Gold (2022)

Release: Friday, March 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Hulu

Written by: Anthony Hayes; Polly Smyth

Directed by: Anthony Hayes

Starring: Zac Efron; Anthony Hayes; Susie Porter

Distributor: Screen Media Films

 

 

 

****/*****

Over the last few years, former Disney Channel star Zac Efron has been making some interesting moves, turning away from the eye candy roles that came to define him as a younger actor and embracing heavier dramatic material. His turn as Ted Bundy in 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile proved he was eager to move beyond typecast and I’m not sure if there’s a more direct route to doing so than by playing a serial killer.

Indeed, if it were only the atrocity of Bundy that Efron had tapped into, maybe it would be easy to dismiss as gimmick — a desperate act of overcompensation. But when he commits himself in the way that he does in Gold, a viciously realistic survival thriller from Aussie director, writer and co-star Anthony Hayes, suddenly the days of High School Musical seem like prehistory. This is Efron operating on another level, evoking desperation and greed to stomach-churning effect. Sure, he benefits from Beth Halsted’s stunning make-up work, but he essentially holds the entire movie on his own and that’s no small feat.

Set sometime in the near future, Gold keeps the audience in the dark as far as the big picture is concerned. The script (by Hayes and his partner Polly Smyth) is as minimalist as the stripped-out coal mine that has become of the world. We’re post-apocalypse but we don’t know what caused humanity to be brought to its knees. A man named Virgil (Efron) train-hops his way to a remote outpost in the sprawling desert. Here he’s to catch a ride with another man, Keith (played in a gruff and world-weary manner by Hayes) who will take him to a mysterious place called The Compound, where Virgil hopes to find some stability doing hard labor. (Yeah, this movie is grim — imagine that for a happy ending.)

As the pair make their way in Keith’s weather-beaten truck we get drip fed little bits of their past and their musings on what is happening elsewhere. Not much is revealed, just enough to get an idea Virgil may be carrying around a little too much sensitivity in this place, while Keith appears/sounds the genuine article as a frontiersman. But the proof will be in the suffering when the pair make the incredible discovery of a massive chunk of gold and hatch a plan to extract it. Too big to move by hand or even truck, Virgil insists he stay behind to guard their riches while Keith will head back to get an excavator, a round trip of about five days or so.

Fine if you’re staying at the Ritz-Carlton, not so much if you’re hitching yourself to a lone, sun-parched tree with minimal food and water supplies. At least he has a satellite phone? High winds, reptiles, wild dogs — these are some of the amenities Virgil gets to enjoy as he goes full Aron Ralston in 127 even more desperate hours, squaring off against dehydration, starvation and paranoia as each passing sun and moon adds to the feeling of abandonment. It’s a startlingly authentic portrayal from Efron, who is a strong reason to see yet another movie titled Gold.

Though filmed in the Flinders Ranges of the Outback the movie is shot tightly, with a raw intimacy that never allows you to get comfortable. As director, Hayes uses the crunch of COVID-era restrictions to fashion a harrowing tale of obsession and survival where space is put to use in ways both creative and cruel. As screenwriter, his judgment of time elapsing is one of the most powerful driving forces, with a variety of cuts to Efron’s façade depicting a man utterly wasting away in the elements.

Gold is undeniably a familiar yarn, one where a carefully curated song at the end spells out the lesson learned in big letters. When a scavenger (played with sinister intent by Susie Porter) appears on the scene, the haggard signposting of where things go are as obvious as the glinting jewel. Still, the heaviness with which certain developments land is not to be discounted. Dismissing the saga as overly familiar does a disservice to the intensity and authenticity of the experience.

Gnarly and visceral, Gold is entertaining in that morbidly fascinating way movies about the corruptive power of wealth often are — it’s not full-blown Shadenfreude, but at some point sympathy drops away and yields to pity. Even with sparse personality, the technical aspects make everything feel real and hard to look away from, even when you want to.

5G coverage, my ass

Moral of the Story: 127 Hours meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Martian (the latter, in a more painfully specific way I guess). Harsh and pretty conservative in terms of action, Gold won’t be everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday night but for those looking for proof of Zac Efron’s talent, look no further. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “I can handle it.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.screendaily.com 

Little Monsters

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Abe Forsythe

Directed by: Abe Forsythe

With the horror-comedy Little Monsters, Australian director and actor Abe Forsythe is empowering teachers and children alike, arming them with brains and bravery as they try to survive hordes of flesh-eating zombies — the slow kind, not the fast kind. It’s a really admirable concept that turns tradition on its rotting zombified head, a survival tale that’s more feel-good than feel-dread.

Despite the fact there are many youngsters running around underfoot this is very much a movie for the grown-ups. Little Monsters has a positive message to send about people learning to take responsibility for themselves and for others, but the visual aesthetic is hardly divorced from the gruesomeness native to the ultra-popular genre. When a zombie outbreak occurs in an American testing facility in the Land Down Under and threatens a petting zoo full of tourists and children (and lambs! No!!) things indeed get gory AF. The dialogue is laden with vulgarities and there are moments where adults regress to an embarrassingly infantile state. These are fairly pronounced elements that jettison Forsythe’s savagely funny subversion of the zombie apocalypse well out of family-friendly territory.

Dave (Alexander England) is having a tough time when he and his girlfriend split up. She wants kids, he doesn’t. An amusing montage opens the film showing the couple in a ruthless fight that endures everywhere they go. The wannabe rockstar finds himself crashing on his sister Tess (Kat Stewart)’s couch and right now it’s not possible for him to care less about anything. He’s rude and obnoxious around everyone, including her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca), who is at one point exposed to the humiliation of Dave discovering his ex getting it on with an older man — a man “more in touch with his feelings” than Dave ever was.

In danger of being kicked out of his sister’s place Dave obliges in taking Felix to school the next day, where he meets the effervescent kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). He immediately develops an infatuation with her — so much so he volunteers as a class chaperone on a field trip to a farm/petting zoo in order to spend more time with her. But that ring finger offers a brutal smackdown. Making matters worse, a popular kids show host named Mr. McGiggles (an incredibly annoying Josh Gad) is on site to film an episode. He is also smitten by Miss Caroline. For some reason kids are drawn to this Jared the Subway Guy archetype. His issues are a shade less awful than that admittedly. Mr. McGiggles has a thing for moms — all moms, not just “the hot ones.”

You suffer through this awkward trudge through self-pitying, slapdash character development to get to Little Monster‘s much more entertaining (and bloody) second half, where a once pleasant scene becomes overrun by the hilariously inept, disgustingly gurgly undead. Forsythe, who writes, directs, and appears briefly as a zombie, plays the encounters with these gack-covered extras for pure comedy, while finding little teaching moments here and there as the situation escalates, the group getting pinned down in the visitor’s center, surrounded by a group of sauntering, sloughy-skinned specters.

Nyong’o gets an A+ as her character faces down her worst fears — not of her own mortality (not that that’s ever really in question here) but rather of failing to protect her little ones. She’s also more than a soft-spoken educator, showing off her dulcet tones and ukulele skills. Miss Caroline can also defend herself, evidenced in a tense scene wherein she has to retrieve Felix’s epipen before he goes into shock. Back on the ranch, England’s rather OTT “woe as me, my life is shit” performance breaks into something readily agreeable as he comes into his own as a protector. It’s a pretty radical change but one that’s really welcomed — if anything it’s optimism to offset the insanely obnoxious, frankly embarrassing Mr. McGiggles.

Little Monsters may be pretty clunky in places; the juxtaposition between the plight of the main characters and the cuts to the military personnel arming up for battle is jarring and some of the dialogue is cringe inducing. However one of its absolute strengths is that it doesn’t condescend to the kids. It’s a major spoiler to reveal it, but suffice to say newcomer Diesel La Torraca gets one of the most adorable stand-out moments you’ve seen in a zombie movie. In fact, and in spite of the more annoyingly, patently obvious attempts to go for that R rating, that’s how I’d categorize Little Monsters — an adorable little zombie movie. Yeah, it’s kind of weird to actually write that — but tell me I’m wrong.

Recommendation: Little Monsters is kind of a strange one because while it most definitely is a positive message movie, it’s also outfitted with so much adult language and gory imagery it’s one best to throw on after you’ve put your kids to bed. A fun, Australian-flavored zombie romp that leans far more towards comedy than horror that gives Hulu just a bit more clout. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “It’s part of a game. The zombies are not real.”

“Like f**k they’re not!”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.thedigitalfix.com

I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Yes, my child, the future is indeed female.

Recommendation: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lion

lion-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Garth Davis

Lion operates on behalf of non-profit organizations across the globe endeavoring to end the epidemic of child homelessness in developing nations. It is an earnest, emotionally charged exploration of a life less ordinary, simultaneously a delicate and powerful epic that should give hope to others who find themselves similarly mourning the disappearance of a loved one.

This is the story of Saroo Brierley who became separated from his biological mother in Khandwa when he boarded and fell asleep on an empty train that took him nearly a thousand miles across the Indian continent. After months of surviving on the streets of Kolkata — sleeping under anything that fended off downpours and dodging bearded kidnappers — Saroo was taken in by a shelter for lost and missing children before being moved into the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. Saroo’s fortunes changed when the Brierleys, a middle-class Australian family, took him under their wing and showed him a new life in Hobart, the capital city of the Aussie isle of Tasmania. Twenty-five years later — and this is the part where you might just assume Australian director Garth Davis’ feature debut has finally succumbed to Hollywood formula — mother and son would be reunited.

When you break it down into its three distinctive movements, Lion (adapted from Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, published in 2015) really explores two miraculous happenings. His entire adult life may be considered a miracle in itself, but one of the film’s greatest achievements is the way it develops its perspective. It’s a rocky road we start off on to be sure and the obstacles come one after another, at an overwhelming rate. Too young to realize his entire life has effectively changed over the course of a nap, Saroo (portrayed by Sunny Pawar in a breathtaking debut performance) wanders around with wide eyes and tussled hair, calling his brother’s name until he eventually doesn’t have the energy anymore and becomes silenced by his helplessness, adrift in a sea of simultaneous possibility and impossibility.

Lion moves into its second half gracefully as we meet the Brierleys, a kind-hearted couple whose intentions are unquestionably pure. David Wenham plays John and Nicole Kidman plays wife Sue. We want to love them just for being, let alone the fact they rescue Saroo from fates unknown. This family in no time at all burrows deeply into your heart. Kidman made a believer out of me as the loving mother. Sue makes it clear she and her husband picked the boy because they loved him, not out of some sense of guilt or obligation. The Brierleys later adopt a second child, the more volatile and aggressive Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav/Divian Ladwa) whose background isn’t elucidated but as we watch him engage in self-destructive acts as a youngster and continue to alienate himself from his new family as he matures, once more we are reminded that Saroo is one of the lucky ones.

At least he is given the chance to mature into a well-balanced, amiable young adult — though no amount of positive reinforcement can stop him feeling burdened by the mystery of his childhood. No amount of love from his adoptive parents can rid him of this kind of emotional baggage. Even ambitions for a career in hospitality/hotel management aren’t enough to make him feel confident about himself as a person. Dev Patel, in a potentially career best performance, portrays Saroo as a kite without its tether. Despite being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of campus life, he looks as lost as he was as a child fending for himself on the streets. It is in Lion‘s final third where we watch a carefully constructed façade starting to crumble, threatening the future he is considering sharing with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara).

Lion is a curio in the sense that it uses product placement as a significant plot device — Google Earth as Saroo’s second savior. The popular geobrowser became instrumental in his quest to (re)discover his roots and here it plays just as crucial a role in the narrative as any human being. Saroo is informed about the program at a party he attends while studying in Melbourne, where he opens up to Lucy and some other close friends about his past. That conversation proves catalytic for Saroo’s own slide into self-destruction as he begins shunning friends, coworkers and even his adoptive parents and begins obsessing to an unhealthy degree about retracing his steps. A friend attempts dissuasion by telling him it would take a lifetime to search through all of the train stations in India. Lucy challenges him to face the reality of making it back there only to find nothing.

Lion is at its weakest when it delves into this phase of self-exile, meanwhile Saroo’s interactions with Lucy feel collectively more like a dalliance than a serious thing. But the movie never reduces the emotional weight or contrives Saroo’s journey such that we struggle to believe what we’re being shown. The whole enterprise rings authentic, and the film saves the biggest gut-punch for last. It’s the kind of ending the cynical have been conditioned not to trust. Lion isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, nor should it be. This is an incredible true story that could empower thousands of others who are similarly bereaved to keep hope alive. Lion is a hugely life-affirming film you do not want to miss, especially if your faith in humanity has started to wane as of late.

4-0Recommendation: Exceptional, heartfelt performances complement a too-good-to-be-true story about determination, hope and familial love.  The film impresses even more considering it is Garth Davis’ first foray into feature filmmaking. Lion is profound, not so much because of the way it makes you feel but because this is what really happened. An enriching, inspiring cinematic experience. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you have any idea what it’s like, how every day my real brother screams my name?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Light Between Oceans

the-light-between-oceans-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Cianfrance

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance has emerged once again with another sweeping, emotional epic, this time The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the 2012 international bestseller by M.L. Stedman. Maybe you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s previous effort. From an ambitious meditation on how one man’s actions can have a rippling effect across generations of family, he turns now to a deeply personal exploration of a young husband and wife trying to start a family.

‘Deeply personal.’ Some people might call it something else, like . . . melodramatic. Which it is; The Light Between Oceans is so melodramatic. It’s also often too depressing for its own good; a joke or two wouldn’t have hurt, but you know what else it is? Incredibly well-acted. So much so, in fact, that leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander found art imitating life, er, rather, inspiring it. Since working on the project the two have entered into a romantic affair that they have (largely) kept private. Given everything the actors go through bringing this tale to life, it’s not that surprising to find fictional romance has begotten real-life romance. (If only the same could have applied to John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.)

That last paragraph was risky for me. I vowed once upon a time that I would never allow my musings on film to become a gossip column. But I just find it so interesting in this case because actors this good — and these specific actors — often make it impossible to discern professionalism from deeper personal bonding. The Light Between Oceans absolutely demands chemistry, in the same way The Notebook demanded chemistry. In the same way A Walk to Remember demanded it. Fortunately, Oceans is a great deal better than one of those two, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the one with Ryan Gosling — incidentally an actor who has already appeared twice in Cianfrance’s brief but memorable back catalogue.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned from the Great War to a remote fishing village in Western Australia. He’s taking over the post at the Janus Rock lighthouse after the former keeper quit by, quote, throwing himself over the side of a cliff. (Hint-hint: this job is difficult insofar as it is lonely.) Tom believes isolation will be good for him after his horrendous experiences in the war. After three months he takes a ferry back into town, where he happens across a beautiful girl named Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who takes a keen interest in him. Her father Bill (Aussie Garry McDonald) is actually the one who took Tom on as a keeper.

There’s an undeniable spark between Tom and Isabel — not the kind that’s scripted, but that which evolves from actors being genuinely comfortable in one another’s presence. The only thing more natural than Vikander’s smile is the pair’s affection for one another. Soon enough they’re crossing off one major item on the checklist for A Perfect Life Together and find themselves happily married, ready to start a new life together on the lonely island. Love faces its toughest test after the couple’s first miscarriage. After a second, life becomes downright unbearable. Then, quite serendipitously, a rowboat washes ashore carrying what appears to be a dead man along with a still-living infant.

The Light Between Oceans is meditative, a two-plus-hour runtime stretching out like the yawning cerulean gap between Australia and the nearest land mass. It is a very. Long. Sit. Perhaps that’s due to the frequent bouts of depression we must battle along with our characters that makes it feel that way. It’s slow going but Cianfrance, along with his DP Adam Arkapaw, makes the physical world such a wonder to behold. The whole thing feels like a postcard from Australia. Too bad the weight of the complex morality play ongoing eventually causes it to collapse in on itself come the dying light of the film.

It’s not Rachel Weisz‘s fault, who plays the part of Hannah Roennfeldt, a grieving mother who recently lost her husband and baby out at sea (cough-cough). We’ve been expecting (or is that, dreading?) to meet her. Her tremendous performance certainly leaves a mark, even if the character itself is more of a tool rather than a real person. Hannah represents a physical consequence of Tom and Isabel’s actions and yet the way Cianfrance chooses to insert her  (and depending on how faithful an adaptation this is, this flaw could be true of the book as well) feels blatantly manipulative. Her backstory is handled in a simple flashback or two, as opposed to the hour we get to spend with the other two. The manner in which she is brought into close proximity to the couple turns out to be the most offensive contrivance of all.

Contrivances be damned, though, when an experience lingers in the mind like this one does. It may not be easy viewing and it can be emotionally manipulative — the knife-twisting in the final act really proved a bridge too far for me — but Oceans is a film with tons of heart. It is further confirmation of why I love these actors. It’s a movie that made me feel, that made me bleed. Okay, not really. But still.

the-light-between-oceans

Recommendation: The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned romance epic whose frequent trips into melodrama remind me why I can’t do romance that often. But when one features stars as reliable as these two, I find it very hard to say no. There’s a lot to like about it, including the breathtaking postcards-from-Australia scenery. It’s all a grand gesture, and for those who don’t mind sitting through a long, meditative drama this should definitely appeal.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “One day this will all feel like a dream.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

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Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Actor Interview: Aussie Paul Eenhoorn talks ‘Land Ho!’

Experienced Aussie actor Paul Eenhoorn was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk about his most recent role as Colin in last summer’s delightful and breezy buddy-comedy adventure Land Ho! The film tells the story of two former brothers-in-law, Colin and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) who take a much-needed trip to Iceland to escape the humdrum of their daily lives back in the States. He also opens up about his experience in the industry, his move from Australia to Seattle and what it was like filming in Iceland.

Other notable performances of his include the titular lead in Chad Hartigan’s 2013 drama This Is Martin Bonner; as Hugh in the 2011 heist/adventure Rogue Saints; and as a Lead Detective in the controversial 2007 documentary Zoo. He’s known mostly for his affable, charming personas but he has had the opportunity to take a villainous part before and did so in the 2004 family comedy Max Rules.


Getting to visit different parts of the world to tell stories is part of the trade. You went all the way to Iceland to tell this one. I would imagine you enjoy traveling, would that be a fair assessment? Travel is the best but when you’re shooting all you get to see is locations and the road there and back. Most times that is at ungodly hours, but with Iceland we really hauled all over to get to locations. Some of which have untended roads after September so it was rough at time. Still you can’t visit Iceland and not love it.

What was it that caught your eye about this project? (If all it took was the fact you’d be getting to go to this exotic location, I wouldn’t blame you. . .) I wanted to work with Martha Stevens and Aaron Katz, they are the new wave of directors coming up. Plus the production company Gamechanger Films offered me a reasonable deal so how could I say no.

Beyond the distinct personalities, what struck me early on was the camaraderie you and Earl Lynn Nelson shared. It was as though you weren’t given a script and were instead improvising much of the dialogue. In fact, the exchanges were such that I was convinced you two had been life-long friends (despite the script having you play former brothers-in-law). Had you known Nelson before shooting the film or was it more of a ‘learn-on-the-go’ kind of experience? If you’re an actor in film you have to form that connection, with people you don’t know, otherwise it falls flat. I didn’t know Earl Lynn but we spent a weekend shooting the opening scenes and we did  Iceland a few months later . . .

One of the things that really made Land Ho! an enjoyable diversion was the unique and picturesque setting. With principal photography lasting a bit over two weeks and occurring in seven cities, including the capital port city of Reykjavík, I’d imagine the shoot introduced some challenges. What was the experience like? Were there any unique challenges of filming a movie there? It was a twenty day shoot with a couple of days off here and there. The main problem for me was that it was cold all the time. It was fall there. I pulled a muscle in my thigh and I couldn’t work it off. Basically the conditions were rugged and I wasn’t prepared for the cold at all . . .

Tell me a little bit about your character Mitch. Is he anything like you? Colin is introspective which I am at times but I’m more like Mitch in ways except I don’t do anatomy jokes . . . 

You hail from Australia but now are based out of Seattle. Has moving to the States opened up more opportunities for you? Do you have plans to return to Australia at any point? Seattle isn’t L.A. but then that’s good at times too. The quality of life in Seattle is more to my liking, And yes the U.S. offers far more opportunity than Australia I’m sorry to say. I will head back to Australia one day . . . it’s a great place to live.

Seattle is most definitely known for the iconic bands and musicians that call the city their home. I’ve visited a few times myself and have always been fascinated with how much of a cultural melting pot it really is, though I have never stopped to consider its influence on the film industry. Could you describe what it’s like living there as an actor? I’ve shot a lot in Seattle but I had to travel to L.A. to get my first break on Chad Hartigan’s film This Is Martin Bonner. L.A. is the center of the filmmaking universe though Seattle production values are fast catching up. I do other things to make money and I would rather do that close to home base than in L.A.

In the film Earl Lynn Nelson plays a rather outgoing man, a retired doctor looking to keep himself busy in retirement. I understand this role was his very first. What was it like working with him? He seems like a pretty easy guy to get along with. Earl Lynn is very consistent, you know what you’re going to get from him so that made my job easier, if you call shooting any film easy. He did do a few gigs with Martha Stevens before this one.

What was it that got you into acting? Any family influences? Nope. I started shooting television when I was younger, I was in a band too so I always knew I wanted to act. My mom was a ballerina so that may be an influence . . .

What does the future look like for you? Do you have any current projects in the works? We have shot the opening of my next film Pendulum and we will be playing that in L.A. in late October. We are looking for funding. It’s a totally different part from Martin Bonner and Land Ho! Which is a good thing I think. I have not seen the cut but we are doing a cast and crew screening the second week of October.

I would like to thank Mr. Eenhoorn for taking the time out of his schedule to talk to me. Be sure to keep an eye out for Land Ho!, which is now available to stream online or rent through several DVD vendors including RedBox. Meanwhile, I will be seeking out Pendulum in the coming months. 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Paul Eenhoorn 

Kill Me Three Times

Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: James McFarland

Directed by: Kriv Stenders

Simon Pegg embraces his inner baddie and Kill Me Three Times is somewhat better because of it.

‘Somewhat’ is the operative word here as Pegg, even in a killer role (e-hem), isn’t enough to make the film worth watching. Too choppily paced to be considered an intentional slow-burner, not parodic enough to warrant comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, and not poorly acted enough to generate entertainment of a purely schlocky nature, Australian writer/director Kriv Stenders’ thriller regrettably makes precious little out of its great potential.

Unsurprisingly, Pegg’s presence affords the adventure most of its enjoyability. Opening on one of its most memorable lines, the film finds a stupefied Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) recounting how he could have possibly gotten into the situation he now finds himself. Before he can say another word — flashback! Yes, we are watching that kind of movie, where the introduction teases a history of events that are, apparently, best left in non-chronological order. Or at the very least, left until later.

We go back to where this botched crime began, like, a couple of days ago. A young woman named Alice (Alice Braga) has a dental appointment to repair a chipped tooth she received after the last altercation with her husband, but unbeknownst to her she is about to be drugged and kidnapped by the surgeon (Sullivan Stapleton) and his assistant/wife (Teresa Palmer). After becoming suspicious about his wife’s recent behavior, Jack (Callan Mulvey), a sleazy motel proprietor, hires a hit man to follow Alice around. Jack’s worst fears are realized thanks to video evidence of her sleeping with another man. Obliged to act betrayed but not really look it — I think this is just bad acting at this point — Jack finds himself requiring Charlie’s full range of services. Apparently this couple is well past resolving their differences with words.

Charlie is amused when he comes upon the dentists carrying out the act themselves, transferring her unconscious body into a different car that they light on fire and send over a cliff. However, he is not aware that their actions are being dictated by a completely different set of motivations. Of course, the sloppiness of the pair’s execution leaves a loose end. When Charlie goes back to Jack, satisfied that the job has been done and wanting to collect his payment (but not admitting that he didn’t have any involvement), Jack discovers he has been robbed.

While all this is going on the dentists, who aren’t really dentists but in fact horrible people with really nice teeth, are attempting to pull off an insurance scam by replacing the receptionist’s dental records with their most recent patient (Alice)’s, hoping to collect on the fake death that was staged with Alice in the flaming car. A corrupt local cop (Bryan Brown) catches on to the scheme-hatchery pretty quickly and demands he be paid half of the settlement. This, despite the fact Nathan is up to his neck in gambling debts and insists he can’t afford to lose a cent.

Kill Me Three Times weaves three tales of betrayal and murder that are all inextricably linked to one another, with Pegg’s contract killer coming right in the middle of it all. What the story ultimately boils down to is a simple case of infidelity and it is one you have seen countless times before. It’s a movie almost worth your while for Pegg’s atypical role playing but he’s deceptively peripheral given the amount of space he occupies on the theatrical release poster. Stenders packs the narrative with twist after twist, and endless scenes of double-crossing and back-stabbings, of both the literal and figurative sort. There is no particular point of view from which the story is told; Stenders instead relies on multiple perspectives by cutting back and forth between parties. Unfortunately very few developments are unforeseen or even very entertaining, the story bogged down in homage and triteness.

And yet, if you can spare some empathy for these underdeveloped characters — the good ones, that is — which will not only be a hell of an effort but likely one that’s more than what this film deserves, you might just be able to eke out some laughs while watching Pegg strut his stuff around the screen dressed to the nines and armed with a serious rifle. Personally, I was more inclined to review his mustache than the film he starred in. Upper lip hair is far more of a sinister characteristic than his all-black attire. For what it’s worth, Pegg pulls off the mustache and the antagonist look well enough. It’s just a little disappointing these are the kinds of cliches Kill Me Three Times is completely satisfied with justifying as its main source of entertainment.

Recommendation: A whodunnit in which we have a decent idea very early on who’s gonna do it, Kill Me Three Times also isn’t very funny. It had a huge opportunity to be something special with Simon Pegg in a different kind of role but unfortunately much of it is squandered in a boring story that does nothing with its solid cast and very little with its gorgeous Australian locales. This one boils down to a film to watch for completionists — if you have to see Pegg in everything he’s done then this should be on your list. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “This place is like a f**king open air insane asylum!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Gift

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

The Gift is a kind of addictive drug. The more of it you consume the more of it you want.

Considering this is the first time Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been in full control of a project, that may seem hyperbolic. However, the logic follows. Edgerton has proven over the course of a 17-year career on the big screen he’s able to do much with a bit of determination. And, well yeah, some pride and confidence. Edgerton’s not just talented but he’s principled. Criticism about projects he has chosen has rarely, if ever, questioned his faith in his own work. With resilience to spare, he continues to bear the marks of a reliable thespian. It would only make sense his efforts would translate to an altogether new aspect of filmmaking. This, the year 2015, would be the time to prove it.

The Gift, now almost three years in the making, is a gift to those who have kept the faith in him. As a mystery thriller it is incredibly tense, well-acted and the epitome of unpredictable. In it Edgerton co-stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who play a recently relocated married couple settling into the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles from their native Chicago. While shopping for home supplies, Simon (Bateman, in a compelling, atypically dramatic performance) bumps into someone who claims to recognize him from their high school days, a socially awkward but seemingly harmless Gordo (Edgerton). While the timing isn’t convenient to catch up in the store, Simon promises they will be in touch.

Simon is a partner in a billion-dollar company. His wife Robyn works from home as a designer. From what we gather initially the pair are but two seeds swept up in the current of modern day living, one that all but necessitates independent career earnings to support a family. Their beautiful home alone is but a part of a larger picture of success, and Simon and Robyn seem very happy together. One afternoon Gordo drops in unannounced; Robyn invites him in for a tour of their abode, not wanting to be rude to Simon’s ostensible old friend. This leads to a pleasant dinner later that evening, during which Simon and Gordo finally do some of that catching up. Most of it is casual chit-chat, but Edgerton being Edgerton, his character possesses a depth that jumpstarts his former classmate’s uptightness. An uptightness that gradually morphs into paranoia. Paranoia that evolves into legitimate suspicion.

The Gift is also written by the Aussie. On that front he proves himself a talent to keep watching, crafting a perpetual shape-shifter that creates at least as many questions as it does answers. That should be taken as a compliment of the highest order when it comes to the genre. Beyond an acting showcase — show me the role in which Jason Bateman has been better (or Rebecca Hall for that matter) — the film, particularly in its final moments, offers an adrenaline rush that manifests more as a high than anything else. Indeed if The Gift is a drug, it’s good for both the brain and body.

In an auspicious directing debut, Edgerton provides more than just sound narrative structure and an atmosphere in which his co-stars have clearly flourished — nevermind the fact that he shot his own role two weeks into production and in the span of a single week. He’s made his stance on childhood bullying abundantly clear. And of course he’s not content to stop there, evolving the conversation on the long-term effects of that infuriating reality into a discussion about how it takes a much darker and potentially more harmful turn when applied to adults engaging in such shameful behavior. If someone is looking for a fault in the film it’s that perhaps the issue is handled a little less than subtly in the pulse-pounding conclusion but that’s so incredibly secondary to the fact that he has taken this issue seriously, as it ought to be.

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood to be toyed with psychologically Joel Edgerton has the perfect film for you. Filled with deeply emotional performances and a wicked final (double) twist, his first shot at directing should earn him a score of new fans. This is pretty exciting stuff from a guy who’s always been reliable as an actor, and it’s safe to say this will go on to become a favorite for fans of the mystery thriller and intelligent, provocative filmmaking in general. The Gift is one of 2015’s greats. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Good people deserve good things.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Release: Friday, May 15, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: George Miller; Brendan McCarthy; Nico Lathouris

Directed by: George Miller

For a lesser population, what a lovely day it is indeed, a day in which a franchise is reborn. To anyone else not attuned to what was once a legitimate excuse for Mel Gibson going crazy, Mad Max: Fury Road feels like what a Michael Bay action sequence wants to be when it grows up.

Before dealing with the flack I’m going to inevitably receive for that comparison, may I remind you that Bay, despite himself now, has a knack for building enthusiastic, explosive entertainment. Whereas the aforementioned splurges on expense, George Miller ingeniously . . . well, he splurges too actually. Except here a $150 million budget is appropriated toward some mind-blowingly technical stunt work that is liable to leave most breathless, begging for more.

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is seen at the film’s deceptively quiet open recounting his days of hardship via a gruff narrative, briefly reflecting upon a troubled past before being snapped up by a passing horde of baddies, undoubtedly the inspiration for some of this year’s most popular Halloween costumes. Behold, the War Boys. He is taken to a strange and desperate civilization known as the Citadel, a relative oasis presided over by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps most of the communal water and greenery to himself and his minions.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a shaven-headed, fearless amputee with a face covered in soot, finally has had enough of living in such conditions. She goes rogue, fleeing the Citadel in Joe’s ‘War Rig’ and down an indistinct but narratively significant path of sorts, bound for a better way of life. On board the Rig are Joe’s Five Wives — a collection of beauty that recalls Bay’s casting sensibilities. But Bay doesn’t go for talent, really. He just stops at ‘good-looking.’

Perhaps that’s the only thing Joe cares for as well. Enraged by the knowledge of their escape, he sicks the War Boys on the Rig, igniting a thunderous and violent chase across remote desert landscapes and into a sand storm that makes The Perfect Storm look like a gust of wind. Valleys become death gauntlets, their outer limits patrolled by bikers who are expecting a shipment of gasoline be delivered by Furiosa in exchange for her safe passage through. As sure as a Michael Bay car chase, more disaster awaits there.

Miller and Bay are both adrenaline junkies — the former addicted to cartoonish madness; the latter to closing the gap between CGI spectacle and cinema-related migraine. One of these addictions is healthier (at the very least, artsier) than the other. But the constant raucous atmosphere can be overwhelming for newcomers to this depraved world of half-dead humans clinging to life however they can. For a good portion of this ride Max is used as a blood bag to nurse Nux (Nicholas Hoult) back to . . . uh, health. And one of the Five Wives is very pregnant. This isn’t a thinking man’s movie, but if there’s one thing Fury Road is adept at other than delivering non-stop thrills, it’s showing humanity’s will to endure some crazy shit.

With Hardy replacing Gibson in the titular role, one that strangely bears less significance when put beside an iconic Charlize Theron, Fury Road threatens to abandon its cult classic status, exploding into potential box-office behemoth territory. Despite an outrageous, gothic dress code this costume design will likely remain one of the hottest topics of the summer. Maybe all year.

Apparently The Avengers: Age of Ultron is still playing in some theaters. Well, now there’s a new kid on the block and his name is Mad Max Absolutely Ridiculous. Decorated in war paint, yelling at the top of his lungs he demands you know his name. After spending two hours with him you aren’t likely to forget it. Perhaps that’s the most significant distinction between these auteurs of the action spectacular.

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

4-0Recommendation: Decidedly one-note when it comes to plot, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a unique experience — brutal and relentless action combined with beautiful visuals and a gung-ho spirit that fails to dwindle. Having seen the originals isn’t a necessity but I’d imagine it would help round out Max’s character more. Action junkies and fans of George Miller’s brand of filmmaking must see this movie. It’s a curious thing, too: there are two films coming out later this year (one this summer) with as much potential to deliver the goods and both indisputably appealing to larger audiences, but I wonder if these films will be as successful in recruiting new fans as Miller’s latest has been.

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

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Photo credits: http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com; http://www.imdb.com