Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two of their grade’s loudest achievers, seemingly destined for good colleges and bright futures since they started high school. Although the girls are best friends and cherish each other’s company, their dedication to their studies has come at the expense of active social lives. Upon learning that some classmates have been just as successful despite going out every weekend, Molly understandably begins to doubt the path she’s chosen.
If you’ve never found yourself in that exact situation, you can probably think of someone from the year you graduated who fits the profile (even just in general, FOMO is a painfully relatable feeling). BOOKSMART takes this idea in a more personal direction than you might expect, with the fear being recast as whether Molly and Amy are seen for who they really are, rather than, for instance, popular kids not thinking they’re cool. Subsequently, the pair embark on a mission to attend the classic ‘night before graduation house party’ that only exists in films, but once again, the journey they take to get there is anything but ordinary.
While Molly and Amy have occasional disagreements throughout the film, BOOKSMART shines by never taking their bond for granted. Instead of simply telling us the girls are inseparable, there are myriad small moments which offer further insight into their dynamic, like showering the other with exaggerated compliments when they reveal their outfits for the party (without even mentioning they’re wearing the same thing), or having secret code words for when they need support no questions asked. It’s an all-time great portrayal of lived-in friendship, with the script never needing to justify this behaviour; in fact, it’s used to cringeworthy, hilarious effect by having Amy’s parents assume the pair are a couple.
Yet despite Feldstein and Dever being brilliantly game for every scenario they’re thrown in together, separating them for a few pivotal scenes allows each to stand out on her own too. The characters have distinct arcs, though Amy’s struggle to overcome her anxiety is admittedly a little more interesting than Molly learning to not be so controlling. Perhaps most importantly for a comedy, both actors are also effortlessly funny, from their bizarre facial expressions brought on by a bad drug trip, to the film’s many, many one-liners.
Much like Superbad did for Jonah Hill (real life brother of Feldstein) and Michael Cera, BOOKSMART should make Feldstein and Dever into bona fide stars. Likewise, Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo are standouts among the supporting cast, arguably because their characters receive the most screen time out of Molly and Amy’s classmates. However, this shouldn’t suggest that the minor characters needed more attention. By contrast, almost every named student not only has a clear personality, but cleverly subverted my expectations of them; in reality, there’s no reason a jock wouldn’t also be a big Harry Potter fan. Building on the adage of not judging books by their covers, BOOKSMART’s characters are living reminders that people’s identities are constantly developing and shouldn’t be pigeonholed at a young age.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget this film is the work of a first-time director. We’re in something of a renaissance for actors moving behind the camera (Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig and Bradley Cooper being the most high-profile examples) and Wilde is the latest to make the jump with a clear vision. Having starred in plenty of comedies herself, it’s no surprise Wilde knows when to linger on a joke, such as Molly and Amy dancing in the street on the way to school, or pull back and let it speak for itself (once again, the script is packed with one-liners, but ending with a smash cut following a particularly exuberant outburst was a personal highlight for me).
Similarly, there are creative flourishes during the film’s subtler moments which I wouldn’t have anticipated from a debut. For instance, a panic attack Amy has at the party is depicted as a quietly terrifying out-of-body experience, with the set becoming blurred and labyrinthine around her. Although I won’t say any more to keep BOOKSMART’s most enjoyable surprises intact, the sheer number of set pieces Wilde readily adapts to, is impressive.
It’ll be a shame if we start to see less of Olivia Wilde as an actor, after all (very mild spoiler warning?), she doesn’t even make a cameo appearance here. Given how much BOOKSMART gets right, though, her future as a director seems as bright as it does inevitable. As I mentioned above, the lead performances should likewise be career-making for Feldstein and Dever, who embody so much of what makes the film a sheer delight to watch. I found myself smiling constantly throughout, and suspect I’ll be rewatching and recommending it for years to come.
Booksmart opens theatrically in Australia on July 11, 2019.
As they do, the teacher’s ten-year-old boy gives the evil eye to Pedro’s offsider, Rogelio (Karra Elejalde) who is so unsettled that he wants to see the boy meet the same fate as his father. Pedro refuses, and they drive away to a nearby field where the teacher and his eldest boy are executed. Unbeknownst to the assassins, the younger son has followed them and witnessed his father’s death. Unable to shake the piercing look of the boy’s stare, Rogelio returns to the field where he encounters Ermo who tells him that the boy single-handedly dug a grave and buried his father and brother. There’ planted in the fresh grave, Rogelio sees a fig sapling, and so his obsession with the boy and the fig tree begins.
So far, this comedy-drama probably sounds like it’s way more drama than comedy, but as the story unfolds the whimsy and the situation grows and the comic nature of the story emerges. Consumed by guilt, and urged on by the Cipriana, the dissatisfied wife of a local official, Rogelio becomes the custodian of the fig tree, keeping watch over it day and night to protect it from the lugubrious and avaricious Ermo as well as his fellow Falangists for whom it becomes a symbol of their dreadful deeds. When the civil war ends and his compatriots all take up positions in the local government, Rogelio and his fig tree become local legends and, with Cipriana’s help, his hermit-like existence takes on a religious status that draws pilgrims from all over.
In addition to directing the film, Murugarren has adapted the screenplay for this lovely fantasy from a novel by Basque writer Ramiro Pinilla. She handles the fine balance between the drama and the comedy with an expertise that makes the story compelling, often to the point of suspense as the stakes associated with the growing fig tree escalate. Elejalde is perfect as the assassin turned saviour and he finds a wonderful place where his existence seems to float between the devotion of the religious pilgrims and the determination of the former Falangists to eradicate both Rogelio and his tree.
The rest of the cast are equally strong, with Areces’ Ermo being a decidedly nasty little man whose greed continues to grow as the film goes on, until he thinks he gets what he wants in the final desperate and ironically comic image of the film. Losada is chilling as Pedro and his self-centred ambition grows just as much as Ermo’s greed, made all the more unsettling by his Hitleresque sweep of hair and black moustache. And as Cipriana, Pepa Aniorte sits nicely in the background as the true engine of the story, driving Rogelio on to the redemption he so fervently desires.
The look of the film is rich and lush with beautiful Art Direction from Julius Lázaro and elegant Cinematography by Josu Inchaustegui. This is an unassuming and surprising film that has much to say about the power of guilt and regret as well as forgiveness and the potential for redemption in all of us, even those who have committed terrible deeds. It’s ability to tell a story of death and corruption at the hands of political fanatics whilst poking fun at the flimsy nature of religious zealots is equally due to the astutely judged performance by Elejalde and the deft hand of writer/director Murugarren. Don’t be fooled by the trailer for this film which doesn’t quite capture the tone or the sensibility of the story. Instead, see it for yourself and, hopefully, be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Godzilla II hits the ground running from its opening scene and doesn’t relent throughout its entire 132-minute run time. Within moments we witness the birth of the legendary Mothra and are introduced to an army of eco-terrorists hellbent on restoring the Earth to its original owners: the Titans (ie Godzilla and a horde of ancient monsters). We also see the return of familiar faces looking to harness the power of the creatures and see all of the above swept up in a relentless rampage of wanton destruction.
READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
And then out of the blue he handed us 2018 Netflix film The Babysitter, a fantastic comedy horror for the teen crowd that showcased a keen eye for genre and an absolute return to form (you can find our review of that one HERE). It was a fabulous exercise in macabre horror and suggested that Mr. McG was back in the game. Which brings us to Rim of the World, a peculiar sci-fi action adventure that hits the right notes, and then hits the wrong notes, and then the right… then the wrong, and… D’oh!
READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
2019 | DIR: KEITH SUTLIFF | STARRING: KEN SUTCLIFF | REVIEW BY ALEX MAYNARD.
As I’ve already alluded to, it’s impossible to separate any discussion of THE REFUGE from Sutliff, who, seriously, has around a dozen distinct credits in front of and behind the camera for his work here. Assuming this is true, I’m baffled at the thought of a single person undertaking all these roles at once* (in fact, it would probably make a more interesting film), yet even more so at how mediocre he is at each of them. For instance, Sutliff gives himself almost no lines but lacks the screen presence to compensate for this; there are scenes where his blocking, body language and facial expression don’t change at all, distracting any viewer still struggling in vain to immerse themselves. Perhaps it’s a good thing Sutliff is spared from having to read his own amateurish dialogue, since any actor would surely find it excruciating to repeat themselves constantly, or address the character they’re talking to by name in every other line, both of which are regular occurrences in this script.
Meanwhile, the direction fails to establish the gritty tone THE REFUGE seems to strive for, or any tone at all. Rather, it’s assumed that the cinematography (ironically, one of the few duties not performed by Sutliff) will do the heavy lifting; yes, a film like Drive uses shadow, desaturation and different camera angles extensively, but simply employing them constantly doesn’t automatically mean you’ve made a neo-noir thriller. Coupled with the lifeless performances and writing, this leads to locations in THE REFUGE feeling empty and dull. This is arguably best seen in the opening sequence, which sees Sutliff’s protagonist, Marcus (though, and I cannot stress this enough, his name just doesn’t matter), drive through the streets of an unnamed city at night for approximately five minutes.
No dialogue, no music, no obvious reason for him to be out there. Okay, sure. As Marcus finally exits the car and we understand where he’s been going and why, Suctliff makes the bold decision to cut to black right when the action is starting. However, this intrigue is ruined seconds later as we’re dropped into THE REFUGE’s opening credits, set against a near identical night-time city drive which lasts as long as the previous one. Some may call this padding; I call it a big fuck you to the audience for even thinking this film would make you want to pay attention.
There is no part of THE REFUGE worth your time. Even lovers of ‘so bad it’s good’ cinema will be bored by the sheer lack of plot, tone and interesting characters. I genuinely have no clue what Keith Sutliff was trying to achieve here, but it’s clear that him taking on so many roles during the production led to there being no one left to step in and save the film from his bad ideas.
*Actually come to think of it...
Bursting on to the screen with a lavish and larger than life production design, the film adheres to the '92 story almost verbatim, and aside from the tweaking of the introduction and two new musical numbers, ALADDIN is strictly by-the-books and brings the animation to life beat-by-beat. Of course my cynicism has me asking what the point of these remakes is if they're blatant carbon copies, while the fanboy in me recognises those which worked best (Pete's Dragon and Cinderella). The good news is that ALADDIN is far from the worse of them (that honour goes to Alice in Wonderland) and delivers a comical toe-tapping adventure with enough moments of delight to make it worthwhile.
Perhaps the most peculiar fact about this film is that it has been directed by the man once dubbed the “Cockney Tarantino”, Guy Ritchie. Think about that for a moment... Who would have imagined all those years ago when he took the world by storm with violent, hard-hitting thuggish thrillers like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch that he would end up at the helm of Disney's Aladdin? I'm sure he certainly wouldn't have. And yet here we are. It marks his first foray into the family market, but not his first outing in Hollywood. With two Sherlock Holmes movies behind him, as well as the Man From UNCLE remake and King Arthur, Ritchie is no stranger to elaborate productions. And given his aptitude for stylish action, as well as his knack for telling tales about thievery, his appointment on ALADDIN is strangely appropriate. However, in this instance he has stepped away from his unique brand of storytelling, making way for the trademark Disney stylings, and aside from one cheeky sequence in the first act, there's no way to peg this as a “Guy Ritchie film”.
When Disney announced that Aladdin was in their sights for a live-action retelling, everyone reacted with the same burning question... how do you replace Robin Williams as The Genie? It's a tough one to answer and having seen the film, I'm not sure I have it. The original film is arguably Williams' most celebrated performances (alongside Mrs Doubtfire) and he personally considered it to be one of his most important. There is also a notorious legal back-story to the animated film, when Williams sued Disney for breaking their agreement of not using his voice in their merchandise. He publicly vowed to never work with them again, only to renege several years later when they offered a grovelling apology and a $1-million dollar salary to reprise his role for the second direct-to-video sequel; Aladdin King of Thieves (which is actually pretty good, I might add). And so with so much mixed-emotions between him and the studio, as well as the overriding legacy that he left with Disney, it's astonishing (to me) that they would even attempt to replace him.
Of course I have no understanding of what relationship Disney has with Williams' estate, but I had originally hoped that they would incorporate him into their new film. It would have been technically achievable to animated his likeness with CGI while using his dialogue and excised audio from the original film to recapture the magic of The Genie. And it's probably naive of me to think this way but I would hope that Disney at least considered it. Those are some monumentally big shoes to fill and in the end the daunting task went to Will Smith.
To address the elephant in the room, Will Smith is no Robin Williams. He fails to recapture the energy and enthusiasm that we love about Williams' character, and even appears to be disinterested at times. There is a lacklustre quality to his turn as The Genie, which in fairness may simply be the shadow of Williams that looms over him at all times. But in saying that Smith is also quite adequate and isn't actually bad at all. The trajectory of his character (as with the other characters) is the same as before, although most of the comical throw-gags have been adapted to suit his personality. His Genie is not as hysterical as we might expect, but he does offer up a few well measured moments of sincerity to balance things out. To put it simply, I was expecting a train-wreck of a performance and was happy enough with the outcome.
Aladdin himself is played by Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan, TV) who not only resembles the animated Aladdin but also embodies his spirit. He is excellent as the mischievous 'street rat' and delivers the quality of performance we might expect to find on Broadway. Ugandan born British actress Naomi Scott (Power Rangers – pink ranger) plays Jasmine and lights up the screen. Her likeness to the animation isn't as acute, however she gives up a sturdy and empowered turn that adds the necessary strength to Jasmine's character to reflect the modern era of female empowerment. This is a quality that wasn't exactly lacking from the original movie, but it wasn't really obvious either. Here in the 2019 adaptation Jasmine is very much a heroine and it's a delight to behold.
The supporting cast is comprised of Middle Eastern players including Marwan Kenzari as the evil Jafar, David Negahban as The Sultan and Nasim Pedrad as Nazim. With the exception of Will Smith, the entire ensemble is essentially unknown to most audiences, which is an interesting strategy for Disney to make. They must have had the utmost confidence that Smith could carry the film on his own for them to have ignored other potential big names to help sell the poster. I personally enjoyed watching unfamiliar faces take on the story and found myself more invested than I might have been otherwise. Of course having a predominantly Middle Eastern cast helps Disney to gloss over the glaring issue of cultural appropriation which, in today's political climate, I am amazed hasn't been targeted by one triggered protest mob or another.
Anyhow, ALADDIN is the unnecessary remake that Disney felt they had to make. Purists of the original will dismiss it, while most average-movie-going families will probably enjoy it. It is big and colourful with all of the famous musical numbers we expect, and it's over-the-top production design splashes the screen like a pantomime come to life. It's a lot better than I had expected, and I have to confess that it should to be a hit with its target audience. As for Guy Ritchie... Tarantino is debuting his latest film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, while Ritchie is debuting this. Enough said.
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.