Virginia. Kyle is despised by local residents for allegedly beating up his wife and daughter, a charge that he doesn’t deny, but there’s a lot more going on with Kyle, and it seems tied to the spate of alleged demonic possessions that has the reverend so busy of late.

Patrick Fugit in Outcast: Season 1

Patrick Fugit in Outcast: Season 1

Outcast’s setting is working class rural America, a change from the predominantly affluent or upper middle class settings where these stories usually take place. Possession here is often used as an allegory for class, alcoholism, or domestic violence, and the series plays with viewer’s expectations, particularly in the Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Blair Witch)-directed pilot, “A Darkness Surrounds Him” – a profoundly tense and engaging introduction to the series.

Over its ten-episode run, the first season of Outcast raises some fascinating “what if” questions. Like, what if so-called demonic possession has nothing to do with theistic notions of God and the Devil? What if the people who are possessed were much worse prior to their occupation? And why do the demonically afflicted call Kyle “outcast”? The answers to these questions are not fully delivered in the first season, but the revelations on hand are striking and original with the usual tropes subverted cleverly.

A scene from Outcast: Season 1

A scene from Outcast: Season 1

Highlights of season one include the aforementioned pilot, along with “What Lurks Within” (an episode dealing with the villainous Sidney, played by Brent Spiner) and the white-knuckle ride finale, “This Little Light”, but the series as a whole is a showcase of slow-burn horror, quality drama, and stylish episodic storytelling.

The extras on the Blu-ray include deleted scenes, documentaries on the comic book origins of the series, and a deeper dive into some of the episodes. That said, the series itself is the gold here. Outcast is consistently tense, cerebral and occasionally deeply disturbing. It reinvigorates the well-worn concept of possession, and delivers something fresh and even dangerous. Explore it now before the second season takes over your telly in 2017.

 
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Sword Master

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Based on the 1975 novel, The Third Young Master’s Sword, by Gu Long, Sword Master is a spectacular mix of balletic action and costume melodrama brought to the screen by veteran actor turned filmmaker, Derek Yee (Shinjuku Incident).

When a powerful swordsman, the Third Young Master (Ling Gengxin) dies undefeated, it throws the insular world of ancient Chinese martial arts into an uproar. Hit particularly hard is the tattooed assassin Yan (Peter Ho), reckoned to be the only fighter with a shot at beating the Young Master. Dissolute, depressed and dying of an incurable disease to boot, Yan falls to drinking and moping over never having a chance to beat his greatest opponent.

Good thing, then, that the Young Master merely faked his death, having grown weary of the endless slaughter that is life as a top-notch warrior, and is hiding out with a peasant family under the assumed name of Anh Chi. Working as a janitor in a brothel, he becomes the protector of a prostitute, Xiao Li (Jiang  Mengjie).

Meanwhile, in the background, the Young Master’s former fiancee, Murong Qiudi (Jiang Yiyan), enraged at being jilted by the swordsman and fairly certain he’s not as dead as he seems to be, plots revenge…

If nothing else, you get a lot of plot for your money with high-end Chinese historical action films (or wuxia, if you’re down with the jargon) and it can be daunting for a Western audience to try and parse the various titles, societies, clans and honorifics that are scattered throughout (Murong is also Lord of the Seven Stars Pond, for example, and we have no idea of the significance of that, if any). But essentially this is a love and revenge tale, and everyone can plug into those. Handsomely mounted by director Yee, Sword Master is packed to the gills with sumptuous set dressing, gorgeous costumes and beautifully if histrionically staged action sequences that see the participants somersault, flip and fly all over the screen while exchanging the occasional ringing clash of blades. It’s hugely enjoyable stuff, even if the operatic pitch of the performances can take some getting used to.

In truth, Sword Master is probably not the best entry level film for someone looking to dip their toe into Chinese action fantasy, not because it’s not good – it most certainly is – but in that it assumes a certain prior knowledge of the tropes and customs of the form. Having said that, if you know your way around the genre, this is a solid slice of entertainment.

 

 
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Mad Max: Fury Road Black and Chrome Edition

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Let’s dispense with recounting the narrative details of George Miller’s fourth journey into the blasted world of ex-cop and expert wheelman, Max Rockatansky; nobody coming to this version is going to be a virgin. What we have here is the Black & Chrome Edition of Mad Max: Fury Road – allegedly Miller’s preferred version – which exchanges the original release’s searing desert ochres and stark blue skies for metallic monochrome, and to excellent effect. Miller’s preferred version? It just might be yours, too.

It must be said that this is not just Mad Max in black and white, an edit available to anyone who can find their TV remote. The Black & Chrome Edition is based off the “slash dupe” made available to the sound team for scoring and foley work, and the result is a colourless image where the “white” spaces seem almost to gleam like silver, and the edges of darker objects have the gritty buzz of hastily-scratched pencil work. Black and white film can look cold and sterile; this looks like oil on a hot engine.

The monochrome also allows the eye to pick out more subtle details – throughout the film, you’re noticing little bits of design that perhaps went unseen in all the noise and fury of the colour cut: tattoos and scarification, elements of heraldry and costume design, textures. The action – and whatever high-minded praise we might throw at Fury Road, it is still almost all action – is even more impactful and impressive. Seeing the stark white bodies of the War Boys slam into the ground when vehicle after vehicle is destroyed is incredible. The moment where Max swings by on a pole as the convoy explodes behind him is simply sublime.

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There are trade-offs, of course. We lose the contrast of the Citadel’s aquaponics forest against the blighted wasteland around it, and we lose the gorgeous, oily orange and yellow flames and explosions that have been such a visual signature of the series to this point. But we gain so much more than we lose.

Look, we’re already in the bag for Fury Road around these parts – we even named it the best Australian film of the 21st century. This new look only confirms it – Fury Road is a modern classic that will ride forever, shiny and chrome, on the highways of Valhalla. Audience reaction will determine whether the Black & Chrome Edition is definitive; we can only tell that it is essential.

 
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REVIEW: Little Men

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Film going audiences have become so inured to the overwrought and even heightened dramatics so prevalent in modern film storytelling that it comes as a beautiful surprise when a film tells a simple and engaging story with balanced, well-drawn characters.

Little Men is the story of a New York family – Brian (Greg Kinnear), Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and their son, Jake (Theo Taplitz) – who inherit and move into the home of their deceased paternal grandfather. The inherited apartment comes with a dress shop, run by Lenor (Pauline Garcia), who lives there with her son, Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake and Tony become firm friends, and as their bond becomes closer, a rift develops over time between Leonor and Jake’s parents over a rent increase on the dress shop, meaning that it would be impossible for Leonor to stay there. The stresses placed on the parental relationships begin to take their toll on Jake and Tony’s world, that for so long has existed in its own bubble of teenage concerns.

Ira Sachs’ oeuvre (Married Life, Love Is Strange) comprises of stories that set human relationships – fraught with hard decisions and the pressurised minutiae of daily life – as the heart of the drama. He’s a darling of Queer Cinema, and though Jake and Tony’s friendship does at times have a same sex attraction subtext, that label doesn’t accurately define the broadly human storytelling at the heart of Little Men. The capable young actors at the centre of the story, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, turn in remarkable and moving performances, and as the parents in crisis, Kinnear, Ehle and Garcia are great. The scope of the canvas proves irrelevant at a certain point; this piece is epic in its emotions, and as a sketch of intense teenage friendship, within the turmoil of family life, it’s just a wonderful film.

 
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REVIEW: Red Dog: True Blue

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Australian family films are rare, and Australian sequels even more so, which makes Red Dog: True Blue an absolute cinematic stand-alone. Originality aside, it’s also a solid reference point on how to craft a follow-up, retaining the feel and mood of its predecessor, but offering something fresh in the story department. 2011’s Red Dog was a true movie bolter, coming out of nowhere to trample the box office and race into the hearts of Australian audiences. Its mix of broad humour, moving sentiment, and bravura visuals marked an impressive move into the mainstream for director, Kriv Stenders, who had made a name for himself with brilliantly grim indies like Boxing Day, Blacktown, and Lucky Country. Stenders’ natural audacity infused Red Dog with an indefinable raucousness, which he thankfully also brings to Red Dog: True Blue.

The sequel begins with a wait-a-sec-what’s-happening-here meta flourish as harried businessman, Michael Carter (Brit import, Jason Isaacs, doing a top notch Aussie accent), takes his two young sons to the movies…to see Red Dog! After the screening, Michael reveals to his young son that he was actually the first owner of the pooch that would eventually become famous for uniting the disparate residents of a WA mining town. The film then unfolds in flashback, as we meet young Michael (Pan’s charming talent on the rise, Levi Miller), who is shipped off to the remote farm of his grandfather (Bryan Brown in a wonderfully taciturn but deeply sensitive turn) when his father dies and his mother suffers a nervous breakdown. There, he learns about Aboriginal customs and land rights through indigenous farm-hand, Taylor Pete (the engaging Calen Tassone); romance through his comely tutor, Betty (the lovely Hanna Mangan Lawrence); and the rigours of male competitiveness through macho helicopter pilot, Stemple (the charismatic Thomas Cocquerel). But mainly, Michael learns about the joys of companionship that a canine like Red Dog (originally called Blue) can bring.

With its pre-adolescent hero and near plotless coming of age narrative, Red Dog: True Blue instantly announces itself as a more distinctly family friendly affair than its predecessor, but it’s still loose and freewheeling in the best way possible, jumping from plot point to plot point at will, and continuing with its surprising meta-fictional push, with John Jarratt dropping in for an amusing cameo as a very famous Australian figure, complete with winking gags. In any other film, such narrative playfulness would feel odd, but here, it just adds to the film’s colourful individuality. Coupled with a hard-edged sweetness and lots of humour, it makes for a winning mix. A classic boy-and-his-dog tale, Red Dog: True Blue has a big heart and bundles of charm…just like its eponymous canine hero.

 
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REVIEW: The Menkoff Method

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Manga babes, ninjas, zombies, Russian Mafia, corporate subterfuge – it all goes into the mix in The Menkoff Method, which is following up its trip round the festival traps with a very brief theatrical release this week.

Office drone David (Lachlan Woods) dreams of success as a manga artist and a life beyond the prefab confines of the bank in which he toils, but adventure could be right under his nose. Enter the mysterious Max Menkoff (Noah Taylor with a gloriously OTT Russian accent), allegedly an efficiency expert brought in to bring the failing bank to heel, in reality an enigmatic agent provocateur with his own shadowy, if madcap, agenda. Can David summon heroic reserves he’s previously only channeled onto the comic page to save the day and maybe even win the girl (Jessica Clarke as corporate hatchet-woman Ruby Jackson)?

Well, of course he can – it’s that kind of film. For all that writer Zac Gillam has chucked everything he can think of into his first produced feature script here, there’s something very familiar about The Menkoff Method, another in a long line of wacky Aussie comedies (many of them written or shot by director David Parker, who had a hand in Malcolm, The Big Steal and more). Indeed, what really sets it apart from its antecedents is its budget, which visibly stretches the definition of the word shoestring and frequently isn’t quite up to the task of encompassing the script’s ambitions.

Which isn’t to say it’s not frequently fun, which is mainly down to the cast. While front-and-centre in the marketing campaign, Taylor is more of a background figure in the narrative, but he’s obviously having quite a time playing a villain who would feel right at home in an old cliffhanger serial. Woods and Clarke make for an endearing enough pair, and solid support comes from the likes of Malcolm Kennard (Pawno) as a gun-toting goon with a sensitive side and Longmire‘s Robert Taylor as a bank boss who looks like he just finished testifying against Alan Bond circa 1985.

The film is never not trying to please its audience, and when it fails at times to do so it’s not for lack of effort. In the end, though, all the manic flailing and weird plot twists don’t add up to much, and a shaggy dog story like this needs a decent pay-off to reward the viewer for keeping their head in the game. The Menkoff Method feels like it was a draft or two away from being really decent; as it stands, it’s merely okay.

 
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Up For Love

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When successful lawyer and recent divorcé, Diane (Virginie Efira), gets a call from the man who has found her mobile phone, she is immediately intrigued and charmed. As she and Alexandre (Jean Dujardin) chat and make plans to meet, it becomes evident that the chemistry between them is great indeed. But when they meet the next day, a problem presents itself. Despite his charisma and good looks, Alexandre comes up a bit short (almost 2 feet, actually). Can this romance survive such a looming height difference?

The most problematic thing about Up For Love is not the wasteful use of its characters, the badly done slapstick, or even the seemingly “she’ll be right” approach to plot. It’s the almost offensive take on the vertically challenged, and the cultural implication that even when immensely successful, no one could possibly love a little person without doing some serious soul-searching.

The first and most obvious issue here is that Jean Dujardin is not a little person. It would have made the film exponentially more genuine and interesting to cast a little actor in the role, as opposed to a 6-foot actor who has no real understanding of what life is and can be like for little people. Not only would this have given Up For Love a level of authenticity and dignity, it would have also – at the very least – made production a hell of a lot easier.

Aside from the frustrating choices in casting, Up For Love does have sweet moments that catch you by surprise in the otherwise uneventful narrative. Virginie Efira and Jean Dujardin are equally matched in their ability to bring charm and humor to the piece, which regrettably gets buried beneath the lifeless story. Up For Love offers casual, light-hearted laughs, but for anyone looking for something more than a bit of respite from the daily grind, you’ll likely be disappointed.

 
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Don’t Blink: Robert Frank

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Robert Frank has been described by The New York Times, with some justification, as the world’s greatest living photographer. Unsurprisingly, the nonagenarian Frank refers to himself as visual rather than verbal, and is a reluctant (though pleasant and expansive enough) interviewee. But that doesn’t stop this (black-and-white) documentary from being consistently interesting, mainly because of the many tantalising glimpses that it affords of his remarkable body of work. That said, it might have benefited from more conventional exposition and chronology, and a little less onscreen collage.

The Swiss-born Frank is to this day most venerated for his influential fifties book, The Americans, consisting of naturalistic shots of “ordinary” citizens in thirty states. But there’s so much more to his oeuvre, much of it film rather than photos. There’s Cocksucker Blues, the riotous but seldom seen 1972 doco about The Rolling Stones, of which Mick Jagger says, “It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it’s shown in America, we’ll never be allowed in the country again; and Pull My Daisy, the absurdist romp with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. But some of the most strikingly beautiful and lyrical footage involves no-one famous at all: street scenes from Egypt and Beirut, for example, or Frank’s own family or latter-day rural life. He’s one of those uncommon characters who achieved great success without compromise, and for whom – as he puts it – “Life dances on, sometimes on crutches.” There is aural pleasure to be had here too, as the soundtrack features music by (among others) The Velvets, The Mekons, Tom Waits, and Johnny Thunders.