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Spookers

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Situated in a former psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Auckland, Spookers is the only haunted house attraction in New Zealand – and also the biggest and most successful in the Southern Hemisphere. In his film of the same name, documentarian Florian Hebicht (Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets; Love Story) largley eschews wallowing in the grim ‘n’ gory FX gags and horror tableux, instead delving into the community of part time monsters, am-dram enthusiasts and genial misfits that has grown up around the venerable institution.

It’s fascinating and surprisingly affecting stuff. What quickly becomes apparent is that, for the majority of the performers interviewed at least, working at Spookers gives them a license to express themselves and explore their identities in a way they can’t in the outside world. One male actor admits to finding dressing up as zombie bride appealing, even though he would never cross dress in his civilian life; others speak about venting their anger and frustration through performance by scaring the crap (sometimes very literally) of the paying audience.

For all the fake blood and hand-made monstrosities on display, there’s a decidedly familial feel to the behind-the-scenes world of the spookhouse, which is presided over by husband-and-wife proprietors Andy and Beth Watson. We spend a fair bit of time with matriarch Beth, who admits to not enjoying horror movies very much and turning off the one she tried to watch for research, as well as a handful of cast regulars who drive home the “family of choice” theme.

That such a morbid work environment has attracted such a tight knit and supportive crew is no surprise to anyone who’s spent a lot of time around the horror genre – horror folks tend to be remarkably nice for people who spend a good chunk of their time thinking up new and gruesome uses for gardening implements – but it should be a useful lesson for non-aficionados. Whether any turn up is another question – one of the gatekeepers of horror is imagery that tends to put off non-fans, such as the terrifying clown that is the key marketing image for Spookers. Hopefully some will push through, though – under all the latex viscera is big heart.

 
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Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story (Russian Resurrection Film Festival)

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There have been numerous adaptations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, so one could argue that if you’re going to wrestle with the popular tome, then you should be willing to bring something fresh to the table. In this instance, director Karen Shakhnazarov (Ward No. 6, Assassin of the Tsar) takes the original story, blends it with the war memoirs of writer Vikenty Veresaev and recounts the whole affair from the point of view of Anna’s lover Count Vronsky.

On the battlefields of the Russia-Japan war in 1908, a middle aged Vronsky (Max Matveev) unexpectedly meets his ex-lover’s son Sergey Karenin (Kirill Grebenshchikov), who has held a simmering hatred for the former over 30 years. Vronsky’s Story is quick to bring up Anna’s passing as it plays out in the novel, and the two men attempt an uneasy reconciliation in order to understand her and the events leading up to her death.

Done right, this kind of revisionism can really open up an established text, throwing light into its shadows in the hopes of finding something new. Sumptuous in its costumes and set design, Vronsky’s Story starts strong; the Count admitting that the deceased Anna, played by Elizaveta Boyarskaya, haunts his every waking day.

However, Anna’s all-consuming grip on Vronsky’s life bleeds into the narrative and he literally becomes a bit part in his own story. As such, we see events play out before seeing them recounted to our hero by others. Elsewhere, in the ‘present day’, Sergey disappears into the background, popping up only occasionally to insist Vronsky continue his tale. Something he does, even when peculiarly Sergey isn’t around.

It’s certainly easy to get swept up in the grandiose spectacle of it all, whilst Matveev and Boyarskaya give strong performances. However, there’s this inescapable feeling that by sticking rigidly to its source material, Vronsky’s Story is doing itself a disservice, ultimately struggling to tell its own story.

 
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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The exotic, plastic-brick, vaguely Asian-y city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil, four-armed Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of shark-themed minions. Luckily, the city is protected by a team of six ninja warriors who pilot giant Lego robots – think Power Rangers but, y’know, Lego-y. Unbeknownst to all, the six heroes are in fact teenagers at Ninjago High School who have been trained by the inscrutable Master Wu (Jackie “my cheque, please” Chan). And doubly unbeknownst, one of their number, the Green Ninja, is in fact Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), whose familial link to the would-be conqueror makes him a social outcast. However, when Garmadon actually manages to conquer to city, Lloyd and his teammates must look deep within themselves to… ah, you get the gist.

It took three directors, six credited writers, and seven people under the dubious “story by” banner to come up with The LEGO Ninjago Movie‘s rather soulless and generic story, and perhaps those numbers are indicative of the root problem: it feels like it’s designed by a committee with a firm grasp of market demographics and a dismal understanding of plot, character, and purposefulness.

We were two for two with Lord and Miller’s excellent The LEGO Movie and Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie, both of which transcended their presumed “kids movie” genre box to become something across-the-board entertaining and, even more surprising, meaningful.

Ninjago doesn’t do that.

What it does is squander an incredibly talented voice cast (Michael Pena, Kumail Najiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn) on a stunningly hoary hero’s journey, wrapped in a weird Orientalist mythology that is happy to swipe the visual cues from Chinese and Japanese culture and history, but draws the line at actually foregrounding characters from those cultures; all the actors of Asian descent are in supporting roles, while culturally Ninjago feels like Southern California by way of the Shaw Brothers backlot – it’s very, very American.

The world feels ramshackle and forced – there’s a fine line between the freewheeling creativity of The LEGO Movie, which managed to incorporate huge and varying swathes of pop culture and still feel of a piece. Problems start right out of the gate when we’re served a live action framing device ala The Neverending Story in which Jackie Chan, as charming and avuncular as ever, drops wisdom on a bullied child – how this ties in to the plastic brick universe of the main narrative is never made clear, nor is the “physics” or “cosmology” of the Ninjago setting (that may sound high-minded but, again, reflect on The LEGO Movie, which pulled off a stunning late-act reveal by connecting the “real” and “Lego” universes).

It all feels lazy, poorly thought out and redundant – which is kind of amazing when you consider the incredible work and attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the film. We’re not yet at a point where these towering Lego creations are visually uninteresting, praise the lord, and Animal Logic deserve plaudits for some of the spectacular builds in the movie – not the least of which is Gormadon’s giant robot, complete with shark-firing canon.

That doesn’t make for a good story, though, and Ninjago‘s story fails on some really basic levels, like cause and effect. Garmadon conquers Ninjago simply by climbing to the top of its tallest tower, which works fine when you’re five and play-fighting on a playground fort, but makes zero sense in this context. It feels like we’re expected to just go with it because it’s a kids’ movie, which absolutely flies in the face of why the previous Lego films worked at all.

Being charitable, kids who are into the Ninjago franchise will in all likelihood get a kick out of this one – there are references to mythology elements outside of the frame of the film that might give a little rill of continuity joy to the faithful (or they may be meaningless – it’s hard to say), but the simple truth is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not the cross-demographic joy that its predecessors are. In fact, it feels like the lazy offering we expected back in those cynical days when they first announced a Lego movie, and that’s pretty damning.

 
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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of 2015. Based on Mark Millar’s mildly misanthropic comic book, director Matthew Vaughn improved upon the source material, adding style, pathos and whimsy; a trick he also pulled off with the film adaptation of Kick-Ass. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is also a surprise but, sadly, this time around it’s not such a pleasant one.

Set a year after the events of the original, The Golden Circle wastes little time in literally blowing up the status quo. In short order, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) loses his home, place of work, a bunch of coworkers and dog. Teamed up with Merlin (Mark Strong) the pair travel to America to meet the Statesmen, the US equivalent of Kingsman, who fight the forces of evil with laser lassos and weaponised spittin’ tobacky. Yee-hah and so forth.

The 141 minute film is required to perform a balancing act where it gives our leads a proper story, introduce new characters in the form of Tequilla (Channing Tatum), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Champagne (Jeff Bridges), plus concoct a satisfying villain, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) with a nefarious plan for world domination. Sadly it fails at many of these tasks, with baffling pacing decisions that make the main action feel truncated but a scene where Eggsy has to finger bang Clara Von Gluckfberg (Poppy Delevingne) at Glastonbury (to insert a tracking device, natch) drags on interminably.

That’s not to say The Golden Circle is without its moments. When the film takes a minute to breathe the character work is solid. Taron Egerton, Mark Strong and Colin Firth are all reliably excellent, although the inclusion of the latter takes up way too much screen time. The action is frenetic and well-directed, but nothing comes close to topping the gleefully splattery church massacre from the original. Julianne Moore’s Poppy starts strong, and includes some semi-subversive chatter about the war on drugs, but ultimately squanders the opportunity.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle seems less interested in skewering spy movie tropes and notions of class in favour of including celebrity guest spots, like an initially amusing but ludicrously overplayed Elton John cameo. It’s a film that manages to be sporadically engaging but is too bloated and unwieldy to hit the mark like its predecessor. It’s unfortunate because you get the feeling there’s a good film in there, somewhere, but it’s buried under a landfill of winking self congratulation and unnecessary callbacks. If the Kingsmen return for a third outing hopefully they’ll think to include the services of a judicious script editor next time.

 
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Dawson City: Frozen Time (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

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Bill Morrison (Decasia) is a filmmaker whose experimental avant-garde work is often more at home in art galleries than in multiplexes. However, with his new film Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison has embraced a more conventional documentary style, and has made his most accessible, and arguably most moving film of his career.

The film begins in 1978 in Dawson City, a town on the Yukon river in the remote northwest of Canada. During the demolition of a building in the historic town centre, workers uncovered a treasure trove of lost film reels, which contained, amongst other things, rare footage of the infamous 1918 baseball world series, and numerous feature films that had long been thought to be lost forever. In order to demonstrate the significance of this find, Morrison takes us back to Dawson City’s founding and tells the story of the city, a history which is fascinating even without the connection to these lost films. However, Morrison also uses this history to tell a story about the early days of cinema, illustrating the revelatory effect that these films would have had on the audiences who once viewed them.

Set to a magnificent score by Alex Somers (known for his work with Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros), Morrison weaves together material from the lost films, together with archive photographs and other early film footage to tell the story of how these films survived decades buried in the ice.

However, while the story is both mesmerising and intriguing, what is most captivating about the film is Morrison’s ability to use ancient, decaying footage to conjure an emotional response, and to say something powerful about the nature of the passing of time. Dawson City: Frozen Time is truly an ode to the power of cinema, and deserves to be seen by film lovers everywhere.

 
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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Adelaide Film Festival)

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This is an extremely strange and unsettling film – which is not to say that it’s consistently good. It hits the ground running with a close-up of an operation, but then becomes maddeningly – but evidently deliberately – mannered and distancing.

The central characters are wealthy heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his opthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). They like to have sex whilst pretending that Anna is under general anaesthetic. Both of them speak in a flat deadpan manner, employing staccato phrases whether discussing the mundane or the important. So, for no apparent reason, do many of the other characters, who include the couple’s two children. It’s rather as if they’d consciously based their styles on that of the young David Byrne, circa “Psycho Killer”. It’s also hard to work out whether the effect is meant to be intermittently funny, and harder still to suspend disbelief.

So far, so-so. But Stephen has a friendship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a distinctly odd – even in this context – and obsessive teenager whose late father was one of Stephen’s patients. We become mildly curious as to exactly how all these people relate to each other.

And then – ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that at a certain point the story suddenly gets much more engrossing, even as it becomes absurd.

The music is effective, the widescreen cinematography is striking and the plot is, shall we say, unusual. And whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, there is at least one scene you are guaranteed to remember.

 
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The Devil’s Candy

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Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones was a darkly comic horror that took a teenager’s obsession and entitlement to the extreme. In The Devil’s Candy, the Tasmanian director tackles those long time bedfellows of Satanism and Metal Music.

Ethan Embry plays Jesse, a Metallica loving artist moving into a new home with his punky daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), and straight-laced wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Soon after settling in, the large figure of Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) turns up at their front door. Ray used to live in their home and wants to move back in, whether they want him to or not. This is the perfect setup for a home invasion film, but Byrne refuses to let the film settle on this routine premise. First there’s the little matter of the demonic voices Ray can hear speaking to him through his radio; the same voices that Jesse has begun to hear too; the voices which centre on the men’s obsessions of varying morality. Jesse wants to be taken seriously as an artist, whilst Ray will do whatever it takes to make the voices stop.

This is a down and dirty film that relies on unease and tension for a large part of its narrative, with Ray taking a disturbing interest in young Zooey. As the two men become more and more intrinsically linked, Byrne lets the tension simmer before exploding into a violent finale lit by the literal fires of hell. Whilst Ray isn’t your average satanic antagonist – he’s shown to be a bumbling whiner on more than one occasion – the danger he conceals is never in doubt, due to Byrne’s skilful direction and the film’s ominous throbbing score.

 The Devil’s Candy is a short, sharp shock of terror that knows well enough to keep its audience in the dark even as the sun rises in its final shot.

 
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20th Century Women

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In an ode to his own mother, who passed away in 1999, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) continues to make personal cinema that is both stylistic and engaging, aided by an a-list cast at the top of their game.

For reasons unknown, Annette Bening missed out on an Oscar nomination for her beautifully truthful, nuanced performance as Dorothea, an incredibly open-hearted but equally flawed human being who has a knack for picking up stray men and women who end up openly loitering in her grand but modest house. These include Elle Fanning’s Julie, the daughter of a single-parent therapist; Greta Gerwig’s Abbie , who has survived cervical cancer; and Billy Crudup’s William, who lives by the New Age life philosophy of 1979 Southern California where most of the story takes place.

Circling the orbit of these characters is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s teenage son who juggles the urges of his loins with the sensitivity he has inherited from his mum.

Each character gets their own chapter, flashing back to key moments in their lives. But it’s not your ordinary flashback, these are flourishes that we’ve come to expect from Mike Mills. If you had to compare Mills’ approach to cinema, it’d be his contemporary Spike Jonze – flashy modern stylistic choices but never at the disservice of character.

A performance piece, if there’s a flaw it’s that the film feels flat at times, and struggles to shift gears during its first two acts. But if you stick with it, there’s plenty of reward in this highly personal film for Mike Mills. And as per the title, it’s ultimately a rumination and an affirmation on the female lifeforce, and its evolution throughout the 20th century, something that is incredibly important to acknowledge now more than ever.

 
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American Assassin

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“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.”

That’s a quote from Neal Stephenson’s excellent science fiction novel, Snow Crash, and it’s the thesis – one of them, at least – of American Assassin, the new techno-thriller from director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger), based on the series of novels by the late Vince Flynn.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is the subject of that thesis, a normal American dude who dedicates his life to wiping out terrorism after his fiancee is murdered in front of him during an attack on a Spanish beachside resort, mere minutes after he proposed to her. Our man Rapp spends 18 months turning himself into an Arabic-speaking, intel-gathering, killing machine, and is all set to pull the trigger on the evil mastermind of his woes when he’s snatched up by Sanaa Lathan’s shady CIA Deputy Director and folded into a black ops program which will hopefully channel his aggression in more politically desirable directions.

In practice that means we get a training sequence under the steely tutelage of Michael Keaton’s Navy SEAL instructor, which is pretty enjoyable because Old Michael Keaton is great. Then the plot kicks in, and we’re on an international hunt for a quantity of missing weapons grade plutonium, swiped by a ruthless mercenary known as the Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, giving the best performance in this thing). He’s American, he knows their tactics better than they do… could he be Mitch’s Dark Shadow ™?

If you think that sounds dumb, you’re right, and it’s not even the silliest element of American Assassin, which plays out like an alternate version of the Jason Bourne flicks where the Treadstone assassination program are the good guys. On a plot level, it’s a dumb run ‘n’ gun that treats espionage and tradecraft like an MMA steel cage match, bouncing from fight to chase to fight to predictable revelation to fight.

On a thematic level, it’s worse. The film can’t figure out whether our man Mitch needs to learn how to follow orders for the greater good, or if his willingness to go off the playbook and Do Whatever It Takes is his chief asset – which is weird considering it’s explicitly stated as the reason why The Ghost was not up to scratch (if the penny doesn’t drop about his origins early on, god help you). For all that the film sets up Mitch and Ghost to mirror each other, it’s not narratively or politically sophisticated enough to make the leap to the inherent irony that a clearly radicalised young American man has dedicated his life to hunting radicalised young Muslim men, instead cleaving to the notion that fanatical white people are inherently more palatable than fanatical brown people.

Still, if you can ignore the politics, or even align with them, there’s fun to be had here, albeit of a simple and sadistic nature. American Assassin, like Olympus Has Fallen, revels in showing bodily harm (interestingly, Olympus director Antoine Fuqua was once attached); the film is peppered with closeups of flesh being pierced with bullets, slashed with knives, burnt, and torn – at one point a pair of pliers meets some fingernails and the camera lingers just that little too long for the squeamish. The action is competently, efficiently staged, although there’s nothing on display to make, say, John Wick‘s Stahelski and Leitch worry about their pole position, and the whole thing ends with a big, dangling sequel hook, which is only to be expected – there are, after all, 12 books in the series, with more to come.

If you’re in an undemanding mood and a fan of the genre, American Assassin ticks enough boxes to make it worth a cheap seat. Charitably, it feels like an ’80s action movie throwback, with all the bombast and political naivety that implies. Whether that’s gonna work for you or not is something you already know.

 
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Patti Cake$

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Aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowksi a.k.a. Killa P. a.k.a. Patti Cake$ (Danielle Macdonald) leads an ordinary life in her rundown hometown in New Jersey, and though dreaming of big city lights, is tortured by unpaid bills, broken dreams and an army of haters that are determined to bring her down. Alongside her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who is one of the few that recognises her true potential, her Nana (Cathy Moriarty) and an enigmatic musician by the name of Basterd the AntiChrist (Mamoudou Athie), they venture out to find her voice, stumbling over new obstacles along the way, but leading to a truly satisfying redemption arc.

Geremy Jasper, VMA-nominated director behind Florence and the Machine and Selena Gomez music videos, has made an ambitious and hard-hitting film inspired by his own personal experiences growing up in New Jersey, mixed with his lifelong obsession with rap music and the music scene in general.

Drawing on his experiences within the music industry, he is able to contrast the life of the musician, to the individual behind them. The juxtaposition of Patti Cake$’s imaginary life to that of Patricia Dombrowsky, a 23-year-old bartender struggling to support her family, provides insight to the fact that fame comes at a price.

Reminiscent of the narratives explored in 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton, Patti Cake$ also works in some subtle and cheeky sense of humour in amongst the grit. With its strong leading lady, a soundtrack written exclusively for the film, and a talented and diverse cast, Patti Cake$ hits all the right beats.