View Post


Home, Review Leave a Comment

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.

View Post

Independence Day: Resurgence

Home, Review 1 Comment

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.

View Post

The Conjuring 2

Home, Review Leave a Comment

Considering the moderate success of The Conjuring – a throwback to ‘70s multiplex ghost stories – it comes as no surprise that James Wan and his team would return to the well for this overlong sequel that sees button downed ghostbusters, Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), cross the threshold of a London council house. There they find the Hodgson family, protected by mother, Peggy (Frances O’Conner), who are being harassed by the spirit of an old man who refuses to move on.

If you caught the British mini-series, Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall, or are aware of the real life case that it was based on, then a lot of what transpires will be familiar to you, albeit with a lot theatrics and the Warrens brought firmly into the foreground. In reality, the Warrens spent very little time in the home, making The Conjuring 2 the supernatural equivalent of U-571, where the US were shown to play a large part in the capture of The Enigma Code. Though in a film which sees demonic nuns fly through oil paintings and where everyone speaks like Eliza Doolittle, it’s probably best to leave fact checking at the door.

Director, James Wan, plays to his strengths in a film that generates a number of shocks and not-so-pleasant surprises. Unfortunately, The Conjuring 2 suffers from a flabby middle that slows down proceedings. There is almost always a time and place for exposition and allowing your characters time to breathe, but if that means watching Patrick Wilson impersonate Elvis for several minutes, then that’s something that The Conjuring 2 can do without. Whilst it might not have the same focus as the original, the film is at its best when it’s dragging a cold dead finger across your spine in preparation of another big scare.

View Post

Zero Days

Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

We know that cyberspace is now a battleground hotly contested by both nation states and insurgent groups, but how much do we really know about it? After watching this detailed documentary from Alex Gibey, who gave as the excellent Scientology expose,  Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, you’ll know a lot more than you did, and none of it will make you happy.

The thesis for Zero Days is essentially that our increasing reliance on ubiquitous information technology makes us vulnerable in previously unimaginable ways, both as individuals and as nations. Its test case is the Stuxnet computer virus, which was was originally deployed by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. As in any good techno-thriller, the malware exceeded its remit and infected a huge number of systems around the world. Zero Days traces the history of the Stuxnet virus and the battle against it, along the way laying bare a hidden technological arms race where borders don’t matter, defence is almost impossible, and collateral damage is largely unpredictable due to the amorphous and interconnected nature of modern communications.

It’s riveting, terrifying stuff. It’s also heavy going; Gibney by necessity employs a lot of talking heads who drop a lot of jargon on the viewer, and close attention is needed to parse what is happening and keep up with the narrative. For all that, it;s a propulsive film, a real-world thriller that keeps the viewer firmly engrossed as the terrifying implications of what is not only possible but currently being done pile up. What we’re talking about here is nothing so benign as ransomware or identity theft, but informational weapons capable of real world effects – such as crippling a nuclear reactor, for example.

What’s especially compelling is what Gibney’s subjects don’t say; at several points his interviewees clam up, refusing to speak further on certain avenues of inquiry, and it’s then that you know that we’re dealing with the real stuff. Gibney goes so far as to employ an actor to deliver testimony that his sources refused to say on camera, as he did in his earlier film, Client 9, adding an extra frisson of espionage flavour to the proceedings. If nothing else, the film illustrates how much we are living in a post-science fiction world, and isn’t it a telling coincidence that the names Gibney and Gibson (as in William) are so similar?

View Post

REVIEW: Keeping Up With The Joneses

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

For the first time in eleven years, Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) find themselves facing a challenge that all parents eventually face: the empty nest. With their kids away for the first time at summer camp, the Gaffneys angle to reignite their dampened flames of romance. This proves easier said than done when Karen is distracted by the sudden arrival of their new neighbours, the Joneses (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), whose stunning looks and overall savoir faire are only matched by their air of mystery.

Where to even start?

Greg Mottola…what – are – you – doing?! Have you just given up on life? Is this Hollywood apathy, or are we being Punk’d? Mottola directed Super Bad (2007), Adventureland (2009) and three episodes of Arrested Development (2003-2004), all solid hallmarks in the modern comedy canon, and now he’s followed those up with the remarkably rotten Keeping Up With The Joneses. It just makes no sense. Though the direction is uncharacteristically lazy for Mottola, it’s not entirely his fault. It has the stink of at least 40 production executives all over it, and a screenplay by writer/producer, Michael LeSieur, that should never have made it past the first meeting.

The film is just…bad. There’s no other way to put it. The writing, the direction, the acting; and not bad in a “we reached for something and missed” kind of way, but bad in a “let’s get our money and get outta here” kind of way. It somehow manages to make Zach Galifianakis un-funny and Isla Fisher boring, not to mention its completely wasteful use of Jon Hamm and typically frustrating over-sexualisation of Gal Gadot. Keeping Up With The Joneses is definitely not worth keeping up with.

View Post

REVIEW: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

With 2012’s Jack Reacher, producer/star, Tom Cruise, threw down what looked like the beginning of an exciting new action franchise. Yanked from the pages of the popular novels of Lee Child, the titular action man – a highly skilled former Army investigator turned adventure-prone drifter – was a compelling creation, spiked by a perverse sense of humour and defined by a singular ability to put foot to arse. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the film itself was equally kinky and violent, boasting Werner Herzog as a villain who’d eaten his own fingers in a POW camp, and a swathe of inventive, bone-crunching action scenes. In short, the stage was set and lit for an enjoyably old-school series of grunt-and-thump belters.

For the sequel, however, power-player, Cruise, has slotted Edward Zwick into the director’s chair, and opted to soften and humanise fists-first lone wolf, Jack Reacher. The results are disappointing, to say the very least. A thoughtful director with credits like Glory, Courage Under Fire, Defiance, and the Cruise-starring The Last Samurai, Zwick is all wrong for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. His direction of the action is pedestrian and run-of-the-mill, and his script (penned with regular collaborator, Marshall Herskovitz) takes a direct detour away from what made Jack Reacher such an interesting protagonist in the first place. The ruthlessness and bitter gallows humour is gone, replaced by a mawkish plotline in which Reacher agonises over whether plucky teenager, Samantha (played with engaging sass by newcomer, Danika Yarosh), could actually be his daughter. If this maudlin narrative side-swipe wasn’t bad enough, its unfolding and ultimate resolution make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The main narrative through-line is equally exasperating, as Reacher comes to the aid of Major Susan Turner (an impressively physical Cobie Smulders), a hard-nosed senior officer whom he’s only communicated with via phone. Reacher’s readiness to put his life on the line for a woman who is essentially a stranger is a major stretch, even for the action genre, while the ruckus that they find themselves caught up in (involving the US military’s re-sale of guns in The Middle East) would barely sustain an episode of NCIS. Villain-wise, there’s nothing to rival the great Werner Herzog here, with Reacher up against a few military bigwigs and a sneering, cliched assassin (Patrick Heusinger) who looks like he should be modelling Calvin Klein underwear.

The film’s placement of a strong female character right in the middle of the action, meanwhile, is admirable, but is so laboured that you can almost hear Zwick and Herskovitz ticking off points on The Bechdel Test along the way. Most hypocritically, they have Turner and Reacher engage in a gender-politics-set-to when he sidelines her in the action to look after the teenage-girl-that-might-be-his-daughter just because she’s a woman, but then have Turner conveniently sit out the film’s mano a mano action climax despite her previously established butt-kicking skills.

It’s just one of the many things that marks Jack Reacher: Never Go Back as such a soft-boiled disappointment. The film never feels true to itself, and indeed, Tom Cruise might have been wise not to go back to playing Jack Reacher at all. After such a ham-fisted, disingenuous effort as Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, this potentially promising action franchise has taken one right between the eyes.

View Post

Sound And Fury (The Iranian Film Festival Australia)

Festival, Review Leave a Comment

Here is renewed proof (if any were needed) that Iran punches above its weight in the international arthouse cinema stakes.

The male protagonist here is Khosro (Navid Mohammadzadeh), a widely venerated pop star who’s a crabby curmudgeon with a long-suffering wife and a five-year-old son. Initially, the dialogue is funny (though nervy), but it’s giving nothing away to say that there is a troubling undercurrent. The film’s title may well allude to William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound And The Fury, and it begins with a quote from him – “Life has taught me that many things may not be what they appear to be” – which makes us anticipate complexity. We know that something goes horribly wrong because we see Khosro being interviewed by the police. He has a particularly admiring female fan called Hanna (Tannaz Tabatabayi). Beyond that, the less you know about this story going in the better.

Sound And Fury just gets more impressive and compelling as it goes on. It’s well acted, the script is clever and sardonic, the mood is measured, the suspense is Hitchcockian, and the major characters are all interesting. As if those qualities were not enough to recommend it, the painterly cinematography and composition – part muted colours, part black-and-white – are exquisitely conceived and realised. And the sombre music (both vocal and instrumental) is marvelously apt and evocative. Just once the tone and style arguably become too histrionic, but overall it’s a stunner.

Sound And Fury will screen at The Iranian Film Festival Australia, which will play in Brisbane (October 20-23), Melbourne (October 27-November 1), Adelaide (November 3-6), Perth (November 4-6), Sydney (November 10-13), Sydney (November 24-December 4), and Canberra (November 11-13). For more on Sound And Fury and to buy tickets, head to the official site.

View Post

REVIEW: Ouija: Origin Of Evil

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Ouija: Origin Of Evil is the prequel to the critically lambasted but fiscally lucrative 2014 horror flick, Ouija, itself based on the Hasbro board game that is said to allow the living to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

The film is set nearly fifty years ago, in 1967, which is fitting because that was probably the last time any vaguely sentient human being could possibly find an Ouija Board scary. The story actually gets off to a decent start with Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) conducting a séance for a grieving widower and his greedy daughter. Cleverly, once the séance concludes, we find out that the whole thing is a sham, with Alice’s daughters, teenage Paulina (Annalise Basso) and child, Doris (Lulu Wilson), assisting in the charade. Sadly, this is the last time that the film is even vaguely surprising.

What follows is a slow, protracted slog through the horror genre’s most overused tropes and predictable cliches, including loud noises, strange whispers and, of course, creepy possessed children. It all vaguely ties to the titular Ouija Board, but the central mystery of why it’s all happening feels like it started life in a different, more original horror movie.

That’s not to say that Ouija: Origin Of Evil is without its moments. Director, Mike Flanagan, excels at achieving a lot with a little, as seen in both Absentia and Oculus, and there are moments here, particularly in the third act, when you catch brief glimpses of inspiration. Scenes where Doris communicates with what she thinks is her dead father and tries to see into the spirit world are undeniably evocative and executed with style. The rest of the time, however, the movie is an exercise in pedestrian storytelling with minimal tension, and feels a bit like The Conjuring lite. Younger audiences or people who haven’t seen a horror movie in the last fifty years may get some thrills from these ghostly shenanigans, but the rest of us will find these evil origins mostly forgettable.

View Post

Mafia 3

Game, Home, Review Leave a Comment

Mafia 3 makes a great first impression. When you boot it up, the game opens with a disclaimer, stating that this fictionalised depiction of the American South in 1968 will feature racism which, while deplorable, is accurate to the time period. Then we meet the game’s African-American protagonist – Vietnam veteran, Lincoln Clay. The game introduces us to Lincoln in a documentary style format with older versions of the surviving characters talking about their regrets and trauma from the events that you’re about to play.

It’s a stunning and original way to open a video game, and the first two to three hours of gameplay are a joy. Lincoln struggles to adjust to life post-war, and finds that his old neighbourhood has changed…and not for the better. As a poor young black man with few skills other than violence, he soon becomes involved with organised crime. This culminates with a bank heist and a betrayal by mob boss, Sal Marcano. The double cross leaves most of Lincoln’s friends and family dead, and Lincoln with a bullet in his head. Against the odds, Lincoln survives. Once fully recovered, he sets out on a path of bloody revenge, dismantling the mob in New Bordeaux, the game’s fictitious version of New Orleans.

If only Mafia 3 had managed to fully execute its stylish, violent revenge story, because there’s so much about the game, setting, and soundtrack to love. But once the open world becomes open worldy, Mafia 3’s many flaws become glaringly obvious. For a start, 90% of the vehicles handle like a dog on wet lino. They’re mostly heavy, unresponsive, ungainly dinosaurs that are a chore to maneuver. This would be less of a problem if the game featured some kind of alternative mode of transport, such as trains, buses, or perhaps fast travel, but there’s none. At all. So you’ll often find yourself driving from one end of the massive map to the other just to trigger a cut-scene and then head back somewhere else.

The map is worth mentioning too, because although it’s enormous, it’s also pretty much empty. There’s none of that sense of discovery or rewarded exploration that you get in the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim. Another problem is the mission structure. At first, you’ll be able to access story missions as you go along, and these are usually worth doing. But as you open up more territory and recruit underbosses to expand your empire, you’ll find yourself repeating the same handful of activities over and over again until the next story mission unlocks.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the activities were ball-tearingly awesome, but due to a combination of clunky controls and shocking enemy AI, you’ll find little joy in the twentieth seemingly identical assassination mission. Whistle for an enemy, stab them when they come to investigate, repeat a dozen times, and then kill the boss. It’s a format that you should get used to. You’ll be doing it. A lot.

On top of all that, the game features a number of bugs and glitches of varying degrees of seriousness, not to mention murky textures and inconsistent lighting, that hamper immersion and hamstring enjoyment. That being said, Mafia 3 does have some joy in it. The aforementioned story missions are usually solid and cinematic, with exciting shoot outs in memorable locations like a Ku Klux Klan rally or a sinking steamboat. The characters are mostly well drawn, and the direction and story are top notch. It’s just a pity that the game requires you to do so much dull busywork to get to subsequent chapters.

Mafia 3 has great moments where story and gameplay meet effectively, but it’s simply too artificially protracted and mechanically unexciting to be anything more than above average. Unfortunately, Mafia 3 makes you an offer you could probably refuse.


View Post

REVIEW: The Neon Demon

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Having polarised the masses with Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn shows no sign of signing up for the mainstream any time soon with The Neon Demon. Ostensibly, this is the tale of a wide-eyed country girl who goes to LA to seek her fortune as a model, with Elle Fanning playing Jesse, the 16-year-old lamb to the city’s slaughter. This is the stuff of cautionary legends found the world over, as the innocence of youth is commodified and brutalised. However, it’s how Refn throws the tale up – sometimes literally – onto the screen that makes the film worthy of pursuit.

Bedaubed in glitter and fake blood, languishing on a sofa, Jesse’s first modelling shoot sets up the aesthetic for the film, with Refn painting his scenes in shades of neon and violence. The only act of moral guidance comes when makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), tries to steer Jesse away from the users and abusers of the fashion world, including Keanu Reeves as a sleazy and sexually violent landlord.

Jesse’s ascension in the modelling world is almost neck-breaking, and whilst her contemporaries wail and gnash their teeth, a meditative calm washes over our protagonist. Does she have full control of her destiny, or does something lurk in the darkness goading her on? The Neon Demon is in some ways a horror film, but what supernatural forces, if any, guide and fuel the actions of those on screen are as covert as a whisper. As in all of his films, Refn has no interest in holding his audience’s hand. And this, coupled with the cold and deliberately stilted performances from his leads, will be off putting, whilst fitting in perfectly with the film’s cool, emotionless world.

Frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, The Neon Demon’s violence, misogyny and, yes, necrophilia will ensure that it is one of the most talked about films of 2016.