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Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, is a stripped back, contemplative piece that tries to find poetry and beauty in the mundane and repetitive. Adam Driver, giving a wonderfully personable performance, plays Paterson, a bus driver who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. The structure of the film is simply following Paterson through a week in his life: he gets up, he goes to work, he comes home to his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her adorably jealous pup, Marvin. In terms of big explosive reveals or people getting into sticky situations over a McGuffin, Paterson takes the path easily travelled; one almost free of consequence. Much like Paterson himself, who spends his downtime writing poems intent for his eyes only.

Whilst Laura embraces her artistic side with an announcement of a daily dream she wishes to realise, Paterson chooses to keep his talent to himself. Does he doubt his own words, or is he so shy that to share one line with anyone but Laura would let others know too much? Jamusch never really lets us under the skin of his titular character, instead leaving a few crumbs for us to follow. A photo on his bedside table exposes Paterson to be a military man, whilst his stubborn refusal to have a mobile phone speaks volumes about a man who wants his privacy.

More meditative than plot-driven, things just happen to Paterson as he drifts through his days never outwardly showing his discontent with his lot in life. This shuffling along does, unfortunately, mean that Jarmusch’s tale can drag on in the same way our own working week does. However, it’s Driver’s performance that carries us along in the same way Paterson ferries his passengers to their final stop. As such, Paterson is a warm-hearted affair that really champions the everyday person who dares to dream small.

 
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London Road

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In some ways, London Road, the latest film from Rufus Norris (Broken), is not dissimilar to the musical, Sweeney Todd. Both are potentially grim offerings that concern themselves with a serial killer and his effects on society. Yet whilst the possibility of Todd actually existing are debated, Steve Wright, who murdered five prostitutes in the UK, is sadly very real indeed.

Based on the musical of the same name, London Road never glorifies Wright and his abominable actions. Instead, it focuses on those people who lived on his street, who became part of the media circus that surrounded his crimes. So heavy is the verisimilitude that every word that you hear is taken from interviews with the real residents conducted by the stage show’s writers, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork. Every stutter, laugh, and uncomfortable filler is transformed into an ensemble, duet, or solo piece.

The immediate effect can be confronting, for whilst there are songs of a sort, their atonal quality will leave Broadway lovers cold, but they’ll be missing out on a haunting piece of work that is often all too real. Whilst the community (with players including the always wonderful Olivia Colman and a cameoing Tom Hardy) comes together through their fear and paranoia, London Road also exposes their prejudice and bias. On more than one occasion, the residents victim-blame the deceased, and the media falls short of performing a full-on knees-up. All of which goes to underline a stirring number performed later by a trio of prostitutes. Managing to be both bleak and uplifting, London Road is the antithesis of the bolshy, glittery idea of musicals, and is all the better for it.

 
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Into The Badlands: Season 1

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Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Miller, who also gave us Smallville, Into The Badlands is a cocktail of influences, taking it cues from westerns, samurai movies, and apocalyptic dramas…all within the space of a regular episode.

At some point in the future, America has fallen, and from its ashes have arisen seven leaders, known as barons, splitting the country between them. Guns have been outright banned, and everyone runs around doing high kicks and waving swords around. Which brings us neatly to Daniel Wu as Sunny, a strongman for opium baron, Quinn, played by Martin Csokas, who appears to be having a whale of a time. Rescuing a young man called M.K. (Aramis Knight) from danger leads Sunny down a path of self-preservation that sees him question his loyalty to Quinn. Meanwhile, M.K. appears to be sheltering some form of super power, and he may not be everything that he appears to be.

Spread over six episodes, Into The Badlands does well to build its world quickly and get its audience up and running. It does, however, often feel like we’re being left out in the cold, with characters painted in broad strokes with little nuance. The Widow (Emily Beecham), a rival of Quinn, is a prime example, as are a number of other female characters. Season 2 may remedy this, but for now, it grates. Where the show makes up for its issues is in its fight chorography, which is furiously intoxicating, and will be a large part of the reason that people will want to tune in. It might not replace The Walking Dead in your affections, but it’ll give it a damn good try.

 
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Five Star

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They say that the sins of the father are visited upon the son, but in Five Star, from filmmaker, Keith Miller (Welcome To Pine Hill), it all depends on who is looking out for you. John (John Diaz) is a wiry teenager living in East New York with his mother. His father, a member of the infamous Bloods, has recently passed away, and it looks like John is keen to step into his father’s shoes. Enter Primo, played by real life gang member James “Primo” Grant, who offers to guide John in honour of his late father.

In a film about gang culture, there’s always the potential to drown in violence, which is where Miller’s film tries to differentiate itself. This is by no means a sugar-coated portrait of life on the streets, but Miller chooses to have the violence veiled; either happening off screen or hidden by onlookers.

There is mystery surrounding the death of John’s Father, but Five Star is more about following these two men as they make and reflect on life choices. Away from the scrutiny of others, Primo is shown to be a strong family man, with a partner and several children, all played by Primo’s real family. He cooks, he cleans, he prays, and he’s far removed from the perception that others have of him, including John. Primo may live the life for too long to change, but he’s still going to do right by those he loves. Meanwhile, motor mouth John, for all his bravado, is still a kid living with his mum and trying to get girls to like him. Is he really cut out for the life he wants? The film offers no easy answers, but its lead performances make this worth pursuing.

 
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The Mind’s Eye

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The Mind’s Eye, from filmmaker Joe Begos (Almost Human), is a Scanners sequel in all but name. Set in the early 1990s, Graham Skipper plays Zack Conners, a psychic drifter who is one of several living in America whose powers are getting stronger. Hot on his tail is Dr. Slovak (John Speredakos), an overachieving authoritarian who wants to use the powers of people like Zack for his own nefarious purposes. Having “acquired” Zack’s former lover, Rachel (Lauren Ashely Carter), Slovak is able to coerce him into being part of his studies at his snowbound institute in the mountains. Obviously, it doesn’t take long before Zack decides that enough is enough and plans his escape.

It’s evident that this is a labour of love for Begos. The attention to detail is not to be faulted, and there are clear influences running throughout, such as the opening scenes which owe a little debt to Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood. Also of note is the film’s throbbing score from Steve Moore, which hits the sweet spot when it matters. And, seeing as this feels like a David Cronenberg offshoot, it’s entirely appropriate that The Mind’s Eye would try to out-Scanners Scanners and its infamous head explosion with a full body implosion/explosion. If this all sounds like a lot of fun, then step right up.

However, outside of capturing the pitch and tone of 1990s straight to video flicks, it’s hard to distinguish whether The Mind’s Eye is taking itself way too seriously, or if there’s a self-knowing humour buried away in its sober-sided delivery. Whichever side of the coin you fall on will ultimately determine how you tackle the film with its gruff delivery and several scenes of people squinting at each other in psychic battles.

 
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Nice Package

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Professional thief, Frostie (Dwayne Cameron), is having a very bad day in this Aussie crime caper by cinematographer, Dan Macarthur, making his feature length debut as director. Whilst stealing a package from a palatial home, Frostie is forced to take a hostage when he’s caught in the act by Michelle (Isabella Tannock). Taking shelter at the home of his friend, Brian (Leon Cain), Frostie comes to find that a lot of people also want the package.

Nice Package plays out like a Guy Ritchie flick. We have a McGuffin in the shape of a mysterious parcel, and various characters – including misogynistic thugs, cat stroking mob leaders, and shifty businessmen – all wanting to get hold of it. It’s perhaps no surprise then to find that Nice Package is largely a comedic affair with the majority of the laughs coming from Cain’s Brian, who despite all the drama around him, finds it all to be just one big adventure. He even has time to amass a global following on twitter whilst he dodges bullets. It’s just a shame about the dated gay jokes that come attached with him too. More successful, and appropriate, are the shots fired at the tropes that we’ve become accustomed to in these kind of capers. It’s no Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but the way in which Nice Package plays around with voiceover and meta-references is a nice touch.

Elsewhere, it’s clear that Macarthur is making the most of his experience as a cinematographer to ensure that this low budget affair sparkles when it matters, even when the pacing is hit and miss. Confident in what it wants to achieve, and just about getting away with it on the basis of its lead trio, Nice Package is at its best when it wants to make you smile.

 
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REVIEW: Office Christmas Party

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How to give you context for the ambiguously titled Office Christmas Party? Hmm, let’s see. Well, the opening credits is a Christmas Rap if that helps you.

Once upon a time, the office Christmas party was a highly anticipated tradition. An epic night of drinking and festivities that blurred the line between co-worker and friend, employer and employee.  As a result of the aggressive hangovers, lawsuits, and weeks of awkward apologies, overzealous HR departments the world over have spent decades reigning in the wild and raucous office Christmas ragers until the once legendary celebrations evolved into the staid, polite and family friendly affairs that we know today. Office Christmas Party is a film celebrating the rebellion against what this yule-tide tradition has become.

Morale is at an all-time low at Zenotek’s Chicago office after their pragmatic Interim CEO, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), announces plans to shut down their underperforming branch days before Christmas. Realising that no mere Christmas party can lift the spirits of his employees, eccentric branch president (and Carol’s kid brother) Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller) enlists the help of Chief Technical Officer, Josh (Jason Bateman), and Lead Systems Engineer, Tracey (Olivia Munn), to make their own Christmas miracle by throwing an epic, unforgettably over-the-top Christmas party to win over a high profile client (Courtney B. Vance) and save everyone’s jobs.

Unfortunately, the A-list comedy cast (Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, and Rob Corddry also appear) fails to make it work here, seeming to play their shallow, way under-developed characters almost in total isolation of one another. There is no chemistry between any of the characters, which makes the “relationships” – both platonic and romantic – all the more forced. Even comedy powerhouses like T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman and Kate McKinnon, who are usually so effortless in their ability to bring the laughs, labour terribly under the predictable writing. There are a few passable jokes, but the script – and the film overall actually – feels rushed and reliant on the natural improvisation skills of the cast.

The one redeeming feature of this flick is that it seems like everyone had a hell of a lot of fun making it. And believe it or not, that’s important. Sure, there’s no real plot and there is no reason for these characters to do any of the things they do, but it is genuinely enjoyable to watch comedy all-stars muck around in front of a camera together for an hour and 45 mins, even if it is a lot like watching a really long episode of Saturday Night Live. Each scene feels like a vignette or sketch, and while this would be fine for television, it just doesn’t translate into the cinematic format.

That said, Office Christmas Party is vaguely relatable enough to sit through. Maybe it’s a film best accompanied by eggnog or Hot-buttered rum. And who knows? Maybe the jokes get funnier with seasonal bevos…

 
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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.