Movie Review – Us

Jordan Peele’s newest horror thriller is laden with probing questions and sneakily avoids answering them.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

This, here, is a clever little film. It is a horror movie in which lots of people are killed by mysterious doppelgängers, however, the violence only acts as window dressing. Like its opening text suggests, there is a lot more happening beneath the surface. Buried secrets, hidden meanings, allegories galore. You wouldn’t think that possible for a film with so many scares and murders, but Jordan Peele‘s Us is a thriller that doubles as a parable. It’s a machine of fear with something to say.

At the movie’s centre is Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Adelaide Wilson, who, as a child, stumbles into a spooky Hall of Mirrors on Santa Cruz beach in 1986 and discovers something impossible. There, in the darkness, peering into her soul with eyes as large as golf balls, is an exact copy of her. Not a reflection, but a living, breathing duplicate.

We re-join Adelaide as an adult, as she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex), head into the Californian woods to live out their summer at their cushy vacation home. After the lights go out one night, a rip-roaring series of incidents follow that herald the emergence of all these doppelgängers, who communicate in squeals, wear uniformed red jumpsuits and wield identical golden scissors.

This is a thoroughly violent movie. The strange doppelgängers lurch about, stabbing and slashing at their counterparts like a horde of weaponised zombies. Bodies are flung from balconies, chopped by propellers, run over by cars. But the doubles seem to have a plan. They’re not exactly mindless. It might have something to do with Hands Across America, that tacky humanitarian stunt from the ’80s that urged Americans to hold hands and literally form a human chain from one coast to the other.

Peele, who writes and directs, fills his story with tons of symbolic markers, many of which I suspect are red herrings, as if goading his viewers to rack their brains trying to solve his Rubik’s Cube of metaphors. With Us, he seems to be tackling something much broader: the unity of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, class, etc. He’s concerned with their differences and what they’re prepared to do to suppress them. Whether he succeeds is open to debate.

The movie raises serious questions and showcases tireless performances, especially by Nyong’o, who, as both Adelaide and her double, is able to switch between combatant and merciless killer with ease. She is the lifeblood of a suspense thriller that’s smarter than most, more gruesome than some, and certainly more ambitious than any other movie that features cartwheeling killer twins. In ten years, after some profound analysis, Us could turn into a sleeper masterpiece.

Us is available in Australian cinemas from March 28

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

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Movie Review – Fighting with My Family

Stephen Merchant’s latest is a lightweight but completely endearing biopic of a wrestling pioneer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I am coming at Fighting with My Family from a skewed perspective, since I used to be a WWE fanatic back when The Rock was at his jabroni-beating, pie-eating peak. By the time Paige had come on the scene, I had moved on. So I went in to the movie knowing the culture, expecting little, and left quite pleased. This is the most unsophisticated sports biopic in ten years, but it’s endlessly charming in the way it diverts focus from wrestling to centre on two things: the power of family, and the mileage you can get out of an awesome cast.

Don’t get me wrong, wrestling is still a huge part of it, and anyone not appreciative of the form will probably spend much of the movie scratching their head, wondering why thousands of people would go mental at the sight of scantily-clad, musclebound juggernauts body-slamming each other into oblivion. Thankfully, Fighting with My Family, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, exchanges violence for comedy and often gives the disinterested something to laugh at.

The movie follows Paige (Florence Pugh) in the 2000s, who grew up Saraya Bevis in a hardworking wrestling family in Norwich, England, with dreams of becoming the WWE Diva’s Champion. She dresses like a fashion consultant for My Chemical Romance, and when she is signed by the WWE to become a superstar, she is unable to gel with the other female hopefuls, who are all blonde, tall and substantially gifted in the chest and midriff departments. She falls behind with training, feels lonely, wants to give up, so on and so forth. Then BAM! She has an epiphany, makes a startling return and finds herself in one of those sports montages where everything comes blissfully together. You know how it goes.

Structurally, Fighting with My Family is about as sound as a teetering Jenga tower. Visually, it often resembles a TV movie. Merchant directs with a lightness of touch, allowing his actors to live out the story without much stylistic intrusion. The result is quite vanilla. But when your movie is fronted by the irresistible Florence Pugh, bolstered by a heart-breaking Jack Lowden, supported by stalwarts like Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Paige’s loveable parents, and backed up by hilarious turns from Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson as himself, vanilla starts to go down quite smoothly.

I’m still not sure a movie about Paige had to be made, though. I’m not sure her story is urgent enough. But, I suppose, it makes sense in today’s political climate. Paige is the embodiment of everything humanity is fighting for: an equal chance for the ones who feel like outsiders. It’s also moving when the film plays up the desolation that can engulf someone who isn’t recognised for the one thing they’re good at. Just imagine if Paul McCartney had been forbidden by the world to write music.

Fighting with My Family is available in Australian cinemas from March 21

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – The House That Jack Built

How amusing it would be to see the type of white girls who wet themselves over a new Netflix serial killer documentary sit through this.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Jack (Matt Dillon) is a highly intelligent, obsessive compulsive architect… and serial killer. In an effort to make a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz) understand his reasons for murdering people and his postulation of murder as creating artwork, Jack describes five randomly chosen incidents occurring over a twelve-year period to support his psych. As police intervention looms, Jack takes increasingly greater risks in his killings on his quest to create the ultimate art.

Realistically, you should already know whether The House That Jack Built is for you or not – the name Lars Von Trier is right there on the poster. The writer and director’s name is synonymous with some of the most graphic, controversial and macabre content ever committed to the medium, so it goes without saying that a film by Von Trier from the point of view of a serial killer is going to pull no punches on delivering downright depravity.

You’ve heard the stories – over one hundred people walked out of its premiere at Cannes in disgust, and it was pulled from American cinemas after one day for violating what the MPAA constitutes as acceptable for an unrated screening. The faint of heart should avoid like the plague, unless they think they can stomach Lars’ bouquet of smashed skulls, severed breasts and children blown apart down the barrel of a sniper rifle. At least we were spared the abortion and genital mutilation this time around.

Grim as it is, if you can digest it there’s no denying that it’s very effectively imagined what the inside of a serial killer’s mind might look like. Matt Dillon is iconic in becoming Jack, giving a career-best turn that he may want to leave off his CV if he’s going to do anything family friendly ever again. Sick though his actions may be, he’s so enigmatic, layered and interesting that his plight becomes compelling through its atrocities, making – to a certain level – some kind of sense. The black-as-pitch ironic humour twisted into his situations is shockingly gleeful – deranged as it is, it’s hard not to laugh in disbelief as Jack comedically flees a scene dragging a bloody corpse behind his van set to David Bowie.

But wait – is Jack even who this movie is about? Maybe not so much to long time Von Trier followers, who in a surprise twist drops in some clips from his previous films amongst other art as Jack explains the beauty in the morbid to Verge. A brief moment of self-indulgence perhaps, but with it Lars’s true intentions are revealed; Jack is Lars holding a mirror up to himself and finally reflecting on his impact. It breathes an entirely new metaphorical context into proceedings; the murderous art of his films, the obsessive compulsiveness in his filmmaking process, and the victims and police his audiences and critics.

There’s a lot to unpack, but it works brilliantly on an entirely new level that anyone knows Von Trier and his films – love them or loathe them – will surely see something brilliant in. Both Jack and Lars have descended to an irredeemable depth of hell to bring us their artwork, and they invite the brave of us among the outraged and disgusted to accept and take the plunge with them.

The House That Jack Built is available in Australian cinemas from March 7

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Movie Review – Sorry to Bother You

Get set for wokeness in its weirdest form possible… you have no idea what you’re about to get into…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

It’s near impossible to lump first time writer-director Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You into any one category. Absurdist and scathingly satirical dark comedy drama with shades of magical fantasy, sci-fi and horror might land somewhere close. What is absolutely certain is that you’re in for a weird, weird time. Probably the weirdest you’ll have with a movie in 2018. 

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) has just landed a low-level telemarketing job, which he hopes can get he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his uncle’s garage and on the road to success. Cash quickly learns that using a “white voice” will make him more sales, and is quickly leagues ahead of his colleagues and on his way to becoming a “Power Caller” at the top end of the company. Turning his back on the union opposing this big business, he soon learns the dark and deranged plan his CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has for his company and employees.

Inspired by Riley’s own experience as a telemarketer, Sorry To Bother You is like an acid trip through the hierarchy of employment status from bottom to top and how the powers above and below impact each other. Essentially, it’s a truly bizarre skewering of the monster that is capitalism, alongside, of course, the political climate, race and social status.

Like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, this too largely follows a black man impersonating a white man to further his career, though tonally it’s much closer to the free-for-all communal craziness of Lee’s earlier work like Do the Right Thing. In fact, there’s a lot that Sorry to Bother You borrows from. There’s more than a hint of The Wolf of Wall Street, The Social Network, Office Space, The Lobster and, uhh… BoJack Horseman. And yet it remains radically original, thanks to its outrageous and chaotically creative take on some well-covered matters.

As the weird outsider in movies like Get Out and Death Note, it’s natural fit for Lakeith Stanfield to be the normal(ish), balanced centre in a bonkers alternate world, and here he proves himself capable of the upgrade from eccentric support to conflicted lead. His tale of rising up the ranks and moral reversal is familiar, but the relentlessly strange path it takes keeps Cash Green interesting. Particularly amusing is his white guy voice – who any fan of Arrested Development will immediately recognise as the hilarious David Cross dubbing over his speech.

It is, however, a little too weird for its own good at points. The humour is more offbeat eyebrow-raisers than actual laugh-worthy moments that again, won’t sit with everyone, and there are a few too many subplots that end up left in the dirt. But for a multi-faceted and brazenly bizarre alternative satire of the world we live in, Sorry to Bother You unquestionably stands out from the pack – for better or worse.

Sorry To Bother You is available in Australian cinemas from November 29

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures & Universal Pictures International

Movie Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Are all the prequel series to enormously successful franchises doomed to succumb to George Lucas syndrome?

⭐ star:
Corey Hogan

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up close to where its predecessor left off, taking us into episode two of five(!!) in the prequel series. After a brief period in captivity, the powerful dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes imprisonment. He sets about gathering followers to aid in his sinister cause of rising pure-blooded witches and wizards up to reign supreme over the non-magical. Having shared a history with Grindelwald and seeing it his duty to stop him, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for the task, who, along with his former allies Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Jacob Kowalski (Don Fogler), heads to Paris to track down and stop the dangerous wizard.

The first entry, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Themcertainly didn’t recapture the magic or provide a particularly good setup for another extended period in the wider ‘Wizarding World’. It was, at the very least, watchable enough to forgive Warner Bros. for cashing in and J.K. Rowling for attempting to stay relevant. The Crimes of Grindelwald avada-kedavras this newly established flow and the results are less than spellbinding.

Forgoing the steady world-building and gradual reveals and payoffs that kept Harry Potter accessible across eight movies, Fantastic Beasts descends directly into the dark tone of the later Potter chapters. In rushing, the darkness feels both unearned and devoid of impact, especially since most of the one-note characters simply have not been fleshed out. Rowling’s story itself comes across as convoluted fan fiction. It tends to favour side-characters delivering monologues and backstories that no one will be able to follow without a PhD in Pottermore.

Frequent tacked-on callbacks and foreshadowing of the events of Harry Potter, along with a superfluous return to Hogwarts, drive home how poorly this series stands on its own. Jude Law fares fine as a young Dumbledore, but like so many of the parts that make up this prequel, he’s just there as a name we recognise. Surprisingly not terrible is Johnny Depp, who could potentially have a new calling as a controversial figure with twisted villains – even if their motives are clumsy and make completely unsubtle parallels to contemporary politics.

Once a forerunner in amazing cinematography and visual effects, Grindelwald’s ugly aesthetic proves that David Yates and company are no longer interested in lovingly crafting adventures that will be cherished for years to come. There’s sadly little to recommend here to anyone except die hard Potternerds.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is available in Australian cinemas from November 15. 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Goosebumps 2 : Haunted Halloween

Not as smart or entertaining as the first, but Goosebumps 2 isn’t a total loss.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Against my better judgement, I actually enjoyed the first Goosebumps movie. It was well made, moderately clever with a lightness in its step. Now comes the inevitable sequel – helpfully titled Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – and whatever innovation and ingenuity that once existed is gone, replaced instead with a blanket of computer graphics and a plot so transparent it can be used to trace over itself. This is not a movie but a product assembled to keep kids distracted.

The plot, such as it is, follows Sarah (Madison Iseman), Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) in the town of Wardenclyffe, NY, three kids who discover the magical ventriloquist dummy Slappy from the first movie and accidentally bring him back to life. Slappy, voiced effectively by Mick Wingert (even though he sounds an awful lot like Jack Black), desires a family, so he hatches a cockamamie scheme that involves Halloween lawn ornaments bursting to life and running amok down the streets.

Of course, this happens so the movie’s visual effects artists can earn their paycheques. Many of the visuals are indeed impressive, but they would’ve been more thrilling if they had serviced a smarter plot and done more terrifying things. I think kids want to be frightened, just enough to make them jump but not too much that they can’t sleep. Goosebumps 2 plays more like a parody of scary images. It lacks the conviction to be truly intense.

The screenplay, penned by Rob Lieber, is not particularly well structured but contains several genuinely amusing exchanges I wouldn’t have expected from a fluffy movie like this – “So put on your shoes and let’s go!” “But my shoes are already on!”. It’s the kind of broad humour that’s just narrow enough to be funny. Or maybe it’s not, and I was simply trying to empathise with the mind of a five-year-old.

Naturally, there were a lot of five-year-olds at the screening I attended, accompanied by parents who I’m sure would’ve rather observed a dying cockroach. I think maybe it might be fitting then to evaluate Goosebumps 2 based on how raucous the children were, since I’m clearly not its intended audience. I thought it was foolish but entertaining. The kids, on the other hand, were very quiet. Could it be they were too frightened, or too bored?

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween  is available in Australian cinemas from October 25 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 pulls off the ultimate con – it keeps you entertained while taking your hard-earned money.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

After smart-talking her way out of prison, kleptomaniac Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) – estranged sister of notorious con artist Danny Ocean – takes inspiration from her brother to pull off an elaborate heist with a hefty reward. Reuniting with her old partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett), the pair recruit an all-female dream team and plot to steal an extremely valuable necklace right out from under everyone’s noses at the annual Met Ball.

Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief! We’ve made it to the release of the gender-swapped revamp of Ocean’s 11 without going down the road of a Ghostbusters nightmare. Directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), Ocean’s 8 remains respectful to its roots, while mostly standing on its own two feet. It packs in a plethora of Oscar-winning talent and manages to be entertaining enough to justify its own existence. It may be flawed and unnecessary, but at least the focus is on being a decent flick, instead of holding a middle finger to fans of the original.

In terms of structure and style, 8 follows 11 beat for beat, with the same slick recruitment, heist setup and tricksy execution overlayed with smooth jazz and playful camera transitions. This could leave it derided as a lazy, but it would be utterly redundant to accuse Hollywood of being devoid of creativity and originality. As far as re-treads go, this certainly isn’t the worst offender, but it’s certainly not on par with Steven Soderbergh’s genre-defining original.

For one, we don’t really get a feel for all these characters and their motives. Besides Debbie, no one on the team has a goal outside of the big score at the end of an elaborate and risky crime, which leaves most of them fairly one-dimensional, even if they do share some chemistry. There’s no terrible villain this time either; the closest we come is Debbie’s ex-boyfriend and former partner in crime Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), but he too is not given enough depth. Perhaps most glaring of all is that things run a little too smoothly throughout for our crooks. There’s no real conflict or unforeseen events creating tension to up the ante and have us on the edge of our seats.

But despite low stakes and some unneeded padding (the less said about James Corden’s goofy insurance fraud investigator the better), if you can release yourself enough from the grasp of the 2001 classic, there’s fun to be had here. It’s great to see such a high-calibre cast of leading ladies tearing up the screen, but it’s probably not enough to warrant a continuing story with Ocean’s 9 or 10, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s best no one stoops to the self-indulgent depths of something like Ocean’s 12 ever again.

Ocean’s 8 is available in Australian cinemas from June 7 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

High Concept Films

Josip Knezevic 

Consider this: to help reduce overpopulation, you’re given the option to shrink yourself to five inches tall and join others like you. In return, you’ll live in a miniature society that can accommodate your every want and need… would you take the plunge?

This is the premise for upcoming Boxing Day film Downsizing starring Matt Damon, and it makes me wonder; what other obscure film concepts are out there for us to consume? Here’s a list of high concept films for your to contemplate and enjoy.

The Lobster (2015)

For anyone who’s single right now, this might not be the film for you… unless you’re really into animals. In the world of The Lobster, if you’re not married or in a committed relationship, then you’ve got 45 days to find a faithful partner who loves you completely, otherwise you’ll be turned into an animal. But hey, at least you get to choose what you turn into.

It’s a disturbing yet incredibly well-written film from the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos who also brought us this year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Featuring a powerful lead performance from Colin Farrell, The Lobster is a film that takes a unique concept and extrapolates a range of horrifying outcomes, but by golly is it ever interesting to watch.

But ending up an animal wouldn’t be so bad… would it?

High Concept The Lobster December 2017


Circle (2015)

Let’s move to something simpler.

Here’s how things go down in Circle: you wake up in a room with a bunch of people you’ve never met before, and every few minutes someone dies. Now, what do you do…?

Circle comes from the minds of Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, who terrorise 50 strangers for 90 minutes. Watching a whole film play out in a single room never becomes dull, thanks to the interactions between the 50 different characters. Think 12 Angry Men, but on a much larger scale.

While never boring, Circle is not without its flaws. Given its small budget, some of the performances are a little lacking, and the overall concept does have some plot holes, but if you’re open to an above average B-movie, look no further. It’s still better than a lot of the fodder Hollywood is churning out these days.

High Concept Circle December 2017


The Matrix (1999)

You can’t talk about high concept films without mentioning The Matrix. While it’s probably the most well-known film on the list, let’s dive in anyway.

What if I told you everything about your life is a lie? Your friends, family and all your memories are a complete lie. A computer coded lie – to be exact, because you’re in the matrix: a highly sophisticated, simulation model that uses individuals as fuel sources for a race of machines that have enslaved most of humanity. Shit just went to 100 real quick.

The Matrix is the Wachowski brother’s masterpiece and it changed the game of cinema. From extreme slow motion action scenes, to sci-fi dystopian concepts that have been replicated and referenced in countless films to date, The Matrix is an absolute watch for anyone.

high Concept The Matrix December 2017


The Truman Show (1998)

Speaking of game changing films, The Truman Show revolutionised TV through its scarily accurate prediction of the future. If you hate the reality show Big Brother, you have this film to thank for its conception.

Imagine waking up, having breakfast, going to work, enjoying your hobbies in the evening, then capping it off with a late-night movie before sleep. Basically, living a normal life, right? Except, throw in a thousand different cameras watching your every movement on a 24/7 live broadcast to the entire world.

Andrew Niccol’s genius (that is, before he made horrible pieces of crap like The Host and In Time), takes you into a world that’s filled with a cast of extras pretending to be everyday people you know and love, while everything built around you is a fabricated lie.

Although it contains similar themes to The Matrix, The Truman Show is far more light-hearted, offering Jim Carey a great opportunity to showcase his brand of humour. It’s far better than any Big Brother episode. Check it out if you haven’t already.

High Concept The Truman Show December 2017


Exam (2009)

Exam may be the silliest film on this list.

You’ve been selected to attend a job interview for a powerful company. You enter a room with five others and sit down at a table with only a blank piece of paper and pen. An instructor comes in and says there’s only one question to answer. You must only write on your piece of paper and you mustn’t ruin it in any way by tearing it to pieces or folding. Any questions?

And that’s it. That’s how simple Exam is, but it leaves the characters wondering… what are they supposed to write? Was there something they missed? There’s five other people in the same boat as them, but how far will they go to figure it out before the others do? This is where Exam shines; it relies heavily on the dialogue between this small group of characters. It’s a far from perfect, low-budget movie, and the ending may leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, but it’s definitely worth seeing and talking about.

High Concept Exam December 2017


Enemy (2013)

Last, but not least, from the mind of the man who brought us Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, comes Enemy. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal in yet another fantastic performance, Enemy follows a man who discovers his doppelganger while watching a movie. Overcome with curiosity, he begins to follow his lookalike, only to find out more about himself than he ever bargained for.

Without giving too much away, this thought-provoking, psychological thriller takes the basic concept of a doppelganger and turns it into something so much more. You’ll probably need to view it a couple of times to get your head around it, as it’s one of those films that will leave you questioning its meaning at every turn.

High Concept Enemy December 2017


Images courtesy of Sony Pictures, Netflix Inc., Roadshow Films, United International Pictures/Paramount Home Entertainment, 21st Century Pictures and Madman Entertainment. 

Movie Review – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A stocking stuffed with quite a lot of wrapping paper, The Man Who Invented Christmas struggles to get through its own excess.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The thing about The Man Who Invented Christmas (TMWIC) is that you’ve seen most of it before. A respectable chunk of the film is a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol – the same story you’ve been hearing since you were a child. It’s nice, it’s heart-warming, it’s a classic, and it’s been adapted dozens of times, sometimes with more panache than on this occasion (A Muppet Christmas Carol remains a personal favourite). So the first knock against TMWIC is simply that its version of A Christmas Carol isn’t all that special. The second knock is that the other story it’s telling – how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) came to write A Christmas Carol – is both overstuffed and dull. Not exactly a winning combination.

TMWIC opens to Dickens coming off the high of a tour of America. Cut to a year and two flops later: Dickens is broke and needs a hit to get through Christmas. His publishers laugh at him when he suggests a Christmas story. “It’s October, you haven’t written anything yet, and nobody cares about Christmas!” They say, being the savvy business people they are. Dickens stubbornly ignores them and decides to risk everything to self-publish the novel. In the process, characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) come alive through Dickens’ thoughts and begin tormenting him. To triumph, Dickens is forced to wrestle not only with his characters, but also the inner demons they represent.

Dan Stevens does solid work here. His Dickens is energetic and conflicted – pushed and pulled by both outer and inner forces, he is perpetually bouncing between problems – and Stevens does admirable work keeping everything centred. Likewise, Plummer is a reliable source of amusement and is devilishly delicious as Scrooge. Avoiding the temptation of passivity, Plummer keeps his Scrooge engaged in the act of torturing his creator. Plummer’s dynamic with Stevens is perhaps the film’s saving grace and is certainly its most well-developed aspect. If only the filmmakers had focused in on that, we might’ve had something recommendable.

Instead, we get an abundance of subplots that dull the film, like running a knife across a rock. Some of them – like William Makepeace Thackeray – just need snappier editing to liven things up. Others – like Dickens’ nephew, the inspiration for Tiny Tim – should be jokes instead of entire scenes. These would be minor quibbles if there weren’t so damn many of them. There are at least three different subplots that desperately need trimming, and one that needs to be deleted entirely. Those stories come at the expense of the main one, killing its momentum and making you wish the film would go back to the mediocre version of A Christmas Carol.

You can praise TMWIC’s production design (it’s quite lavish), and performances (universally solid), but you’ll find it hard to praise the film they’re in service of. Quite simply it doesn’t serve them back. Charles Dickens’ life should make for an entertaining film, but unfortunately, this Christmas story isn’t it.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in Australian Cinemas November 30

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution.

Dreaming in a Single Take

Michael Philp

*Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead*

After recently seeing Watch The Sunset at the Revelation Film Festival, I found myself fascinated by the way it and other one take films (Victoria and Russian Ark) come across as dreamscapes. This is mostly because of their format, as their material couldn’t be more disparate – Ark is a 2002 Russian historical art-house film, Victoria is a 2015 German drama, and Sunset is a 2017 Australian drug-drama – and yet the single-take format gives them all a certain hazy, dream-like quality that unites them.

To be fair, there’s an entire school of film theory that sees movies as dream substitutes, but certain characteristics of single-take films exacerbate that comparison. Some of them are superficial – the constant movement of the camera can be used to hypnotic effect, and often mimics human vision – but others offer insight into cinema in general. If it’s true, for instance, that audiences tend to blink in time with scene breaks to minimise information loss, then it stands to reason that during a single-take film they will be blinking less. In other words, information overload is inherent in the format because there are no clear, predictable breaks.

Because of that reality, it’s easy to get lost in the films. Every moment flows into the next until it’s all just a blur and you’ve forgotten the steps it took to arrive at the destination. That’s particularly important for Victoria, where the main character falls in love, snorts cocaine, helps rob a bank, steals a baby, and watches all of her new friends either die or get arrested, all in the space of two real-time hours. When you write it out like that, the film undoubtedly reads closer to a dream than real life. I’ve omitted connective tissue, but only because it’s so unimportant that it was mostly left up to the actors to improvise. Sunset’s production echoes that sentiment, with the creators stating during a recent Q&A that it too was mostly improvised. This approach produces films that steadily move between set-pieces and rarely stop to look back.

Ark is a perfect example of that concept. Filmed in an enormous museum, it uses rooms as scenes to showcase particular time periods and ideas. Its narrator is implied to be a ghost and its characters whisper and float between conversations and visions, all of which results in a hypnotic drone of a movie. I don’t think any other film works this well at putting you to sleep, and I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s just the way the film is. The sum of Ark’s parts is so quietly rhythmic and relaxing that I admire anyone who doesn’t feel sleepy while watching it. For Victoria, only its vibrant dialogue – and the bank robbery – save it from that trap.

But that statement doesn’t really do Victoria justice. It implies that the film has no higher ambition than simply telling a good story, and that just isn’t true. Director Sebastian Schipper seeks more than just dialogue followed by a bank robbery; he wants to make a comment on youth and recklessness and to do that he needs to insert himself into a film whose ethos is passive observation. That might seem contradictory, but his decision to do it anyway, and the manner in which he does it, is what hammers home that these films are dreamscapes rather than dramas with a gimmick.

Which begs the question – couldn’t they have just filmed these movies  normally? That would’ve been easier, less dangerous, and given them more opportunity for creative license. Those arguments aren’t wrong, but they ignore the benefits of the format. When you film in a single-take, you produce a swirling vacuum of a movie, drawing your audience in. Victoria’s climax is devastating because the film locks the audience in its world for two straight hours and by the end of the movie, you feel just as disoriented as the title character. That’s the power of a single-take film – you forget that you’re watching a film in the same way you forget you’re dreaming, and that means the narrative can go to incredible places.

There is depth to the single-take format, but it takes a skilled director and crew to bring it out, more so than most film styles. The difficulties associated with its production are too great to make it more commonly used, but that just means the few films that have achieved the feat are gems. I highly recommend seeking out all three of the films I’ve mentioned, they are, for the most part, rewarding experiences, and together form a fascinating genre that I look forward to other filmmakers exploring in unique ways.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox