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?
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
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