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Power Rangers

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Power Rangers does exactly what it’s intended to do, take a long-running, multi-generational lo-fi kids TV show and splash it onto the big screen with a new cast, broader story, and far bigger budget (reported at $100+ million, and with no big-salaried stars). For its target audience, Power Rangers delivers in spades, and as a stand-alone film for the newcomer, it actually manages to engage for the most part.

The majority of the running time is spent setting up the premise and building the mythology and simultaneously strengthening the characters and their relationships. The heroes are five young misfits, dealing with teen issues like bullying, being true to yourself and to others, controlling your emotions, even their sexuality as has been famously reported; quite clunkily handled but still admirable for a studio (Lionsgate) superhero picture.

Refreshing in its diverse casting, unafraid to give girls the most heroic moments, and with a villain for the ages played deliciously by a barely recognisable Elizabeth Banks, if nothing else, Power Rangers is clever in its construction.

The style of the film is set up meticulously in the early scenes by director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac), particularly a spectacular opening car chase. The score by Brian Tyler is a highlight, especially his use of the now-popular John Carpenter-esque synth. Unfortunately, the final scenes smell of budgetary restraints or a rushed completion date, with the showdown battle confusing to follow; speaking of budget, whatever a certain donut company paid to be a part of the film, they got a bargain! These shortcomings will certainly not put off the film’s target audience who are treated with Easter eggs aplenty and a new generation of superheroes to inspire them.

 
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Aria

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To call 1987’s Aria a curio would be generous, which makes the film’s upcoming screenings at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova a tasty mystery indeed. That’s not to say that the film is bad – it’s far, far, far from it – but just that it’s been largely forgotten, and rarely discussed in the thirty years since its theatrical release. It’s a fate suffered by many anthology films, most of which are wildly inconsistent in tone and artistic achievement – think Four Rooms, Paris Je T’Aime, The ABC’s Of Death, Creepshow, New York Stories, or any number of others. In terms of premise, however, Aria is one of the most daring and unusual anthologies to ever pass quickly from view.

Aria finds ten edgy, iconoclastic, absolutely top-tier directors – Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Bill Bryden, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple – each providing their own idiosyncratic visuals for a selection of operatic arias from the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Vivaldi, Wagner and more. Running from five to fourteen minutes, and with barely any dialogue, the films are, not surprisingly, mixed.

Some of the most interesting directors (Nicolas Roeg’s Theresa Russell-starring redux of the 1931 assassination attempt on King Zog of Albania is, to put it indelicately, utterly stupid; while Godard’s gym-set provocation piece is tawdry and artless) offer up the worst efforts, while the wildest amongst them (Derek Jarman provides a burnished look at a long ago relationship, while Ken Russell finds a strange beauty in a car accident and its aftermath) are found in curiously meditative moods.

There are, however, obvious highlights. A noted master of ensemble casts, the late, great Robert Altman assembles one of his biggest and weirdest ever, as his camera slithers through the audience during a recreation of the 1734 opening night performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Abaris ou les Boréades” at Paris’ Théâtre Le Ranelagh. With the crowd filled with a garish, baroque selection of oddballs that would do Fellini proud, it’s an eye-popping effort from Altman; with no dialogue to deal with, the renowned talk-master is given a rare opportunity to work in purely visually terms, and the results are astounding.

Even better is the piece from Franc Roddam (who directed The Who’s Quadrophenia, and the cruelly underrated 1983 drama, The Lords Of Discipline, and is now an executive producer on TV’s MasterChef in the UK!), which boasts the first ever screen appearance of the now sadly retired Bridget Fonda. The lithe, beautiful, charismatic young actress sizzles opposite James Mathers as a young couple who unite for a Las Vegas sex-and-death trip that now feels very much of its time, but which also recalls classic American road movies like Zabriskie Point and Two-Lane Blacktop. All set to “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, it is unquestionably the high point of this patchy but ultimately fascinating anthology film which is well worthy of re-investigation.

 
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Life

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

In the new science fiction thriller, Life, a team of scientists on board the International Space Station must weigh their own lives against that of everyone on earth when a single-celled organism recovered from the surface of Mars proves to be more formidable and more voracious than anticipated.

There’s an elephant in the room whenever someone attempts to do this kind of first contact narrative, and it rhymes with “balien”. Well, let’s get that out of the way now: Life ain’t no Alien, and journeyman director Daniel Espinosa is no Ridley Scott. Life, is however, better than any number of films that mine the same vein, although the bar is pretty low: Supernova, Species, Event Horizon, and so on. Perhaps the best adjective to deploy here would be “functional” – the film sets up its scenario quickly and effectively, establishes rules that it continues to play by throughout the running time, and only occasionally withholds information for the sake of surprise.

Really, it’s a procedural science fiction story, harking back to Golden Age literary works by the likes of Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, in which a team of competent heroes struggle against some kind of exotic threat with only their intelligence and their slide rules standing between them and oblivion. The slide rules have been updated here, but the basic concept is the same.

Unfortunately, the characters here are as thin as those of the jut-jawed scientists that populate those pulp classics, too; certainly none are as indelible as the crew of the Nostromo (look, it casts a long shadow, okay?). Gyllenhaal’s long-serving astronaut doesn’t like people much, Ferguson’s CDC liaison is by-the-books, Hiroyuki Sanada’s guy has a pregnant wife back on Earth, and Ryan Reynolds’ engineer is played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s hard to actually care for any of these cardboard cut-outs, which is surprising considering the calibre of the cast, and that is the film’s biggest failure.

We do get a pretty cool Martian monster, though, albeit one lacking somewhat in personality. The squidlike thing is a truly alien creation, acting not out of malice but running on a strong survival instinct that makes sense in the context of the film. It’s nowhere near as iconic as some of the truly memorable antagonists of yore -expect no tee shirts or action figures here – but it does a serviceable job.

Really, your reaction to Life is probably down to where this kind of genre effort sits with you. It’s a solid SF thriller that never manages to elevate itself into the realms of the truly memorable. Genre fans will probably be entertained, but don’t go expecting to have your hair blown back.

 
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Whiteley (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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The story of Brett Whiteley’s life is inherently interesting, and many of his paintings were exquisite. It’s just as well, because initially this documentary suffers from an over-reliance on whimsical and distracting graphics, of the sub-Pythonesque variety. Fortunately, though, it rapidly improves, as the filmmakers calm down and adopt a more measured and restrained approach – in which the man, his art and those who knew him best are allowed to speak for themselves. It’s engrossing stuff – enveloping, in fact.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, starting with young Brett’s astonishing technical facility as a teenager in Sydney. Then there’s the scholarship to study in Italy… acclaim in swinging Sixties London…. the time in New York at the Chelsea Hotel… the bust in Fiji… return to Australia, and the mansion in Lavender Bay… And accompanying him through most of these experiences was his first muse, Wendy. She’s interviewed at some length, and there are verbatim quotes from BW’s own interviews and notebooks, recreated by actors.

As a young man, Whiteley had a tendency to ramble semi-incoherently, but there was never any lack of cogent expression when he communicated through a paintbrush. From the nightmarish depiction of unalloyed evil in the Christie paintings – or the screaming baboon ‘junkie’ pinned to the ground with nails in “Art, Life And The Other Thing” – to the glorious celebration of beauty and vibrant colour in the Sydney harbour works, he knew precisely what he wanted to convey and he did it with pinpoint accuracy. Even at its most surreal, his oeuvre somehow maintained a core of crystalline clarity.

This is a fair and balanced appraisal – and not all of them, written or otherwise, have been that – of one of Australia’s very greatest artists. He died much too young, at 53, but he left behind a magnificent body of work. Whiteley is an absorbing tribute to that legacy.

 
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Author: The JT LeRoy Story

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Plenty of authors use pen names for one reason or another. Stephen King had Richard Bachman. JK Rowling has her crime fiction nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. Laura Albert, the subject of the film at hand, had JT LeRoy, and the both the reasons for his creation and the sheer scale of the deception go well beyond the norm, as detailed in Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy published his first novel in 2000. Sarah was a rough, raw, emotionally devastating tale of a gender-confused teenage hustler working the truckstop circuit and idolising his junkie mother. LeRoy, gender-fluid, HIV-positive, and hailing from an unimaginably abusive background, based the novel on his own experiences. By the time his follow-up work, the short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, landed in 2001, LeRoy was a genuine literary sensation, hailed as an uncompromising voice from the underground and amassing a following that included Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, grunge icon Courtney Love, actress and filmmaker Asia Argento (who would go on to film The Heart is Deceitful) and more.

Of course, LeRoy didn’t exist. It all came out in the wash in 2005/2006. LeRoy was the literary persona of Laura Albert, a housewife in her 40s, who began constructing the avatar as a way to communicate her years of abuse to emergency hotline counselors, and eventually used it to channel her unarguable literary talent. How it all got out of hand, leading to Albert roping in her sister-in-law to play LeRoy at public appearances and cultivating personal and, it seems, sexual relationships with a number of high profile patrons and fans, well, that’s the story we have here.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig lets Laura tell her own tale, supplementing the narrative with snatches of animation and, interestingly, a huge number of answering machine messages and telephone conversations, the latter of which Albert apparently recorded without consent. These are frequently fascinating; at one point Corgan refers to himself as “The Corganator”, at another Love pauses the conversation to bump a quick rail of cocaine.

What’s really arresting, though, is the palpable need people have to believe in whatever fits their narrative. It’s easy to laugh at these bandwagon-jumping celebs as they sing LeRoy’s praises and describe their personal connection to the fictional author (poor Matthew Modine comes off as particularly naive in one clip), but it speaks to something deeper: the desire, found even in the most successful, to attach themselves to something unique and special.

Of course, Albert took advantage of that, but the question is whether through intent or dysfunction. Her own history of abuse and trauma is well documented, but one still wonders if there is a line between expression and exploitation in this case, and where it might lie. Albert herself is no help in locating it; we get a lot of her here, speaking directly to camera, but while she seems open to discussing the fine details of events, what;’s missing is any sense of self-awareness or introspection. She takes no responsibility for any harm she’s caused, and it’s rather damning no matter how sympathetic you may be feeling.

Author fails to hold her to account for that, and that is the film’s central failing. There’s no thesis here, just a recounting of (fascinating, mind you) events. We get the facts, but not their meaning, and that makes the film interesting but ultimately inessential.

 
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Under the Gun

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Under the Gun is a sobering documentary which uses the tragedy of the Sandy Hook shootings as the first step towards trying to understand America’s relationship with firearms and the much cited second amendment. You may have heard about this documentary late last year when a defamation lawsuit was drawn up by some of its subjects – all gun owners – who felt they had been misrepresented by director Stephanie Soechtig and edited to push an agenda. Indeed, accusations of editorial bias aside, the film does have an agenda: it doesn’t want to take your guns away, it wants you to be proactive in their control. As the parent of one of the victims of the Aurora shooting says pertinently towards the end, ‘I don’t want your prayers. I want your action.’

In order to get her message across, Soechtig takes time to interact not just with victims of gun crime, but also those who fight against gun control, seeing it as an affront to old fashioned American freedom. She gives voice to those people who do own guns, believe in the second amendment, but also want legislation to stop the wrong people having access to things such as assault rifles and body armour. The director also highlights the history of the NRA, showing them to not always have been the overly vocal opponents of gun safety.

If you have a strong dog in the fight of gun ownership – something which has reared its head again in Australian politics of late – then Under the Gun will either fall on deaf ears or be considered preaching to the converted. However, the variety of people Soechtig speaks to means she manages to chip away at the black and white arguments that have polarised gun debate for decades. In a way, the director has managed to find an overlap between the intimacy of Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown and the primal scream of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.

Both heartbreaking and infuriating, Under the Gun is a definite must see.

 

 
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Get the Girl

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Movies, particularly romantic comedies, often come under fire for normalising the idea that the key to a woman’s heart is persistence; even if they show next to no interest to begin with – or perhaps even have a boyfriend – eventually you can wear them down. After all, you’re the best.

Get the Girl, written and directed by Eric England (Contracted), takes that kind of cinematic stalking and turns up the volume as loud as it will go. Clarence (Justin Dobies) is a shy guy who just knows he’s perfect for bartender Alexandra (Elizabeth Whitson), she just doesn’t see it because she’s caught up in a messy divorce. In the hopes of swaying her to his way of thinking, Clarence concocts a plan with sleazy barfly Patrick (Noah Segan) to faux-kidnap Alexandra, allowing Clarence an opportunity to save her. Even when Alexandra gets the upper hand and kills one of her ‘kidnappers’ (actually a friend of Patrick) in self-defence, leading to the main thrust of the film’s plot, whichever way you cook it, it still leaves a bad taste at the back of the throat. And yes, the film is a comedy, but it’s not a particularly funny one with jokes very rarely hitting their mark.

Looks-wise the film is slick, and potentially there’s room to argue that Get the Girl is a deconstruction of ‘white knighting’; where the guy usually gets the girl by saving her. Flipping the coin and having the tale being told from Alexandra’s point of view would have probably lent the film more weight in this regard. However, whilst Patrick is shown up to be a toxic fool who kind of deserves the unravelling of his plan, Clarence is still the hero despite his stockpiling of terrible decisions. None of it rings true, and the film’s finale will have you picking your jaw up off the floor in disbelief.

Glossy, noisy and a little bit dull, Get the Girl is the kind of the film you’d thought they’d stopped making, but not in a good way.

 
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Land Of Mine

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After WW2, German POWs were used to dig up (with their bare hands) and defuse the millions of landmines buried under the beaches of Denmark. It’s a stark historical fact, but not without some complex ethical implications given the enormity of what the Nazis had perpetrated. In this particular story, that’s intensified by the German soldiers in question being ingenuous and rather likeable teenage boys, who were forced into the army just before the war ended.

And then there is the Danish soldier who’s been given the task of training, overseeing, and disciplining them. When we first see Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), he’s viciously bullying and bashing some of his new charges, and – as if this physical behaviour were not self-explanatory enough – he then proceeds to spell out his utter contempt and hatred for them. It’s not revealed whether Rasmussen’s brutality is a product of the war or simply inherent in his personality, but in any case, his apparent contempt for Germans is shared by his fellow Danish (and British) servicemen, not to mention the odd civilian.

What follows is of course often visceral, but there are also subtler and even gentler elements, particularly in the scenes depicting conversations between the boys. These serve both to stave off monotony and to flesh out the characters. The risk of sudden death by explosion creates a constant bedrock of suspense and tension, and has been used as the basis of at least one classic film (The Wages Of Fear) and another excellent one (The Hurt Locker). While Land Of Mine is not in the same league as either of those, it’s gripping, well-acted by all, and a good, strong tale well told. It’s also that uncommon thing: a movie that touches on the theme of redemption without descending into bathos or inanity.

 
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The Walking Dead S714: The Other Side

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

 Well it had to happen eventually, didn’t it? After five solid episodes of The Walking Dead in a row we were probably overdue for a dud. That’s not to say “The Other Side” is without its moments, but it’s far too late in the day (and the season) for such a meandering, talky episode.

The cold open is played mostly without dialogue, which works very much in its favour. We see a montage featuring Maggie (Lauren Cohan) teaching classes in knife yoga (and blade chuckin’), we get a glimpse at the bun in her oven via an ultrasound. We see Sasha (Sonequa Martin) sketching a map of Negan’s HQ with help from Jesus (Tom Payne) and even a beat where Maggie gives some food to a brooding Daryl (Norman Reedus). The message of this latter beat is clear, Daryl may still blame himself for Glenn’s death but Maggie doesn’t. Then Rosita (Christian Serratos) arrives and joins up with Sasha and the talking begins, along with the eye-rolling. I’ve dubbed this idiotic pairing of Sasha and Rosita ‘The Spite Girls’ and their grand plan ‘Operation Dipshit’. Proceed accordingly. Cue opening titles.

After a brief bit of dialogue where Jesus reveals to Maggie that he’s gay (which middle America must just love!) Sasha spends a whole scene trying to rationalise Operation Dipshit to Jesus and Enid (Katelyn Nacon), but it falls flat. It’s hard to believe any character would think Rosita’s plan is a good one, much less Sasha who, while moody, has proven herself capable and intelligent before this.

Then the Saviors arrive, headed by Simon (Steven Ogg) and the Spite Girls exit through a previously unseen secret tunnel hidden under a woodpile that looks like something out of Get Smart. The Saviors want Daryl but he and Maggie hide in the basement.

Operation Dipshit gets off to a slow start because the Spite Girls can’t find a car that works. The problems are further compounded by the fact the pair don’t actually like one another very much, and after Rosita spies Sasha’s necklace from Abraham, she snipes: “Like it? I made it.” Later Sasha suggests that maybe this suicide mission would be better with less suicide, and Rosita harrumphs like a moody teenager who just had her Joy Division collection confiscated until she cleans her room.

Back with the Saviors, Simon menaces everyone while slimy Gregory (Xander Berkeley) brown noses to an embarrassing degree. Eventually it becomes clear that Simon needs to take Doc Carson (R. Keith Harris) who is the brother of the other Doc Carson (Tim Parati) that Negan turned into a woodfired pizza in “Hostiles and Calamities”. Gregory almost stands up to Simon but buckles like a belt when Steven Ogg turns on his “Trevor from GTA V” crazy eyes.

Daryl and Maggie have a slower, less elegant version of the scene in the cold open where Maggie affirms that she doesn’t blame Daryl for the death of Glenn. It’s an adequate moment but in an episode that struggles to find momentum it’s not exactly adding anything new.

The Spite Girls flog a car from some rowdy zombies and make it to The Sanctuary. Looking through the sniper scope they see Eugene (Josh McDermitt) supervising security near his metal-headed zombies. Rosita seems to think Eugene is “playing an angle” but Sasha doesn’t look as sure.

Then the Spite Girls remember they used to be pretty decent characters and bond over shared memories of Abraham, with Rosita filling in her backstory on why she’s so good at defusing explosives and flogging cars. Spoiler alert: it’s because she’s had a lot of shonky exes. The ladies attempt to take a shot at Negan but can’t get a clean one off. Looks like it’s time for Operation Dipshit to begin!

Moving in close, Rosita attempts to “rescue” Eugene who literally starts crying and runs away, apparently to tattle to Negan. Jesus, Eugene, that Stockholm Syndrome kicked in fast, eh mate? Sasha pretends like she’s breaking through the fence but is in fact trapping Rosita on the outside. Sasha has decided it’s not “Rosita’s time” and runs off, shooting a henchman on the way. Rosita looks like she’s ready to have a massive dummy spit when she turns and spies a figure with a crossbow nearby. Is it Daryl? Is it Dwight? We don’t know because flabbergastingly that’s where the episode ends.

“The Other Side” is an adequate 45 minutes of television but for the ante-penultimate episode of Season 7 it can’t help but feel like a bit of a fizzer. Hopefully this will mean the next two eps are thrill-filled crackers, because god knows we don’t want another season six finale cliffhanger situation. Don’t let us down, Walking Dead, or there will be strongly-worded tweets, by crikey!

 
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Feud

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The relationship between the highly prolific showrunner Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson) and US cable network FX has been a largely fruitful one. When Murphy pitched the idea for his latest effort, Feud, a themed series that depicts famously combative relationships with the maiden series covering the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the bitter rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, FX head honcho John Landgraf immediately gave the thumbs up. It’s intended that each series will cover a different real-life feud, with the next series focusing on the tumultuous relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) trawls dozens of novels that feature strong female characters in order to find a project for herself, given the dearth of decent roles for women of her age and stature. She stumbles across Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? about two sisters and decides to offer the co-lead to her arch rival Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). She ropes in Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, played by Alfred Molina here) to direct. Aldrich ends up as the meat in the emotional sandwich as these two golden age goddesses hammer away at each other’s neurotic self-image and deep-seated sense of inferiority. Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) is adamant that Aldrich keep the two former screen sirens at each other’s throats because of the tremendous publicity that gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) is giving the production. As every day throws a new headline and a new volcanic meltdown on set, Aldrich does his best to play the two off against each other as the actresses both begin to fray at the edges. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates plays actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell respectively.

The show looks fantastic and it is clear Murphy and his team relish the production design and style of the era. As a slice of old Hollywood history, it’s nice to bask in the recreation of the period.