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Wednesday
Jun132018

MY SAGA

With: Adam Harris, Jack Anakin Harris, Perry King, James Arnold Taylor, Steve Gawley, Charles Bailey, Vanessa Marshall, Bonnie Piesse and Erik Bauersfeld.
Writers: Adam Harris, Terry King and David Richardson.
Director: Adam Harris.

World Premiere; Wednesday 13th June at Event Cinemas North Lakes.

Rating: 4/5

There is a moment two-thirds into Adam Harris’ endearing documentary My Saga when the director/narrator utters an understatement as vast as the galaxy itself. In his typically easygoing manner, he observes without a hint of irony, “This was a bit of a geek moment for me.” Anyone who seeks out the Queensland-based filmmaker’s ode to George Lucas’ space opera mythology and how it has shaped and guided his own narrative will experience the same. It is a rousing paean to both fan culture and young fatherhood.

Harris plays cute with the opening moments; a header reads, “Not that long ago, in a country down under…,” before the famous title crawl begins to tell his story. One expects nothing less from a fan opus that wears its heart on its sleeve (who would make a Star Wars-themed film and not open in that way?), but the director and his mentoring co-helmer Terry King understand there is weighty themes at the heart of this story and quickly shift to a more serious tone .

Having established the origins of his Star Wars obsession (a 1983 session of Return of The Jedi at Brisbane’s Regent Theatre), Harris retells the wrenching moment when a scan revealed a dark spot on his brain. The subsequent period of existential introspection led to the realisation he needed to fast track a lifelong memory for his equally Star Wars-enamored son Jack (middle name Anakin, of course). Their destination is America; their plan, to absorb as much Star Wars experience that Jack’s age, Adam’s health and the young family's budget will allow.

The first act of My Saga occasionally teeters near to a ‘fan only’ myopia. The old and young fanboys wander with glassy-eyed wonder around Rancho Obi-wan, the merchandising museum overseen by Steve Sansweet; during a visit to Lucasfilm HQ, Harris interviews Steve Gawley and Charlie Bailey, two ageing Star Wars veterans who recall in detail working with effects gurus John Dykstra and Joe Johnston. Their memories are fascinating, but Jack and his father are largely off-screen for an extended period while these three men convey their own Star Wars journeys.

Harris’ film regains its surefootedness and emotional core when father and son undertake to conquer the madness of Star Wars Celebration 2015, the 4-day 2015 gathering in Anaheim during which the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was launched. The fan response to the teaser, in particular that first sight of an aged Han Solo and Chewbacca is now legendary. The footage of the moment it impacted father and son as it unfolds before them is extraordinary; the roar of a packed auditorium conveying the immensity of the moment, coupled with the profound affect it has on Harris (and the bemused awe conveyed by Jack), makes for a special cinematic moment.

These scenes turn My Saga into ours, as well; the audience engagement is complete. Scenes that reveal the burden that Harris carries – his breakdown when interviewing actor Perry King (the radio play version of Han Solo); his encounter with another father attending Celebration, with an ailing son – are deeply emotional. As Harris continues upon his journey, the essence of the bond it is forging between he and his boy takes on sharper focus. Patriarchal legacy is one of the most resonant themes of Lucas’ mythology and so it becomes with Harris’ beautiful film.

In recent days, the vile toxicity of contemporary fan culture and its impact upon The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran has darkened the Internet. Offering evidence that a shared understanding of and love for creations of the imagination can be life affirming, My Saga is the perfect counterpoint for anyone who harbours ill will within the Star Wars universe. The trolls should be forced to wake up to themselves and reconsider their allegiance from the perspective of Jack and Adam Harris.

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.

  

Tuesday
Jun052018

HEREDITARY

Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Mallory Bechtel.
Writer/director: Ari Aster.

Rating 2.5/5

Last years ‘grief-fuelled descent into domestic relationship hell’ romp, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was met with such wildly divisive, mostly acrimonious opinions by patrons and critics alike, it is hard to believe that the commercial dice has been rolled again on a similar slow-burn, high-concept premise in Hereditary.

If the door was slammed shut on the ‘arthouse horror’ craze by the polemic reaction to the Jennifer Lawrence-meltdown pic, it is locked-and-bolted by Ari Aster’s debut feature. Despite an all-in performance by Toni Collette and enough production design to fill three haunted house films, Hereditary is a style-over-substance Rosemary’s Baby/Wicker Man riff riddled with tension-diluting inconsistencies and hamstrung by a holier-than-thou approach to horror tropes we’ve seen many times before.

The opening feels like a standard horror-movie kicker; the hardened matriarch of a strained nuclear family is being laid to rest, her daughter Annie (Collette) launching into a eulogy that doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of her mother. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, whose last dabbling in B-horror was back in 1999, with Stigmata and End of Days) is a dour, self-medicating type; her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), a typically surly, pot-smoking teen; her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro, her unique features exploited all over the marketing material), a troubled pre-teen with mental and physical health issues who for some reason feels the death of Grandma particularly deeply.

When tragedy doubles-down on the family, Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd, reliable), a member of her grief recovery group, who introduces her to the potential for comfort in conjuring the deceased via that hoary old spooky device, the séance. Soon, Annie is convinced she is a medium, her late-night glass-touching scaring her family and potentially welcoming the unwanted into her home.

By this stage of the narrative, Aster has afforded his audience one legitimately scary glimpse of a ghost, a few genuine frames of icky horror and a handful of red-herring chills, but the young director’s lethargic pacing becomes increasingly ponderous, with set-up after set-up deepening the convoluted backstory while disregarding forward momentum. Plot developments turn so arbitrary as to be ridiculous (does this large modern city have a police department? One character commits negligent homicide yet seems to just sleep it off); at one point, your critic sensed he was being Jacob’s-Laddered, but that brought it’s own set of incoherencies.

One supposes that Hereditary wants to be considered the same kind of enigmatic puzzle of a horror/thriller as The Sixth Sense (for which leading lady Toni Collette was Oscar-nominated). But M. Night Shyamalan’s hit unfolded with precision and earned its chills; Aster’s shot at genre creepiness amps up the artifice of filmmaking – the music; the set design; the lighting – to convey a faux dread. There is little regard for script structure, character or nuance, all the elements that Shyamalan corralled so expertly. Aster and DOP Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls, 2017) share an artist’s eye for composition, but that only carries a film so far in the absence of other convincing components.

Hereditary shares its DNA with a family tree of more evolved films (throw into the mix The Amityville Horror, It Follows and The Others, if it helps), yet has none of the storytelling craft that turns its premise from the supernatural, psychological malarkey it is into an important, resonant piece of horror-as-drama. Actors bringing their big-voice presence in the service of a twisty mystery that is too impressed with its own cleverness does not make a great horror film. That’s all that’s left after Hereditary wraps its hellishly ridiculous, not-at-all scary denouement.

Tuesday
May292018

RISKING LIGHT

Featuring: Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking, Kilong Ung and Oshea Israel.
Director: Dawn Mikkelson.

Screening July 14 at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Session and ticket details at the event website.

Rating: 4.5/5

The immense courage and spiritual will it takes to truly ‘forgive’ beams from the screen in director Dawn Mikkelson’s Risking Light, a triptych of heartbreaking, soul-enriching narratives that combine to present a study in scarred but soaring humanity. Largely foregoing the mawkish sentimentality that such tales of redemption may present, the filmmaker instead favours stark honesty and frank storytelling, resulting in a film of rare integrity and profound emotional involvement.

The production focuses on three individuals who have struggled to overcome the burden of grief and anger in the wake of a grave injustice. In Minneapolis, Mary Johnson relates directly to camera the depths of her despair after her teenage son Laramiun Byrd was killed in a shattering instance of gun violence in 1993; from the coast of Tasmania, Debra Hocking recounts the forced separation from her family as a toddler as part of Australia’s shameful ‘stolen generation’ period, and the subsequent decade of abuse in foster care; and, from the streets of Phnom Penh, Kilong Ung shares details with his young Cambodian-American family of his horrific existence navigating the infamous ‘killing fields’ under Khmer Rouge reign.

Seamlessly intercutting each story so as to find a through-line in their pained existence, Mikkelson then poses the question, ‘How strong must we be to truly create a compassionate society?’ Faced with lives of all-consuming psychological torment, existential angst and an urge for (often violent) retribution, the three sufferers instead forge a path of personal responsibility that refuses to perpetuate society’s heart of darkness. From lives that threatened to decay into insignificance emerge beacons of forgiveness that find personal salvation, while inspiring others to walk a similarly righteous, enlightened path.

An Emmy-award winner for Late Life, the 2014 PBS series on terminal and aged care practices, Mikkelson’s feature work (under her Emergence Pictures banner) has determinedly examined the strength of the human spirit to confront and reconcile with the unfair, often tragic direction modern life can take. Her 2003 debut This Obedience profiled a gay Lutheran pastor’s struggle for the acceptance in the face of conservatism, both in her church and the wider community; in 2007, she traced her supposedly ethical ‘green energy’ source back to its impact on indigenous Manitoba society in Green Green Water; her 2014 small-screen project Planting Creativity examined the revitalisation of struggling townships via the injection of collaborative arts-based initiatives.

Frankly, western society needs more filmmakers like Dawn Mikkelson, and more people like Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking and Kilong Ung. As the world grows darker under leaders determined to segregate and marginalise, the unifying actions of these everyday people as they undertake remarkable journeys of wilful forgiveness should make Risking Light required viewing in our halls of power.

Saturday
May192018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Writers: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas.
Director: Ron Howard.

WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite jettisoning much of the franchise mythology like a shipment at the first sign of an Imperial starship, ring-in director Ron Howard still feels bound to his Lucasfilm overlord for much of Solo: A Star Wars Story. The latest ‘expanded universe’ episode in Disney’s brand expansion offensive, the origin backstory of roguish space scoundrel Han Solo is a lot better than fans had any right to expect, but it is not the ripping yarn we collectively yearned for when the project was first announced.

With no title crawl, no Force, no Darth (Vader, at least), no Death Star and only a smattering of Rebellion angst, Solo is about as ‘stand alone’ as the franchise has allowed itself to become since it was re-awakened in 2015. Yet there is a structural through-line that ties Howard’s film to the series earliest installments, most notably A New Hope. Both films kick start on a remote, unremarkable planet (first up, it was Tatooine, here it is a scummy industrial city on Corellia), where our hero comes into possession of a small but plot-spinning Macguffin (then, it was R2 and his Death Star plans; now, it is a vial of superfuel).

Like young Skywalker, young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), is motivated by notions of romance; his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is left behind as a fleeing Han signs up with the Imperial infantry, yelling to her he will return, Last of The Mohicans-style. While in the midst of combat on a mud-soaked outer world, he meets his paternal mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson in the Alec Guinness part, although more Fagin than Obi-Wan), the leader of a small but high-stakes criminal outfit that includes a terrific Thandie Newton and multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant (the voice of Jon Favreau, in a part that veers too close to the tone and function of Guardians of The Galaxy favourite, Rocket Racoon).

So sets in motion a well-paced, serviceable heist thriller that Howard handles with the assured slickness of an old school Hollywood pro. He calls upon his preferred support player Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind) to chew the scenery as the key villain, Dryden Vos, as well as demanding career-best work from DOP Bradford Young (Arrival; Selma), who proves adept at both murky/grainy and stark/crisp. Howard also conjures a cute bit part for a franchise favourite, whose career he bolstered with his fantasy epic Willow, 30 years ago.

Along the way, loyalists learn the answer to questions they never asked, including ‘How did Han get his surname?’, ‘How did Han get his iconic pistol?’, ‘How did Han meet Chewbacca?’ (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, stepping into the hairy feet for the third time, for a meet-cute that harkens back to Luke’s encounter with the Rancor in Return of The Jedi) and ‘How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian?’ (the super-smooth Donald Glover).

Ehrenreich brings enough charisma in the title role to (mostly) convince that he could morph into the ‘Han Solo’ that launched Harrison Ford into Hollywood history. He proves physically capable when carrying the action sequences, especially the film’s highpoint – a freight-train hijacking set amidst rugged, ice-covered mountains (one of many nods to the series’ Western genre origins); his rapport with his romantic lead needed another polish, with Clarke’s underwritten part a let-down given the strong roles usually afforded women in the Star Wars universe.

The film takes a left-field spin into contemporary politics with the introduction of Lando’s droid offsider, L3-3L (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, channeling the vocal intonations of Tilda Swinton). Spouting ‘equality for robots’ speeches and leading a ‘free the repressed’ mini-revolt at one stage (not to mention an open attitude to human/android coupling), her presence may be construed as either an honouring of or pandering to the #MeToo movement, suffice to say such outspokenness was not founder George Lucas’ strongpoint. Of the two scriptwriters, her voice sounds most like that of the younger Kasdan, Jonathan (he penned 2007’s In The Land of Women); the rest of the script is pure Lawrence – commercially instinctive, effortlessly heroic with endearing human fallibility, all a bit macho.     

Gareth Edwards’ rousing Rogue One still remains the most emotionally resonant and fully satisfying work of the post-Lucas films. Ultimately, there is not enough at stake in Solo: A Star Wars Story to up the narrative ante into that white-knuckle, crowd-stirring realm. It’s a romp, albeit a bit clunky at times; a space-opera, but one that needed a bit more tuning up. Howard delivers an enjoyable US summer movie ‘event’, but as an entry in the greatest science-fiction film series of all time, it is far, far away from the best of them.

Saturday
May122018

BRAVEN

Stars: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Jill Wagner, Garrett Dillahunt, Sasha Rossof, Brendan Fletcher, Zahn McClarnon, Sala Baker, Teach Grant, Fraser Aitcheson, James Harvey Ward and Steve O’Connell.
Writers: Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett.
Director: Lin Oeding.

Rating: 3.5/5

Stuntman-turned-director Lin Oeding skilfully conjures A-grade thrills out of B-movie beats in Braven, an alpha-male actioner that melds drug-deal-gone-bad tropes with wilderness survival struggles. Another satisfying step on the road to Rock-like crossover acceptance for leading he-man Jason Momoa (pictured, above), this Canadian production stays entirely within its genre parameters but does so wholeheartedly, delivering a lean, mean dose of tension, violence and sentimentality.

Biding time until his star soars post-Aquaman, Momoa plays logging company boss Joe Braven, a hardy working class type, loving husband to Stephanie (Jill Wagner, reteaming with Momoa after 2014’s Road to Paloma) and best-friend/dad to pre-teen Charlotte (Sasha Rossof). The one strain on their otherwise lovely domesticity is Joe’s ageing father Linden (Stephen Lang, God’s gift to movies like Braven; pictured, below), whose wandering memory and cantankerous moods are proving troublesome; Joe is called out late at night when his father starts a bar brawl, convinced his long-dead wife is talking to other men.

Meanwhile, one of Joe’s employees, young trucker Weston (Brendan Fletcher) has compromised himself and his boss by taking on board seething baddie Hallett (Zahn McClarnon, giving an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound performance) and a hollowed log filled with lots of drugs. When the truck crashes, the pair stash the contraband in Joe’s remote cabin, forcing trafficker Kassan (Garrett Dillahunt, his demeanour as icy as the mountainous locale) and his personality-free henchmen to go bush and reclaim it. Thing is, Joe, Linden and Charlotte are already on-site…

One of Hollywood’s most respected fall guys (his credits as stunt co-ordinator include Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion and The Equalizer), Oeding delivers action with a choreographer’s eye for fluidity and detail. Gun battles, fist fights and, most importantly, the unpleasant consequences associated with same are nailed with convincing realism within a geography that is well established. First-time scripters Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett allow the occasional incongruity to seep into their structure, but never so that the tense momentum derails.

No specifics are offered as to Joe Braven’s back story; when he starts to ‘Home Alone’ the bad guys, using whatever he can find in his cabin to keep the fight going, one has to assume he’s had some survival and/or combat training, so dexterous is he at hurling a hatchet or manufacturing a bow-and-arrow. Momoa’s take on the heart-of-gold everyman with a killer’s instinct is so engaging, however, such details seem perfunctory.

Braven is as solid a throwback to the ‘80s action movie template as we’ve seen in some time, pleasingly free of the irony that would have spun the film off into wink-wink self-awareness. Its belief in itself inspires the audience to place a similar faith in its characters and narrative; like its star, it is characterised by its broad-shoulders and unshakeable integrity.

 

Saturday
May052018

IDEAL HOME

Stars: Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Jack Gore, Alison Pill, Kate Walsh and Jake McDorman.
Writer/director: Andrew Fleming.

Rating: 4/5

Sweet, smart and sassy in equal measure, Andrew Fleming’s Ideal Home catches the writer/director in full command of what he does best – spinning genuine humour and strong characters out of a bouyant film reality. As the ageing self-consumed gay partners forced into adulthood by the sudden arrival of an emotionally challenging pre-teen grandson, Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are brash, funny and honest, traits that sum up the best moments from the 52 year-old director’s handful of films.

Citing his directorial debut, the 1988 cult horror pic Bad Dreams, as the exception that proves the rule, Fleming’s scripts mostly embrace complex character dynamics in a manner both insightful and engaging. Threesome (1994) outsmarted the Columbia Tri-Star brass, who backed but bailed on selling the hetero/homo college dorm love triangle; that year, Gen-X audiences preferred the cool, straight vanilla cast chemistry of Reality Bites.

The openly gay auteur found his truest voice (and biggest hit) with The Craft (1996), the high-school witchcraft horror-fantasy that quickly became the coming-out allegory for closeted ‘90s teens. A string of comedies followed, all of which combine vividly etched lead characters in expertly-paced dilemmas – Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in the Watergate-set comedy, Dick (1999); Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks in the under-valued The In-Laws (2003); the slumber-party favourite, Nancy Drew (2007); and, the quirky, if little-seen romantic drama, Barefoot, with Evan Rachel Wood (2014; from Stephen Zotnowski’s script).

In Ideal Home, Fleming provides himself with two leads that give full voice to his fluid, florid dialogue and nuanced characters. Reteaming with the director after their 2008 comedy Hamlet 2, Coogan is Brit expat Erasmus Brumble, the host/star of the basic cable lifestyle show ‘Ideal Home’; Rudd is his showrunner and longtime partner Paul, loving yet growing increasingly tiresome of both the dead-end nature of his work and the less lovable aspects of Erasmus’ personality.

Their life as Santa Fe’s adorable bon vivants is rattled when Erasmus’ grandson, Angel (Jack Gore, mature beyond his years) lands at their home, apparently the last resort for Erasmus’ estranged ne’er-do-well son, Beau (Jake McDorman) . The gay partners are forced to reconcile their hedonistic, self-centred, responsibility-free existence with life recasting them as caretakers and role models. Both actors are terrific, delivering comedic and dramatic beats with aplomb. Their on-screen pairing is a perfectly natural fit; Coggan gets some capital-L laughs, especially in those moments that reveal his shallow egotism, while Rudd’s razor-sharp takedowns define the understated intellect at work in Fleming’s script.

Ideal Home represents the kind of quick-witted, meaningful writing that was once sought after by the big studios. Andrew Fleming’s dialogue crackles and zings in the mouths of an appreciative cast, his scene structure and pacing skilful and refined. Thirty years ago, James L Brooks, hot off Broadcast News, might have made this movie; fifteen years back, Cameron Crowe. The dramedy plays a little broader (even at his peak, Crowe would not have carried off the bawdy, brilliant Kevin Costner/Dances with Wolves gag with such sublime timing), but Andrew Fleming is certainly of that class.

Wednesday
Apr252018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Chadwick Boseman, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vin Diesel.
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME PLOT SPOILERS

Rating: 3/5

The intergalactic threat to end all intergalactic threats (we’ll see…) is the catalyst to bring together Marvel’s divided superhero collective for the fight of their lives in Avengers: Infinity War. At least, that is what the pre-publicity marketing spin would have the slavering MCU fanbase believe; in fact, it is not really that at all.

What it is, alternatively, is one of the loudest, longest first acts in cinema history; 150 minutes of story set-up. The ‘bridging episode’ arc is a tough narrative one to pull off; a strong, self-contained story must exist, ensuring audience investment in the moment, but the storyteller must always be mindful of the open-ended ‘cliffhanger’ finale. When done well, it plays like The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, whereas Infinity War exhibits just how hard it can be to serve two masters.

Surprisingly, the key protagonist emerges in the form of ‘villain’ Thanos, played with mo-cap mastery by Josh Brolin; in addition to a nice line in malevolent menace, the actor gets to sink his purple teeth into a handful of dramatic moments that link him to that chestnut theme of the MCU, patriarchal legacy. Driven by the belief that overpopulation is destroying the star systems, Thanos is myopically driven in his search for the ‘Infinity Stones’, pretty jewels that represent the galactic essentials of Mind, Soul, Time, Power, Space, and Reality. To possess the full set of six will grant Thanos the power to perform horrendous acts of genocide in the name of saving the galaxy from its inhabitants. Environmental advocates who argue that humans are a virus on this planet, that our thoughtless use of natural resources will lead to the death of Earth and all who live here, may side with Thanos ideologically, although his methods are unforgivably mass-murdery.

So the Avengers have to reconnect to see off Thanos and his flavoursome henchmen (led by an enjoyably campy Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the psychotic sycophant, Ebony Maw). Expectedly, fans will cheer when they are re-introduced to Steve Rogers/Captain America (a sullen, oddly detached Chris Evans) as he emerges from the shadows; as Bruce Banner (a twitchy Mark Rufalo) struggles with his green-hued alter-ego; and, as the pompous Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and smart-arse Tony Stark/Iron Man (a visibly aged Robert Downey Jr) wage a quip war. Meshing with the traditional Avengers line-up are the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, the good people of Wakanda, led by T’Challa/Blank Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and teen hero Spiderman (Tom Holland).

However, the tantalizing mass melding of franchise heroes occurs in the cast list only; the key Avengers are divided, even more so the Guardians (the decision to turn Vin Diesel's Groot into a surly teen sapling proves a dire miscalculation); several favourites are relegated to bit parts (notably ScarJo’s Black Widow), while some don’t make an appearance at all. The promise of a mass Marvel army onscreen never comes near to fruition.

Working from Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s workmanlike script, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct with a suitably vast eye for spectacle and melodrama, colouring in landscapes against which massive effects-laden conflicts can take place. Once the film gets past an opening salvo of meet-cute reconnections, the smash ‘em/bash ‘em mayhem unfolds, both on Earth and in the far corners of the galaxy. The next two hours represent the gamble with fan expectation which is the strong suit of Avengers: Infinity War - our heroes essentially have the s**t kicked out of them for 2½ hours, ahead of a downbeat denouement.

It is a bold undertaking, to readjust what is expected of the MCU/Avengers formula, and there are moments when the sheer scale and momentum match the narrative ambition needed to pull off a 'Part 1'. Given the fate of the universe is at stake, however, those otherwise unexpected moments of murder most foul, self sacrifice and bitter betrayal amount to very little. A lot goes unanswered in Avengers: Infinity War and no amount of blockbuster grandeur can fill the void left.

Thursday
Apr192018

TRAUMA

Stars: Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Ríos and Claudio Riveros.
Writer/Director: Lucio A. Rojas.

Screening on Saturday April 21 as the Closing Night Film at the XV Cine de Terror Film Festival in Valdivia, Chile.

Warning: Some content may offend or distress.

Rating: 4.5/5

The most horrifically violent period in Chile’s political history casts a very dark shadow over the current war between the sexes in the perfectly prescient and appropriately titled Trauma. Taking as its entry point a stomach-churning sequence destined for frame-by-frame breakdown by censorship bodies around the world, writer-director Lucio A. Rojas’ blistering vision embraces the unthinkable reality of Pinochet’s torture-chamber hell and how his homeland still suffers under the legacy of the brutally soul-crushing dictatorship.

Assured of cinematic infamy, the prologue is set in the mid 1970s, at the height of the neo-fascist’s military reign. A seasoned torturer (Alejandro Trejo) is in the midst of committing unspeakable atrocities upon a woman, his ultimate dehumanizing act being the introduction of her teenage son, Juan. There are ties that bind the three participants, a bond thematically linked to Rojas’ exploration of family discord and systemic violence in traditionally male-centric domesticity.

The narrative moves to Santiago, 2011 and introduces Rojas’ protagonists (by way of some equally graphic Sapphic love, reinforcing the material’s  ‘sex and violence’ genre credentials), four twenty-somethings destined for a rural getaway. Andrea (Catalina Martin, a fierce central figure in her own right) is tightly wound, slightly more mature than her travel mates, and rather too good at the ‘passive/aggressive big-sister’ persona, leading to some familial tension with her sister Camila (Macarena Carrere) and Camila’s girlfriend, the free-spirited Julia (Ximena del Solar); the sister’s cousin Magdalena (Dominga Bofill) is younger still, sweet but adventurous.

There is a familiarity to this Act 1 set-up that horror fans will recognize. The girls reveal aspects of themselves on the long drive, further defining their character traits; the region is so remote, Andrea forgets where her uncle’s retreat actually is; the group stop for directions at ‘Gloria’s Tavern’ (suspiciously lacking a ‘Gloria’), the creepy locals acting as both sexist bullies and a warning sign that the girl’s don’t decipher. Intercut with these scenes are moments in the life of the now adult Juan (Daniel Antivilo, reuniting with the director after their 2015 collaboration, Sendero), a local ‘identity’ who lives with his adult son Mario (Felipe Ríos) in a ‘house of horrors’ directly linked to the pre-credit sequence.

The girl’s first night in the cabin is a boozy one, marred by issues they had hoped to work through on the trip. Julia unwinds with a striptease, which Rojas and his ace DOP Sebastián Ballek shoot in a leery, overtly-sexualized manner that initially seems to betray the care he has taken in creating these complex female characters. When it is revealed, however, that Juan and Mario have been watching the dance, Rojas turns the ‘male gaze’ in which he has indulged back on the viewer; in a deceptively clever piece of deconstruction, the director has coerced his audience into being at one with the psychopathic villain.

The centerpiece of Trauma is the home invasion sequence that follows, a passage of visceral film imagery and design that will be too immersive for even some seasoned horror buffs. Although it is all but impossible to decipher as the unfettered sexual, physical and psychological abuse unfolds, the passage serves to spin Rojas’ film into the realm of gender-based conflict; the family of women, however flawed they may be in their own ways, are now unified and at war with traditional familial patriarchy, in which toxic masculinity, sexualized violence and generational abuse has festered.    

The group tracks the men to their maze-like home, and Trauma becomes a series of gruesome encounters and tense near-misses in the darkness. The narrative continues to deliver as a bloody horror film, but the subtext that enriched the first hour makes way for well-staged, heavily stylized ‘final girl’ genre tropes in Act 3. Nevertheless, Rojas contemplates his themes and shoots his action in a manner that demands that his work be closely watched in years to come; he is one of the new wave of exciting Latin American horror filmmakers, amongst them Javier Attridge (Wekufe The Origin of Evil, 2017), Jorge Olguin (Gritos del Bosque, 2017) and Samuel Galli (Mal Nosso, 2017).

It is hard to envision a denouement to Trauma that inspires hope, so steeped as it is in ‘sins of the father’ and ‘scars of history’ symbolism. But that is precisely what Rojas affords his cinematic world and, by association, his country. The final images suggest that the time for rebirth is now and that faith be placed in a maternal nurturing of a new national spirit. For a film so consumed by painful memories, the most potent act of killing that Trauma imagines is the one that leaves the ghosts of the past behind for good.

WARNING: TRAILER CONTAINS IMAGES THAT MAY DISTRESS AND OFFEND.

  

Thursday
Apr122018

TRUTH OR DARE

Stars: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Landon Liboiron, Nolan Gerard Funk, Sam Lerner, Brady Smith, Hayden Szeto, Morgan Lindholm, Aurora Perrineau and Tom Choi.
Writer: Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow
Director: Jeff Wadlow.

Rating: 2/5

A far more more ambitious narrative and punchy directorial approach was needed to carry off the high-concept horror tropes of the deadly dull thriller Truth or Dare, a college-kids-vs-malevolent-curse bore that clearly wants to be this generation’s Final Destination (or, at least, the better episodes of that hit-miss 00’s franchise).

Directed with professional indifference by journeyman Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, 2005; Kick-Ass 2, 2013), Truth or Dare posits the notion, ‘What if the titular children’s game had real stakes?’, a potentially interesting premise that is then left in the hands of an insipid posse of one-dimensional characters to mull over.

The first half-hour of the film is Teen Horror 101; a group of demographically pleasing early 20-somethings (the do-gooder; the troubled party-girl; the hunky nice-guy; the jerk; the gay guy; the creep) head for a spring break in Mexico. Just how uninteresting are these kids? A boozy night at a beach dance party leads not to wildly unbridled hedonism, but instead a game of ‘truth or dare’, led by a handsome stranger who has latched on to the group.

After a moment of ‘what-just-happened?’ oddness, the group have resumed their well-off middle-class lives in College Town, USA. Our heroine, Olivia (an ok Lucy Hale, perkiness personified) begins to note the phrase ‘Truth or Dare’ everywhere she looks, until she responds in an embarrassingly public way, outing her friend Markie (Violett Beane) for being unfaithful to Lucas (Tyler Posey).

In the order in which they played the game in Mexico, each of the friends must face the challenge put to them by a temporarily possessed passer-by or acquaintance, whose wide-eyed, broadly grinning appearance resembles little more than that which can be accomplished by about a thousand different in-phone apps nowadays. Soon, it becomes clear that to defy the question means a painful death with the inevitability of everyone’s demise all but assured. Not that anyone’s passing seems to have any consequence at all on their friends or the community in which they live; nobody reacts with long-term grief or crippling shock at the string of deaths, even when video of one icky demise does the social media rounds.

The undoing of Truth or Dare as with many looked-good-on-paper concepts, is that it ultimately strays from its own logic and careens into preposterousness. Initially, Olivia gets three shots over the course of a day to answer the question, while other’s meet there doom within minutes; ‘the curse’ controls what you see and hear (even dabbling in street art to get its message across), yet at one point our heroine bounces between a dealing with the demon and chatting with her friends.

Wadlow kicks off Act 3 with an interminable scene involving a tongue-less ex-nun (don’t ask) and a bucketload of explanatory exposition that shuts down the story’s already meagre momentum. The ending, an underlit and shoddy sequence set in a dusty old Mexican convent, looks low-rent; the twist in the final reel proves to be both no twist at all and utterly indecipherable.

A propensity for characters to incessantly text and check Facebook may play believably with phone-gazing teens, but the device only serves to undercut the scares; ultimately, there are none. An adherence to PG-horror boundaries further hogties the chills, meaning the best that can be said for Truth or Dare is that the concept may transition into a passable SyFy/CW slot-filler. The only ones who convincingly suffer through a cursed existence are the paying audience members.