Movie Review – Da 5 Bloods

Pulp scavenger Spike Lee goes Rambo in his typically timely way, waving a middle finger to war and racism at an amazingly concurrent time to real-world events.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

During the Vietnam War, a black squadron of US soldiers who have dubbed themselves “Da 5 Bloods” – Paul (Delroy Lindo), David (Jonathan Majors), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Norman (Chadwick Boseman) – find a locker of gold bars in a CIA cargo crash. They plan to use the riches to help themselves and their community, until Norman is killed, and the gold is lost. Years later, the four remaining Bloods return to Vietnam as old men, in hopes of recovering the gold and Norman’s remains. They find themselves unprepared, however, for the remnants of the war, the post-trauma and the tears in family and friendship they’re about to face.

With recent events in the United States making waves around the world and reigniting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s no surprise really that Spike Lee’s filmography has quickly found new life. From Do the Right Thing all the way up to BlacKkKlansman, the majority of Lee’s films have explored race relations, urban crime and the black community, and so a new Netflix exclusive Lee film couldn’t arrive more appropriately timed.

In many ways, Da 5 Bloods does fit right in with Lee’s blisteringly unapologetic vocal politics, but in many more ways it is something much more experimental and bizarre. Taking a script that once had Oliver Stone attached to direct and giving it a complete overhaul (the four old men at its core were once white), he’s updated it to show the underseen side of black soldiers in the Vietnam War, while narratively taking an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach.

Beginning as a broad, almost Wild Hogs-lite buddy comedy about old-timers reliving their glory days, we soon come to find that things aren’t quite as joyous as they seem as we’re dropped into Vietnam with the Bloods. It’s here that the film takes multiple sharp turns and morphs into several different things entirely, including a rumination on age and existential dread, cutthroat friendship drama, treasure hunt adventure and violent war actioner. Tonally, it’s so all over the place that it winds up quite messy, with whatever messages Lee had in mind becoming lost in a jumbled explosion of ideas.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel keeps things just as frenetically varied, employing a vibrantly colourful palette and shifting aspect ratio between non-Vietnam scenes, the jungle and old-timey flashback sequences (for which Lee had to convince Netflix to let him use 16mm film). The mandatory real-life footage works in its discomfort but does feel a little tacked-on when attempting to relate the story to multiple historical events.

That said, Da 5 Bloods still stands among some of the better originals Netflix has to offer and has so much crammed into it that its over two-and-a-half-hour runtime is entertainingly brisk. Suspenseful and thought-provoking, with a collection of great performances from the elderly actors (especially an Apocolypse Nowtype descent into madness by Delroy Lindo) it serves as a good reminder why Lee remains ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist.

Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix Australia from 12 June 2020

Image courtesy of Netflix Inc.

Mission Impossible II turns 20

Twenty years ago this month, Tom Cruise and John Woo were dominating the box office with their kinetic and wild take on Mission Impossible. Somewhat maligned as the ugly duckling following a string of superior sequels, I thought it was about time that we set the record straight, and appreciated Mission Impossible II for what it really is – wildly misunderstood.

Rhys Pascoe

It is the summer of 2000. The likes of Eminem, Matchbox Twenty and Britney Spears are riding high in the charts, Y2K panic is already a distant memory and ‘Brennifer’ are the hottest couple in Tinseltown. Meanwhile, Mission Impossible II makes its bow in cinemas across the world, with a floppy-haired Tom Cruise in the lead role, four years on from the first film reviving a 60s TV classic.

It turned out to be the smash of the summer. It had the highest debut weekend of the year, and broke Scream 3’s record for widest release ever, playing in more than 3,600 theatres across the US. Here in Australia, it sat atop the box office for three weeks, and pipped Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator to the highest single weekend gross of the year.

By the end of its theatrical run, Mission Impossible II had earned upward of $500 million worldwide, far and away the biggest earner at the box office that year, ahead of Gladiator, Cast Awayand What Women Want (remember when every major blockbuster wasn’t a Disney remake or Marvel film?).

However, critical praise was harder to come by than box office receipts, with the film copping heat for its dizzying action and thin plot. In the intervening years, John Woo’s sequel has become the defamed stepchild of this six-part spy saga (particularly since the series has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and especially Christopher McQuarrie).

To that criticism I say: phooey. Woo’s film is a raucous and rowdy trip that recalls a time when blockbuster films could still be weird, outlandish or garish. There’s an overabundance of slow motion, ludicrous plot devices and next to no character development, but Woo’s film excels not in spite of its silliness, but thanks to it. It has everything the spy genre has to offer; rubber masks, deadly viruses, motorcycle chases, gun-fu, flocks of doves – what’s not to love? It’s an off-the-wall mishmash of ideas and cultures, distilled into a slick spy romp set in… Sydney (seriously).

The Mission Impossible series was founded on this idea that filmmakers would dip in, have a crack and dip out. Since 1996, five filmmakers have brought something new and interesting to the series; from Bird’s dizzying IMAX action spectacle in Ghost Protocol to McQuarrie’s tight storytelling in Rogue Nation and Fallout.

Woo brought panache and a sense of poetry to Mission Impossible II’s action set pieces, which are told through electrifying colour, stylised editing and constantly escalating stakes that reveal the Hong Kong filmmaker’s balletic wuxia roots. The colours – particularly vivid and rich on the Blu-ray copy I was watching – leap from the screen. Filmed in Broken Hill and around Port Jackson Bay, the outback soil is a rich, rusty orange and the ocean is a sparkling blue – a far cry from the washed-out and drab colour palettes that so many modern blockbusters paint with.

Cruise – who was then on something of a hot streak, having worked with both Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson in the two years prior – is peak action hero here. Still a huge draw for audiences and not yet a scientology nutjob, Mission Impossible II can also be seen as a watershed moment for the star.

Action had always been in Cruise’s wheelhouse, from the machismo of Top Gun to the fuel-soaked Days of Thunder. But Mission Impossible II is where headline-grabbing stuntwork and a dedication to thrilling action became the star’s modus operandi. The Arizona free climbing sequence where we’re reintroduced to Ethan Hunt might pale in comparison to some of Cruise’s later Mission Impossible stunts, but it tees up the idea that this is a bonafide ‘movie star’ who walks the walk.

For all its gleeful ‘guilty pleasure’ elements, there are others that aren’t as strong or as entertaining. Some of the casting choices are, questionable, to say the least. Anthony Hopkins feels out of place in this spy-vs-spy world, while Dougray Scott’s villain Sean Ambrose lacks malice. But, in something of a cinematic ‘sliding doors’ moment, we have Scott’s miscasting to thank for Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine, with the former turning down the role to instead star in Mission Impossible II.

Therefore, it falls to British actress Thandie Newton to trade dramatic punches with Cruise, and frankly she steals the show and then some – a cat burglar who is pulled into a biochemistry conspiracy, she’s granted actual agency and an arc that makes her the envy of disposable Bond girls everywhere. 

Looking back at Mission Impossible II illustrates just how tame and restrained most modern tentpole films are by comparison (McQuarrie’s recent Mission Impossible entries aside, obviously). There’s no murky third act CGI mess to sit through; Woo prefers choreographed action that is exciting and frenetic, but still easy to follow. 

It’s silly, but it’s never boring – which is more than be said for Cruise’s derivative The Mummy reboot or lacklustre Jack Reacher sequel. At least it’s a film with an identity of its own and a filmmaker’s fingerprints all over it – something most Marvel films can’t attest to. Maligned it may be, but Mission Impossible II – for all its faults – is colourful, chock-a-block with creativity and well worth a revisit.

Mission Impossible II is streaming on Netflix Australia and Stan.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Movie Review – The Lovebirds

The Lovebirds does indeed feature a pair of lovers. Unfortunately, they deserve a better screenplay.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Oh, how I wish I could recommend a movie simply for its humour and the cheerful chemistry between its actors, without any regard for its plot, vision or design. Not every movie is fortunate enough to be well-rounded, but the good ones at least have a story engaging enough to satisfy us till the end.

The Lovebirds, directed by Michael Showalter, has no such story. Instead, it scribbles together a skeleton plot, ripped from many other comedies in which goofy innocents are wrongfully accused, and watches happily as its cast squares off in a manic joke-athon.

The entire picture is one saggy clothesline on which an endless stream of verbal riffs and sight gags are hung, culminating in a climax that is neither clever, fun nor unexpected. It has an originality rating of about zero. Thankfully, though, it knows how to be funny, mainly because its two lead actors know how to be funny. More importantly, they know how to be funny with each other.

Kumail Nanjiani plays Jibran, a documentary filmmaker in New Orleans who hates reality TV. Issa Rae plays Leilani, his girlfriend of four years who yearns to be on The Amazing Race. You can see where they have problems.

They are so different in fact that one day, on their way to a dinner party, they decide to break things off. Just then, they are carjacked by a man claiming to be a cop (Paul Sparks) who has to hunt down and apprehend a fleeing cyclist. After catching up to and running the poor cyclist over multiple times instead, the man splits, leaving Jibran and Leilani as the primary suspects of a gruesome murder.

I dunno, does all this sound familiar? The rest of The Lovebirds is spent hurriedly following the hapless, bickering couple across the city as they try to solve the murder themselves while evading the cops, occasionally stopping for obligatory interludes that have to remind them of all the lovey-dovey reasons they got together in the first place.

The movie is essentially an exercise in behaviour and verbal agility. There must’ve been hours and hours poured into the screenplay, yet it feels like Showalter yelled “Action!” at the start of production, sat back and allowed Nanjiani and Rae to improvise everything, then yelled “Cut!” after 86 minutes. Nothing truly hilarious or exciting ever happens, not even when Jibran and Leilani stumble into a secret cult and become witnesses to an orgy.

The plot is dead on arrival. The developments that take the bumbling duo from one lead to another are uninspired. I don’t know why it took the two of them four years to realise their differences. I don’t like the way the movie so neatly ties up everything in the end, given the messy way it all began. What I do like, and enjoyed very much, is the easy chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae. They are cute together, really funny, and when they make each other laugh, I completely get why.

The Lovebirds is available on Netflix Australia from May 22

Images courtesy of Netflix Inc.

Movie Review – Hearts and Bones

Nothing ruins a feature debut premiere quite like a global pandemic. Fortunately, you can stream Ben Lawrence’s AACTA-nominated drama on digital right now.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Dan (Hugo Weaving) is a photojournalist whose work is not for the faint of heart. His pictures capture some of the most harrowing and confronting visuals of war zones around the world. As he prepares an exhibition showcasing his life’s work, he meets Sebastian (Andrew Luri), a Sudanese taxi driver who has learned that Dan possesses photos of the massacre that took place in his home village years beforehand. The two men and their families become friends, but dark secrets of the past are unearthed and threaten to unravel their lives when Sebastian asks Dan to keep the photos in question away from the eyes of the public.

Given its exploration of the life and impact of a photojournalist’s work, it’s no surprise to learn that director Ben Lawrence worked as a photographer and documentary filmmaker before his feature debut Hearts and Bones. Lawrence has reused the themes of long-gestating grief and trauma explored in his doco Ghosthunter for dramatic effect to create an impressive original story for his first fictional film.

For Weaving, Dan is a rich role that shakes the stern stoicism he’s made so much of his career perfecting. Professional on the outside, he’s in fact a deeply unstable human being, battling an increasingly all-consuming PTSD from the horrors he’s witnessed, his declining health, and the fears of his wife’s (Hayley McElhinney, also great) new pregnancy – given he’s still grieving over the premature death of their last baby.

Matching the veteran actor – incredibly, for his first time acting – is Luri, whose Sebastian is just as emotionally fractured, despite his happy demeanour. He’s reformed, as Dan sees, through his comfortable family life and joyous African community choir, but the pictures Dan plans to show the world could reveal a past Sebastian worked hard to bury. Tensions boil and violence looms between the pair, with both actors playing off each other and their respective wives to draw a great deal of depth and complexity out of a relatively small and contemplative drama.

It’s great that its layered characters are so strong because the potentially ripe subject matter remains pretty surface level. The opening moments – in which Dan hurriedly scopes out the scene of a brutal car wreckage to take death shots before the police arrive – promise a Nightcrawler-style exposure of the dark extremes journalism can go to, that is never delivered upon. It’s also a little surprising that visually, it’s a little bland, given Lawrence’s background behind the camera.

But for a narrative debut, Hearts and Bones is well-executed, and as an acting showcase and character thought-piece, it’s largely applaudable.

Hearts and Bones is available on iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay and the Microsoft Store in Australia from 6 May 2020

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

New Movies Now On Digital – The Hunt, Onward, The Way Back

While some studios have opted to delay the release of films that were due to hit Australian cinemas this Autumn, others have chosen to go straight to digital. The Hunt, Onward and The Way Back can now be accessed online from the comfort of isolation, but should you invest your time in any one of these new movies?

Rhys Pascoe

The Hunt
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Emma Roberts
Runtime: 90 minutes

Snobbish liberals kidnap salt-of-the-earth blue collar Joes from the ‘flyover States’ and hunt them for sport on a remote woodland estate. That’s the core concept behind Craig Zobel’s political satire The Hunt, which sparked a fiery rebuke from President Trump last year and has been mired in controversy ever since.

However, that online firestorm was entirely misplaced and misguided – not unlike a lot of what Trump spouts on Twitter. The commander-in-chief’s core complaint was that Zobel’s film glorifies the killing of MAGA (Make America Great Again) wackos, which it definitely does not. In fact, both sides of the political spectrum get a pasting in The Hunt, and this is largely down to the broad brush Zobel and screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (HBO’s Watchmen, The Leftovers) are painting with.

The Hunt isn’t a razor-sharp scalpel that delicately peels back the layers of contemporary political discourse; it’s a blunt instrument that knocks you over the head with punchy action, schlocky gore and plenty of heightened drama. It’s a garish blunderbuss pointed in our direction, and if you get hurt in the crossfire, that’s on you. It is packed to the rafters with abrasive internet lingo, with phrases like ‘globalist cuck’, ‘liberal elite’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘deep state’ bandied around without abandon. Even Sean Hannity gets a mention.

Cutting through the bullshit is a strong lead performance from Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s Glow), who plays Crystal, a steely shotgun-wielding survivor. Gilpin serves as an exasperated audience POV, groaning and rolling her eyes at the colourful weirdos who surround her – played by the likes of Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Sturgill Simpson and Wayne Duvall. Playing a psychotic villain, Hilary Swank is a notable A-list inclusion – but she feels miscast.

An interesting contemporary spin on The Most Dangerous Game or Battle Royale, The Hunt is a serviceable 90-minute thriller that packs a punch but lacks nuance. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a giant middle finger at both ‘woke’ culture and far-right trolls, so much so that you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or cringe. A bit like reality, to be honest.

Now available on iTunes Australia and the Microsoft Store.
Images © Universal Pictures Australia

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer
Runtime: 102 minutes

Onward pairs Pixar’s patented mix of heart, humour and gorgeous animation with a familiar Dungeons and Dragons setting populated by pixies, elves, sprites and goblins. In this mystical realm, magic is a mere memory, and the world has mostly moved on. Our hero is awkward elf teen Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who is on the cusp on adulthood but struggling to grapple with the practicalities of growing up.

You see, Ian never knew his dad, and has spent his formative years without a father figure to look up to. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, with a vocal performance that recalls his work as slacker Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation) is a basement-dwelling dork who drives a dilapidated van, plays with figurines and daydreams of magic quests.

On his sixteenth birthday, Ian is gifted an ancient staff that possesses the power to bring his dad back to life for a day. But a miscast spell leaves him stuck in limbo, so Ian and Barley find themselves in a race against time to find a special gem that will complete the enchantment. 

It goes without saying when discussing Pixar at this point, but the animation in Onward is scarily good. The fantastical world is popping with colour and detail, and there’s no shortage of cute asides that riff on the mix of mystical and the mundane – from unicorns that gnaw away at trash cans like racoons to arcade games with names like ‘Prance Prance Revolution’.

From processing emotions (Inside Out) to dealing with death (Coco), Pixar’s original output has consistently seen the studio tackle mature themes in ways that are compelling and digestible for young minds, and Onward is no different.

Ian serves as an insert for director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), whose dad passed away when he was just a year old, making this a particularly personal pursuit for the filmmaker. From the moment Ian and Barley embark on their quest to the final scene, Onward is a ‘feels trip’ in every sense of the phrase. Ian overcomes his internal self-doubt en route, but the crux of the film is his relationships with both his layabout brother and the idealistic image of his dad he has in his head.

After one or two scrapes along the way, Scanlon underlines the importance of paternal and fraternal familial frameworks in a touching finale that abounds with swashbuckling adventure and stirring emotion. It may not rate up there with Pixar’s crème de la crème, but Onward sees the studio bring back a spark of that old magic after a slew of sequels.

Now available on Dinsey+, iTunes Australia and the Microsoft Australia.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Way Back
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal
Runtime: 108 minutes

Art isn’t just imitating life in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, where lead actor Ben Affleck’s personal issues are unmistakably intertwined with those of his character in this compelling but formulaic sports drama.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball hero who has turned to drink since his divorce to wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). When his alma mater comes a-calling in search of a coach for its struggling and squabbling basketball squad, Jack is initially reluctant – the last thing he needs right now is to be in the spotlight.

But soon enough Jack is sitting on courtside, coaching a rabble of rowdy teens whose talent isn’t reflected by their lacklustre results. The aim is to reach the playoffs for the first time in years, forcing Jack to quash his own issues, and instead put his heart and soul into moulding young minds.

Affleck – who has been in and out rehab over the years, most notably right before making this film – is clearly wrestling with some personal demons here. He’s a million miles from the hulking beefcake who played Batman not so long ago, and is clearly drawing from something raw and real to add depth and nuance to Jack’s redemption journey. Having veered from tabloid fodder to Oscar-winning producer and back again, Affleck is no stranger to staggering comeback stories – his career has seen plenty of highs (Good Will Hunting, Argo, Gone Girl) and lows (Daredevil, Pearl Harbour, Live By Night) over the years.

The Way Back definitely belongs in the former category, as slick direction from O’Connor and a compelling performance from Affleck see the film transcend a paint-by-numbers script by Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night). Granted, most sports films often follow a strict formula, and Ingelsby is clearly colouring within those well-worn lines – from the initial ‘refusal of the call’ to the stirring midpoint montage where things start to trend upward.

All of the basketball scenes are coated in a thick layer of sweet sentimentality, complete with stirring and manipulative musical cues from Rob Simonsen. There’s passion and emotion aplenty, but it’s easy to see O’Connor and co pulling on the heartstrings like master puppeteers.

A modest yet moving sports drama that has sadly fallen by the wayside in light of COVID-19, The Way Back sees Sad Affleck make an emotive comeback, and it’s the best thing he has put his name to in years.

Now available on iTunes Australia, Google Play, Microsoft Store and YouTube
Image courtesy of Roadshow Entertainment

Now Streaming: Indiana Jones & The Mummy

If you’re home and in the mood for some swashbuckling archaeological throwbacks, Netflix has two killer classics for you to enjoy in isolation.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

“When Raiders of the Lost Ark appeared, it defined a new energy level for adventure movies; it was a delirious breakthrough. But there was no way for Spielberg to top himself”, wrote Roger Ebert when he reviewed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989.

True, but Last Crusade has something Raiders didn’t, something Temple of Doom (1984) attempted to remedy semi-successfully with Short Round: Indy’s perfect foil.

Enter, Sean Connery. Perhaps the best thing to happen to the franchise since the melting Nazi faces. Connery, as Indy’s clueless but often resourceful father, adds a spark to the movie unsurpassed by anyone else the series has to offer. He develops a chemistry with Harrison Ford so natural, so convincing and gleefully entertaining that the film kicks up a gear whenever he’s on screen. His proper introduction in the German castle and the ensuing motorcycle chase contain some of his funniest exchanges.

He inhabits the role with a kind of joy. Connery has always been able to determine exactly what a part requires of him and tune his performance accordingly. In Last Crusade, he is so complete you’d think he was a series regular, and it’s this very comfort that convinces us he’s Indy’s dad, Marcus Brody’s old friend, a true historian and an explorer capable of accepting the supernatural.

Of course, none of this would matter if the movie as a whole didn’t work. Last Crusade does everything an Indiana Jones movie must do and includes all the sensational chases and nail-biting stunts that made Raiders great (in some cases, like the sequence involving the tank, it is even better than Raiders). And this time, Indy actually has a profound effect on the outcome of the story. It is a full-blooded, often hilarious adventure, my favourite of the lot, and in casting Sean Connery, I think Spielberg has indeed topped himself.

The Mummy


Here is a movie that has aged superbly, retaining its humour and dogged atmosphere of eerie thrills more than twenty years on from its original release. The Mummy, which I hesitate to admit kept me awake for two weeks straight after I saw it for the first time in 1999, has grown for me into a balanced cocktail of fun and dread. The kind of adventure movie that can have you hiding behind your fingers one moment and laughing out loud the next.

It’s all incredibly preposterous and has very little in common with Universal’s original Mummy movie with Boris Karloff, but it’s directed by Stephen Sommers, who is, let’s say, a little rough around the edges and not primarily concerned with making great movies. I’m actually thankful for that, because this Mummy would’ve shrivelled up and died if anyone working on it had taken it seriously.

Sommers brings great energy to this picture, which is all about ancient Egyptian curses and creatures returning from the dead and our heroes reciting the wrong sacred passages from the wrong sacred books to accidentally unleash all the wrong kinds of phenomena.

It’s standard fare but incredibly fun, particularly because Brendan Fraser, as the Indiana Jones-like swashbuckler Rick O’Connell, is endlessly charming, hilarious, and convincing in action. He is the bond that holds the set pieces together. The visual effects, too, have held up considerably well, and Sommers along with his cinematographer Adrian Biddle have done a masterful job of framing beautiful but claustrophobic spaces for their characters to get lost in.

The Mummy looks and feels just right. It’s breezy and enjoyable, and suitably chilling. The more ridiculous but less coherent The Mummy Returns followed two years later, also directed by Sommers, with the same cast, but it hasn’t stood the test of time as elegantly.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade & The Mummy are now streaming on Netflix in Australia.

Images courtesy of Netflix Australia, Paramount Home Entertainment and Universal Pictures Video

Movie Review – Horse Girl

Being trapped in quarantine means being trapped inside your own head for a lot of people, so what better way to stimulate the mind than a film about a psychological breakdown? No, Alison Brie does not neigh.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Shy and introverted Sarah (Alison Brie) lives an unglamorous life, spending her days working at a craft store and her evenings alone watching reruns of her favourite cop show. Her peculiarities begin to frustrate those around her – particularly the stable owners of a horse that was once hers (who she continues to visit), and her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan), who sets Sarah up with her boyfriend’s roommate in an attempt to get her out of the house. But Sarah’s issues boil much deeper below the surface, and as her weird ticks turn into sleepwalking, losing time and seeing people from her dreams, she begins to succumb to paranoia and slowly lose her mind.

If you’ve only ever witnessed Alison Brie as Community’s compulsive, naïve over-achiever Annie Edison, or in her myriad of supporting romantic comedy roles, her anxiety-addled turn in Netflix’s Horse Girl is likely to rattle you at least a little. Directed by Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, The Little Hours) and co-written by Brie and Baena, it’s a brave and mature departure from the bubbly, fluffy characters that have become her repertoire, as well as her grittier work on Mad Men and Glow.

Flawed though her first screenplay may be, it’s certainly ambitious in how it tackles untreated schizophrenia. Initially sympathetically nice, but weird enough to be someone you’d keep at arm’s reach, Brie owns and eats up her loner Sarah. She’s the kind of socially awkward girl you feel sorry for, yet there’s always something slightly unnerving behind her doe-eyed stare.

Descents into madness have been done many a time before, but Brie keeps the anxiety high as she slowly unravels unpredictably, from little oddities like sleepwalking and glaring at the wall in the middle of the night, to full-on meltdowns raving about alien abduction and taking her date to a cemetery to dig up her mother. It’s startling and occasionally shocking stuff, and Brie fully commits to it.

Unlike her performance though, she can’t fully commit to her psychological subject. After an interestingly uncertain first half, Horse Girl twists and makes a tonal shift into the surreal that only confuses things and fails to delve deeper into its heavy topic. You could argue this is an artistic decision to put the viewer into the subject’s fractured mindset, but it only serves to frustrate with a lack of answers to any of the intriguing conspiracies it sets up.

Brie paints an earnest and at times somewhat stimulating portrait of a terrible mental condition, but in tackling such a ripe subject, it winds up being scattered and can’t help but feel lacking.

Horse Girl is available on Netflix in Australia

Image courtesy of Netflix Inc Australia

Movie Review – Rear Window (1954)

With most of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, I got to thinking – what are some films that are set in the one place?

There’s Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, which sees, well, 12 angry men confined to a courthouse. There’s John Hughes’ seminal high school classic The Breakfast Club, and Ben Wheatley’s warehouse-set shoot ‘em up Free Fire.

But all of these films follow characters that grapple with fleeting moments of confinement. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) that elongates this notion of isolation and an inability to move to several days and weeks.

Hitchcock is no stranger to films that are rooted in one place, with 1948’s Rope and 1954’s Dial M for Murder both exploring this concept. But Rear Window is where Hitchcock perfected the technique. So, in keeping with the times, I took another look at Rear Window and came away with a newfound appreciation of this classic.

Rear Window sees magazine photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart) confined to his sweltering New York apartment with a broken leg during a heatwave. Bored and frustrated after several long and sticky weeks confined to a wheelchair, there is little for Jefferies to do but gaze out his rear window at the apartments and people who exist just out of his reach.

Narratively, Rear Window is remarkably simple. Jefferies overhears something grisly in the middle of the night but can’t piece it together in the days that follow. He can only sit there in his pyjamas with his camera, peering down the lens and watching everyone in his neighbourhood like ‘bugs under a glass’. Jefferies is positively bristling at the chance to catch his neighbours in the act, specifically the shifty-looking salesman Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who lives just across the courtyard.

Of course, Hitchcock being Hitchcock, Rear Window doesn’t rebuke this idea or reprimand Jefferies and his accomplices (Grace Kelly’s socialite Lisa and Thelma Ritter’s nurse Stella) for their voyeuristic tendencies. Quite the opposite, in fact. In this perverse reality, the voyeur – and by extension, the audience – is vindicated, as all our suspicions prove well founded. Keep tabs on those across the street, Hitchcock suggests, and you might just sniff out a murderer.

Every open widow tells a different story, but not in full. A lot of the plot is communicated visually and without dialogue. Like Jefferies, the audience is made to join the dots with one arm tied behind our back. A jumped conclusion here, a leap of faith there – and suddenly, the next-door neighbour is a wife killer.

It might not be as scary as Psycho, as thrilling as North by Northwest or as dizzying as Vertigo, but Rear Window is Hitchcock at the top of his game. It might even be my favourite of the lot. It features two terrific performances from an increasingly unhinged Stewart and an otherworldly Kelly respectively, as well as some gorgeous production and costume design. What it has to say about loneliness and isolation is as apt today in our terrifying world of social distancing as it was back in the 50’s.

Stay safe (and sane) while staying home, or you might just start suspecting someone in your street of something strange…

By Rhys Pascoe

Rear Window is available on Amazon Prime and Blu-Ray in Australia.

Image courtesy of Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia.

Movie Review – The Matrix (1999)

More than twenty years on, The Matrix remains a sharp, kinetic masterstroke.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The Matrix arrived at a time of technological uncertainty, just as the millennium was coming to a close and everyone wondered if the clocks would revert to zero and send a burgeoning digital world into chaos. It was about the rise of artificial intelligence and the slavery of the human race. It mirrored the fears and paranoia suffered by an unsure population. It was packaged to look like the coolest video game that had yet to be developed. And for a generation of hungry young moviegoers, it was a formative (and transformative) revelation. At least it was for me.

Unless you were there, in 1999, having witnessed nothing like it before, I doubt I could put The Matrix’s effect into suitable words. It pilfered its premise from other great science-fiction films – notably Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Alex ProyasDark City (1998) – then styled itself not as an acid trip or a neo-noir mystery thriller but as a bible tale drenched in cyberpunk visuals and high-tech kung fu.

It innovated and championed new techniques in filmmaking (slow-motion, “bullet time”, etc), propelled Keanu Reeves into the superstar stratosphere, and seemingly changed the way action movies and science-fiction fantasies could be made.

The story, of course, involves the arrival of a messianic hero called Neo (Reeves), who spends his days as software analyst Thomas Anderson and his nights as a renowned hacker. He is contacted by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who believes Neo to be mankind’s prophesied saviour after humans created synthetic intelligence and watched helplessly as it surpassed them, enslaved them, and created the Matrix “dream world” to sedate and exploit them.

All this is basically a clothesline on which the directors, the Wachowskis, pin an inexhaustible number of action sequences, many of which have become iconic in the world of movie magic. There are definitely harsh warnings here about the dangers of tampering with computers and A.I., but it all gets swept up in the euphoria of the effects and the style. This isn’t exactly criticism, but a happy observation of a science-fiction action movie that was done better than anything else of its kind at the time.

Watching the movie again for the bazillionth time, I find that the gunfighting scenes no longer grip me the way they used to. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen countless copies and rip-offs in the time since, and even though The Matrix executes them well, they have become much of a muchness. The kung fu scenes, however, especially the dojo and subway pieces, remain muscular and, dare I say it, elegant. The choreography by kung fu legend Yuen Woo Ping has lost none of its sharpness.

I still marvel at the ingenuity and effort put into this film. It shook the world so violently that two sequels spawned in its wake and a third is currently set for 2021. All three are needless. The Matrix ended with triumphant satisfaction. It told its story and closed it. Unfortunately. Hollywood believes that what is closed can be opened again, and again, and again, whether we want it to be or not.

The Matrix is now screening on Netflix Australia

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films & Netflix Australia

Movie Review – Birds of Prey

Cathy Yan’s sparkly superhero blockbuster works to entertain, but something about it isn’t quite right.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I am going to plead the First Amendment of the United States constitution by proxy, because I foresee indignation and furrowed brows at what I’m about to say. Birds of Prey is a fun, buoyant action movie, with lots of colours, vulgarities and impressive stunts. But in its efforts to uplift the role of women in blockbuster entertainment, it somehow feels it necessary to prop them on the backs, shoulders, faces, groins and mangled corpses of men. This is essentially a movie where a posse of spunky chicks beat up on dudes for two hours.

I know I’m wading in dangerous waters here, but let’s face it – there is healthy feminism and toxic feminism, and I doubt true gender equality crusaders would watch a movie like Birds of Prey and feel vindicated. If they do, well, good on them. There is a scene where Harley Quinn storms through a police station to rescue a young girl, and every single cop who tries to stop her is male. Come on. She tears through them like tissue paper. Later, she fights off criminals, bounty hunters and a small army, and I challenge you to count the women.

There is not a single personable, honest man in the entire story. They’re either sleazy douchebags who try to humiliate and take advantage of girls, corrupt police captains who exploit their female officers by stealing their promotions, or they’re the villain, whose sole character trait seems to be flagrant misogyny. There is one good man I can recall. An elderly Chinese restaurant owner. But even he… oh, never mind.

Anyway, the plot. Harley (Margot Robbie) is finally free of her paramour, the Joker, and is trying to go straight. We meet nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who is after a 30-carat diamond said to be engraved with the passcodes to Gotham’s biggest fortune.

Through developments too complicated to explain, the diamond ends up in the intestinal tract of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the young girl from the police station. This sets up a situation where every main character wants Cassandra disembowelled. Her pursuers include Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Roman’s prized lounge act; Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), Roman’s enforcer; Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a lanky badass with a crossbow; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a disgraced detective determined to bring Harley down.

It’s a wacky plot that ticks all the necessary boxes and supplies our average daily intake of mindless action. Robbie, in the central role, is cute and quirky and looks to be having a good time, mainly because she has to. The real surprise is McGregor, who slips into Roman’s slimy shoes with a kind of gleeful malice the screenplay doesn’t provide, ironically stealing the show.

Look, Birds of Prey has an agenda and is unafraid to say so. If you want feisty, skilful women doing things in action movies previously reserved for macho men, you’d love this. Personally, I preferred Wonder Woman (2017). She was thrust into a world dominated by men and proved she could be powerful and independent without having to belittle them. She understood the strength of mutual respect.

Birds of Prey is available in Australian cinemas from 6 February 2020

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films