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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.

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Spirit Of The Game

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Delyle Condie (Aaron Jakubenko) is a promising young basketball player who bypassed a solid career in college basketball in order to travel to Australia to be a “door knocking” Mormon missionary. In Melbourne, he discovers that there isn’t a warm reception waiting for Mormon missionaries from the public at large. He also learns that there was a disbanded program sponsored by The Mormon Church where missionaries had competed in Australian basketball competitions. When Delyle happens to door-knock the beleaguered Australian basketball team’s coach, Ken Watson (Grant Piro), he’s asked to assist in training the Australian players for the upcoming 1956 Olympics, and in the process forms a team of Mormon basketballers that tour the country playing exhibition matches, meeting with much popular success.

Once the strangely saccharine opening (featuring Hercules’ Kevin Sorbo as Delyle’s father) and a flurry of storytelling clichés give way to sober Mormonism and white bread wholesome period fantasy, there’s a dawning realisation that this cloying earnestness and faux naiveté is not going to be leavened by humour or satirical edge. Despite some unintended homoeroticism, this appears to be aimed squarely at a Mormon audience, belonging on the “faith based” shelf alongside God’s Not Dead or Left Behind. It’s no doubt funded by Mormon backers and intended as an “outreach tool” for the LDS church, but it’s hampered by banal scripting and characterisation.

Somewhere in this story is a film that could’ve been warm-hearted, off-beat, distinctly Australian, and inherently humorous. That’s all jettisoned in favour of a very white, very Mormon, and very dull story perspective. Delyle speaks of how frustrated he is in his attempts to proselytise his beliefs to the masses, wanting to connect on a human level with “real” people, who just shut off to the saccharine dirge of religion. Ironically, that is precisely the audience experience during this film: we’re alienated by religiosity shoehorned into the gaps where humanity and emotion should be.

You can request and organise a screening of Spirit Of The Game now through FanForce.

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REVIEW: Underworld: Blood Wars

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It’s unlikely any particular chapter of the Underworld franchise will ever be considered a timeless classic. The movies have always been a showcase for stylish action scenes and Kate Beckinsale’s adroitness at filling out a pair of PVC pants rather than possessing old fashioned qualities like “a plot” or “a semblance of coherence”. However, if you make the mistake of seeing Underworld: Blood Wars (don’t) you may find yourself longing for the nuanced subtlety of the original Underworld or the Wildean wit of Rise of the Lycans.

Blood Wars’ story begins with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) narrating a summary of the previous four (!) films. It’s rather telling that the best bits of flashback footage all come from the original couple of movies. Hopefully you’re comfortable watching these rehashed loops, they return incessantly. Anyway, Selene’s moping around because she was betrayed by her vampire clan, and the Lycans (werewolves) have a new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies), and everyone wants her daughter’s blood because it’s full of magical antioxidants or something.

After what seems an eternity of endless, po-faced dialogue scored by shockingly bad and tonally mismatched music, the narrative limps along to a point where Selene, her pal David (Theo James) and his dad, Thomas (Charles Dance) uncover a plot orchestrated by bargain-basement-Eva-Green, Samira (Lara Pulver). The movie then threatens to become “dumb but fun” but, nope, one underwhelming action scene later and it’s back to moping and monologues.

Underworld: Blood Wars was clearly made for less money than some of its predecessors but in the hands of a skilled director a smaller budget need not equate to lesser thrills. However, first time feature director, Anna Foerster does very little with the admittedly thin material on offer here. The action scenes are all generic, the wirework obvious and clumsy and – with one or two notable moments aside – are forgettable variants of vampire action you’ve seen dozens of times before. This would almost be forgivable if any of the characters managed to be even vaguely interesting, but everyone is terminally dull with the possible exception of Lara Pulver, who is terrible but at least looks like she’s having a little bit of fun with her legion of baffle-witted emo acolytes. Kate Beckinsale looks great and fills out those pants charmingly as always but her entire character arc in this movie is: she eventually gets frosted tips and a new winter coat!

Of all the many sins that Underworld: Blood Wars commits, the most egregious is the fact that it doesn’t have a proper ending. The frequently hinted at McGuffin-daughter-with-the-magic-blood subplot remains unresolved except for a last minute stinger designed to excite audience members for the next chapter in the Underworld franchise. If it’s anything like this flat, inert, tour-de-force of mopey wankers you’d be better off staying home and doing literally anything else.

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From its opening scenes, Ruin plunges the viewer into a world of violence and suffering with grim authenticity. Set in contemporary Cambodia, the film follows young friends, Sovanna and Phirun, who together find brief moments of mutual solace in otherwise brutal lives. Directors, Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson, paint a harrowing picture of existence; Ruin imagines a world that is defined by misogyny, where the capacities for exploiting the poor and desperate appear relentless, and Sovenna and Phirun are forced to survive against desperate odds.

Sang Malen and Rous Mony deliver strong performances, often using gestures and movements to create their characters. This emphasis on performance is punctuated with a camera style that shifts from claustrophobic, hand-held shots of town and city streets and dank apartments with calm, almost-serene dreamlike images of the world beyond the city. Whether through the movements of water in the river or the slow dance of flames against the night, these sequences are poetic and haunting, in contrast to the air of imminent violence elsewhere. A powerful soundtrack that combines minimalist drones, tones and shimmering shapes, which add to the haunted atmosphere of the world, build upon the mood. At times these worlds seem to contrast too much, but the tension is carefully maintained throughout, adding to the movie’s style.

Ruin demands much of the audience, but it makes for necessary and ultimately rewarding viewing.

Ruin screens in one-off events in Melbourne (December 3) and Brisbane (December 4).

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REVIEW: Sand Storm

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Deep in the Negev desert in southern Israel, in a forlorn breeze-block Bedouin village where cultural and religious traditions have been adhered to for centuries, polygamy is widespread and women are assigned to prospective husbands in a deeply medieval manner. Suliman (Haitham Omari) is marrying his second wife. He returns home late on the afternoon of his wedding, leaving his daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar) and wife Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), to ready his wedding night bedroom themselves. Suliman’s marriage to the new younger wife throws a pall over the rest of the family.

When Layla falls for Anwar (Jalal Masrwa), a boy from another village whom she has met at her school, first wife Jalila becomes authoritarian and aggressive, taking out her frustrations and directing Layla not to see the boy any more lest shame be brought on their family. Tensions boil over when Anwar (Jalal Masrwa) comes to talk to Suliman face to face and declare his love for Layla, soon after Suliman declares that Layla has already been promised as a wife to another man in the village.

Quietly intense and never tipping over into overwrought drama, Sand Storm’s direction is deft and unobtrusive. The performances are uniformly great, and there’s a potent sense of place, closed in and claustrophobic, putting us in the head space of the central character, Layla. The lack of information and context is both a plus and a minus, depending on how you like to experience films. There is an otherworldliness to its opening minutes, where we’re presented with alien customs and stone-age attitudes towards women. Without voiceovers or opening crawls describing it, the audience is left to witness the ubiquity of these attitudes, and challenged to understand the complicity of all the individuals perpetuating them, both the men and the women.

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REVIEW: Golden Years

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Mainstream cinema is hardly bereft of films where groups of the disenfranchised decide to stick it to The Man. What it does tend to have very little of is films where these groups break past the age barrier of middle aged and beyond. Instead, films tend to dismiss the idea that OAPs have enough energy to stick anything to anyone. The Golden Years, directed by John Miller, is a British caper flick that tries to reset the balance and falls short of doing so.

 Bernard Hill (Lord Of The Rings) plays Arthur, a retiree living out his autumn years alongside his wife, Martha (Virginia McKenna). Upon losing his pension and access to free healthcare all in one day, Arthur decides to rob his local bank; an act that he manages to pull off accidently after getting cold feet. With the media and authorities on the lookout for a slick group of thieves, Arthur and Martha wind up using the preconceived notions about pensioners to rob further banks and use the proceeds to help pay off their friends’ debts.

Ostensibly a comedy, in the style of The Ealing Studios romps of yore, Miller and his co-writers make the mistake of trying to inject a heavy dose of Ken Loach social realism into the proceedings that never feel natural. The jokes are jarringly put to one side every time Arthur takes a moment to lament the plight of his generation. This is a gentle comedy with something to say, but it needs a lighter hand to mesh the two ideals. With an ensemble cast that includes Simon Callow, Una Stubbs, and Phil Davis, it’s great to see a variety of veteran actors doing what they do best. Another polish of the script and tighter editing, however, would elevate this to something a little more weighty.

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Game of Thrones: The Complete Sixth Season

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WARNING: Contains Game of Thrones Season Six spoilers

Game of Thrones Season Six had a lot resting on its shoulders when it charged onto screens in April. For a start there was the death of beloved mopey Stark, Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Despite his apparent demise at the end of season five, fans had collectively called “shenanigans” and hoped against hope their beloved bastard would pull through somehow. The fact that his resurrection is probably the least interesting aspect of this year’s ten episodes speaks to the quality of the season as a whole.

The other major reason Season Six was so anticipated is due to the fact that it was the first time the series had gone completely off book. World-class author and accomplished procrastinator, George R. R. Martin’s latest GoT novel (A Dance with Deadlines) is still lost in the ether and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to craft a season based on Martin’s broad outline.

The good news is the result mostly works. While the dialogue, particularly in the first half of the season, seemed to take a notable hit in subtlety and nuance, the story itself propelled along at a great pace with the best plotlines going to the various ladies of the series. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) had a belter of a through line where she caught fire, burned some rapey scumbags to death and bonded with her now enormous dragons, preparing for her inevitable return to Westeros. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was not taking her walk of shame from Season Five lying down and initiates a delicious revenge plot whose payoff is easily one of the highlights of the season, making the viewer uncomfortably happy with the actions of this despicable woman. However, it’s Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) who gets best in show this time around, with her final triumph against possibly the most hated villain in television history, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Ramsay cops a beating from Jon Snow but gets his much-deserved final comeuppance at the slavering chops of his own dogs after Sansa delivers an ice-cold farewell. The satisfied smile on Sansa’s face when Ramsay’s screams fill the air is delicious and should be savoured like a fine wine.

So ultimately Season Six is all about catharsis. Characters we love triumph, characters we hate also triumph but a shitload of characters we’d quite like to see dead do in fact die. The final two episodes, Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter are all-time classics and they set up the next couple of seasons beautifully.

Included in the blu-ray extras is an in-depth look at the filming of The Battle of the Bastards, making of documentaries, audio commentaries and a handful of deleted scenes. It’s a respectable amount of special features but ultimately the real reason to own Game of Thrones’ sixth season is to relive those grisly moments of triumph.