ANDROID's setup is, well, rote by now. A tech giant creates a life-like artificial intelligence and we, the audience, spend the next 90-minutes gawking at the robot in a bizarre voyeuristic way as it learns human behaviour, emotion and analyses the machinations of everyday life that we take for granted.
The tech-mogul responsible for the AI is Castle (an oddly straight-laced performance by Rainn Wilson, who has barely any screen-time in order for the poster to drop a recognisable name) a shadowy, slightly suspicious money-provider who invites tech-journalist Joy (Lucy Griffins) to his clinical and emotionally void base of operations to meet robotics nerd David Kressen and his pal Adam (gettit?).
Adam, it turns out, is an AI, so realistic and nuanced that Joy cannot tell the difference between it and an socially awkward young adult. As the writer sticks around to research the article a romance begins to bloom between her and Kressen and this sends Adam on a downward, dangerous spiral.
Sound familiar? It should. It's almost EXACTLY the same plot as Alex Garland's incredible debut, EX-MACHINA from 2015. The catch is that ANDROID was actually filmed in 2012 and it's production was stalled due to budgetary constraints. ANDROID is almost a perfect composite of both EX-MACHINA and MORGAN yet pre-dates both of them considerably.
Plot issues aside, there is always something engaging about watching androids evolving, and watching them not take for granted the things that humans do, such as feeling cold water or the sun on their face. Here the fascination comes from watching a robot learn the toxic traits of jealously.
David Clayton Rogers portrayal of Adam is a curious one. It's a fine line to strike between innocent, wide-eyed wonder and dangerously unhinged obsession but Webber does just fine; soft when needed and razor-sharp in turn.
British thesp Lucy Griffins ditches True Blood to play the yank reporter. Her 7-day assignment time-frame leaves Joy with very little to do for most of the time (why did her boss think 7 days were the magic number and not the 48hrs it probably should have taken?) but she's intelligent and engaging enough that watching her observe someone else is just enough to keep us interested... just.
If there's a real weak element in the acting trifecta it's undoubtedly Marc Webber's Kressen. He's too nerdy and has such little depth that it's hard to see why someone like Lucy would ever be enamoured by him. But, alas, without him there would be no plot. Take the good with the bad, as the man says. In the end ANDROID is a handsome enough distraction, especially given its limited budget, with performances that pass the grade even if the plot is one we've seen a hundred times before. A tried and true formula, I guess.
ANDROID is released on 08/03/2017 through Eagle Entertainment.
LIVE BY NIGHT is Affleck's fourth feature length directorial effort following the impressive GONE BABY GONE, the brilliant THE TOWN and the eminent ARGO, and it reaffirms his virtuosity behind the camera. With such a solid line-up of titles it's no insult to suggest that his latest film is the lesser of the lot. It has a distinct period setting, which, when compared to his previously directed films may attribute it to being his most challenging.
Set in the 1920's the story has Affleck playing a small time cook (he labels himself an 'outlaw') who reluctantly accepts work for a Boston mobster in order to plot revenge against the death of his lover. He moves to Florida where he runs a network of popular speakeasy clubs for his boss and becomes a wealthy (and feared) booze lord at a time when prohibition was in full swing. Being so deeply imbedded in the south, his exploits see him facing off with competing mobsters, bigoted swindlers and the Ku Klux Klan.
Were it not such a celebrated genre with countless examples of excellence, LIVE BY NIGHT might have resonated a whole lot more. It is a stylish and handsome-looking film with a moderate edginess about it., however the problem is that the genre has been exhausted over the years and better examples have come before it. While watching it I recalled films like MILLERS CROSSING, ROAD TO PERDITION and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (not to mention the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and could not stop myself from drawing comparisons. Affleck has recreated the 1920's era very well and by following the novel's cue of having it set in a tropical Cuban environment he has given his film a refreshing twist that alleviates some of the bourdons. And so many of the movie's shortcomings are cleverly masked.
The most irritating element for me was the ongoing voice-over narration, which felt both unnecessary and cumbersome. Affleck's voice interjects at various points to help facilitate the narrative with explanations and reason to the character's movements and choices, which is redundant and adds little to the story. And my other major criticism is that the dynamic between the characters feels underdeveloped and insincere. Affleck's character develops relationships with various others throughout the film – of both the criminal and romantic kind – yet there is very little cohesion to any of them. This lack of an emotional anchor further places LIVE BY NIGHT at the fourth position behind his previous films.
With all of that said the film is far from bad, and presents an action-packed mobster movie that is as glamorous as it is violent. The action is well-crafted and uncompromising, while the production design, wardrobe and cinematography make it a visceral feast for the eyes. And where his previously directed films all share a similar tone and atmosphere, LIVE BY NIGHT steps out of bounds and reminds us that Affleck is an audacious and fearless filmmaker who sets the bar very high for himself. He may have missed the mark ever so slightly in this instance, but when your worst effort is better than most people's best then it's not worth tearing down.
Heath's first film UNDER A KALEIDOSCOPE was a small, intimate film about a friendship founded and blossoming under extreme and unusual circumstances; a chamber piece that hung on the performances of its principal cast of two. MONDO YUKUZA, on the other hand, is a stylish sprawling Melbourne-set gangland thriller that immediately has "cult" written all over it.
Substituting the minimalist confines of two bedrooms of KALEIDOSCOPE for a black-and-white, monochrome urban sprawl, MONDO has Kenji Shimada as Ichiri Kataki, a yakuza who travels from Japan to Melbourne with the sole intention of wreaking bloody vengeance on a band Melbourne criminal low-lifes following the murder of his sister, Yuko.
It's a monster leap for Heath, in both it's scope, story and his utilisation of the medium, especially given the pressure following up the success of KALEIDOSCOPE...
...KALEIDOSCOPE had two story arcs, keeping it simple, whereas with MONDO, Heath has a multitude of threads to weave into a complex narrative; bogan gangs, yakuza hitman, mad cults and hookers with hearts, but the sophomore local has woven them in to a tight chronicle, that while taking heavily from others, wears its influences squarely on its crisp, black suit-sleeves.
There's no doubt that Addison has thrown all the good stuff into MONDO. If Seijun Suzuki, Takashi Miike and Tarantino all met at a road-side diner, this is the film they would have gushed over, or perhaps even produced. It is a gritty, stylish, pop-culture- laden and - frankly - grotesquely entertaining popcorn film.
If there's a fault to be had its that the action sequences would benefit with a tighter edit. Just a modicum of trims to smooth it out. And if that's the only gripe with this wildly entertaining passion-project, then I'm okay with that.
Given Addison Heath has become a local movie-making factory, and that the leap from one film to the next has been so huge, I think it's fair to say I'm excited about what he's got for us next.
I ventured into the movie blindly, although I had been eying off the blu-ray cover for some time, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. The artwork (Australian) suggested a very Spielbergian style of adventure while the various laurels branding the case indicated favourable critical reception. And so with my 15-year old son parked on the couch beside me, we dimmed the lights, turned up the volume and immersed ourselves in an unknown adventure.
I admit that despite the movie's title being a reference – of sorts – to Blair Witch, I had no idea that it belonged to the found-footage genre (if you're a regular reader then you will know that I have a very low tolerance for said genre), and so I was apprehensive within moments of committing myself to it. Fortunately for me the footage itself was quite stylised and the 'shaky' factor was minimal. Yes, I wound up enjoying the heck out of the damn movie!
The premise is simple and writer/director Sid Bennett has torn his narrative directly out of The Lost World's pages. The movie follows a group of television explorers who travel to the Amazon to investigate sightings on a mythological creature from deep within the jungles. Their helicopter is struck by giant flying reptiles before crashing into the dense forrest. It isn't long before they find themselves prey to an undiscovered world of prehistoric creatures, which have been isolated to a remove canyon deep within the jungle. With the use of multiple cameras their entire nightmarish expedition is captured on tape, which the audience is – of course – privy to.
Having seen Bennett's name on the cover art for THE DINOSAUR PROJECT I suspected a certain type of movie. His name was familiar to me and after a quick investigation I realised that he had directed two previous creature-features; PREDATOR X and MERMAIDS (the later being a mockumentary). He also had his hand in the television program PREHISTORIC PARK which, depending on your perspective, put him in good stead to direct a Doyle-inspired adventure such as this.
As it turns out, THE DINOSAUR PROJECT is his most accomplished work to date. I was not expecting it to be a clever, compelling and effective adventure that offers bang-for-buck, and genuine thrills that seem far too intense for it's modest PG rating, but that's what I got. The found-footage component did frustrate me at times, as I genuinely think it would have been a far more absorbing movie had it been shot traditionally. But with that qualm aside, it was quite wonderful nonetheless. Bennett employs an excellent use of CGI to bring his dinosaurs to life and cheekily uses the shaky moments to conceal any of the questionable details. That is to say what we see of the creatures on camera is effective and where the seams threaten to be exposed, the action turns away.
The cast – unknown to me – are good, with Richard Dillane (who has so many substantial credits that I SHOULD know him) and Matt Kane (The Last of Robin Hood) leading the film with confidence. Their performances are genuine and never feel forced as they play a father/son team who reconnect after years of having a neglected relationship. Kane's emotional range is impressive as he switches from fearless to terrified and emotionally drained with ease. Dillane's performance has less depth, however he plays the reality TV star well. The rest of the cast are competent, adding necessary support minimum screen time.
It's time for the found-footage format to be laid to rest. It's all been done before and too many micro-budget filmmakers have proven that you can craft persuasive movies without the need to reply on a tired and cliched formula. Few films within the genre actually work (have you seen The Jungle?) and the style is too easily dismissed, and so THE DINOSAUR PROJECT dodged a bullet by being good. Had I known it was a found-footage movie from the outset then I probably wouldn't have bothered with it. I'm glad I did... ignorance is bliss, huh?
Of course there is also a stigma that comes with attempting such a feat, and most of those who have tempted the task have failed. For every success story like THE PROPOSITION or THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER we get a handful of turkeys like QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER and MAD DOG MORGAN. It seems that our landscape, while suited perfectly for the classic “Western” is an untamed beast, charitable only to the tenacious few.
When you utter the term “bushranger” to anyone they will immediately think of Ned Kelly. He is iconic, and his story has become lore amongst Aussies, and yet our history showcases countless other outlaws, none of whom come close to the legend and notoriety that we've placed up ol' Ned. One of those characters was Ben Hall, the son of European settlers who abandoned a life of farming to become the Commonwealth's most wanted man.
THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL chronicles the final year of Hall's life while on the run with fellow bandits John Gilbert and John Dunn, and without the constraint of Aussie sacrosanct it presents an adventure that owes its form to the classic American “western” design. The big arid wide-shots and the gun toting choreography recall the films of old, where cowboys robbed stage-coaches and sheriffs hunted gun-slingers. And despite the harsh environments that these characters occupied, there's a necessary romanticism to their stories that makes for compelling entertainment.
The film began as a crowd-funded short and when the money raised far exceeded the goal, the film was expanded to become a feature. Director Matthew Holmes took ever dollar of the money raised and put it to use, and with the reassurance of new funding from various places he was able to deliver a smart, handsome and compelling western that sits comfortably amongst contemporaries such as THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and THE SALVATION
The cast are mostly unknowns lead by Jack Martin, whose credits consists of short films. He steps into Hall's boots and assumes the character with ease, offering a stern yet empathetic performance, and presenting a man whose criminal life bares a conscience. Martin is perfectly suited to the role and carries the film consummately. His supporting cast include Jamie Coffa and William Lee, both of whom also make their feature film debut. While Coffa's performance is uneven at times he brings a much needed jovial presence to the film - which helps keep the story textured – and Lee's turn as the 'rookie' outlaw brings a moral compass to the venture that keeps it on course.
Add brilliant cinematography, bang-for-buck production value and a well-measured score and you get an engaging true-story that offers an alternative narrative to the under-explored 'bushranger' genre. It avoids cliché while taking advantage of the 'western' tropes, and successfully makes an Australian story universal. Sadly, it is also a film that needs all the support it can get, because no matter how great it may be, it is still an in dependent film fighting for its place amongst the studio produce. See it on the big screen where possible, buy it on DVD when available and use your power of social media to promote the hell out of THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL, the first in a proposed trilogy of bushranger films.
EXETER is his first original film, having not been based on established material, and the fact that it is about as contrived and routine as horror movies get makes it one hell of a laborious and mindless affair.
After an illegal party inside an abandoned lunatic asylum seven teens stick around after everyone leaves and consume copious amounts of drugs while dabbling in black magic. The asylum’s sinister history inspires them to connect with the dead, and when they attempt to levitate themselves they end up conjuring an evil spirit, which possesses them one-by-one. And so it is... a stupid rip-off of The Exorcist that isn't even subtle enough to conceal its plagiarism. These idiots even chant “The power of Christ compels you” as they splash water on the possessed (not to mention the spider walk, pea soup spew etc).
EXETER is a Blumhouse production and with Nispel at the wheel it was always going to be a handsome looking movie. The production design is brilliantly textured with its grungy decor and grimy atmosphere, and the camera dances amongst the action evenly. Style can often be given merit over substance when it's exciting and original, however in this instance, the style is entirely cliched with almost every scene owing platitude to other films. The characters are carbon copied from a thousand movies before it, and the dialogue bares no appeal whatsoever. You just don't give a shit about any of these characters and their desperation couldn't be any less concerning. Had Nispel killed them all within the first 5-minutes then he would have had a great 5-minute short on his hands, as opposed to the 90-minutes of bullshit he ended up producing.
When the company faces the likelihood of bankruptcy Howard's three partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) take the drastic measure of manipulating him into thinking he is no longer mentally capable of holding his position, thus facilitating an important sale. Upon hiring a private investigator and discovering that Howard writes ambiguous letters to 'Death', 'Time' and 'Love' they hire three struggling actors to act as apparitions. They are played by Helen Mirren (Death), Jacob Latimore (Time) and Keira Knightley (Love), and in an effort to confuse Howard they respond to his letters in kind, pleading with him to overcome his grief.
So clearly from the premise alone COLLATERAL BEAUTY is a silly film. It flirts with concepts that have been explored countless times in some of Hollywood's most beloved Christmas films, and despite it being a heavy-handed drama, it also presents a whimsical comedy. There's a hint of romance, as well as themes of redemption and acceptance, all of which are heavy handed and archetypal, and regardless of the knowledge that the audience is being manipulated, it feels nice being coaxed.
Will Smith gives a commendable turn as the grief-stricken Howard, with a performance that recalls Adam Sandler's role in REIGN OVER ME. Norton, Winslet and Pena are all good in playing down their support to avoid letting their own (superior) talents outshine the film's star. Mirren, Latimore and Knightley bring a lot of whimsy to the proceedings, with Mirren offering a particularly amusing performance as an aspiring mature-aged actress. It is, indeed, a fine cast.
COLLATERAL BEAUTY is full of flaws, and to invest energy exposing them would be to spoil the magic and frivolity of the film. I am comfortable identifying that the movie lacks subtlety and relies too heavily on sentimentality, and that some of it's character arcs remain unresolved... but to be honest, the overall feel of the film is well intentioned and the payoff, while contrived, leaves a pleasant aftertaste. It also evokes a worthy post-screening conversation, which may just sway negative reactions into positive ones.
Take the film with a grain of salt and suspend your disbelief while you watch it. It might just rub you the right way, just as it did myself and my friends. And what (I think) we might have is a new film to add to an ever-growing list of Christmas films to revisit.