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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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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 Lego Batman Movie

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The somewhat unexpected but massive success of 2014’s The Lego Movie has opened up whole vistas of freshly exploitable IP – who could have dreamed that a movie based on a toy based on a comic book was even possible (and now there are toys based on the movie based on the toy based on… you get it)? Luckily, The Lego Batman Movie has charm to spare and fan service by the bucketload, even if it falls short of the high standards set by its predecessor.

Obviously our focus is on Will Arnett’s egomaniacal Lego Batman, whose rock star/playboy lifestyle as the hero of Lego Gotham masks a deep well of loneliness and insecurity. Out man is so gun-shy around relationships that he can’t even bring himself to tell Lego Joker (Zach Galifianakis, and we’ll take the “Lego” prefix as read here on in) that he hates him, leading the latter to concoct a plan to unleash a horde of super-powerful villains on Gotham. Meanwhile Batman, in both his more comfortable cowled identity and his Bruce Wayne persona, struggles to bond with Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, and yay for an Arrested Development reunion), an orphan he has accidentally adopted.

While The Lego Batman Movie lacks the thematic depth of The Lego Movie – “rich douche learns that no man is an island” is a pretty well-worn trope, let’s face it – it’s hard to complain too loudly when it’s so busy trying to make us laugh. Taking its cues from the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker school of comedy, the film just throws barrage after barrage of sight gags, riffs, and references at the viewer, ensuring that if one doesn’t quite land, there’ll be another along in half a second later that’ll tickle your fancy. It’s a film that will benefit from repeat viewings, if only to pick up the countless sight gags and continuity nods.

The film’s real strength is its understanding of both the strength of Batman as an iconic character and the silliness inherent in the very concept, expanding on the whole “darkness, no parents” thing so skilfully deployed in the first film. There’s a deep, deep love of Batman in all his various forms and attitudes – everything from the Nolan films, to the ’66 series, to the animated incarnation is riffed on, and we even get Billy Dee Williams, who played District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s ’89 Batman movie, finally getting to take on the role of Two Face. However, loving something so much means you are painfully aware of its flaws, and The Lego Batman Movie is merciless in skewering the adolescent male power fantasy inherent in the character. That it works so well is down to Will Arnett’s perfectly measured vocal performance – Arnett has this kind of self-awareness-free swagger well and truly down pat by now, and he has a top notch cast to bounce off of, including Rosario Dawson as Batgirl and Ralph Fiennes as Alfred (getting, as is traditional now, a lot of the best lines).

For comics fans, it’s a delight – a casual viewer might think some of the parade of minor villains are just wacky for their own sake, but to an audience with a working knowledge of DC Comics’ Silver Age insanity, seeing the likes of Clock King and March Harriet is a Pavlovian thrill. It’s not all inside baseball though – there’s plenty of bombast for the younger set, and some dry absurdity for the adults – the simple act of microwaving a lobster thermidor is rendered hilarious.

The production design is, as expected, exquisite. Lego as a creative medium lets the film really go big – we get the most impressive Batcave yet committed to screen, even if it is built out of bricks, and the overall “gothic meets toyetic” aesthetic is really something. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the film is at times too busy, visually speaking – there’s so much going on in the frame, so much detail to drink in, that it’s hard to track. But hey, as we said, that’s what re-watches are for.

All up, The Lego Batman Movie, is a droll, affectionate riff on a beloved pop culture icon, and a reminder, intentional or not, that Batman doesn’t have to be dark ‘n’ gritty to be worthwhile. Fans and families alike should have fun with this one.

 
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Personal Shopper

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On opening night at Cannes, Personal Shopper was unanimously booed during the credits roll. The following night, it got a standing ovation. Ultimately, internationally-acclaimed and equally polarising writer and director, Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours, Irma Vep) took home Best Director, causing many a scoff and derisive eye-roll throughout the festival.

This genre-hopping, stylistic mish-mash is – depending on who you ask – a rebellious stroke of experimental cinematic genius, or a flaming hot mess. Actually, though – it’s kind of both.

The film focuses on the effortlessly stylish “I-woke-up-like-this” Maureen (Kristen Stewart). Maureen is a young American in Paris making her living as a high-fashion personal shopper for an A-list celebrity, and is also (wait for it)…. a spiritual medium. Grieving the recent death of her twin brother Louis (also a medium), Maureen goes on a journey to fulfil a pact they made as children: whoever died first would send the other a sign from the other realm. In between frequenting high-street boutiques with blank cheques from her clients, she haunts Louis’ derelict-chic Parisian home, determined to make contact with him.

Part horror, psychological thriller, rom-com, art-house and content marketing for Chanel, Personal Shopper is simultaneously everything and nothing. It moves between so many genres that it, against all odds, becomes its own indefinably brilliant, dishevelled category. Here, Assayas’ directorial skills are way ahead of his writing, which fails to keep up with his alluring inability to pick a lane. It’s both ethereal in a hyper-surrealist Salvador Dalí kind of way, but also stark, far too absolute and unforgiving like Brutalist architecture.

The only coup of the writing is his ability to integrate symbolism so subtly. In fact, you actually catch yourself writing a first-year uni essay about the mise-en-scène in your head. Many would have chosen to beat you over the head with themes like grief, loss and modern anxiety, but Assayas and Stewart manage to sew these leitmotifs into Maureen’s character so deeply, that you’re not even sure they mean what you suspect they do. Watching the film, you will constantly overhear people speculating what they think she’s doing and why she’s doing it. And that’s to be expected from a film that allows someone like the wildly un-expressive Kristen Stewart to indulge some of her most severe and ambiguous acting tics. Her trademark persona of being perpetually unimpressed, confused and having to move that pesky hair from her face every 30 seconds is in full swing here – but this time, it actually works well.

Stewart’s Maureen is a woman battling several invisible forces in what are mostly monologue or silent solitary scenes. Assayas’ demands on Stewart as the lead here, are massive, where most of the time she is acting against/with herself and nothing else. But in the end, she is truly magnificent and adventurous, moving like smoke through every scene she occupies (which, by the way, is literally all of them).

What might be pissing people off the most about Personal Shopper is that your investment in the film never really pays off. It’s frustrating, deeply polarising, but more importantly, admirable. Why should Assayas give us everything? When did that become the expectation? What makes you think you deserve all the answers, anyway? In that vein, Stewart and Assayas never actually tell you who Maureen really is. She is a very closely guarded secret throughout, and while you have small clues, you never quite grab hold of it. For some, that’s brilliant, for others – it’s a total kick in the teeth. Either way it’s chilling, gorgeous and engaging. And that should be enough – rewarded, even. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to get coffee after and dissect it piece by piece; debating with your friends about what you think it all meant – and that’s always the mark of a good film, conventional or not.