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.
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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.
In JUST SAY GOODBYE we meet Jesse (Max McKenzie) as a six-year-old (played by Joseph Colangelo) who comes home from school to discover that his mother Olivia (Olivia Nossiff) has overdosed on sleeping pills. Jump ten years to the adolescent about to turn sixteen, living in an untenable situation with his alcoholic father who, since the mother’s death, has been paralysed both figuratively (by grief) and literally (by an accident that has left disabled). Jesse’s a smart, sensitive, sassy-mouthed kid who’s an easy target for the school bully, Chase (Jesse Walters). The only bright light in his life is his best friend Sarah (Katerina Eichenberger) who is understandably infuriated and devastated when Jesse announces that he’s had enough and is planning to end his life at midnight on his birthday.
This is a modest, low budget affair for first time director, Matt Walting and first-time screenwriter Layla O’Shea and, for the most part, they navigate the dangerous territory of this story with a refreshing combination of sensitive insight and wit. McKenzie and Eichenberger are terrific together. There’s a palpable authenticity to their friendship that helps to raise the stakes for both of them when the enormity of Jesse’s plan is revealed. Less effective is the overwrought, mostly one-note character of Rick, Jesse’s seriously depressed father. Whilst we get to know Jesse and Sarah really well in the course of the film, Rick’s development as a character is minimal which feels like a missed opportunity to explore the interior world of the father who is just as vulnerable as the son and on just as self-destructive a path.
As the story progresses, though, the handling of the suicide issue gets a bit wobbly and strays into some dicey areas where I, for one, wanted to see someone take some real responsibility for this kid in serious pain for whom the future seems to have only one deadly possibility. It’s where these stories often fall down, in their determination to keep the issue within the circle of characters in their well- meaning but uninformed ways of dealing with their friend or sibling or child, rather than allowing the characters to act in the way a responsible person might out here in the real world. It’s different if it’s a spy story or a superhero story or a love story or just about any other genre… but here, the risks of allowing the responsibility to the drama of the narrative to supersede the responsibility to the potentially vulnerable person in the audience feel a bit dodgy.
It would be a spoiler to go much further in examining where this film ends up, suffice to say that the subtlety and strength of the character relationships that work so well for the first two thirds of the film seem to fall away in the last act and despite a nice little twist that was unexpected for the impact it has on the story, the final scenes lean more to the cliché than to the profound and as good as the actors are in the bulk of the film, they struggle to maintain the same quality of work through to then end. And the last line in the film really made me wince.
Based on the Mexican folklore of La Llorona, the film tells the story of the Weeping Woman, a spectre who haunts children. Legend has it that she drowned her own kids and was stricken with guilt and grief, and now looks for others to make her own. The story centres around a widow, Anna (Linda Cardellini) and her two children as they become the latest victims and seek the guidance of a local faith healer who has crossed La Llorona's path before. With the help of unconventional religious practices and mysticism, they pull out every trick in the book to banish her.
This is a very poor excuse for a horror movie and its only saving grace is the fact that it's nowhere near as awful as the previous entry, The Nun. Series creator James Wan is on board as producer and although he had no hand in writing this one, his influence is evident nonetheless. In fact first-time director Michael Chaves is so focused on recreating Wan's Conjuring aesthetic that he disregards the narrative entirely, and what he serves up is a cocktail of random flavours. Astute horror fans will recognise familiar moments from other films creeping into the story, such as Evil Dead, Demon Knight and even Warlock for example, and then the rest of the running time is bogged down with painfully inept attempts at suspense. You know what I'm talking about... floor-level camera angles tracking towards big doors, lengthy moments of silence to signal impending jump-scares, and the overused 'she's behind you' trope. The movie is saturated with this stuff and none of it works.
Actress Linda Cardellini - who is best known as Thelma from James Gunn's two Scooby Doo movies, as well as Freaks and Geeks – has had a prolific few years with substantial roles in Green Book, A Simple Favour and Hunter Killer, as well as the upcoming Avengers Endgame, and there is no doubt that her lead role in THE CURSE OF THE WEEPING WOMAN is a significant notch in her professional belt. She is establishing herself as a familiar face and a go-to actress and her on-screen presence is appealing. She delivers a reliable turn as the protective mother to her haunted children, however with an uninspired script and lack of direction she's given very little to do. The kids are decent enough and play the victims well, but the movie's constant attempts to scare the audience dominate the running time, leaving little dialogue to help the players solidify their characters. Raymond Cruz stars as the faith healer who helps the family rid themselves of the curse. Unfortunately his part relies on the audience's knowledge of his Breaking Bad character and is poorly conceived. It's never clear whether his character is supposed to be serious or comical, and – in fact – he comes off like a cross between Max von Sydow's Father Merrin from The Exorcist and William Sadler's Brayker character from Demon Knight.
Suffice to say, THE CURSE OF THE WEEPING WOMAN is a shambles and is an ineffective chapter in the Conjuring franchise. It is a horror movie for people who think they like horror, but actually don't. In other words, it's entry-level stuff and not worthy being a 6th instalment in a well-established cinematic universe. With The Nun and this title going back-to-back, all hopes rest on the upcoming Annabelle Comes Home and The Conjuring 3...
2019 | DIR: WAYNE BLAIR | STARRING MIRANDA TAPSELL, GWELYM LEE, KERRY FOX, URSULA YOVICH | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
The other key ingredient for most Australian films to succeed outside of our shores is international talent. It’s a golden rule that applies to all genres and we’ve seen countless foreign stars light up our screens; Josh Lucas in Red Dog, Terrance Stamp in Priscilla, John Goodman in Dirty Deeds and Patrick Warburton in The Dish, to name but a few. The list is endless and Aussies share a common pride when we see big-wigs from around the world coming all the way Down Under to help tell our stories. The latest local film to grace our screens with a foreign star is Top End Wedding, a romantic comedy directed by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires), starring co-writer Miranda Tapsell (Love Child). The added ingredient in this instance is British actor Gwilym Lee, who recently starred as Brian May in the Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody.
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