And then there's the countless films that find themselves wedged between those definitions, all of which make up one of the most remarkable film industries in the world. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
So much of the Australian experience has fallen into the abyss, waiting to be rediscovered. It seems that every year new treasures are unearthed and re-released. Famously Wake In Fright was saved from obscurity, and more recently classics like Frog Dreaming, Next of Kin and Spirits of the Air Gremlins of the Clouds were given classy restorations. And there are no doubt so many more waiting to be dug up.
This is the long way of bringing me to SIDECAR RACERS, an insanely fun dramatic action film from 1975, directed by the legendary American filmmaker Earl Bellamy, whose colossal catalogue of work includes Rawhide, Gunpoint, Munsters Go Home and Get Smart (to scratch the surface). It takes place in and around the side-car racing scene, which is very much a real and dangerous sport. It tells the story of a former American olympian, Jay (Ben Murphy) who is in Australia on a working visa, spending most of his time surfing Sydney's beaches. He meets a Lynn (Wendy Hughes) whose brother Dave (John Clayton) is a professional sidecar racer without a team partner. Lynn and Dave recognise Jay's surfing skills and invite him to be the counterweight on their sidecar. Of course an inevitable love triangle forms and their friendships are tested, while Bellamy orchestrates a stunning action-packed adventure with some truly awe-inspiring sequences.
SIDECAR RACERS is a delicious snap-shot in time, of an era preceding political correctness, which celebrated classic Aussie larrikinism. Of course by today's standards so much of the film's rhetoric and behaviour is outrageous, and yet for its time it was very much a way of life. Women get slapped around, men ogle at breasts, and general safety practices are non-existent. But that's not a reason to avoid the movie... because those things WERE acceptable then, and the film is of its time.
A young 20-something Wendy Hughes is absolutely delightful as the flirtatious woman caught between the two men. Of course she would later become one of Australia's most respected actresses, and with this being one of her earliest performances, it's fascinating to see her apply her craft to what is arguably a lesser film, comparatively speaking. She invests herself entirely and becomes one of the movie's core strengths. Ben Murphy and John Clayton are both great to watch on screen, with Clayton offering a massive dose of charisma and bravado. The legendary Peter Graves also appears in an extended cameo as the father to Lynn, and his presence follows that long tradition of bringing Hollywood talent to local films (Graves and Bellamy's working relationship dates way back to the television series Fury).
The most striking quality about SIDECAR RACERS is the racing sequences and how incredibly they've been captured on film. Being made in 1975 it precedes George Miller's seminal Mad Max (1979) and there are undeniable influences to be found. Ballemy's camera gets up close and personal with the racers as they tear up dirt tracks and leap over crests. His camera is constantly rubbing noses with the bikes as they fly through the bush at full throttle. The similarity to the way Miller shot Mad Max is blatantly obvious and while Miller is credited with pioneering this method of chase, he clearly didn't invent it. Ballemy was on the forefront of action and despite the passing of 44-years his style and craftsmanship feels audacious and fresh.
With a recent DVD release by Australia's Umbrella Entertainment, SIDECAR RACERS has been preserved on physical media (digitally too, I'm sure) and is finally easily accessible for all to see. Whether you love Aussie cinema, or are a sucker for race-themed films, this is a time-capsule that's well worth opening. Its contents are outrageously fun and it captures a bygone era that older viewers will reflect upon fondly, while younger people will look on in disbelief. Regardless of how you see it, it's impossible to ignore. Once you pop, you can't stop!
THE REALM is a kinetic tour de force from its opening moments, the moving parts both on and offscreen working in harmony to ensure the tension never stops. Being dropped into the action straight away left me totally captivated, with Sorogoyen’s penchant for long takes and the nonstop beat of Olivier Arson’s pulsating score demanding the viewer keep up. Even when characters linger around a table in relaxed conversation, editor Alberto del Campo weaves around and in between them perfectly timed to the script’s brisk pace. Likewise, Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Peña demonstrate a keen awareness of when to limit exposition in favour of preserving momentum; for instance, most of the supporting players don’t have developed backstories because they simply aren’t needed. If you were under the impression that political drama is inherently slow and dull, THE REALM will scream how wrong you are through every scene without slowing down or breaking a sweat.
This energy at the centre of THE REALM is embodied by Manuel López-Vidal (Antonio de la Torre), a high-ranking member of his unnamed region’s government who has been in politics for nearly fifteen years. Manuel is an archetypal career politician: a trusted confidant of the party leader who has experienced his job’s perks at length, and whose influence is common knowledge. However, when he becomes the face of a corruption scandal Manuel finds himself ostensibly abandoned by his colleagues, the same people he called close friends mere scenes prior. Subsequently, the film focuses on his goals of surviving the criminal investigation unscathed and seeking revenge; de la Torre often remains literally front and centre of frame, dominating our view much like Manuel has put his own agenda ahead of other people throughout his career. While I was unfamiliar with de la Torre before THE REALM, his work here elevating the tension Sorogoyen builds is extraordinary. Manuel is depicted at his most cunning, threatening and desperate, an intelligent man who has had the consequences of his actions obscured by the glimmer of their spoils. The adage that pride comes before a fall may be well known at this point, but I can’t remember the last time it was so captivating.
Nevertheless, the film occasionally features questionable decisions which hindered my immersion. Although I previously highlighted the meticulous work of its editor, this success is despite some truly off-putting shaky cam cinematography, especially during otherwise static dialogue-heavy sequences.
There are simply much more elegant ways to shoot these moments; in fact, the opening of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight showed fluid camera movement can raise tension in such a way that would have been perfect here. Meanwhile, despite appreciating the streamlined approach Sorogoyen and Peña take with THE REALM’s script, I’ll admit to some confusion regarding characters’ movements between scenes, with one pivotal instance from the third act feeling particularly contrived and lazy. Similarly, the film’s final minutes are a frustrating blend of jaw-dropping, brilliant dialogue and overly explicit rehashes of the main themes. Thankfully, these flaws are minor blemishes in light of how well THE REALM realises its complex portrait of politics. Coupled with its slick and tense approach to the subject matter, I’d thoroughly recommend it to drama and thriller loves alike.
Kilmer plays Walter, an odd and reclusive superintendent who lurks the dark corridors amidst a series of unexplained deaths and disappearances. Patrick John Flueger (The Chicago television franchise) co-stars as Phil, a bereaved father and former cop who takes a job as a fellow super and lives with his two daughters in a dingy basement storeroom. As the strange occurrences draw closer and Walter becomes increasingly sinister, Phil resorts to desperate measures to entrap his suspicious co-worker.
To reveal more would be to give away the film's secrets, of which there are several. And while the final act may come as no surprise to attentive horror fans, it does play out rather nicely regardless. The first striking quality of THE SUPER is its distinct production design of atmospheric lighting and an arresting colour palate. Given that most of the film unfolds throughout the dreary basement setting, director Stephan Rick has made good use of his set by giving it the sort of tone that genre fans might expect from A Nightmare on Elm Street and the like. Suffice to say it is an attractive looking film, which is no doubt owed to the fact that the film was produced by Dick Wolf, the renowned creator of television franchises like The Chicago series and Law & Order.
The obvious drawcard for most will be seeing Val Kilmer back on the screen following his past several years of health issues. Having all but lost his voice from his battle with throat cancer, he dives head-first into this new film and harnesses his disability with maximum effect. Accepting the role of Walter was a smart decision on his part given the minimal amount of dialogue, which gives the few lines that he does have an added level of gravel, mystique and menace. It's wonderful to see him back in front of the camera and what a fantastic return. His turn isn't exactly a stretch by any means, and he clearly has more talent that he's able to demonstrate here, but his performance is wonderfully delivered and it is as equally unsettling as it is creepy.
Being a direct-to-video title, and having flown under the radar, THE SUPER earns itself a lot of lenity. Horror movies set inside apartment complexes are a dime a dozen, and there isn't much going on here that hasn't been done before. In fact it instantly conjures memories of Tobe Hooper's The Toolbox Murders, or another recent DTV film called The Sublet. And with that whole Elm Street vibe flowing through its production design, there is no doubt that Stephan Rick has relied heavily on many influences, which is perfectly fine, and in doing so he has delivered an unassuming horror movie that is better than it ought to be and offers more in texture than it does suspense.
The screenwriter is John McLaughlin, whose most notable works are Black Swan, Parker and Hitchcock, and with his aptitude comes an added level of credibility. It is well written, well directed and well acted. There's a lot of fun to be had and with Kilmer's ominous performance paired with a few cheeky red herrings, THE SUPER brings home the goods for those willing to overlook its cliches and formulaic tactics.
The Super is released on DVD through Eagle Entertainment on August 18
That's not to say what JOHN WICK 3 doesn't kick ass... because it bloody well does. And wow, what an absolutely bonkers film it is. Director Chad Stahelski returns for his third outing and doubles down to up the ante ten-fold. The first film was an instant cult classic and might have benefited from being a stand-alone (dare I say) masterpiece... yet having said that, the second film raised the bar and delivered an absurdly entertaining demonstration of excessiveness. It was a frenetic, relentless and gratuitous opera of violence that dazzled the screen with some of the best choreography of modern cinema. And now the highly anticipated third chapter has arrived, taking place one-hour after the previous events, with the dial turned up to eleven.
Keanu Reeves reprises his lead role as though no time has passed at all, and baring the wounds of the second film he's running against the clock to seek medical attention before all hell comes crashing down on him. He is, of course, the legendary hitman whose cinematic journey began when mobsters killed his pet dog. Throughout the course of the three films we discover that he occupies a universe where the world is governed by high-level crime syndicates and their members walk amongst the civilian population in abundance. Wick's status is downgraded to excommunicado when he conducts “business” (ie kills) within the walls of The Continental; a place of sanctuary. And with that, Wick becomes public-enemy number one with a 14-million dollar bounty on his head, and is pursued by a never ending barrage of assassins hellbent on claiming the prize.
John Wick is a simple franchise and its integrity derives from its stylings. From its wet neon noir cityscapes to its elaborate and masterfully orchestrated action sequences, it is an ultra-violent escapade that leaves little room for story... and that's perfectly fine. Much like the seminal Mad Max Fury Road, here is a franchise that challenges standards and shifts the boundaries of action. Of course it must be said that the perimeters had already been crossed by director Gareth Evans' films The Raid and The Raid 2, which no doubt influenced the direction of John Wick... and in fact both franchises ought to occupy the same universe...
The violence smacks the audience from the moment the film begins and it reaches mass casualties before the running time hits double digits. Humans are turned into pin cushions as hundreds of knives are flung across the screen. Skulls are crushed and bones are shattered as Wick dispatches waves of assassins like a proverbial blowtorch to a barrel of monkeys. And it is glorious. No sooner has Wick dusted the floor with a dozen killers, he's then trotting through the city on horseback before whooping ass in Morocco (yep). There's no mistaking the lunacy of this series, and with each instalment comes an added level of absurdity, and what began as a narrowly focused action movie has suddenly blown up into a mythology that teeters on being supernatural.
Keanu Reeves' longevity and ability to maintain this status within Hollywood is a story unto itself, and with decades of titles like Point Break, The Matrix and Speed to his name (just to skim the surface), he deserves full ownership of the industry's most versatile and unassuming action star. John Wick might well become his most beloved character of all, and rightfully so. He returns to the series with the same level of intensity as when he began five years ago, and he shows no signs of slowing down. His supporting cast includes return players Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick - who all appear to be having the time of their lives – with an assortment of newcomers including Halle Berry, Angelica Huston, Marc Dacascos and Asia Kate Dillon.
The new additions do little to improve upon the legacy. Huston's contribution amounts to an extended cameo, and she players her Russian member of the high-table with little subtlety. She is neither good nor bad and her part amounts to little more than that “ah look, Angelica Huston” factor. As for Halle Berry... she deserves a new paragraph.
Why the Hell is Halle Berry in John Wick?? Her character is pointless and her place in the story is irrelevant. And that's not to say she's terrible in the film either, she's okay. However, her 45-minute subplot fits the series like a moped fits a biker. Set in the deserts of Morocco, she plays a mysterious figure from John Wick's past who owes him a favour. She reluctantly helps him track down the highest ranking member of the organisation and unleashes a can of whoop-ass on the encroaching Middle Eastern assassins as they move in on Wick. This Morocco diversion serves as an unfortunate speed hump to the story and is executed with stark contrast to the American side of things. Presenting Wick as a fish out of water might read well on paper, but having it unfold on screen might be likened to watching a backlot stunt-show at Universal Studios. I found no joy in Halle Berry's inclusion to the franchise and wish to Hell her entire distraction had been left on the cutting room floor.
Contrary to to all of that is the welcome addition of Mark Dacascos who arrives to the series as the tenacious and deadly “Sushi assassin” who stops at nothing to take the head of John Wick, all the while being a massive fan boy. Dacascos is fantastic as he balances the comedic nuances with menace with absolute ease. Despite actively kicking ass on screen for over 20-years he looks fitter and faster than ever before and is, perhaps, even in his prime.
JOHN WICK 3 is arguably the weakest chapter of the series, and yet it could have been the best. The action is beautifully choreographed and flawlessly executed, and with the exception of the Moroccan crux, it delivers a fluent and graceful exercise in ultra-violence. And in the highly unlikely event that a directors cut arrives 45-minutes shorter, it might well be one of the greatest American action movies of the last decade.
We’ve got a fair idea about what it might be, given we’ve met a skinned and bloody creature in the film’s prologue, when it terrorises and dispatches the Carver family in another isolated cabin not too far away.
Meanwhile, a triumvirate of old blokes with long white hair led by the fabulously named Old Thin Ruth (played by the improbably named Barrington De La Roche) are on the hunt for both the missing Billy and the perpetrator of these human skinnings. The scene is set for a gruesome outcome.
This is my first encounter with the films of the prolific Charlie Steeds. WINTERSKIN is his fifth movie since 2016. He’s been Producer and Director of all five and for all but one of them (The Barge People) has chalked up a screenwriting credit as well. There’s a darkly comic seam that runs through this film. It starts with the heightened sense of characterisation, especially with regard to Agnes (with her over-the-top Southern accent) and Old Thin Ruth’s little posse and continues through the exaggerated gouts of blood that erupt from the victims of gunshots and other less conventional forms of bodily mayhem. Agnes is an entertaining antagonist in the vein of Annie Wilkes (Misery, 1990) but never quite rises to the same thrilling level that Kathy Bates found in that Stephen King adaptation (although she wields a cigar cutter just as well as Annie wielded her axe).
The problem with this film, though, is that, for me, it doesn’t have the narrative engine to sustain itself through its feature length. I feel like there’s a pretty terrific short film hiding out in its 84 minute running time, but beyond that I found the handful of scary or gory or horrifying moments were too often too far apart, separated by long passages of repetitive monologues from Agnes and multiple efforts by Billy to escape her clutches. The story spends a lot of time treading water while it waits for the next development and, as is too often the case, some of the suspense of ‘what is out there’ is stolen by the prologue. Consequently, we know more than Billy does about what lies ahead and that cheats us out of sharing his anxiety and suspense as the mystery and horror builds around him.
So much of this story takes place inside Agnes’ cabin and while the feeling of cabin fever is quite successfully created in many scenes, there’s another story happening outside the cabin that, for much of the movie, is neglected in a way that leaves us a bit confused as to who Old Thin Ruth and his cronies really are. It leaves us less invested in these characters when their outside world finally collides with the world inside the cabin. The upshot of all this, is that the violent and gory climax (which is, of course, to be expected) feels removed from any emotional connection with the characters so that the finale relies on the expenditure of a goodly amount of the red stuff which, for me, is not enough to engage us all the way through to the credits.
As the Bundy Tapes was streaming on Netflix, most viewers were also aware of an upcoming feature-length film about Ted Bundy's life starring former Disney alumni Zac Efron. Many assumed that the documentary series was a brash attempt to capitalise on the impending Bundy craze that the film would generate, however – low and behold – Joe Berlinger turned out to be the director of both. This meant for relief and confidence that the feature film would bare substance, after all, if the people making it were the same people who fleshed out his murderous timeline so intricately, then they know the story back-to-front.
It must be said that EXTREMELY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE is a showcase for Zac Efron's insane talent. He's a personal favourite of mine and despite making films like The Paperboy, Parkland and We Are Your Friends (amongst so many more) it's frustrating to see people ridicule him as that “High School Musical Kid”. Shit, are these people serious? They must have forgotten that Kirk Russell, Even Peters, Ryan Gosling and a slew of other respected actors come from the same factory. Perhaps now, with this phenomenal performance in his pocket, those tiresome heckles can be put to rest.
With the 10-part documentary series preceding the film, we venture into the feature with a comprehensive knowledge of Ted Bundy and his crimes. We know what he did and how he did it. We know his personality and his mannerisms. We know his manipulation and his lies. And most perversely, we know his charisma and his charm. I can only assume that because the viewer is so well schooled on the subject that Berlinger and Co chose to ignore just about all of it. There is no violence in the film, nor are there any substantial crimes. In fact the very stuff that such a confronting title as EXTREMELEY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE promises, is nowhere to be seen. You are probably aware that the title is actually a quote from the judge upon sentencing Bundy to death, and yet surely the filmmakers knew that those very words come with expectations.
Suffice to say the film is essentially the Cliffsnotes version of events. It all but ignores his actual crimes entirely. It depicts Bundy's relationships with two women and chronicles a few of his encounters with authorities. We see him drinking at bars, reading books and enjoying conjugal visits in prison. Of course throughout the course of his trial - which is all too briefly depicted - we hear a few grisly details of his crimes, yet never actually taken to those depths of depravity that the we would expect from such a bold title. What a disappointed it is for them to have squandered the opportunity to fully depict his story, and to have wasted such a brilliant lead performance.
Lily Collins offers a strong supporting role as Liz, Bundy's former girlfriend. She gives an understated performance that attempts to highlight Bundy's expert manipulation. Haley Joel Osment plays Liz's new boyfriend in a peculiar and seemingly unnecessary adage to the story at hand. He is quite good nevertheless. Other players include Grace Victoria Cox, Jim Parsons and John Malkovich, who – again – are all adequate.
And by all other accounts the film is very well made. The overall tone and recreation of the 1970's era is perfectly handled, and the use of actual archival footage to depict the media coverage is on-point. The colour grade, paired with the costume design and makeup, feels authentic... only to add to the bitter disappointment that the most important element – the story – was so thoughtlessly handled. Without the confrontation of Bundy's crimes, or any emotional charge to fuel the drama, the film lands with zero impact. Berlinger (whose only other feature film was Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) is clearly a master documentarian and not a Hollywood type, and while he has a tenacious knack for digging deep into subjects for academy purposes, he hasn't the skill to bridge the fictional divide.
Do yourself the favour and watch Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. It will astound you. But if you insist on watching EXTREMELY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE then do so purely for Zac Efron. This is his film.... and what a shame he wasn't given a better script, a better structure and a better director.
The same is true for the characters in Jonah Hill’s debut as a feature film writer and director, mid90s. This kind of belonging is something that thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is desperately needing. His brother Ian (Lucas Hedges playing yet another troubled adolescent) is remote, abusive and quite likely self-loathing. When he commits acts of violence on his little brother (which is very often) he generally wears a creepy Bill Clinton mask. It’s as though he doesn’t want to be the person who behaves the way he does. The head of this damaged family, young single-mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) seems ill equipped to properly parent her two boys. She seems more interested in pursuing her own life and admits, at Ian’s eighteenth birthday dinner, that he is now as old as she was when he was born.
So when Stevie encounters a group of skateboarders and sees the way they are with each other, he is instantly attracted to them and, although he’s much younger than they are, he is slowly drawn into a friendship with them that revolves around their obsession with skateboarding. The group’s leader and wannabe skateboard pro is Ray (Na-kel Smith) who seems to have a deeper perspective on life than the others and a willingness to share that with the newest member of the group, Sunburn (as Stevie becomes known). Ray’s best friend is Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) a freewheeling loose canon who seems to skate across the surface of life as easily as he rides his board. The quite one of the group is Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) who spends his whole time videoing their antics and endlessly inane conversations (who’d win a fight between… if you had to, would you rather do this disgusting thing or that disgusting thing?... that sort of thing) and the youngest is Ruben (Gio Galicia) who is not much older than Stevie and slowly comes to resent him as Stevie moves up in the pecking order.
On the surface, this might appear to be a story about a bunch of L.A. adolescents in the mid-1990s who spend most of their time trying to outdo each other with their skateboard stunts in the hope of getting picked up for the pro tour. But there’s a lot more going on here. This is a film about the importance of friendship and role models even if, in the absence of any examples set by parent or sibling, that modelling comes from a bunch of peers who at least, for the most part, care for each other and have each other’s best interests at heart. These guys may not be perfect young citizens, but for all their bad behaviour and trash talking, they’re essentially good kids and Stevie feels to be in relatively good company when he’s with them, especially when he’s with Ray.
Jonah Hill has already made the leap from dumb comedies to powerful dramatic roles in films like Moneyball (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and one of last year’s most underrated films, Don’t Worry He Won’t get Far on Foot. Now he’s made the leap from one side of the camera to the other and the result is exciting, not just in what he’s produced with this film, but for the potential he shows for the projects to come. mid90s plays out in less of a narrative arc and more a collection of scenes that slowly accumulate to become more than the sum of their parts. His screenplay feels like it might be more of a story-map that provides space for this talented young cast to put their own stamp on both the dialogue and the action. And when the climactic moment comes, it arrives with a jolt but, (without giving anything away) instead of bringing things to the kind of end that might be more predictable for this kind of movie, it presents us with something quite different; something that might even contain hope for the way this tight group of friends are affected by each other. I can’t wait to see what Jonah Hill does next.
Brothers Christian (Lars Eidinger) and Georg (Bjarne Mädel) were inseparable during their youth in a sleepy town in Germany’s Black Forest region, yet slowly drifted apart as their dreams and career prospects formed: Christian has travelled the world and is now a successful executive, Georg stayed at home to look after their aging parents. Having been reunited after 30 years by a death in the family, the duo spontaneously agree to take a road trip they first planned as teenagers using the same crappy mopeds they bought all those years ago.
One of 25 KM/H’s greatest successes is how it uses a modest premise to play on the obvious archetypes each character could fall into - for instance - Georg being ‘the responsible and uptight one’, or Christian being effortlessly suave. By contrast, the film quickly settles on the much more realistic notion that siblings, especially those brought up side by side, probably aren’t that different. Both men can be raucous or considerate even when the other isn’t around; their estrangement certainly led to them having different priorities, but I could imagine each behaving the same way if their roles had been reversed. In fact, the film emphasises this through a plethora of moments where the brothers work as a team, from some shockingly good tap dancing, to literally eating everything on the menu at a Greek restaurant as per their younger selves’ rules for the trip (likely to be the most absurdly funny film scene I watch this year).
25 KM/H would be nowhere near is entertaining as it without such brilliant performances from Eidinger and Mädel, who not only show an inherent grasp of their respective characters, but chemistry which should be the envy of on-screen duos everywhere. This is epitomised early in the film as the brothers grieve in their childhood home after the opening funeral sequence: Mädel nails Georg’s bottled-up anger and disappointment at Christian for being late to the service, yet the latter’s sheer delight and nostalgia upon being surrounded by old memories breaks down the walls between them, naturally leading to a hilarious montage of drunken table tennis.
My only slight criticism of the film overall is its occasional over reliance on montages, though this is surely the result of Goller having an abundance of footage to choose from, an understandable dilemma when your leads make such a great team. However, this does thankfully allow 25 KM/H to spend its second half developing an emotional side, through Georg and Christian’s resurfacing bond as well as some surprising revelations about their respective pasts. Once again, the script succeeds by presenting a relatable point of view, this time that reinserting yourself into someone’s life sounds nice but is much harder to achieve in practice. While the poignancy of this idea never eclipses the film’s comedic moments (nor should it), its steady build-up and cheerful conclusion make it an easy fit and welcome addition to the long list of things simply done right here.
25 KM/H is the rare film that gets to have its cake and eat it too, succeeding both in its broader comedy and touching reflections on family. The road trip concept also provides a stunning showcase for the German countryside, in fact, aside from Eidinger and Mädel the MVP is probably cinematographer Frank Griebe. Overall, this seemed like a reliable crowd-pleaser going in yet still managed to impress and surprise me with just how good it is.
Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a left-winged journalist who writes aggressive political pieces for a popular alternative publication. When his newspaper is sold to a multinational media conglomerate, he quits and spends his first night of unemployment with his best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – aka the son of Ice Cube). Lance is a successful businessman and takes Fred to a swanky party with the promise of meeting ‘90s pop group Boys II Men. The Government’s Secretary of State, Charlotte Field (Theron), is also at the function and recognises Fred, who was once the kid she babysat as a teenager. They instantly bond and Charlotte hires Fred to be her speechwriter for her upcoming presidential campaign, much to the chagrin of her primary two staff members.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
So, the big question is… was it worth the wait? Well, the answer is probably yes… and no.
Gilliam’s vision for Quixote is a prismatic film-within-a-film-(within a kind of filmic dreamlike reality). If that seems like it would be hard to follow, it’s not really. Adam Driver is Toby, a hack commercial filmmaker working in Spain on a big-budget version of Miguel de Cervantes epic novel, Don Quixote… and things aren’t going well. His belligerent, racist producer, referred to only as The Boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is on his back with demands from the Russian backers and The Boss’s girlfriend Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko) seems to have eyes for him. Then, one night at dinner, a Gypsy (Óscar Jaenada) approaches Toby with a bootleg DVD. It turns out to be Toby’s own student film, made in a nearby village when he was still young and idealistic. Exasperated by where his career has gone, Toby jumps on a motorcycle and sets out for the village to try and rediscover what he believed about art back then. But what he finds is a strange kind of tourist trap memorialising his student film and, most surprisingly, he discovers that the cobbler he cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has come to believe that he truly is the fictional character. What’s more, this version of Quixote decides that Toby is his Sancho Panza and drags him off on a quest that shifts deliriously between the student film, the world of Cervantes novel and the real world.
This hyper-stew of mixed up storytelling is what Gilliam excels at and, for much of the movie, he manages to navigate the circuitous route from one world to the other. And, as you might expect, the visuals and production design along the way are wonderful especially in the long, climactic scenes of the film (Gillam’s film, not Toby’s). Kudos to Production Designer Benjamín Fernández and Art Directors Alejandro Fernández and Gabriel Liste.
But, sadly, the story (co-written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) is often not as compelling as the mise-en-scene and we sometimes end up twiddling our thumbs through the becalmed bits of narrative, waiting for the creative winds to fill the sails again so that the tale may move on. What saves it (mostly) are the outstanding performances, especially from Pryce. It’s almost thirty-five years since Gilliam and Pryce first caught our eye in Gilliam’s exceptional Brazil. Whilst this movie might not achieve the glorious madness of that film, it certainly aspires to it and if it fails, it’s a noble failure. Pryce, on the other hand, excels in the role of Quixote (a far superior effort than his pedestrian role in last year’s The Wife) and Driver’s performance, like Sancho Panza, is all the better for what the Knight of the Woeful Countenance gives him to work with.
I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary baggage that this film carries has an impact on our expectations of it and that that might not be entirely fair. As the unlikely culmination of a thirty year folly, it might not be what we hoped for, but as a film in its own right, it’s bold and ambitious and a feast for the eyes, populated with characters worthy of Fellini, told through marvellous performances by a talented cast and as ambitious in the scale of its storytelling as anything Gilliam has done before. That it falters along the way is disappointing, but it doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and entertaining couple of hours. And as far as Gilliam’s career as a filmmaker goes? There’s still a promise here, especially with this particular monkey off his back, that he might yet pull off one last masterpiece.
The line between fact and fiction is mainly blurred with the introduction of McGovern’s title character, Norma, a small-town wife and mother who offers to accompany the teenage Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) to a dance school in New York. While it’s doubtful much of this actually happened, intertwining Norma’s story with Brooks’ is clever in that it provides plenty of the cross-generational clashes of opinion you’d expect from a young woman travelling with a stranger older than her parents. Speaking of Louise’s parents, it seems bizarre that they would allow Norma to chaperone their daughter without providing a clear reason for wanting to do so, but the film needs to delay explaining this to heighten the intrigue (more on that later).
Once the pair arrive, a serendipitous turn of events leads to Norma reuniting with a figure from her past, played sensationally by Blythe Danner. Throughout Danner’s short time on screen Fellowes’ script abandons the forced wit and flourishes previously stopping me from immersing myself. By contrast, this single conversation starts out believably awkward and ends up devastating without losing its subtlety, an honest moment that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Many other films where emotional secrets are uncovered have their plots consumed by the fallout (looking at you, Second Act), yet here the revelation is impressively restrained, serving instead as a motivation for Norma’s subsequent actions. In the process of setting up this reunion, Norma also meets Joseph (Géza Röhrig), who inspires some predictable epiphanies about how she needs to make more room for her own happiness. Leaving aside the cliched message, my bigger objection to this arc is Joseph not having a reason to help Norma as much as he does from moment they meet beyond, even if we accept he’s purely a nice guy. Some might call it emblematic of a simpler time, but it feels more like the script was written in reverse chronological order, with plot threads forced to fit a predetermined conclusion.
Meanwhile, Louise and Norma have their own painful conversation later in the film, this time about the former’s upbringing and ostensible naivete. I was similarly floored here from Richardson’s commanding performance alone, and furthermore impressed that the moment again didn’t end up taking over the story while fundamentally reframing the character. Apart from this scene however, Richardson is largely underutilised and becomes yet another catalyst for Norma’s development. Nevertheless, the scenes set during Louise’s dance classes are admittedly beautifully choreographed, though I’m not pleased Miranda Otto was cast as the school’s cofounder only to be given nothing to do, despite playing a key figure who shaped the real-life Brooks’ career path. The historical elements are ultimately an afterthought in THE CHAPERONE, but at least they’re pretty. In fact, much like Downton Abbey the craftwork is consistently gorgeous throughout, from set design to the plethora of Roaring Twenties costumes.
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, then THE CHAPERONE’s flaws will be easily overlooked. As someone who never felt the show was for me, it’s hard to ignore events being clearly being shown out of order, or information withheld because the plot isn’t very interesting, or how none of the dialogue outside of the scenes I singled out sounds like a real person and not a film character. Regardless, Engler and Fellowes do drop the pretence at times and deliver genuinely affecting drama; while this ultimately won’t be remembered as the best effort of anyone involved, it’s better than I expected.
So, it was with some apprehension that I sat down with my popcorn to see Destroyer. It didn’t take long - not much more than the opening credits - to allay my concerns. Kidman is, indeed, astonishing in this film. But the film itself can take a lot of credit for how well she comes across as the wreckage of Erin Bell, an La Cop who’s lost to booze and guilt and self- recrimination over events from her past that, very soon, we will come to understand.
Director, Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Girlfight) working from a screenplay by regular collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, delivers this complex story with a sure hand, moving easily and effectively between the present day and the events of seventeen years ago when then, State cop, Bell, is teamed up to work undercover with an FBI agent, Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrating a gang of bank robbers led by the cold-hearted sociopath, Silas (Toby Kebbell). The present-day story kicks off with the horribly hungover and unwashed Bell staggering into a murder scene where a bank-dyed hundred-dollar bill on the dead body is a clue that links back to Silas. (Kidman’s performance is so genuine and raw, you can almost smell the stink coming off the character when she enters the scene). What follows is an old-school style cop story as Bell tries to track down Silas and face the demons she left behind all those years ago. The structure of the unfolding narrative sees her go from one former gang member to the other, following the breadcrumbs of clues that she believes will eventually lead her to her nemesis.
The cast is uniformly powerful and gripping. Kebbell is frightening in his narcissistic dominance of all around him. The present day scene between Bell and Toby (James Jordan) is heart-wrenching and the past and present scenes with Silas’ girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany who, herself, gave us a tour de force of multiple roles in the excellent Canadian ScfiFi thriller Orphan Black) have as much pathos as they do tension. In each case, the actors navigate the shift in character between their younger selves in 2001 and their present day selves in 2018 in a way that feels as authentic as it does devastating for the way their lives have been poisoned and ruined (one might even say destroyed) by Silas.
The real surprise here, though, is the screenplay, written by the duo that gave us The Tuxedo (2002), Clash of the Titans (2010) and Ride Along 1 & 2 (2014-16). It’s hard to reconcile that the writers of those slight movies crafted this complex and compelling story that unfolds in a binary timeframe underpinned by a chain of great scenes, one after the other, where characters are quickly and sharply drawn whilst exposition is deftly insinuated into the narrative. It also has a great little twist that makes the structure of the clever storytelling even cleverer still.
What elevates the story, though, from formulaic procedural to intensely human drama is the excruciatingly dysfunctional relationship between Bell and her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) who lives with her guardian Ethan (Scoot McNairy). The pain of witnessing her daughter on the verge of destroying her life in similar style to the destruction Bell has brought upon herself is tenderly and sensitively handled and allows Kidman to really demonstrate her acting chops beyond the effect of excellent make-up and a noticeable lack of Botox. I do wonder, though, why such a fuss is being made about Kidman’s acting ability in this role when it comes hot on the heels of her outstanding work in Big Little Lies (HBO 2017). Still, if her recent statement that she intends to give a priority to making work with female creatives gives us more what we see in DESTROYER and Big Little Lies, then the best of her career is yet to come.
There’s some scary stuff going on in there and many of the stories would be well known as urban myths even by those who haven’t read them. I certainly recognised a lot of them as stories we told each other as kids, years before Schwartz pulled them together in one place and that’s kind of his point. With the scary stories series, he’s as much anthropologist as he is author offering us a range of terrifying tales complete with references to their sources, backgrounds to other versions of them and, on occasions, instructions to the reader as to how best to tell the story to others for maximum scary effect. The parental backlash that led to them becoming banned by the American Library Association throughout the nineties failed to take this academic aspect into account; that all three volumes allowed young readers not only be scared, but to understand how important a part of world history and culture the sharing of scary stories is. Admittedly, the scare-factor of the stories is dialled up to eleven by the use of some masterfully scary artwork and illustrations by reclusive artist, Stephen Gammell and, for many fans, it’s these illustrations as much as the stories themselves that make the works so indelible in their memories.
All of this detail and more is chronicled in first-time documentary filmmaker Cody Meirick’s SCARY STORIES - a scattergun examination of the books, their author, his relationship with his son, the campaign by parents to keep the books away from younger readers, the resistance to the bans by school librarians, the influence of the books on other writers in the horror-for-young-readers genre, the outcry when new editions of the books used a different artist from the original illustrator and the lasting impact of the stories and illustrations on those readers who are now adults and, in some cases, seeing their own kids reading them. It’s a big ask to cover all this territory in 84 minutes and it’s where the film is both successful and unsuccessful in equal parts.
The biggest issue for me is that it seems like Meirick is so attached to all the tangents that radiate from the source material that he’s unable to provide us with a focused point of view for what he has to say and this is exacerbated by an editing style that continually cuts back and forth between these different tangents so that we lose track of how each aspect of the material unfolds. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good material here but it’s so interrupted that it never gets the chance to fully develop its narrative arcs.
The film is at its strongest in those sequences where Schwartz’s son, Peter, is reflecting on his relationship with his dad. This is moving and painful stuff that, whilst not being about the books themselves, reveals much about a father-son relationship gone wrong and the regret that lingers when the things that should be said are not said before it’s too late. But this isn’t really what the film purports to be about. It’s almost like it could have been the subject of its own documentary. When the subject matter does come back to the books themselves and the controversy surrounding them, Meirick uses the stylistic device of bringing the Gammell illustrations to life through excellent animations (hats off to animator Shane Hunt) but these comprise only a small part of the overall film, and the remainder feels poorer for their absence. And for every fascinating and insightful interview with the likes of the mother who led the campaign against the books, or the librarian that stood up to the School Board that wanted to ban them, or the perspectives of fellow authors like R.L. Stine, there are another one or two that say very little or gush with fanboy adoration and probably should have been left on the cutting room floor.
There’s a really terrific forty-minute doco hiding inside this film, but as a whole it’s let down by too much ‘filler’ and repetition and poorly executed ‘dramatisations’ of the stories being read to not-quite-convincingly scared kids. It’s timely, though, with André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro’s movie adaptation of the first book due out later this year, so maybe a quick squiz with the thumb assiduously hovering over the fast-forward button would not go astray.
The road from short film to feature has become a well-worn path. One of the best Australian films of last year, Cargo started life as a Tropfest short in 2013, the same year that Damian Chazelle screened his short film version of Whiplash before extending it into the Oscar winning feature in 2014. In both those cases, the feature length versions seemed to effortlessly and successfully take on the additional narrative required to plump up the running time. In the case of THUNDER ROAD it’s a bit more of a struggle. Almost the entire twelve minutes of the short film is reshot and transplanted into the opening of the feature (with a clever little addition to the circumstances that increases the agony of Cummings character, police officer Jim Arnaud – you’ll have to watch both if you want to know what I mean). From here, the relationship between Arnaud and his daughter, Crystal (an exceptional performance from Kendal Farr) and his estranged wife Ros (Jocelyn DeBoer) subtly hinted at in the end of the short, is teased out into a domestic divorce drama that highlights the tightly wound and mostly suppressed character of Jim Arnaud that Cummings seems to delight in playing. He admits, himself, that he’s angry although when pressed on the state of his grief and frustration by his long-suffering partner, Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson) he maintains that ‘he’s fine’. Quite clearly, he’s not.
THUNDER ROAD is billed as a drama/comedy. For me, whilst there’s a rich seam of very dark wit running throughout the film, it falls flat as a comedy and, to be honest, that’s fine. Once you get your head around the idea that ‘comedy’ is a misnomer for this story, the intensely personal drama of Arnaud’s disintegrating life draws you in. He’s a man lost at the intersection of crisis and denial and Cummings performance of the concealed pain and his desperation to be a good father to his daughter, a good son to his departed mother and a good cop to the community are played out painfully and beautifully. Yes, the story flags at times and many scenes follow the same dynamic of Arnaud’s mania and acting-out to extremes but, for the most part, Cummings is on top of these things as director and performer, if not as screenwriter.
What’s most interesting to me, in the light of numerous incendiary situations (in the States) between cops, perpetrators and innocent bystanders, are the scenes of Arnaud and his partner Nate dealing with the day to day of their job – the mentally unwell man ranting on the street, or the burglar in the convenience store. These are circumstances that we see escalate not because of the internal dynamic of the situation, but because of the external influence of Arnaud’s state of mind. Even a seemingly innocuous exchange between Arnaud and Crystal’s teacher threatens to boil over into something violent. This is an ordinary guy who’s ready to explode.
THUNDER ROAD may not have the comedy that its marketing campaign and one of its trailers would suggest, and it may show signs of having been expanded from its original twelve minute narrative, but these things aside, it’s a powerhouse of a performance that is frightening in what it portrays of men who know what the world wants of them emotionally, but don’t quite know how to deliver it.
The European take on this quintessentially American genre has become part of its history thanks to Italian directors like Sergio Leone, but Audiard’s French perspective brings a completely different tone and sensibility to the form; it is at once comical and wry whilst finding depth and pathos in the characters and their stories.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS, adapted by Audiard and long time collaborator Thomas Bidegain from the novel by Patrick DeWitt, tells the story of two hapless assassins, Eli Sisters (John C Reilly) and his younger, but bolder brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). They work for a nefarious baron of commerce known as The Commodore (a barely visible Rutger Hauer) bumping off the poor unfortunates who have crossed or betrayed him in some way. After a bungled mission at the start of the film, The Commodore appoints Charlie the Lead Man in the operation and sends them off to find and kill the improbably named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has stumbled upon a formula that could be worth a fortune. Helping them out on their mission is a well read and well spoken scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose job it is to tail the chemist until the brothers can catch up with him and execute (quite laterally) their task. In some ways, this is a bit of a road movie, as the characters make their way along the Oregon Trail heading form small town to bigger town and eventually to the goldfields of California. But really, the good guy-bad guy stuff is just an excuse for Audiard’s meditation on the nature of loyalty and betrayal and the destructive power of greed and envy and the higher question of what it means to be a man.
As they make their way along the trail, Eli and Charlie discuss their outlook on life, their understandings of their difficult childhood with a violent father and their hopes and aspirations for the future. Whilst Eli is the elder, his sensitivity and thoughtfulness makes him the more vulnerable to Charlie’s more ruthless approach to life. Eli wants to leave this life of killing behind for the finer things in life… like love and family (he carries a shawl with him; a gift from a ladyfriend, that he nuzzles up to like a security blanket, sniffing the scent embedded in its fibres for comfort when life on the trail gets too hard). When they eventually catch up with their quarry, their mismatched views get in the way of fulfilling their mission and the story takes an unexpected but welcome turn.
This is such a beautifully made film with picturesque cinematography by Benoît Debie and a quirky, moody soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. The cast is terrific, most notably Reilly (who’s had a few misses in the recent past) and Phoenix (who, after great performances last year in He Won’t Get Far On Foot and You Were Never Really Here seems to be on a roll). It’s no Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) although it shares some of the wit and astute observations of William Goldman’s screenplay. Neither is it a hard revisionist work the likes of Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992) although it does continue that tradition of cracking open the ‘cowboy myth’ to show us what’s inside of these tough, ruthless frontier characters. Whilst it doesn’t occupy the same echelon as those two classics, THE SISTERS BROTHERS does stand alone from many other Westerns in its ability to tell a sensitive and moving story about authentically drawn characters who could just as easily be found in other genres or, indeed, amongst ourselves.
When the deeds are done (although not in the ways we expected) the film draws to a more whimsical conclusion that unfolds through a highly stylised, self-consciously filmic sequence that pulls us out of the tone of the rest of the film into a place where we (along with the Sisters Brothers) can reflect on the nature of the story that we’ve just been told, and consider how its very human elements might shape the future for these two unique individuals.