Movie Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dark, twisted and hilarious. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to grow in strength with his disturbing latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

It seems the pattern of disturbingly good films by Yorgos Lanthimos continues to increase in range. For those familiar with his films of Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer, also explores a dark concept but with a twisted sense of humour. Once again, these two genres are balanced effortlessly throughout and the finish product is yet another masterclass from the director.

Colin Farrell stars in the lead role and is unfortunately placed into another caliginous scenario that sees him tested in different strengths. Without giving away the film’s main trick, Farrell plays a father of two with a loving wife, and is put to make an extremely difficult decision that will end up affecting the family dynamic forever.

Aside from watching the situation unfold as Farrell battles to resolve his dilemma, the entire universe Lanthimos creates is intriguing. From the very moment the film begins, you get the sense of unnatural behaviour just by the dialogue between two characters and this unease never leaves the screen.

It’s an almost like an entirely different world of humans, but they’re just not very human like. At least to what our society is used to. Great examples of this are the astute observations and over politeness each character exuberates. It’s just unnatural and purposefully executed as a subtle commentary on society. But moreover, it’s all awkwardly hilarious.

This is why I love Lanthimos’ films. Not only are they simply exploring a compelling dark concept, they’re quite funny at the same time. Most of these jokes comes from being in such unique situations that other films can’t make, because they’re simply not in the same position. Numerous times a character would say something in such an unusual but nonchalant way that it becomes hilarious to watch. And when it came moments of humour that were of the darker taste, these were executed flawlessly and without overstepping boundaries. Indeed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fine piece for showing that the art of black comedy in 2017 is alive and well.

My only gripe with the film is that it is a bit of a slow burn and it can feel particularly sluggish at times. Especially within the middle third, where you’ve been introduced to the setup and are simply waiting for it to hurry to the climax. Part of this feels like it could have been edited or reworked to have more going on to keep interest, like in The Lobster.

But again, this is a minor complaint. The film is acted perfectly, with veteran actors of Farrell and Nicole Kidman as his wife particular standouts. Though the cinematography isn’t of anything scenic or picturesque, it does well to capture the darkness and unnatural tone on characters that the film clearly aims towards.

For lovers of The Lobster and black comedy films with unique and interesting concepts, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fantastic film and one sure to be on top ten lists for this year.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is available in Australian cinemas from November 16.

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 2017

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Movie Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Hollywood once again recycles that which need not be recycled, in Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I see no other way to approach a review of a movie like this than to compare it to what’s come before. Its history is too deep. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted to radio; into a 1974 feature by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot; a 2001 TV movie with Alfred Molina in the role; and of course as an episode of the distinguished ITV Poirot series. It has even been remade in Japan. Now comes another version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and I find myself simply incapable of finding the right words to recommend it.

This is an adaptation that works on the fundamental level, which means it has a sound plot, supreme technical prowess and performances that befit its ludicrously high-profile cast. It is a movie that can be seen and appreciated in about equal measure without being spectacular. Whether it holds up as a faithful Christie adaptation I will leave to her loyal fans and scholars to determine; as a gripping murder mystery, it is neither gripping nor very mysterious.

To discuss the plot would be to grind against the very grain of Christie. Her stories are designed to unfold chronologically, so that we pick up hints and clues and slowly piece together the unfathomable puzzle along with her great detectives. The less we know going in the better. Murder on the Orient Express remains her most famous probably because of its claustrophobic setting (the length of a snowbound train), its immense cast of characters and the degree to which misdirection is employed to keep us guessing.

But all these are assets of the original story, not of this film. Branagh is perhaps a finer actor than he is a director, and he puts on a brave face as Poirot, but his film lacks in ingenuity and freshness. I can’t think of a single reason to see his version and not the Lumet classic, which had Finney scuttling down the corridors of the train like a frenzied crab. Branagh’s Poirot is unusually calm and chipper, which might have been a fun new take on the part if he had buckled down and took it to the edge. Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character of extremes. A detective of unusual intelligence who is easier to admire than befriend. To play him as anything less than a feverish snob is to miss the point.

Around him is assembled a cast of veritable class, which includes but is not limited to Michelle Pfeiffer as an uppity American socialite; Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor; Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham; Leslie Odom Jr as the handy doctor; Penélope Cruz as a faithful servant of the Lord; Judi Dench as the Princess Dragomiroff; Johnny Depp as the despicable businessman Ratchett; and Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi as his staff. Any more and I suspect the train would’ve toppled off the ridge.

Pity, then, that such great talent should go unchecked by a story as rich as this. Everyone plays their parts as if they know the end before the beginning. There is no thrill, no embracing the unexpected. It’s all just cogs turning in rhythm to the screenplay, which can be fatal for a mystery like this.

So I leave you rather nonplussed, unable to praise Orient Express enough to make you go see it, unable to exploit its weaknesses enough to turn you away. I don’t prefer it to some of the earlier iterations, but I suspect if you’ve never heard of Poirot and his impossible moustache, or perhaps even Christie, this movie might do the trick. But just barely.

Murder on the Orient Express is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017

Movie Review – Brad’s Status

Ben Stiller ponders his lot in life in Mike White’s quietly humorous and thoughtful new film. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is nearly 50 and has a lot of stuff going on in his melon. His not-for-profit business has stalled, his one and only child – Troy (Austin Abrams) – is heading off to college and his marriage to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) isn’t the excitable romp it once was.

As a result, Brad lies awake at night yearning for what could have been, for the lives he could have led. His mind wanders to those he aligned himself with during college (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson), who have gone on to enjoy riches and success in the intervening years, forgetting and distancing themselves from Brad and his painfully mediocre existence in the process.

Adrift in suburban Sacramento and surrounded by cheerfully complacent “beta males”, a father/son trip to Boston to look at universities only serves to reinforce these internal inadequacies; Troy, a talented pianist, has a shot at getting into Harvard, a college that outstrips Brad’s own education across town at Tufts. Is that pride, Brad feels, or jealousy?

Written and directed by Mike White, Brad’s Status aligns itself with a familiar feeling deep inside all of us; the competition we feel with our peers and the desire for something greater. A lot of this concern is voiced internally by Stiller as he tosses and turns at night or stares out of a plane window. White’s film spends a lot of its time inside Stiller’s head, partaking in lengthy monologues about paths not taken or grudges left unaddressed.

As a result, Stiller is lumped with a lot of the lifting, as he furrows his brow and shifts in his seat, searching internally for some shred of solace. It’s an impressive performance amongst a collection of impressive performances; his meandering unspoken reveries work in opposition with the concise musings that are said aloud as well as the sulky grunts offered up by his son.

White’s writing is effective (if a little on-the-nose) but the cast make it work, taking the heightened divide between Brad and those he yearns to replicate and running with it. Particularly impressive is Abrams, who manages a level of angst and wisdom only a teenager can muster, and Sheen, as a charismatic contemporary man who has hit it big in Hollywood and married well.

The pacing is suitably slow for a film all about feeling adrift and aimless, but not so much that it lacks drive or structure. In keeping with its themes, Brad’s Status doesn’t offer a rousing finale or a gutful of catharsis; viewers will need to go in search of significance and satisfaction, rather than have it dumped at their feet in the third act. It’s an apt ending, but not one that all will find enjoyable.

Meditative and introspective, Brad’s Status is an exhaustive and achingly honest exploration of anxiety and self-doubt. While it may feel a little familiar, there is joy to be found in its wry humour.

 

Brad’s Status is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.

Movie Review – Detroit

With Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow once again commands us to examine ourselves and the atrocities we claim to have overcome.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan 

Detroit is an examination of prejudice. It is set in the 1960s during a period of riotous relations between blacks and whites, but refuses to address the roots of the problem. Instead it shifts the focus of racism to the system, to a biased judicial court that ultimately trickled droplets of hatred down to its law enforcement. It is well known how aggressive the Detroit police department was. Fuelled by misguided moral righteousness, groups of cops became dangerous. This is a confronting film, as all films that require us to look inward are.

At the centre of Detroit are two young men; one black, one white. One an aspiring Motown singer, the other an enthusiastic beat cop. Both men are brought together by a silly prank that goes wrong, in what turns out to be an evening of endless police brutality and torture driven by racism, superiority and retribution.

These scenes, that take place at the Algiers Motel, dominate the middle hour or so of the film, and are specifically designed to test our comfort levels as the cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), leads his partners on a repulsive interrogation crusade to determine the prankster who opened fire on the National Guard patrolling the streets a few minutes before. I can call it “repulsive” because I know what the cops did that night was wrong. The dangerous thing is that Philip knows it’s wrong too, but enjoys his position of power too much to let it become an issue. Like the Nazis, if he believed what he was doing was right, why try to cover it up?

Eventually the night goes south, which leads to a court trial. Here is where director Kathryn Bigelow broadens the story by putting the entire judicial system on the stand. The jury is all white. The judge is white. The lawyers are white. White men are being convicted and the only witnesses are black men and white women, neither of whom has any civil power. The key to Detroit is the framing that not every white person in 1960s America was racist, but the many who were crippled everything the US constitution stood for.

Bigelow films her movie like a hybrid between drama and documentary. Snippets of actual footage is occasionally spliced into interludes, and much of Barry Ackroyd’s camerawork is handheld and reasonably shaky. The result is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, in which the viewer is pulled right into the world of the filmmaker and is forced to confront horrific events without the option to look away.

Among the other players is John Boyega’s security guard Melvin, who delivers peace offerings while his fellow man is beaten into submission, and finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, torn between loyalty and self-preservation. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever play the two white female witnesses who don’t see colour, believe in fair treatment but are still harassed for fraternising with the enemy.

I have not said much about Larry (Algee Smith), the young Motown singer. He was present at the Algiers Motel, is a central figure, but doesn’t contribute heavily to the fabric of the plot. He is instead a controversial and lamentable reminder that not every black man in the ‘60s wanted revolution. Some just wanted to turn a blind eye, sing in the church choir and survive. Seriously, though, who could blame them?

 

Detroit is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of Entertainment One Films 2017.

 

 

Movie Review – A Bad Moms Christmas

Christmas will soon be upon us and along with it a new batch of seasonal films for the whole family – or sometimes just for the adults. A Bad Moms Christmas offers a variety of crudity and vile humor that aims to be as gross as it does shocking. If only any of it was remotely funny.


Josip Knezevic

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn reprise their roles from the first Bad Moms (yes I can’t believe they made a sequel as well), but this time they’re met with their equally bad counterparts – their own mums. It seems like this will be the trend for this year’s Christmas movies, with the upcoming Daddy’s Home 2 set to do much of the same thing, just with the opposite sex.

A Bad Moms Christmas seems to take the most basic form of monkey humour but branches it out to a platform that we haven’t seen before; motherhood. We don’t expect mums to be seen in such a light and that’s what’s meant to make it funny. It was the same reason Bad Santa was so popular but making something original doesn’t necessarily make it automatically hilarious. A bad joke is a bad joke, no matter how you polish it, and this is ultimately where the Bad Moms franchise is lacking.

Dialogue about penises or vaginal waxing feel only thrown in as an attempt to gather up laughs from shock value. Reactions of “oh my god I can’t believe a mum just said that, she’s not supposed to say that hahaha” are heavily relied upon throughout, but this doesn’t make the jokes genuinely hilarious. Soon enough, this whole routine becomes just tiresome. When humour that isn’t based off vulgarity does arrive, they’re mostly predictable from moments ahead of time or are simply yet another eye roller. This coming from a man who loves dad jokes. But maybe not just of the bad mum’s kind.

Aside from the humour, the overall plot follows a formulaic affair that, whilst touching on some heartfelt moments, isn’t anything special enough to be considered good. Not only have you seen the same moments in other Christmas films but they’re executed so much better elsewhere. And I’m not just talking about the classic Christmas flicks of Home Alone and The Santa Clause; Bad Santa manages to become a better antihero to enjoy on-screen. This is because his character is as believable as he is heartbroken and funny. He’s a nice balance between the bad that we can laugh at and the good that we ultimately sympathise with.

None of these aspects are found in A Bad Moms Christmas. What we are left with is another poor excuse for a chick flick that represents another missed opportunity for a genre that continues to add cheesy Christmas movie after cheesy Christmas movie. In a time where focus on women empowerment is at the forefront of so many films this year, A Bad Moms Christmas is a failure for many of those powerful leading examples and for women in general. Mums do amazing things for us and unfortunately, in this case, they deserve better.

A Bad Moms Christmas is available in Australian cinemas from November 2.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017

Movie Review – Jigsaw

Despite dying all the way back in Saw III, Jigsaw is back for an eighth twisted and gruesome game after a lengthy absence.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

More than a decade has passed since John Kramer, a.k.a. the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) – the man notorious for kidnapping people and putting them in traps that force them to mutilate themselves to escape death as a means of creating a newfound appreciation for life – and his circle of successors all met grisly ends. The violence has ceased, until now; as police shoot down a petty thug, a triggering mechanism is activated and sets in motion a new game played by five people trapped in a remote barn filled with diabolically lethal things at every turn. Mangled bodies start turning up, and as the investigative team, including Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and forensic doctors Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) dig deeper, all the evidence points to the late Jigsaw as the perpetrator.

It wasn’t too much of a stretch to predict that 2010’s Saw 3D was never going to be The Final Chapter as it claimed; nothing in Hollywood, especially in the horror genre (and especially one of the horror genre’s highest-grossing franchises) ever stays dead anymore, so by that logic Jigsaw was always inevitable. The good news is that its source is one of the genre’s most inventive, if not for the faint of heart series, and despite it having narratively driven itself into a dead end, this belated eighth entry manages to breathe a bit of new life into its corpse, doing its many fans justice and pulling off a few neat tricks of its own.

Taking the reins from its Australian creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who remain as producers) is, appropriately, another Aussie horror filmmaking duo, The Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Predestination). Their biggest adjustment to proceedings is the visual style – gone is the grainy, low-grade camerawork, grungy bathrooms and rust as far as the eye can see, updated with slick cinematography and, for the first time, shiny and new-looking killing instruments. The Spierigs are aware that audience expectations have changed since Saw last soaked our screens in blood, and so the story deviates from the usual formula too; we follow the police investigation equally as much as the victims of the latest game, veering slightly away from the torture-porn trappings that later entries became and closer to the psychological thrills of the first film.

Which is not to say that Jigsaw isn’t gory; there are new traps here that rank up there with the series’ stomach-churning best, from the body-shredding spiral blade contraption to the flesh-cutting laser collars – fans can rest easy with the amount of blood and guts spilled. Pleasingly, after being sidelined for so long, the iconic Jigsaw himself takes centre stage once again, with the mystery of how exactly he has returned forming the core of the plot. Bell still dominates in his signature role, and the story that once again explores his backstory alongside his legacy makes a franchise that felt all out of places to go feel like it actually has plenty of fresh directions to take us in.

Updates aside, this is still quintessentially Saw, which does mean it shares the series problems too; most of which usually boil down to its writing. Though tricksy, it’s always relied on quite a large suspension of disbelief given the huge coincidences that cause everything to fall into place just right and push each plot point into place, and Jigsaw is no different. Again, the twist ending is awfully contrived and frankly ridiculous if you put even a smidgen of thought into it.

But though it doesn’t quite reach the franchise high point, Jigsaw surpasses a good portion of the sequels and exceeds expectations; though it won’t win Saw many new fans, and its potential as a series reboot remains to be seen, this is an interesting and satisfying enough long-awaited follow-up.

Jigsaw is available in Australian cinemas from November 02

 Image courtesy of Studio Canal Australia 2017

Movie Review – Suburbicon

George Clooney and the Coen Brothers are rockin’ the suburbs in this dark and twisted comedy.

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

From prim and proper lawns to white picket fences and pastel pinafores, George Clooney’s Suburbicon is drenched in a sugary coating of classic Americana. Like a surreal waking nightmare akin to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, this original script penned by Joel and Ethan Coen strips back its glossy sheen to reveal a grisly underbelly of crime, prejudice and deception with wildly mixed results.

Matt Damon plays Gardner, a meek middle management man whose life is thrown into chaos when two burglars break into his sleepy suburban home. His wife (Julianne Moore) and son (Noah Jupe) are caught in the middle of the melee. Meanwhile, next-door, new arrivals in the neighbourhood are ruffling some local feathers and perceived as a threat to the idyllic community.

The glossy cinematography and eccentric 1950s visual design is at least nice to look at in a heightened, hyperreal sense; a cute opening which acts as an advert for the homogenised community sets the tone before the cheeky kinkiness of Damon and Moore’s relationship reveals the true nature of this repressed fantasy. Suburbicon at least succeeds in accurately capturing its setting; it’s the haphazard narrative which causes this star-studded affair to misfire, as it struggles to effectively populate the film with something for audiences to latch onto.

With two vastly different ideas smashed into one, it should come as no surprise that Clooney’s sixth film as director is a mess. On the one side you have a darkly humorous take on the home invasion genre with the Coen Brothers lending their prodigious talent to the script; on the other you have Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov exploring race relations in 1950s America, also with a surreal and satirical spin.

While both are interesting ideas in their own right, they don’t mesh very well when stacked next to one another. Tonally, Suburbicon is just all over the shop. Is it a serious recount of true events that deals with racism or a twisted murder mystery dripping with sticky murders and chain-smoking gangsters? Pick a lane, Clooney.

The former is certainly apt given the identity crisis currently unfolding across America (Clooney makes a point to have his antagonists unfurl a Confederate flag, hammering home his stance on the matter) and the latter is a gleeful noir that feels at home alongside other Coen Brothers joints like Fargo and Burn After Reading. On their own, it would work; mixed together, it never gels.

It doesn’t help that none of the characters save for one or two minor players are actually likeable; Damon plays a dickbag who deserves all the pain and suffering he gets while Moore is lumped with an odd dual role that dissolves into a quietly psychotic and hysterical housewife. Oscar Isaac’s fleeting contribution adds a certain spark to proceedings, thickening the plot and bringing some crucial laughs. Other than that, it’s slim pickings.

Without a coherent through-line to tie it together, Suburbicon fails to deliver on its initial promise. The dark comedy is hit and miss, the disjointed to and fro of the screenplay never settles on a tone and its talented cast – save for Isaac – is sleepwalking through the swirl of half-baked ideas. Definitely one to skip.

Suburbicon is available in Australian cinemas from October 26 

Image courtesy of Road Show Films 2017

 

 

 

Movie Review – The Snowman

Tomas Alfredson’s thriller The Snowman starts out solid, but quickly melts into a murky puddle.

⭐ ⭐ 
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Based on the book of the same name by Jo Nesbø, The Snowman sees Michael Fassbender play Harry Hole; a hard-boiled, yet scruffy detective who, like many of his ilk, is an alcoholic, chain-smoking insomniac who only has something to live for when he has a case to dedicate himself too. As luck would have it, a case lands in his lap when Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) rolls into town with a cold case that needs thawing out.

If, like me, you were hankering for a slick Scandinavian thriller packed to the rafters with grisly killings then you’ll find that need only serviced by half; The Snowman is undeniably gory and macabre, with limbs and decapitations left, right and centre. What it clearly lacks is polish, with the cinematography feeling flat and pallid, the editing disjointed and the overall execution sorely lacking across the board.

The script, penned by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup, can be commended for not spoon-feeding audiences exposition, but joining the dots is something of a chore when the narrative lurches from scene to scene with little forward momentum to speak of. The editing is the guilty culprit here, entering and ending scenes in odd ways and robbing the film of that all-important rhythm that keeps you engrossed.

Strangely, Alfredson often chooses to shoot a number of scenes from a distance, such as through a window from the outside looking in. It creates an icy detachment to the characters at a point where we should be getting under their skin and learning to care for their troubles. Ultimately, The Snowman is deathly boring, especially during its meandering second act.

Fassbender is a good fit for the role but is given very little to work with outside of the cookie-cutter cop archetype. The same can be said of Ferguson, who has an interesting arc until it freezes, dead in its tracks. JK Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloë Sevigny and (weirdly) Val Kilmer complete an ensemble in which no one truly shines.

The Snowman will sorely disappoint anyone holding out for a taut and compelling thriller in the same vein as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Se7en. In the hands of a maestro like David Fincher this concept could have gone the distance, but as it stands, the creative team it has been lumped with haven’t made it work, and the result is a squelchy and cold procedural that is leagues below TV fare like Broadchurch or Top of the Lake. My recommendation is to let this one wash away and be forgotten.

The Snowman is available in Australian cinemas from October 19 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is endearingly sweet and earnest. Shame, then, that a lack of care brings down what would otherwise be a fine, lovable film.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp

James Pope (Kyle Mooney) is approaching 30. He lives with his parents (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) in an underground bunker, locked into a routine of study and watching the one TV show available to him – Brigsby Bear. A new episode, filled with age-appropriate life-lessons, has turned up every week for the past 25 years, and James has built his entire world around it. That is until the police burst in and arrest his “parents” for kidnapping him as a child. Naturally lost and socially awkward, James sets out to find new friends and give Brigsby Bear the finale it deserves.

Brigsby Bear’s intentions are apparent within minutes of James exiting the bunker. Asked for information on his captors, James calls them “A little older, and boring, I guess.” He’s spent the last 25 years only speaking to two people, and he apparently knows nothing about them. You could call that a plot-hole, but it’s just the film diverting you away from things it doesn’t care about, namely real emotional depth. Sure, Brigsby knows that it needs some level of emotion, but it’s clearly more in it for the fun of watching James make new friends.

Credit where it’s due, the film is good at that stuff. James’ new relationships are delightfully positive and free of cynicism. You’ll wait for the penny to drop – for someone to take advantage of the poor soul – but it never happens. Everyone’s purely interested in helping James in their own way, and that makes the film at least enjoyable to watch. It strains credulity sometimes (no exploitation at all?) but if you can look past that you’ll have a good time.

On the other hand, there’s a darkness at the heart of Brigsby that it just doesn’t want to deal with. The film wants to acknowledge the truth of James’ situation, but it has no idea how to, so it settles for pointing and then running away.

That’s the lack of care that drags the film down. Everyone’s so happy, and James is so awkwardly endearing, that Brigsby thinks a lack of emotional detail doesn’t matter. But that detail is what carries the best of its peers. Judged against the giants of indie film – Little Miss Sunshine, for instance – Brigsby falls disappointingly short. It just doesn’t care enough about its characters, not even James. Brigsby would rather smile and bask in childhood nostalgia than deal with its main character’s pain. Maybe in a few years, the filmmakers will have the skill to do both, but right now they only seem capable of smiling.

Brigsby Bear is available in Australian cinemas from October 26 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures