Rampart [Blu-ray]

Rampart

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Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is an LA cop in 1999. Confident and brash, he doles out his own brand of justice on the bad guys, doing whatever he sees fit in order to get the job done. A quick-talker, nothing sticks to him, not even his alleged killing of a rapist that earned him the nickname “Date Rape”.

But one day after his car is hit by another, he is filmed dealing out a brutal beating on the other driver. With the police force already rocked by the Rampart Scandal, Brown becomes a scapegoat and finds out that, even for him, there are situations you cannot talk your way out of.

Rampart is written primarily by James Ellroy, the novellist known for his terse style and gritty crime stories. Ellroy’s most successful dalliance with film was 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a stylised adaptation of his 1990 period noir novel. But Rampart is a very different beast. Continue reading

Monsters

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One of the success stories of independent film in 2010 was Gareth Edwards’ surprising Monsters. Where most low-budget sci-fi works wisely narrow their scope to keep things as intimate and contained as possible (think Duncan Jones’ Moon), Edwards went in the exact opposite direction and sought to paint a picture of a world after the landing of dangerous extraterrestrial life. And, despite spending less than the coffee budget of a Hollywood genre pic, he unquestionably succeeded.

The milieu of Monsters paints a picture where a returning space probe broke up over the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in biological contamination in northern Mexico. As such, the entire region has been deemed an Infected Zone after massive, strange creatures were discovered and fought in a number of military battles. Continue reading

Berberian Sound Studio

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A small, nervous man walks away from camera down a studio hallway. He slips further and further out of focus as he goes until he is just a blur, almost swallowed up by the studio or the screen itself. So beginsBerberian Sound Studio.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an English sound mixer who has been invited to Italy to work on the sound design for the new film by auteur Santini (Antonio Mancino). But the world awaiting him is unfamiliar in every way. He is surrounded by Italian speakers, the people are outspoken and brash while he is reserved and most jarring of all, the film is a brutally violent thriller…although not a horror film, as Santini is at pains to point out. The only thing Gilderoy has to cling to is the studio and its sound equipment, the welcoming tools of his trade.

As tensions around the filmmakers and difficulties in his living arrangements – including ongoing battles to try and get his expenses reimbursed – Gilderoy seeks sanctuary by immersing himself more and more into his work. Then the violence and surrealism of the film begins to bleed into his own life… Continue reading

Upside Down

Upside-DownWhen it comes to high concept, they don’t get much higher than the premise behind Upside Down. The setting is pure fantasy – two worlds with opposite gravity, yet so close as to touch. In one ‘up above’, the populace is wealthy and live in splendour, while ‘down below’ all are poor and struggle in squalor. None can swap over, because you retain your own gravity, even when in the other world.

Into this somewhat heavy-handed social metaphor come the classic star-crossed lovers. As a child, Adam (Jim Sturgess) is hunting in the mountains of Down Below for pink bee pollen, a critical ingredient in his aunt’s legendary floating pancakes when he climbs so high he sees Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a girl from Up Above looking for her missing dog. The pair immediately fall in love and grow up together.

Naturally, their clandestine meetings are interrupted and an accident sees Eden plummet to her apparent death. Distraught, Adam goes on with his life, where his experiments with the bee pollen show potential anti-gravity applications until one day, on a TV show, he sees Eden, alive. She is now an employee of Transworld, a mega corporation whose central skyscraper runs between the two worlds, using resources of Down Below to fuel Up Above. Continue reading

Yatterman

Yatterman-2009To say Japanese director Takashi Miike has had a varied career is a gross understatement. Incredibly prolific, Miike has dozens of features to his credit and they run a wide gamut in subject matter and style. His international reputation has been founded on the bizarre, the extreme and the unpredictable. As such, his adaptation of the 70s childrens’ anime Yatterman was always going to be something a bit out of the ordinary.

Continue reading

Animal Kingdom

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Australian cinema is in the middle of something of a resurgence lately, with films across a wide variety of genres gaining international recognition and new voices rising to be heard. One of the most promising of these is David Michod on the strength of his powerhouse debut, crime drama Animal Kingdom.

“Crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another.” So says J (newcomer James Frecheville) in his narration early on in Animal Kingdom as he is brought into his criminally-active extended family. And so the story goes – in an inexorable, if not always totally predictable, downward spiral to betrayal and death.

After his mother overdoses on heroin, J moves in with his grandmother, ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his four uncles, Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the absent Andrew ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn). When the police investigation of the fugitive Pope reaches boiling point, the family decides they need to react and the young J is caught in the middle.

In many ways, Animal Kingdom is a standard crime movie. You have the family, revenge, in-fighting and the usual escalation of events. But what elevates it is that Michod keeps the whole movie grounded in reality. With its casual Melbourne setting, unassuming costumes and low-key conversational tone, this feels like a familiar place – an underworld barely beneath the surface of any suburb. It is an approach that makes it all the more affecting. Continue reading

A Cat in Paris

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Dino is a black cat leading a double life. During the day, he is the placid domestic pet of a little girl named Zoe, but at night he scales the rooftops with acrobatic burglar Nico as he conducts various daring robberies. Meanwhile, Zoe’s mother – the chief of police – is closing in on notorious gangster Costa, who also happens to be the man who murdered her husband.

It would be easy to describe animated French piece A Cat in Paris as ‘charming’, but it is a label the film more than earns. From the whimsical story concept to the hand-drawn aesthetic of the illustration, this is instantly endearing. The artistry may be deliberately crude, but it is deceptively clever, with the animated foibles of the feline lead character no doubt being extremely familiar to any cat owner.

At a running time of barely over an hour, the film does not outstay its welcome, but it does manage to pack quite a lot in and ticks along rapidly, right up to the climactic rooftop chase to the spires of Notre Dame. The plot is simple enough for children, but has some deeper, more adult concepts – most notably around the mother haunted by traumatic visions of the man who killed her husband…an event that has also left Zoe unwilling to speak. These aspects, combined with some menace from the villains may make this unsuitable for very young children, but otherwise it is a film that certainly earns the “all ages” label.

If there is a flaw in A Cat in Paris, it is that it all feels somewhat lightweight. It is never laugh-out-loud funny, nor tearjerking. It remains an enjoyable and warming watch, but rarely scales any great heights.

If you’re looking for a family film that is a little more offbeat, or even if you just want something heartwarming, A Cat in Paris is just the ticket. Sweet without being saccharine and with enough edge and danger to entertain, this is an animated treat.

Extras

The Madman Entertainment DVD of A Cat in Paris includes the theatrical trailer and both French (with English subtitles) and English language versions of the film. But the main extra feature is a short Behind The Scenes featurette. This focuses mainly on the French voice cast, with disappointingly little attention given to the animation and visuals of the movie.

A Cat in Paris is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Splice

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Ever since a 19-year-old named Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, the scientist who plays God and creates life has been a staple of fiction. Indeed, Shelley realised her work’s place in a long tradition by subtitling it, The Modern Prometheus. From the dawn of cinema, the concept has been brought forward repeatedly by filmmakers, including in 2009 director Vincenzo Natali with Splice.

The world of splice is that of giant pharmaceutical company N.E.R.D. and its superstar geneticist couple Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). After successfully created new organisms from spliced DNA, the two suggest introducing human DNA into the process to provide donor organisms to cure all sorts of adverse genetic human conditions. When the company bosses baulk at the concept, the pair decide to go ahead themselves…in secret.

The resulting hybrid, named ‘Dren’ (NERD backwards, of course), grows at a rapid rate and Clive and Elsa struggle to keep its existence secret. Then Dren herself begins acting more unpredictably, with particular instability arising from her human side.

There can be little argument that the subject matter of Splice is well-worn territory. The usual questions of morality and creation are raised, but to Natali’s credit, that is not where he focusses the attention of the film. Instead, he makes it about a family unit, albeit one dysfunctional in the extreme, the cycle of abuse and the connections we form with each other.

Even more telling, Natali does not shy away from the sexual element of proceedings and this is surely the pivot for most audiences. If you are on board with the choices of Natali and the characters, this is a brave approach that escalates proceedings. On the other hand, it is easily open to derison and may distance a more cynical audience.

The film itself belies its modest budget and is superbly realised. Austere environments are carefully composed throughout, while Dren herself is an impressive combination of practical and digital effects throughout the stages of her life.

While treading a fairly familiar core plot, Splice takes enough adventurous steps to make this a superior sci-fi flick, with brains beyond its creature-feature roots. Highly recommended.

Extras:
  • Vincenzo Natali Interview
  • Featurette: A Director’s Playground
  • Behind The Scenes
  • Trailer

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Donkey Punch

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Things start very promisingly for this UK horror/thriller. Some naturalistic dialogue, a measured build-up and then a sudden mistake leading to recriminations and panic. Unfortunately, that is where the good ideas run out and the second half of Donkey Punch is formulaic and pedestrian, wasting a lot of promise.

When three Northern British girls (including Jaime Winstone, last seen fleeing zombies in Dead Set) head away for a holiday in Mallorca, they decide boys are most definitely not on the menu. That is right up until they meet three lads with access to a yacht, drugs and good times. Continue reading

A Band Called Death

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The exact birth of punk rock is an endlessly debated topic. Some say it began in earnest with The Ramones in New York in 1975, others with the punk explosion in the UK in 1976. But what nobody ever thought was that the first salvo of angry young punk rock was actually fired by three brothers in Detroit in 1973.

They were a band called Death.

Proto-punk and Detroit were not strangers at the time – acts like MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges were clattering up a storm, but Death had another thing stacked against them. They were black. And, in Detroit in the 70s, being black meant Motown.

The Hockney brothers – David, Dannis and Bobby – formed a band after their struggling family received an insurance payout. They practiced relentlessly, playing first a brand of funk before guitarist David saw The Who on television and announced they were to be a rock band.

Bobby was the bassist and vocalist, but David was the real force behind the group. He had big dreams and bigger concepts. After their father died, David announced the band was to be called ‘Death’. The others were non-plussed, but went along with it.

Their music was powerful, they seemed bent on success. Even mighty Columbia Records were interested. But there was one problem. That name. That name was impossible to market. If they were to change it, they would be signed and surely success would follow.

They refused to change.

A Band Called Death is a documentary that is less a story of a band and more a story of a family. The brothers Hockney would suffer trials and tribulations, but the bond between them would prove unshakeable.

The movie is primarily a retrospective, with a lot of talking heads and old photographs – although there is an attempt to add life and movement to the archive shots. For example, an image of David with a lit cigarette has a curl of digital smoke rising from it.

But the real story unfolds while the cameras are rolling. The lone single the band recorded starts to circulate as a pair of MP3s, nearly 40 years later, and a new audience finds them. Death were playing 80s US hardcore a good decade before anyone else. Truly a band before their time, they would find time finally caught up with them.

The tale is extraordinary, not least because of the emotions between the brothers. The laconic Dannis, the erudite Bobby and the doomed idealist David demonstrate that one brief flicker of magic can ignite even decades into the future.

Affecting and inspiring, A Band Called Death is a simply terrific doco. The pacing is measured, but deliberate for the emotional payoff in the final section. And it helps that Death is straight up a killer band even if, despite what the interviewees may say, it is not about music. It is about family.

The extras include a plentiful number of deleted scenes that are all quite interesting, but are also not really missed from the main narrative. Also present are a couple of songs played live by the reformed Death, including one at the band’s first gig in 34 years.

A film festival Q&A is the surprise highlight of the extras. Here, audience members share their stories and the impact the film had on them, and, in particular, Bobby Hockney talks about how the finished movie affected him. It is a lovely, softly emotional coda to the film and an excellent choice for inclusion here.

A Band Called Death is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.