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The Walking Dead: Season 6

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When Shane sacrificed someone to save himself in the second season of The Walking Dead, the scene highlighted a shift in how the audience were being asked to view morality in this new world. Now into its sixth season, that idea of right and wrong has never been more apparent.

Having found sanctuary in The Alexandria Safe-Zone, an upscale community set up to be self-sufficient, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his motely crew’s moral code is in complete contrast to the people that they now call neighbours. The Alexandria citizens are clinging onto their humanity, and Rick is just a big old poster boy for everything that’s wrong in this zombie swamped apocalypse. In turn, members of Rick’s team, such as beaten wife turned warrior, Carol (Melissa McBride), now faced with a glimpse of what life used to be like, find themselves questioning what they have become.

Even if everyone was to hang up their guns tomorrow, though, there are still people out there wishing to do them harm. But before then, The Walking Dead takes some time out to focus on characters and, like Game Of Thrones, it’ll do you no good to pick a favourite, as anyone could be next, as shown in the shattering episode, “No Way Out.”

The Walking Dead has faced criticism in the past for never really putting its main core of characters in situations that they can’t get out of. However, this season’s antagonist in the form of a whispered name, Negan, could change all that. The show holds back on who that is with numerous false starts and red herrings, but come the finale, it’s clear that The Walking Dead’s showrunners are ready to make drastic changes, and Negan is at the forefront of that revolution.

 
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Fight Valley

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When a young woman is killed in an illegal underground fighting club, her sister, Windsor (Susie Celek), quite rightly seeks vengeance. In order to get to the bottom of who threw the killer punch, she enters the world of women’s street fighting. And those two sentences are enough to tell you whether this is going to be your kind of movie.

Fight Valley is The Fast And Furious with more chokeholds, featuring a supporting cast of UFC fighters, including Cris Cyborg, Meisha Tate, and Holly Holm (who knocked out Ronda Rousey in Melbourne last year). As Windsor navigates her way through the murky world of the titular fight club, she learns the ways of the street from her sister’s motley crew, who all have a tale to tell and a code to live by. If there’s an opportunity to say how tough they have it, they will grab it with both hands and will it into submission.

There’s no denying the fact that Fight Valley is rough and ready in its approach; the editing needs another round and the performances on show are a mixed bag. But in a world choking on movies about white guys hitting each other, from Van Damme’s Kickboxer through to the title-says-it-like-it-is Fighting with Channing Tatum, Fight Valley at least gains credibility for trying something different. Writer/director, Rob Hawk, offers up a film whose female protagonists don’t need to wait for a man to validate them. In fact, any men who do have a presence in the film tend to be on the outside looking in. That said, whilst UFC fans will delight in seeing their favourites flexing their acting muscles, for everyone else, this will be nothing more than a knockabout exploitation flick.

 
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House Of VHS

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July 2016 saw the end of days for the VCR when it was announced that the humble machine would cease to be manufactured. The fact that, in an age of Blu-rays and digital downloads, there was still a demand for VHS will surprise those who are accustomed to streaming Game Of Thrones. House Of VHS, the feature length debut from French director, Gautier Gazenave, is both a typical haunted house movie and a monument to the outdated, but resilient eponymous format.

In the French countryside, a group of young multinational backpackers break into an abandoned villa for a weekend of partying. When one of them finds a VCR and a stockpile of tapes, the opportunity for an old fashioned movie night beckons. But as one night turns into a few days, it’s evident that the machine has some sort of control over its watchers.

With its antagonist a demonic VCR, it’s clear that House Of VHS wears its absurdity proudly on its sleeve. Whilst performances are a mixed bag, if you know your public domain films, there’s fun to be had watching how Gazenave weaves Bloody Pit Of Horror, Circus Of Souls, and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians into a series of increasingly disturbing montages eaten up by our band of unlucky heroes. Interestingly, the film plays with the idea of art imitating life, and vice versa, as the increasing levels of violence that the group experience are shown to reflect that of what they watch on screen. With all that said, Gazenave, who also wrote the film, never allows himself to let rip. There are several missed opportunities for innovative horror, and the promise of being sucked into the film that you’re watching, ala 1992’s Stay Tuned, isn’t as satisfying as you’d expect.

 
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The Similars (The 2016 SciFi Film Festival)

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First thing’s first: the less that you know about this film going in the better. The Similars is a pastiche of existing horror and sci-fi ideas, yet it somehow manages to feel original. Mexican director, Isaac Ezban, takes strong cues from The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, Stephen King, and other classic sci-fi and horror, and the film ends up a campy, oddball homage to those works. Lovers of old school sci-fi, horror, and all things weird are in for a treat.

The Similars is essentially a maniac’s extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It is a dark and rainy night in 1968 at a bus station on the outskirts of Mexico City. Martin (Fernando Becerril) is the elderly station manager, while Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) – an anxious man trying to get to the city before his wife gives birth – and a Native American woman (Maria Elena Olivares) are initially the only occupants of the station. It doesn’t take long for the cast to fill out, however, with your staple gallery of oddball characters falling into place: the hippie, the creepy kid, and his doting mother, to name a few. When they discover that they’re supernaturally trapped in the station and people start having seizures, insanity ensues.

Isaac Ezban does a great job of creating a sense of mystery with these characters and the stranger and stranger events which follow. The Similars certainly takes a while to get going, but when it does, the craziness really ramps up, and you’ll find yourself laughing at the film’s campy horror moments. The sense of drama and insanity is further intensified through dramatic close ups and unconventional camera angles, with moments of revelation and horror punctuated by pounding, orchestral notes à la Hitchcock. There are a few classic scenes that are just so bizarre and inventive that you won’t forget them anytime soon. The film climaxes too quickly, and there are moments bordering on overkill, but fans of outré cinema will love this tripped out Mexican homage to old school genre filmmaking.

The Similars is screening at The 2016 SciFi Film Festival, which runs from October 19-23 at The Ritz Cinema, Randwick, in Sydney. For more on The Similars and to buy tickets, head to the official site.

 
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Marvel’s Luke Cage

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The third of Marvel’s six Netflix shows* is almost upon us, with Mike Colter’s super-strong, bullet-proof street hero, Luke Cage, taking centre stage, fighting crime and corruption in modern day Harlem.

Making a living sweeping up at a barber shop and moonlighting as a kitchen hand, escaped con Luke Cage doesn’t want any trouble. He certainly doesn’t want to draw any attention to the superhuman abilities bequeathed to him by an illegal experiment undertaken in prison, even though his friend and mentor, Pop (Frankie Faison) urges him to use his powers to help people “like them other fellas”. For all his protestations, though, Cage is a good man and a man of his place who feels responsibility for his neighbours, and it isn’t long before he’s on a collision course with both local crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his more respectable but arguably more dangerous cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard)

As a comics character, Luke Cage was a response to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, and its surprising and exhilarating how much the show leans into that, laying on a garish, pop-cinema aesthetic that really makes the show stand out from its more dour counterparts. Add to that a constantly shifting, energised soundtrack that takes in everything from Motown to jazz to modern R&B to gangsta rap, and slick, tough street-smart writing, and what we have here is, for all intents and purposes, the story of a modern day John Shaft, dealing with the problems of his community that nobody else can or will.

Mike Colter is simply fantastic in the role, expanding on what we saw in Jessica Jones. Possessed of an incredible dignity and gravitas, his Cage is man who doesn’t swear and doesn’t grandstand… at least until his star starts to rise and he allows himself to begin to enjoy his “local hero” status. One of the key themes of Luke Cage is the reclaiming of selfhood and pride after being beaten down, and it is so much fun to see the character evolve until he’s walking the streets in a tailored suit, putting the fear into thugs and criminals in order to help out the hardworking people of Harlem, and clearly loving almost every minute of it.

In the other corner we have Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, the scion of a family of Harlem criminals and the inheritor of a generational cycle of violence and graft. Cottonmouth’s arc goes in the opposite direction, beginning as a figure of confidence and strength due to his elevated position as a feared criminal, and gradually losing it all as he starts to realise that it’s hard to deal with a problem that you literally can’t shoot. That’s the central binary of the story right there: Cage’s sense of responsibility versus Cottonmouth’s love of power – it’s the classic Spider-Man ethos dramatised.

Around this is woven the larger story of Harlem and the African American community therein. Make no mistake, Luke Cage is specifically and unapologetically a black story, and indeed it communicates the experience of blackness in America more entertainingly and more authentically than its Netflix stablemate, The Get Down, could ever dream of doing. That’s down to the work of the showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who has worked elements of the African American experience into every facet of the show. It’s in the dialogue, the music, the fashion, the history, the locations and the palpable sense of place that infuses the show. From the writ-large themes of race and community to the tiniest details – at one point Cage is kicking back reading a Walter Mosley novel – this is a series that celebrates African American culture in a manner both deep and vibrant.

Which is to say it’s fun – this is a superhero show, after all, and it doesn’t shy away from its pulpy roots. Connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic are layered in, which is only to be expected, and the action beats – which are a little too spaced out, if we’re being honest – are great. Cage’s hesitant, resigned approach to fighting is never not fun; he knows he can’t be hurt, so he just kind of gently thumps his enemies until they go away, looking disappointed when they keep trying to batter his unbreakable skin.

If there’s a problem with Luke Cage, it’s one endemic not just to Marvel’s Netflix shows, but to the majority of streaming binge-watch drama: there’s not quite enough story to fill the episode allotment. Netflix supplied seven episodes for review, and there are thirteen in total, but unless something extraordinary happens in the back half, the show feels like it could have been better served by a tighter eight to ten episode season. The idea that length is its own virtue is one that plagues modern TV, though, so we’re not exactly singling Luke Cage out for it.

That niggle aside, this is an absolute win. It’s not the absolute triumph that Jessica Jones was, but it’s also not the rather muddy Greatest Hits package that is Daredevil. Luke Cage is a bold, strutting, confident slice of street heroism and urban culture, expanding the superhero paradigm to tell  a story about pride, respect, community and responsibility. Can you dig it?

*We’re getting a Punisher series now, remember?

 
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REVIEW: Snowden

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Snowden sees veteran firebrand Oliver Stone return to form after a few years of cinematic misfires (Savages, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and for fairly obvious reasons; after all, the story of Edward Snowden, the young patriot turned whistleblower who let the world know that the NSA was all up in their digital business has all the ingredients that Stone has previously used so successfully: a timely subject, a moral but controversial hero, and a sour view of the military-industrial complex.

Using Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) 2013 hotel room interview with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Snowden shows us the arc of the titular character’s life from his time as a Special Forces candidate post-911 to his decision to smuggle damning evidence of the NSA’s Hawaii data centre. In many ways his arc mirrors that of Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison in Stone’s earlier JFK, moving from patriotic true believer to righteous accuser as his experiences expose him to more and more dirty dealings and constitutional breaches. An impressive cast crop up along the way, including Shailene Woodely as Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, Timothy Olyphant as a louche CIA field agent, and Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage as Snowden’s CIA patron and cryptography mentor, respectively (as long as we’re talking about echoes of earlier Stone works, these two are effectively Sergeants Barnes and Elias from Platoon).

Watching the proceedings unfold, you recognise that the subject matter is fascinating, important stuff; after all, what we’re dealing with here is the right to privacy, the right to security, the responsibilities of the nation state in procuring both of those, and the obligation of the individual to speak truth to power. Stone captures it all in his trademark restless, aggressive visual style (and his bombastic tendency to mythologise the political, if we’re being honest), throwing together drone footage and surveillance video, bouncing his images off of mirrors and windows, putting JGL’s Snowden in the centre of a world of false images and obfuscated meaning.

Yet, for all that, Snowden rarely feels urgent. Partly it’s because the threats the film is dealing with are largely abstract; it’s all very well to talk about “freedom” and “privacy” but attacking those concepts doesn’t have the same visceral impact as a loaded gun. Partly it’s because, well, we saw all this play out in the news media three years ago, and the number of band-aids stuck over laptop camera lenses didn’t really spike then, either.

In the end what we have here is a solid, engaging real-life drama that never quite crosses the line from “good” into “great”. Still, it’s nice to see Stone fully engaged with his material once more, and given the current state of the world, no doubt there’s another crisis out there for him to adapt that will resonate with the audience us much as it clearly does with the director.

 
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REVIEW: The Red Turtle

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When Hayao Miyazaki (founder and creative director of Studio Ghibli) recently retired, many wondered whether his absence would signal the death of the famed Japanese animation powerhouse. Though admittedly a massive torch to carry, Ghibli presses on, now exploring a new creative direction with their latest feature, The Red Turtle, developed in partnership with Dutch animator, Michaël Dudok de Wit.

Through the seemingly simple story of a man shipwrecked on a tropical island inhabited only by turtles, crabs, and birds, The Red Turtle recounts the milestones in the life of a human being faced with life-long isolation. And all without so much as a word from any of the characters.

From the first frame, you can feel that you are watching something quite remarkable. The animation, while not entirely a purist’s Ghibli, still has that endearing, whimsical quality to it; it’s like a dancing watercolour painting. This unique visual aesthetic instantly sets the film apart. Though the time-old man-on-a-desert-island trope has been done to death, The Red Turtle looks at the subject through a fresh lens, where the tale is not so much about how this man survives (as with most desert island stories) – but rather, how he lives. The Red Turtle is a desperately beautiful narrative that is all at once joyful, harrowing, miserable, and hopeful. There is no past or future here; time simply stands still, rich with exquisitely detailed subtext and symbolism.

While Dudok de Wit has directed his share of animated shorts in the past (Father And Daughter, The Monk And The Fish, The Aroma Of Tea) The Red Turtle marks his very first feature length film, and he nails it. If films like The Red Turtle are anything to go by, then the Ghibli legacy is in very safe – if not brilliant – hands.

 
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REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge

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Is it okay to like something that Mel Gibson does these days? His latest offering, Hacksaw Ridge, is definitely one of those films that stirs up the whole “is the author dead?” conundrum. Let’s start with the facts…

Hacksaw Ridge is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WW2, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. Doss was the only American soldier in WW2 to fight on the frontlines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless a sin and fundamentally wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers, was wounded by a grenade, and hit by snipers. For these reasons, Doss was the first ever conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honour.

Okay so, first things first; the fact that Hacksaw Ridge is based on true events is horribly confronting. Gibson’s direction has you sitting right there in the bunker, sharing the brutal, graphic, and terrifying experiences of so many young men during WW2. The film is ultimately about the duality of man; where many young men throughout the US raced to enlist after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Desmond Doss faced a predicament – he was as eager to serve as any man, but violence conflicted with his religious and moral beliefs. In fact, he refused to even so much as touch a weapon. Desmond underwent intense persecution for his refusal to waver in his conviction, and then went on to enter the hell of war armed with nothing more than his faith, and emerge one of the greatest war heroes of all time.

And with that meaty source material in hand, Gibson’s “classic Hollywood blockbuster” directorial style gives the film a grand, larger-than-life cinematic quality that continues to swell with every frame. That said, while he certainly nails the epic and grandiose nature of the traditional Hollywood war film, Hacksaw Ridge does – at times – feel slightly overcooked. Imagine Full Metal Jacket but with a bigger special effects budget and more Christianity.

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On that note, that is the other slightly off-putting aspect to the film. Yes, okay, Hacksaw Ridge is based on true events and in particular, on Desmond Doss, who was an intensely religious man. But when you have your characters trying desperately to escape a full-blown war zone while mortally wounded – but then have them turn back into the hellfire to “get the bible they dropped” – it just feels very preachy and holier-than-thou. This is, however, a Mel Gibson production, so it’s hard to be surprised by the explicit and overt religious elements.

Theological debates aside, the performances in Hacksaw Ridge are simply triumphant, and the film will likely serve as Academy bait. As Doss, Andrew Garfield is superlative. It’s a heavy cross to bear (pardon the pun) for a young actor, particularly with the weight of such an admired and emotionally tortured character. Though challenging, Garfield rises above the air of legend surrounding Desmond Doss, and finds the heart of who he really was as a person. It is gripping to watch this deeply human and relatable portrayal.

His co-stars are equally brilliant, all rising to match the tone that Gibson sets from the opening credits. Hugo Weaving, in his supporting role as Desmond’s WWI veteran father, gives an intensely emotional and beautifully composed performance. A seasoned pro, Weaving intimately knows the perfect line between dramatic perfection and scenery chewing. The biggest surprise though is Vince Vaughn who beggars disbelief in his astonishingly capable portrayal of Desmond’s troop sergeant. Who knew that he had it in him?

Hacksaw Ridge does have its problems, namely having too much cash to spend and a feeling of moral superiority of the faithful over the faithless. But whether or not you dig on Mel Gibson and/or Jesus, Hacksaw Ridge is a well-crafted tale of the valour of man in truly harrowing circumstances, and in that regard is undeniably moving. Let’s just let the author be dead for this one.

 
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Major! (Queer Screen Film Fest)

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This is a documentary about Major Griffin-Gracy, and how she has been “fighting the fights of transgender women of colour” for over forty years. Born in Chicago, she (supposedly “he”) was often treated as a freak, and expelled from two colleges for wearing dresses before moving to New York City. She talks nonchalantly here about enjoying “hooking” there in the Sixties, and reminisces about being part of a drag show called “Jewel Box Revue.”

But first and foremost, Major! is a catalogue of the fight against injustice and cruelty. It’s about gay bars being raided (she was at The Stonewall Inn on the night of the famous riot), cross dressing being a criminal offense, and transgender people being denied crucial medical treatment. Most of all, it’s about the courage and solidarity required to right such wrongs, and the bond of love that uniting to do something like that can create. Various friends and comrades tell horror stories about being repeatedly raped in gaol, and of being beaten up by cops and the like. In Major’s own case, the litany of unfortunate life events ranges from her sister burning every existing photo of her to doing time in Sing Sing for allegedly robbing a john, having one long term partner die of AIDS, and another hanging himself. Yet she does not display a shred of self-pity, and retains an irrepressible sense of humour. Other impressive interviewees include the veteran activist, Angela Davis, and a number of colleagues from organisations that campaign specifically for transgender rights.

Major is a tough cookie. She’s 75 now and not in good nick, to put it mildly, being the recipient (from a friend) of a kidney transplant. Yet she’s still militant, uncompromising, and outspoken, and still works hard for her cause. Hers is an inspiring story.

Major! screens at Queer Screen Film Fest, which runs from September 20-23. For more on Major! and to buy tickets, head to the official website.

 
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Southwest Of Salem (Queer Screen Film Fest)

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In the year 2000, four Hispanic lesbians from San Antonio, Texas, were convicted of gang-raping two little girls. Their trial came not long after about a decade of so-called “Satanic Panic” in the states, during which all manner of lurid and hysterical stories gained credence, many of them involving people with minority sexual preferences. It’s suggested here that this sort of “folkloric” prejudice may have contributed to the trial’s outcome. At the absolute least, the sentences handed down were extraordinary, with one of the women getting 37 years!

What we see is a modicum of old footage and a fair few relatively recent talking-head interviews, together with rather too many shots of people simply looking upset or devastated – the “convict” equivalent of a victim’s impact statement. We also watch three of the women, out on bail, as they search for exculpatory evidence.

Even though it’s still not entirely resolved after all these years, the case explored in Southwest Of Salem certainly does appear to have involved a terrible miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, the doco itself is indifferently directed – it sorely needed the investigative and presentational skills of an Errol Morris or an Alex Gibney – as well as poorly, loosely and indulgently edited. While often touching, it’s also sometimes tedious and – most regrettably of all – a bit thin on testimony. When a film is about real people and real suffering, it can feel cold or insensitive to analyse it in terms of “watchability” and cinematic flair, but these are crucial elements in a documentary – if anything, all the more so for one intending to elicit an active response from its audience.

Southwest Of Salem:  The Story Of The San Antonio Four screens at Queer Screen Film Fest, which runs from September 20 – 23. For more on Southwest Of Salem:  The Story Of The San Antonio Four and to buy tickets, head to the official website.