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Lights Out

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Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is a metal-loving ball of anger who tries to keep a considerable distance from her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). When her much younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), tells her that mummy has begun talking to someone in her closet, Rebecca believes that it’s nothing more than a symptom of the mental illness that coloured her own childhood. And yet, she couldn’t be more wrong.

Based on his viral short film of the same name, the strength of David Sandberg’s Lights Out are the complex issues that hide under its simple premise. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, Lights Out uses its creeping horror and tension as an allegory of how depression and stress can bleed through and tear a family apart. Here, Sophie’s distress is manifested in a skeletal woman called Diana who can only be seen in the dark. That light – from a bulb, a car light, or even a mobile phone – appears to be her weakness means nothing as the threat of what she represents cannot be washed away with the morning. Much like Sophie’s behaviour around her family.

Even without this deeper context, Lights Out is a well-crafted spine-chiller which hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the end. It perfectly encapsulates that stalking feeling one possesses when wandering down a dark alley, unable to make out what’s lurking in the shadows. And yes, in light of any potential symbolism that the film may hold, its ending can be – and has been – read as condoning a certain behaviour. However, this is really a minor issue on which to hang the director, and diminishes the complexity of the topic of depression. Instead, Lights Out should be praised for wanting to tackle these ideas head on.

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REVIEW: Hell Or High Water

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Texas brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. The boys, however, are soon in the sights of seasoned, retirement-ready Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges), and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, a showdown ominously looms.

You can generally rely on westerns to be pretty solid for one reason: the classic anti-hero dynamic. As the old formula generally goes, there are two anti-heroes: the supposed villain – who is really just a good guy pushed to the brink – and the guy trying to catch him, a man of the law with a good heart but a prickly demeanour. In the case of Hell Or High Water, those roles are filled predictably by Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges. Their reinvention of these age-old figures, however, is anything but predictable.

While all the tropes are still there, even down to the Stetson hats, Bridges and Pine bring something new to this neo-western, giving it a truly modern quality while somehow maintaining the genre traditions that we love. Pine plays the strong silent type, all introspective and emotionally intelligent. It’s great to see him stretch his dramatic legs here, challenging his usual scenery-chewing roles with a largely silent performance.

Bridges sinks further into yet another gritty, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit type, which seems to be his jam at this stage of his career…and no one is complaining, because it fits him like a glove. It would have been easy for Bridges to phone this one in, resting on his gravel voice and steely gaze. Instead, he delivers a truly layered performance, giving subtle complexity and depth to his ageing redneck Texas Ranger.

The real hero of this piece though is Ben Foster, who is damn-near perfect as the explosive renegade yang to Pine’s yin. If you’ve seen Foster in anything else, you’ll understand how exceptionally transformative he is. His range is too-often under-rated, and his performance here is yet another example of how his extraordinary talents continue to fly under the radar.

Hell Or High Water has earned British director, David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Young Adam), a tonne of industry cred after the film’s popularity at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. His direction is quite transparent, and while this is mostly a good thing for the subject matter, a few of his choices are a little on the nose. The constant reference to “debt relief” and “fast cash now” billboards for example, feels like he’s beating you over the head with the narrative. We get it, David, the economy sucks.

The original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, meanwhile, is a total winner, and accompanies the narrative tremendously. Cave’s sinful voice alongside Ellis’ pan-handle fiddle is the perfect representation of the themes throughout. It is, however, quite similar to the score that they crafted for The Proposition, and unfortunately, it’s not quite as strong.

Hell Or High Water is a desperate, bleak and horribly authentic look at post-GFC America. The writing (the original screenplay is courtesy of on-the-rise Sicario scribe, Taylor Sheridan) very cleverly positions the current economic wasteland as the new Wild West – and it is truly sobering. There are lots of tense moments, car chases, shoot-outs, and frivolous references to how great the second amendment is (well, it is Texas). Be sure to take Dad and Pop with you, they’d totally dig it.

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Isabelle Huppert’s performance in Elle will make viewers want to dig out her entire back-catalogue and absorb it all. She’s just that good. As Michèle, Huppert is strong, funny, brash, beautiful, charming, and caring all at once – displaying incredible restraint where necessary to denote her character’s protective wall, while still harbouring a certain amount of vulnerability to ensure that viewers establish an emotional connection. We’re introduced to our lead in the worst possible circumstances, during her struggle and rape by an unknown intruder. Director, Paul Verhoeven, shows class by not glorifying or even dwelling on the act to instead focus on its psychological effects.

Elle has an entirely different tone to any rape-themed film that we’ve seen before, and that actually helps us change the way that we, as an audience, process the act and clearly perceive how it affects the victim. Michèle doesn’t let it hold her back, seeking the required medical attention but refusing to call police, for reasons disclosed later. She tells a few close friends, but ultimately carries on with her life as normal – as the head of a video game design agency, which she runs with her best friend.

The way that Michèle’s friends and family fit in her life is constructed similarly to a soap opera – and considering the extremity of the events that transpire, it kind of plays out that way. There’s a rape, an unwanted pregnancy, multiple affairs, and several counts of homicide. It also builds into a murder-mystery of sorts, with Michèle suspiciously evaluating all these people in her life, as to which of them could be her attacker. Satisfyingly, all of these questions raised are concisely answered in due course – largely thanks to the brilliant screenplay from David Birke, who adapted the novel by Philippe Djian. In the end, apart from being one of the best films of the year, Elle highlights the horrifying truth that much of the pain and abuse directed at women today is more often than not caused by men.

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Stranger Than Love

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

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

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

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Lila And Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Outlaws And Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Day: Resurgence

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

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

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

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

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