Movie Review – Brothers’ Nest

The Jacobson Brothers take sibling rivalry and daddy issues to the extreme. Once your pulse has settled after Hereditary, get ready for another fucked up family blood pressure test.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

Early on a cold morning out somewhere in the Victorian countryside, two middle-aged brothers, Terry (Shane Jacobson) and Jeff (Clayton Jacobson), arrive at their old, isolated family home. Their plan: murder their stepfather and stage his suicide in a bid to convince their terminally ill mother to alter her will so that she leaves them the house instead. The meticulously-plotted scheme seems foolproof, but what the brothers don’t plan for is the day they will spend together, their differing opinions and the bad blood that will resurface, among other unexpected road bumps.

It’s been twelve years since the Jacobson brothers’ smash hit mockumentary Kenny dominated the Australian box office , but their reteaming has been well worth the wait. Brothers’ Nest definitely doesn’t have the broad appeal that Kenny did, but it’s an even better film for it. An intelligently crafted and surprisingly dark tale that slings sudden twists and turns at its unsuspecting audience like bullets, it’s a film of changing genres. It wears its Coen Brothers’ influence on its sleeve as it bounces between goofball buddy crime and black comedy, before seguing seamlessly into intense thriller territory.

That it works so well is down to the real-life brothers’ effortless chemistry. In classic squabbling-odd-couple fashion, the brothers’ yin each other’s yang. Clayton’s Jeff is the no-nonsense man in charge, the one with everything obsessively planned out so that the murder goes off without a hitch. His folly is Shane’s Terry, the slightly more witless and bumbling other half, whose incessant questioning and emotions bubbling to the surface feel like a liability to the operation from the start. Their exchanges are priceless as Terry cluelessly causes complications by botching supposedly simple tasks.

Though the Jacobson’s have shared a respectable career apart over more than a decade with their own acting and directing efforts, let’s hope it isn’t another twelve years before Shane and Clayton get together as a filmmaking team again. If Brothers’ Nest is anything to go by, Australia could very well have its own siblings to rival the Coen Brothers.

Brothers’ Nest is available in Australian cinemas from June 21 

Image courtesy of Label Distribution 

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Movie Review – Upgrade

Slick, scorching, grisly and clichéd AF – strap in for an Upgrade.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious), new Australian film Upgrade is a screaming collision of Paul Verhoeven tech-thriller, grimy cyberpunk mystery and grotesque David Cronenberg body horror. There are moments of intense gore and dark humour, with fantastic choreography and inventive camerawork tying it all together. Think Robocop and Minority Report meets John Wick and Avatar.

If that sounds like your kind of thing, buckle in for a wild ride. Whannell serves up a frenetic 90-minute sci-fi thriller that opens with Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) and wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) brutally assaulted by a quartet of cybernetic thugs. Waking up in hospital as a paraplegic, Grey’s only hope for exacting revenge is an experimental computer chip called STEM (Simon Maiden), which not only gives him the ability to walk, but also kick-ass and take names. It also talks to only him and feeds him advice, sort of like if the devil on your shoulder had a baby with a vaguely sarcastic Siri knock-off.

Even if it’s a setting and a premise we’ve seen umpteen times before, Upgrade is garnished with just enough to keep it afloat. The futuristic tech is believable and the stream of dark humour is fun and ensures the bleak Black Mirror-esque paranoia isn’t suffocating. Marshall-Green is the real standout though; his performance is touching, hilarious and badass, sometimes in the very same scene. Just the right balance of mirth and gravitas for this hokey B-movie fluff.

Where Upgrade struggles is its plot; the twists and turns are immediately obvious to anyone with half a brain and are ripped straight from the guidebook on dark sci-fi horror. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, I guess.

Upgrade is available in Australian cinemas from June 14 

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 

Movie Review – Cargo

In a post-apocalyptic Australia, Martin Freeman plays Andy, a man roaming the outback desperate to find sanctuary for his daughter before he turns into a zombie. Along the way, he encounters Thoomi a young girl who agrees to help Andy if for nothing more than the company in a vastly decreasing population of unaffected people.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Cargo, from first time filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, follows the story of Andy as he desperately tries to make his way across the outback in a post-apocalyptic Australia to try and get his one-year-old daughter to safety before he succumbs to a zombie virus. Along the way, he meets Thoomi, a young girl who is to protect her zombified father from being killed and who may just be able to help lead him and his daughter to safety.

Zombie films are hard sells nowadays, and a zombie film in the outback an even harder one. With the ever growing list of zombie franchises such as the popular TV series The Walking Dead, iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, and the endless Resident Evil films, not to mention the standalone films Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead and World War Z (just to name a few), there are few angles left to take.

Surprisingly, Cargo manages to carefully straddle the line between formulaic and unique to present a film that is recognisable enough in its themes and plot for audiences to understand they’re watching a zombie film, but its careful characterisation and location choice ultimately present a different take on the whole zombie epidemic.

Martin Freeman is brilliant as the helpless Andy who’s just trying to keep his family safe. His paternal protectiveness of his young daughter Rosie is his drive throughout the entire film, and is played to such precision that it gives the whole film purpose, that is often missing from traditional zombie films. Newcomer Simone Landers is wonderfully strong and insightful as Thoomi. Her powerful belief in her culture’s traditional rituals is never portrayed as naïve but instead is a sliver of hope in a largely doomed world.

Ultimately this film isn’t about a zombie-virus invasion or white vs. Indigenous culture; it is simply a story of survival, where the outback is no longer a dangerous environment but actually a sanctuary, and where the people remaining are trying to survive in any way they know how. Whilst the film contains the necessary drone shots of the Australian outback for the international viewers, it portrays the outback in a completely different way as well, almost as Australians see it rather than something to be feared.

I’d definitely recommend giving this film a watch, if not for a different take on Australian culture in cinema or a unique offering to the zombie genre, then at least for Martin Freeman owning this role like a boss.

Cargo is available in Australian cinemas from May 17 

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Movie Review – The Gateway

This Perth-produced sci-fi thriller earns a B+ for ambition, but can’t quite make the grade anywhere else.

⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

Jane Chandler’s (Jacqueline McKenzie) time is unevenly split between her family and her all-consuming job as a particle physicist on the brink of creating a functioning teleportation device. A breakthrough in her work reveals that her machine does not in fact transport matter, but instead sends it to a parallel universe; a revelation put on hold abruptly when Jane’s husband (Myles Pollard) is killed in a car accident. Overwhelmed with grief and unable to cope without him, she journeys to a parallel universe to bring back another version of her husband – without realising that the universe he is from has dark and violent tendencies.

The term ‘know your limits’ exists for a reason. It’s a rule that applies to filmmakers too; your idea may be bold, but that might not outweigh the resources you have available to you or the cliché-ridden script that embalms it. Someone should probably have told this to director/co-writer John V. Soto (Crush, Needle), whose heart is most certainly in the right place, but really should have been a bit more creative in bringing his sci-fi thriller The Gateway to life.

There’s always juicy potential in a premise that involves teleportation and multiple variations of our universe, and Soto starts engagingly enough with the determined Jane and her lab partner Regg (Ben Mortley) racing against the clock to make their matter-transporting passion project come to life before their executives cut their funding. It might not be such of a problem for international audiences, but right off the bat, the very blatantly Perth setting throws any credibility straight out the window – at least for local viewers. Perth audiences will no doubt scoff at the idea that our government would possibly commission scientists to experiment with the unbelievable, instead of, say, spending tax dollars on more speed cameras. Amazingly, in a film that features reality-hopping and lethal alien tasers, this is the most far-fetched concept.

Soto’s biggest downfall is shooting for that Hollywood blockbuster feel on a budget that is barely a fraction of their cost. As a result, his dependence on visual effects derails proceedings, bleeding the little money the production had into a hodgepodge of tacky CGI. Worse is the poor lighting palette and filters (particularly in the drab dystopia of the parallel world), which gives this the shabby feel of a Syfy Channel original.

Soto should have looked to his micro-budgeted peers for inspiration. Take James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence, for example. On an even smaller budget, it managed to be far more engaging and thought-provoking without the reliance on any visual trickery, simply because it focused instead on making its characters strong and ideas heard. And as a local filmmaker, Soto should have taken a leaf from Ben Young’s book; last year’s Hounds of Love was miniscule in scale and yet enormous in impact and resonance. Bigger is not always better – what’s the point in copying Hollywood when forming our own creative identity is much more interesting?

It’s not all bad of course. Jacqueline McKenzie does her best in attempting to elevate the material, as does Ben Mortley in forming a likable enough partnership. The early mix of science and family stuff fares fine separately; it’s just unfortunate to see it culminate in Myles Pollard doing his best Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 impression to become killer dad and hunt down his family. As tempting as it is to support local productions, the truth is you can see the same elsewhere and executed much more successfully.

The Gateway is available in selected Australian cinemas from May 3

Image courtesy of Rialto Distribution

Movie Review – Breath

A worthy attempt by first-time director Simon Baker to capture a truly Australian story.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

Based on Tim Winton’s novel of the same name, Breath follows two teenage boys in WA’s South West who strike up a friendship with local surfer Sando (Simon Baker). On their search for adventure, the two boys find themselves navigating moral minefields as they struggle to grow into the men they want to be.

Breath has so far been well-received by those familiar with the novel and Winton’s writing. In his feature film directorial debut, Australian actor-turned-director Simon Baker has captured the essence of Winton’s writing style and successfully translated it onto the screen. However, in being so true to the source material, I fear Breath potentially alienates any who lack knowledge of or simply don’t appreciate Winton’s ways of storytelling.

Baker’s film moves at a slow and meandering pace that takes the time to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and express the laidback vibe of 1970’s regional WA. While this approach allows for some beautiful cinematography of the ocean and the landscape, it also means the narrative tends to take a bit of a back seat.

Understand that when I say the story unfolds slowly – I mean it’s glacial. Sitting in the cinema, I became painfully aware of the amount of time it was taking to set up the story and began to wonder if it would all be over before anything really happened. Then, when the conflict finally came, it hit so hard and fast that it felt rushed as it tried to tackle such complex and confronting themes.

Thankfully, the film is somewhat saved by its two lead performances. Cast based on their surfing skills and with no prior acting experience, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence are startlingly good as the two young boys at the centre of the story.

Coulter plays the main protagonist Pikelet and brings a sensitivity and maturity that seasoned actors struggle to conjure. His ability to keep Pikelet’s emotions just below the surface keeps you rooting for him, even when some of his actions are less morally driven.

Pikelet’s quiet sensibility is off-set perfectly by the loud and brash Loonie (Spence), whose knack for wild tales and ocker expressions brings some much-needed comic relief. He is the perfect embodiment of the slightly rougher characters you find in Australian country towns, but whether the character will resonate with international audience is yet to be seen.

How Breath fares at the worldwide Box Office will be the real test. Here we have a classic Australian story and a worthy adaptation, but any lacking context may not connect with it.

Breath is available in Australian cinemas from May 3

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – 2:22

Fun fact: 2:22 was released in the US the same day that Jay-Z dropped his album 4:44. Like the film’s many coincidences though, that probably doesn’t mean a great deal.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan 

Dylan Branson’s (Michiel Huisman) ability to calculate and visualise patterns comes in handy for his job as an air traffic controller guiding planes as they land. That is, until he experiences a strange space and time-defying vision at precisely 2:22pm that stuns him and nearly causes a mid-air collision. Suspended from work, Dylan begins to notice that his now free days consist of numerous bizarrely specific events repeating up until 2:22pm, and that these – and the beautiful Sarah (Teresa Palmer), a survivor of the near-crash who he meets and falls in love with – are all premeditating an ominous approaching event.

As if Before I Fall and Happy Death Day weren’t enough; the Groundhog Day variation trend continues this year with 2:22, though Paul Currie’s film isn’t quite so sure of what genre it’s inserting the now tired trope into. It’s a sort-of romantic, sort-of sci-fi, sort-of action-thriller, though it doesn’t ever deliver fully on any of these, settling instead on being an adequate but incredibly flat example of each.

As the romantic leads, Michiel Huisman and Teresa Palmer – attractive as they are – simply can’t coax us into investing emotionally in their bland characters. Both do their best, but they look a little bored rattling off each contrived coincidence the script has to offer them, including the shock of learning she was on the plane he nearly crashed(!), and the shock of learning they were born on the exact same day(!). Try as they might, neither actor can make these humdrum flukes seem exciting, especially when they bear little-to-no effect on the plot as a whole.

The astral projection and mystery of why certain events of Dylan’s day are repeating themselves fail to get the blood pumping too, since Currie neglects making the dot-connecting interesting or fascinating in any way, and never offers up a satisfying explanation – or really, much of an explanation at all – for what is going on.

In fact, the flubbing of all genres lazily present can be traced back to Nathan Parker and Todd Stein’s messy scriptwriting. There’s shades of a good idea here, and to their credit, there is that mild incentive of sticking it out in the hopes of an explanation for everything. It feels like most of the idea was lost in endless drafts and rewrites in trying to make it something more appealing to mainstream audiences, but in doing so it loses sight of what it actually wanted to be. Ultimately, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

In all honestly, you could do worse than this on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Strange though, that a film produced by Screen Australia, with a number of Australians in its cast and crew, went for a New York setting. Maybe if they had made it back home it would have wound up less like a sub-par Hollywood sterility and been something more creative.

2:22 is available on online streaming services and video on demand 

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution and IMDb 

Movie Review – Ellipsis

When two strangers collide on a busy Sydney intersection and decide to spend the next 24 hours together, who knows what their evening will hold…?

⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill 

When Viv (Emily Barclay) and Jasper (Benedict Samuel) collide in the middle of a busy Sydney intersection, causing Viv to drop and break her phone, the two embark on an adventure around Sydney while they wait for Viv’s phone to be repaired.

It almost feels like an ode to Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, where we similarly experience two people spending one evening together in real time, before they must each go their separate ways. The difference with Ellipsis is, the film welcomes improvised interactions between Barclay, Samuel and strangers on the streets of Sydney.

While this makes for an interesting film, it also has an alienating effect, as often you feel like you had to be there to get the joke at hand. For each brief interaction, we’re brought into the action around halfway through, so a lot of context to each conversation is lost. Samuel seems at ease improvising with members of the public, whereas Barclay comes across as stilted, and often disappears into the background of these scenes.

Instead of focusing on the dynamic between and the individual personalities of the two main characters, the film instead relies heavily on finding eccentrics in the places they visit in and around King’s Cross. Viv makes it clear from the get-go that she has a fiancée that she’s flying back to in London the following day, and we don’t really get a lot of Jasper’s story. There’s a definite spark between them, but there is a restraint from Viv that makes the friendship that’s developing between the two feel a bit rigid.

The most interesting part of the film is the little story about the phone repairman (Ferdinand Hoang) who is trying to get his Australian citizenship and is struggling with the concept of having to let his Chinese heritage go. Although his scenes are limited, they are powerful and speak volumes about what’s going on behind closed doors, versus what Viv and Jasper are encountering on the streets.

David Wenham’s directorial debut follows an intriguing concept but fails to live up to its potential through its poor execution. Too many times, common sense seems to escape Viv and Jasper, making for some frustrating moments that cause the film to lose some of its charm.

Ellipsis is only available in limited cinemas 

Image courtesy of CinemaPlus Pty Ltd 

Movie Review – The BBQ

An underdog sports movie devoid of tension, The BBQ gets by on charms alone.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The BBQ will inevitably be compared to The Castle – as all Australian comedies must be – but that contrast seems inappropriate for a few reasons. Chief among them is the fact that where The Castle put a family’s home on the line, The BBQ only endangers a few reputations – and it doesn’t even seem to care about them very much. Ironically, the biggest problem with The BBQ is that the stakes aren’t high enough.

The main reputation on the line is Darren “Dazza” Cook’s (Shane Jacobson). A barbecue addict, Dazza loves telling people he’s related to Captain Cook – the supposed creator of the barbecue – and hosting community get-togethers, much to his wife’s chagrin. After Dazza gains national attention for giving the community food poisoning, Dazza’s work enters him into a cooking competition – a bizarre decision that the film barely bothers to justify. Weirder still, the company simultaneously recognises that Dazza doesn’t actually have the skills to win the competition, so they send him off to be trained by The Butcher (Magda Szubanski), a Scottish woman with a grudge against the front-runner, Andre Mont Blanc (Manu Feildel).

There’s a Karate Kid formula at work here, delivered with delightful colour. Szubanski is particularly memorable, bringing a gruffness to her Miyagi that contrasts brilliantly with Jacobson’s overwhelmed Daniel. The mid-point of their training schedule – where an actual Japanese master (Kuni Hashimoto) teaches Dazza to identify wagyu beef – is easily the high point of the film. At its best, The BBQ is proof that clichés don’t matter if you execute them with skill – tell a story well, and you’ll have your audience enthralled regardless of how many tropes you’re using.

It’s a damn shame then that outside of that formula, The BBQ doesn’t tell its story well, despite having an astonishing five credited writers. Even with all of those people editing the script, it somehow fails to produce any real stakes. The few it has are paper thin and poorly thought out. Dazza’s main incentive to win is two-fold: he wants to prove to his wife that he’s good at what he does, and he wants to humiliate his rival, Mont Blanc. Except Dazza’s wife doesn’t care how good he is, she’s angry that the barbecue takes time away from the family. And Mont Blanc is a foreigner who is doing the competition for publicity, which he gets either way.

What might’ve worked better is if Dazza’s style was built around honest, community barbecuing, something the marketing suggests, but not the film itself. That simple change would contrast him to the pretentious foreigner and put the value of community on the line. Instead, Dazza’s training focuses on high-end cooking that clashes with his suburban setting. Dazza loves feeding people, but you can’t feed a community with wagyu beef, and that disconnect is something the film never addresses. That kind of thinking is the difference between a great film and an average film. For all its wonderful colour and humour, The BBQ is the latter, and that’s a damn shame.

The BBQ is available in Australian cinemas from February 22 

Image courtesy of Label Distribution

Movie Review – Sweet Country

Imagine the most typical Australian film ever and you’ll end up with something that resembles Sweet Country.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic 

The Australian film industry has always been obsessed with travelling back to colonial times to look at the atrocities and prejudice against Indigenous people. Following his 2009 award-winning film Samson and Delilah, Warwick Thornton continues to add to the likes of Rabbit-Proof Fence and Ten Canoes with his latest film Sweet Country.

Set in the Northern Territory in the 1920s, Sweet Country follows Sam (Hamilton Morris), a middle-aged Aboriginal farmer who kills a local white man in self-defence. Knowing his side of the story will be quickly dismissed by the law, Sam decides to go on the run with his wife, and the subsequent manhunt for Sam soon turns into a hunt for the true meaning of justice.

As Australians, we are proud to live in a country where freedom and peace are the standard way of life, but these values have been and continue to be denied to some. While not as powerful or relatable as Thornton’s modern retelling of the biblical Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country does serve as a reminder that we must never forget our roots, no matter how tough it may be to stomach.

In terms of storytelling, however, Sweet Country is a relatively stock standard affair. It’s a well-made piece of filmmaking, but it fails to truly captivate, mostly because we’ve seen better films handle the same subject matter in the past.

Sweet Country is still a worthy addition to Australian cinema, mostly thanks to its stunning cinematography. As he did with Samson and Delilah, Thornton once again takes on the duties of director and cinematographer, but this time around he has truly upped the ante. From vivid, orange sunsets to wide, sweeping shots of dense bushland and the red outback, the Australian landscape is on full display here.

Production designer Tony Cronin and costume designer Heather Wallace also deserve commendation for their faithful representation of the era, not only in what it looked like, but also in what it felt like. Those were tough times, and the sweat on people’s brows, and the dirt on their clothes works well to recreate the hardship experienced by people back then.

Sweet Country isn’t the most exciting film, but it is an important reminder for the pain and hard truths we will always face as Australians.

Sweet Country is available in Australian cinemas from January 25 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Who Should’ve Won At The AACTAs

Josip Knezevic 

The AACTAs, Australia’s version of the Oscars, celebrate the finest achievements in Australian cinema. 2017 brought us a strong pool of nominees that represent a bright future for Australian film, and while these films won’t put Australia on the international film map as say Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand, they’re still remarkable achievements for Australian filmmaking.

Yes, you may be thinking the AACTAs took place in December last year, but seeing as it’s Australia Day long weekend, it seems apt to look back at who won versus who should have won and honour the greatest Australian films of 2017.

Best Film
Winner: Lion
Who Should Have Won: Ali’s Wedding

From the outset, it was obvious that Lion was going to take this top spot, as it did in so many categories. It boasts a much larger production budget than its fellow nominees and also features some of the world’s biggest stars in Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel and Rooney Mara. I can’t complain that it won, it’s a beautiful and gut-wrenching story, but at the same time, Ali’s Wedding represents a fresh breath of air for Australian storytelling and the depiction of our culture on screen. Yes, it may just be a simple love story on the surface, but it has so many little charms and quirks that make it genuinely funny and interesting to watch. It would have been a very deserving winner.

Best Direction
Winner: Lion (Garth Davis)
Who Should Have Won: Hounds of Love (Ben Young)

Although I enjoyed the emotional journey Garth Davis took us upon in Lion, I can’t help but feel that Ben Young’s skills should have been recognised here, and not just because his film Hounds of Love was filmed in WA. Most of his film takes place within the walls of a small home and focuses on the relationship between two emotionally twisted and disturbed serial killers. Young shows great restraint throughout the film, tending to let your imagination take over, rather than simply showing a lot of graphic violence. He creates a lot of tension and directs some skillful, emotional performances from his leads all on a very small budget. I’m looking forward to seeing him take on bigger projects in the future.

Best Lead Actor
Winner: Sunny Pawar (Lion)
Who Should Have Won: Sunny Pawar (Lion)

Cuteness will always reign supreme. 9-year-old Sunny Pawar took out the Best Lead actor category and I agree wholeheartedly with this choice. Let’s hope this child protégé continues his acting success as an adult.

Best Lead Actress
Winner: Emma Booth (Hounds of Love)
Who Should Have Won: Emma Booth (Hounds of Love)

Without Emma Booth’s powerhouse performance, Hounds of Love would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable. Booth brought an emotional delicacy to her serial killer role that encouraged sympathy towards her, despite her horrendous pursuits. Ever since her days on TV’s Underbelly she’s proven herself to be a fantastic actress, and I’m glad she’s getting recognition for her work on the big screen.

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Dev Patel (Lion)
Who Should Have Won: Dev Patel (Lion)

Much like Emma Booth’s strong example in Hounds of Love, Dev Patel has such a powerful and resonating performance in Lion that without him, I doubt the film could have reached the same strong ending. Together, him and Sunny Pawar made a fine team on their emotional journey to find their way home. Patel has gone from strength to strength ever since his lead performance in Slumdog Millionaire

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Who Should Have Won: Nicole Kidman (Lion)

The Lion train continues, and the fine performances on offer in this film should make everyone jump on board. Lion is a prime example of what happens when you put together a cast of A-list Hollywood actors and everything clicks. Nicole Kidman plays the mother who adopts a young Indian refugee, and her wisdom as an experienced actor brings an emotional connection to the film that would not have been anywhere near as strong without her.

 

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment