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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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Taboo Season 1

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Ugliness is an integral part of the aesthetic in Taboo. The take on early 19th century London it presents is not a pleasant one, all mud, blood, offal, corruption, and horror. Even its characters are a parade of grotesques, looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Mervyn Peake novel.

It’s a fascinating world we’re thrust into, though: the tail end of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, at the dawn of modern corporate dominance in the form of the British East India Company, the powerful merchant concern who are our villains here. Our “hero”, for want of a better term, is Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, long thought dead in some African hellhole and greatly upsetting the apple cart when he returns to London to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father.

Part of his inheritance is a vital spit of land on the Canadian/US border, which will be of strategic import in coming negotiations. The East India Company, largely represented by Jonathan Pryce’s conniving chairman, are of the opinion that the world would be a better place if James wasn’t in it, but they haven’t reckoned with the kind of man who has returned from Africa: tattooed, scarred, and a rumoured cannibal. But is James’ pragmatic savagery any match for the monolithic Company?

Taboo is OTT in the best and most gloriously Gothic sense of the word, offering up a feast of brutality and sensuality as our enigmatic hero, cutting a menacing figure in his stovepipe hat and long coat, negotiates high society and low in his quest for allies and advantage. He’s more at home in the gutters, it seems, winning Stephen Graham’s criminal Atticus to his cause, but is just as formidable cutting a deal with American spy Dr Dumbarton (Michael Delaney), or getting up in the grill of Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), upper class husband to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Is there incestuous desire between James and Zilpha? Of course there is, because Taboo throws every Gothic and Victorian literature trope into the blender and then spills it all out on the screen, like the result of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole going on an absinthe bender together. What elevates it is a modern political sensibility that approaches topics such as class, race, colonialism, and corporate malfeasance with an astute eye – while still allowing space for the odd disemboweling.

At the centre of it all is Hardy, giving a performance as magnetic as any other in his career as the opaque and ruthless James. He’s ostensibly our point of view character, but for much of the series he remains as much a mystery to the viewer as he is to the rest of the cast of characters – Hardy’s sheer watchability carries us through, though, even if we’re left as witnesses rather than participants in the drama.

A grim romp with plenty of secrets, lies, violence and the odd grand guignol sequence, Taboo is an enjoyably idiosyncratic drama –  call it Peaky Blinders: The Early Years, or Boardwalk Empire 1814 if you need a quick shorthand. Such glib descriptions do it something of a disservice, though; while the ingredients might be familiar, in combination they result in a fresh flavour that is unlike anything else we’ve yet seen in the increasingly popular “adult historical melodrama” genre.

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To The Bone

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Writer/director Marti Noxon draws from personal experience to tell a story about a young woman battling an eating disorder. While To The Bone’s dramatic strength lies in its first-hand immediacy, the meandering tale fails to engage. That’s largely due to Lily Collins’ inscrutable performance as the unlikable main protagonist Ellen – later adopting the name Eli.

After being kicked out of therapy yet again, 20-year-old Ellen joins a purportedly unconventional group therapy home. It’s run by a no-nonsense yet compassionate doctor, played with rugged charm by Keanu Reeves. Ellen briefly impresses with a parlour trick; her eidetic memory for the calorie count of all foods. All the other inhabitants of the home exhibit varying degrees of malfunction, but there are few dramatic moments or profound breakthroughs. The story just ambles along in a banal fashion.

With her gaunt gaze and horrifyingly skeletal frame, Emma’s default mode appears to be that of dispassionate sarcasm. Each of her family members remark on the negative affect her illness has had on them, but Ellen seems unfazed and unmotivated to improve. There’s a dark backstory about Ellen’s illustrated blog being blamed for a reader’s suicide, but even that storyline goes nowhere. Nor do we gain any insight as to why Ellen fell ill, although her father’s frequent inability to show up is suggested as a factor. Above all, Collins never seems to convey authentically the isolation that plagues many who are afflicted with this mental and physical disorder. She effortlessly wins the heart and affections of the only male patient in the house, a British dancer named Luke (Alex Sharp), whose career has been derailed because of a knee injury.

Eventually Ellen/Eli re-forges a bond with her estranged mother (a criminally under-used Lili Taylor) in a ludicrous scene towards the end that is best left undescribed.

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Dead Hands Dig Deep

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In the annals of shock rock, Edwin Borsheim, lead singer of Californian extreme metal band Kettle Cadaver, is a relatively unknown commodity. Now, thanks to the work of young Australian filmmaker, Jai Love, he is immortal. Whether that’s for the best is an exercise left to the viewer – suffice to say, once encountered, Borsheim is difficult to forget.

Combining to-camera interviews with archival concert footage, Dead Hands Dig Deep is a portrait of the artist as a young psychopath. A profoundly damaged man from an almost indescribably abusive background, Borsheim used his work with Kettle Cadaver to process and express his issues – which means, in this case, on stage self-mutilation of the most extreme kind, exhorting his fans to commit suicide, violence and, in one memorable case, sexual congress with a dead coyote. One concert got shut down after just 26 seconds, which is surely some kind of record.

However, that was back in the ’90s. When we meet the Borsheim of today, his band scattered, he’s a lonely, alienated figure, holed up in his desert compound, surrounded by grotesque memorabilia and horrifying artifacts (skeletons, animal parts, homemade weapons and torture implements) and largely abandoned by the world. Interviews with friend and former bandmates hammer home the impression that Borsheim’s insistence of always going to the most extreme lengths possible in his life, art and violence have left him with no travelling companions, even in the often shocking world of extreme metal. His current existence, alone in his hand-built house of horrors with only the effigy of ex-wife, Christian Death’s Eva O, for company, is a singularly sad yet strangely noble one; with the world holding no place for him, he has built a world of his own, and if no one would want to share it with him, then so be it.

There’s a lot to shock the audience here, and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to Dead Hands Dig Deep by the promise of extreme, outre imagery, but this is, at heart, a humane and sympathetic film. Edwin Borsheim is probably not a person you’d want ’round for dinner, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the depth of his pain and his clear inability to express it in any more socially acceptable form. Dead Hands Dig Deep could have been a shallow freak show; instead, it’s a perceptive look at a man in constant psychological crisis trying to make sense of what must be a torturous existence.

Slamdance is releasing Dead Hands Dig Deep on iTunes from September 15, 2017

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The Tick

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First created by Ben Edlund (Firefly, Supernatural) as an affectionate parody of superheroes back in 1986, that big, blue, boisterous bastion of heroism, the Tick, has been standing tall for truth, justice, and all that good stuff ever since. The bouncing behemoth has hit our TV screens twice before, in a three season cartoon series debuted in 1994, and then in a brief and much missed 2001 live action series starring Patrick “Puddy” Warburton, which managed to chalk up a mere nine episodes. Now he’s back, he’s streaming on Amazon, and his latest incarnation might just be the best yet.

As played by the brilliant Peter Serafinowicz, the Tick a blue-suited, muscle-bound “nigh-invulnerable” superhero possessed of the strength of “…ten, perhaps twenty men – a crowded bus stop of men.” Given to spouting straight-faced but absurd aphorisms about justice and destiny, the Tick has come to The City to protect it from evildoers of all stripes – and to act as conscience, role model, and life coach to depressed accountant Arthur (Griffin Newman).

Despite who’s hogging the title, The Tick is actually Arthur’s story, with Edlund and his co-conspirators recognising that as much fun as the blundering, not-too-bright Tick might be, he doesn’t have much of an arc – and, in fact, he’s better off without one. Arthur, by contrast, is a fallible, empathetic, and somewhat tragic figure. He lost his father to collateral damage from a super-powered battle involving villain The Terror (a wonderfully hammy Jackie Earle Haley), and has since been plagued by unspecified mental health issues and relies on his nurse sister, Dottie (Valorie Curry), to keep him from getting too caught up in his conspiracy theories and superhero obsessions.

All that changes when Arthur finds himself in possession of a high tech power suit that, for reasons never entirely explored, looks, like a moth, and in the orbit of the gleefully heroic Tick, who urges Arthur to take of the never ending battle against evil. The show toys with the notion that the Tick is actually a manifestation, Fight Club style, of Arthur’s mental issues, before wisely discarding the idea. No, he’s just the leading edge of the weird wider world the show inhabits; a world that has had superheroes since the Tunguska blast of 1908 (shout out to X-Files and Ghostbusters fans alike), and contains Egyptian-themed crime syndicates, at least one talking dog (who has written a memoir about his time as a superhero sidekick) and a dark and brooding vigilante (Scott Speiser as Overkill, a riff on the Punisher, Batman, and all points in between) whose base of operations is a Knightrider-esque talking boat voiced by Alan Tudyk.

It’s gloriously silly stuff, using the whole swathe of superhero lore as grist for the comedy mill. It’s impossible not to crack a smile when Serafinowicz’s Tick forces his four-colour worldview onto the more drab everyday milieu around him, at one point annoying a shopkeeper who really just wants to give his protection money to the local goons rather than get caught up in all this heroic nonsense, at another delighting Arthur’s stepfather simply by turning up to his 60th birthday party and just being himself.

There may not be method to this madness, but there is a thematic point. “What if Arthur is awesome?” the Tick muses to Dottie at one point, who is dead set against all these super shenanigans. “What if you are, too, and you just don;t know it?” For all its absurdity, Both the Tick and The Tick are big on heart and heroism, and that’s what makes it special. Yes, it’s incredibly funny; yes, it has nerd cred to spare, but it’s those punch-the-air moments of triumph that really bring the show home. “The hero inside all of us” is a hell of a cliche, but The Tick revels in both mocking such cliches and then reminding us that such homilies are well-worn for a reason. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and it requires absolute sincerity in order to stick the landing. Like Mystery Men and Galaxy Quest, this is a parody that absolutely adores the genre it’s ripping strips off of, bombastic excesses and all.

Broadly speaking, such genre-specific parodies are only successful when the conventions they’re lampooning are widely enough known for a big audience to get the joke. Given that we’re about 20 years into the Modern Age of the Cinematic Superhero, the time is right for The Tick to rise again. Let’s hope he sticks around.

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Game of Thrones S7E7: The Dragon and the Wolf

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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]

Season seven of Game of Thrones has whipped past quickly, some have opined too quickly. We’re in the show’s third act now and on occasion logic and consistency have been sacrificed at the altar of momentum. Nevertheless, here we are, at the finale of the penultimate season. So does “The Dragon and the Wolf” manage to live up to the heaviest of expectations? Let’s have foaming tankard of recap first.

The episode begins with The Unsullied arriving at King’s Landing. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) have some delightful patter about being surrounded by an army of “men without cocks”, but they’re just bantering to hide their nervousness. Today is an important day for the realm and things could go very badly.

Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) share their nervousness as they’re landing deep in enemy territory. Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) checks to see if their “special” zombie cargo is still a screamer. It is.

Everyone’s heading for the important parley in the Dragonpit, you see, and no one’s quite sure what the other will do. On the walk there we have a few nice moments with Podric (Daniel Portman) and Tyrion, Bronn and Tyrion – it’s good to see these two together again – but the best moment by far is with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Sandor. The Hound actually smiles when Brienne explains that Arya (Maisie Williams) is safe and with her family at Winterfell. Honestly, the Hound having a cheeky grin is probably the most unexpected thing to happen all episode.

Still, the friendly banter can’t last and the world’s deadliest staff meeting is about to begin, with a very well-armed HR department ready to enforce the rules. Cersei (Lena Headey) arrives and scowls fiercely. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) has a smirk-off with Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). The Hound checks out his brother, The Mountain’s (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), bold new zombie look and thinks it’s a bit tacky. Everyone manages to behave themselves for the moment and then Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) arrives on a dragon. The lady makes a hell of an entrance.

The meeting gets off to an awkward start. Euron starts to heckle Theon and Tyrion, but Cersei and Jaime shut him down. They want to hear what Tyrion has to say, or at least, they want to appear that way. Tyrion makes his pitch about the army of the dead, but it’s clear visual aids are needed. Rather than go with pie charts and graphs, The Hound brings out the blue-eyed zombie captured in last week’s ep, “Beyond the Wall”. The screechy dead thing takes a run at Cersei but The Hound clefts it in twain. “There is only one war that matters,” Jon explains, “The Great War – and it is here.”

Euron claims to be terrified and buggers off back to the Iron Islands, which seems suspiciously out of character. Cersei seems convinced of the threat, and more than a little freaked out, and says she’ll fight with Dany and Jon as long as the latter stays in the North. Jon tells her no, he’s bent the knee to Dany and Cersei storms off.

Tyrion wryly tells Jon that sometimes it’s a good thing to fib a little. Jon gives (yet another) impassioned TED talk about being honest in a post-truth Westeros, but maybe pick your moments, eh? Tyrion decides he should be the one to talk with Cersei. Seems like you’d be safer with the wights, mate.

In the episode’s best scene we have a long-awaited one on one with Cersei and Tyrion. Lena Headey is particularly effective in this scene, bringing genuine pathos to her character, as she lashes Tyrion with words regarding the death of her father and children. Peter Dinklage brings his usual wounded dignity to the table, offering his life if Cersei really wants to take it. She doesn’t, not really, and they both calm down, a little. The turning point is when Tyrion works out that Cersei is pregnant.

Jon and Dany have a bittersweet bit of business amongst the stunted dragon bones when Tyrion returns… with Cersei following. “The darkness is coming for us all… we will face it together” Cersei proclaims. “And when the Great War is over, perhaps you’ll remember I chose to help.” This is actually a great bit of character work for Cersei, if true, but can we possibly trust a word she says?

In Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) has the shits re: Jon bending the knee to Dany. Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) continues to implicate Arya and isolate Sansa. Collectively GoT fans pray that Sansa hasn’t suddenly become stupid enough to believe him.

Battle plans are made in Dragonstone, and Dany announces she and Jon will sail together to the North. Afterwards Theon talks with Jon, trying to make him understand that he seeks redemption. Jon tells Theon it’s not for him to forgive, but maybe rescuing his sister, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) would be a good start.

This plan proves less popular with Theon’s crew and he cops a savage beating. However this time he doesn’t turn tail, and after taking a misplaced knee to the not-cock (seriously, it’s a running theme for this episode) Theon triumphs and re-baptises himself in the sea. The crew are now with him (fickle bunch) and will follow his lead to rescue Yara.

At Winterfell, Sansa and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) have Arya sent to the great hall, where armed soldiers surround her. “You stand accused of treason and murder,” Sansa says imperiously, “how do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?” Yes, in a twist that isn’t terribly surprising but quite cathartic we find out Sansa, Arya and Bran have been aware of Littlefinger’s fuckery to at least some degree. His charges reveal that Petyr is responsible for much of the chaos in Westeros, including Ned Stark’s death. Littlefinger begs for his life, but Sansa calmly intones: “Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish, I will never forget them.” Then Arya slits his throat and he bleeds out on the cold ground.

Meanwhile Jaime is planning on moving his army North, when Cersei interrupts asking him what the hell he’s doing. Turns out Cersei has no intention of sending anyone northwards and will, instead, keep on being a cartoony supervillain – using Euron to bring a bunch of bad arses called The Golden Company, who have elephants apparently. It’s a shame and Jaime can no longer handle it. Jaime heads to the door and for a moment we think Cersei will have The Mountain kill him… but no. She’s not ready to do that, not yet. As Jaime leaves King’s Landing it begins to snow.

Up North, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) arrives at Winterfell and visits Bran. The subject soon turns to Jon, and Bran is desperate to tell Jon the truth about himself. “No one knows, no one but me,” Bran says incorrectly (Gilly, you never get any respect), “Jon isn’t my father’s son. He’s the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and my aunt, Lyanna Stark.” With some extra exposition from Sam (which, again, Gilly gets no credit for – sorry, Hannah Murray!) it becomes clear that “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt or rape her, he loved her, and she loved him.” Which of course means: “[Jon’s] never been a bastard, he’s the heir to the Iron Throne.”

This information would have come in really handy for Jon, because at the same time as Bran and Sam are figuring all this out, he and Dany are getting it on. What’s he going to do when he finds out he’s shagging his aunt? And how will Dany react when she realises she’s not the rightful heir to the Iron Throne after all?

Arya and Sansa have a proper bonding moment, thank God, and it’s so sweet it almost makes up for the protracted silliness of this sister vs sister subplot.

Bran wargs to the Wall and we see what we’ve been dreading since the end of last episode. Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) watch in horror as the army of the dead arrive… with the Night King (Richard Brake) riding a freaking zombie dragon! Everyone tries to flee as the dragon breathes corrosive blue fire all over The Wall but many die as a huge section of The Wall collapses. More importantly – the wights now have unrestricted access to the realms of men. Looks like Tyrion was right when he observed earlier, “we’re fucked.”

Just how fucked will our heroes be? We’ll have to wait until the next and final season but it’s sure to be epic.

Ultimately “The Dragon and the Wolf”, and indeed season seven of Game of Thrones in general, has been more action blockbuster than political drama or character-based thriller. It’s exciting and engaging and occasionally a bit silly, but unique in the televisual landscape.

One thing’s for sure it’s going to a long, cold, wintry wait to see how this sprawling tale ends. Until then, thanks so much for reading these reviews and we’ll see you next time when this song of ice and fire comes to a close.